“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
I don’t often get jealous of PC gamers but when I do it’s because they got to play Hyper Light Drifter before I did. Originally released on Steam in March ’16, this indie insta-classic launched on PS4 and Xbox One in this July. Hyper Light Drifter is everything I wanted it to be: a brief, gorgeous, surreal, abstract, acid-colored throw back.
It delivered on all my expectations, and apparently on the expectations of many, many others. Some 24,150 backers were involved in its Kickstarter project (according to the in-game credits). The project reached and exceeded its original funding goal in a single day. I’ve never been a part of funding a Kickstarter project, but I would have been proud to be a part of this one.
“Life is fleeting; therefore, life is beautiful.” -Takafumi Ide
Much has been said about the storyline and storytelling of Hyper Light Drifter, with most of its detractors bearing down upon the plot of the game and how it is (or rather isn’t) told. Let’s recall from the get go that this is apparently a very personal game to its creator. HLD is an indie game and as such it has a singular vision at its heart, the vision of its director and key developer, Alex Preston.
Alex has heart disease. The game he created, Hyper Light Drifter, was born from his experiences with his health and hospitalizations and being close to death. He said:
“I’ve dealt with serious health issues since I was born: congenital heart disease, to start. A plethora of digestive and immune system problems have left me hospitalised on numerous occasions, often near death. This gives me a certain perspective on life, and plays into the stories I want to tell… The main character in Hyper Light Drifter suffers from a deadly illness, one he is desperately seeking a cure for. It haunts him, endlessly. That’s something I’m keenly familiar with… The biggest component here is my ability to tell a story I can identify with, expressing something personal to a larger audience, so I feel more connected and have an outlet for the many emotions that crop up around life-altering issues”
Set in this interpretive context, we can come to understand Hyper Light Drifter from the outside and rarely from the inside. It is a personal story, such as few will find relation to. I myself know a little bit about being in and out of hospitals, and in and out of good health, having had a kidney removed due to a genetic defect when I was seventeen, leaving me with debilitating kidney stones, careful hydrating, medical procedures, and monotonous trips to “specialists”. Yet, I know that my poor health isn’t comparable to Mr. Preston’s. My prayers go out for him.
I am grateful to him for turning his emotions and experiences into creating this intensely personal work of art, rather than mere frustrations and anger.
Hyper Light Drifter opens with a wordless animated sequence. It’s vivid and powerful as a dream. The sequence introduces us to several key elements of the story: the Giants, the Diamond, the Apocalypse, the Shadow, the Dog, the Drifter himself. They’re like archetypal figures in this vision.
We first see a pre-apocalyptic world, until four glowing lights are activated, triggering a massive explosion that demolishes the world and kills millions. We see their twisted, alien bodies like flotsam in a sea of blood. Then the Drifter mysterious appears in their midst. The bodies disappear. The Drifter stands erect and defiant until he coughs and spits up his own blood (the allegory of Alex Preston’s own condition).
His blood transforms into a shadowy demonic entity which chases the Drifter. He runs up a stairway and comes face to face with terrifying Giants. Clutching the gemstone hanging around his neck, he es the Giants slowly melt as if with the passing of time. Their silent howling faces blow away like dust in the wind. This informs us that these Giants were a part of the ancient world and have been destroyed when the world was.
Then the Dog appears. A diamond-shaped halo around its head marks it as a divine being. Before the Dog and the Drifter, a tower rises from the sea of blood. In it, a doorway opens into darkness.
The Drifter follows the Dog through, and sees the Diamond (the “cell”, the “entity”, whatever you wish to call it). HLD has no name for it but this is the thing that the Drifter seeks, and we do not learn why until the end of the game. Reaching for the artifact, the shadows overtake him and his consciousness fades.
The Drifter awakes in a wasted world, a post-apocalyptic dystopia of shattered peaks, moss-encrusted machines, and a few strange survivors. Suffering from his illness, the Drifter staggers into the nearby ruins. He is armed only with an electric blue sword and his robotic assistant. He doesn’t get far before collapsing from his ailments, a distant city in sight.
A Stranger discovers him and nurses him back to health in the city. And so the adventure begins as the Drifter immediately resumes his quest to unlock and seek out the artifact of his quest.
Hyper Light Drifter features a fairly expansive world with a brief storyline. There are four main dungeon-like areas in the game: East, North, West and South.
Each of these four areas represent massive dungeons to crawl through, littered with treasures and secrets and infested with bizarre enemies. In each area, the Drifter must seek out the mechanism to open the four-part lock in the center of town.
The East is the first area I completed. It’s a place of cool cerulean pools and turquoise waterfalls, dotted and spotted with emerald trees and moss across its ivory-tiled porches and pillars. The remains of hulking Giants sit rusting the water.
In keeping with a theme of corruption that seems to flow through this post-apocalyptic world, the original residents of the Eastern area were enslaved by an amphibious race led by a massive carnivorous toad. NPCs in various areas will generally tell you their stories about the frightening bosses at the end of the dungeon.
The West was the second area I completed. It’s a forest of dark trees with magenta leaves surrounded by parasitic crystal spires. Ancient stone and statues, half-buried remains of buildings, stand among the icy crystals on the cobalt grassy floor. A haunt of poisonous wolves and immortal warriors frozen in glass, the forest is a dangerous place.
The North is a frigid peak, the third area I completed. Climbing its pale stairs, the Drifter ascends to a snowy zenith. White and pink clouds circle over head as snow like ash whips past him in the cutting winds. The mountain used to be a kind of religious haven (at least that was my interpretation of it), until a bird-like cult of magical creatures invaded and usurped the peaceful egg-hatchers that dwelt there. The peak is swarming with wizard-birds that use all of their tricks to defend their stolen home.
The South is the last and final dungeon-zone. It cannot be accessed until completing the other areas, which is fine since it’s the hardest of the four areas, easily. An arid chasm of sand dunes and perpetual rainclouds, the South harbors subterranean laboratories filled with ancient, lost technology. It is the nest of mutant raiders and hideous machines, tinkering with forgotten devices and growing bodies (and body parts) in vats.
Whereas the other three areas have difficult bosses at the end of their mazes, the Southern desert is full of multiple tough enemies that function like individual bosses with their own unique attack patterns. Expect to get killed by everything.
As a 2D action RPG, comparisons will immediately be drawn with The Legend of Zelda franchise. This game was specifically modeled after A Link to the Past and Diablo. Visually, I thought of Another World with a very similar appearance. Then I thought of a video game I recently reviewed: Crystalis. Both Hyper Light Drifter and Crystalis share a similar setting and similar protagonists, similar gameplay as action RPGs and similar goals (to an extent: reaching the Diamond and reaching the Tower).
Another noted influence according to Alex Preston was the anime staple: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Same influence for Crystalis. We sure seem to mention that Miyazaki classic here a lot, but its fingerprint upon future projects is far-reaching. It’s easy to see the impression Nausicaä made in HLD’s post-apocalyptic setting, its mutated creatures, its Giants, its alien strangeness and prophetic hope.
The development goal for HLD was to replicate the games of the Super Nintendo. Alex Preston said the SNES had “amazing, almost perfect games designed for limited environments”. He’s right. He wanted to make a game like those that appeared on the SNES, which makes me like him even more.
With no voice acting, no spoken dialogue, and an emphasis on music, skill-based gameplay and pixelated visuals, HLD seems to fit right in with the greatest library of games ever made: those on the Super NES. Perhaps that’s why Hyper Light Drifter seems both instantly dated and instantly timeless. It may have a CMYK color schema that fits right in with today’s Instagram filter world, but it also is vague as a fairy tale and just as primordially emotional. I may have finished Hyper Light Drifter in a few hours but the experience is going to resonate in my memory for a very long time.
The 8-Bit Review
The diamond-fetish graphics of Hyper Light Drifter are immediately striking, seeming both modern and retro simultaneously. Every shade of every color has its vibrancy and contrast ramped up past the max. In fact, when I uploaded my PS4 screenshots which appear in this review, I could immediately tell they seemed less striking than they did on my tele. Simple screenshots cannot do this game’s visuals justice. You’ve got to see the tiny pixelated shapes and characters in motion, animated beyond the power of the classic systems of yore, yet feeling as if they’re right at home on them. It’s impossible that HLD was a SNES game or a 90’s PC game, given the level of detail in its shimmering backgrounds.
An older indie game, Eric Chahi’s Another World, was something I was reminded of when playing Hyper Light Drifter. Both games have that old PC game look to them. King’s Quest and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as well, if we’re looking for more games to compare HLD to.
Surprisingly, Hyper Light Drifter has camera issues momentarily. Strange for a 2D game. In certain areas the camera will pan away from the character down a hallway or stop at the entrance of a secret passage, or focus at something beyond the Drifter’s reach, an impressive piece of architecture or ruin in the background. Of course, these jarring camera movements are meant to place greater emphasis upon the spectacle of HLD’s setting. It makes sense as well that the camera couldn’t constantly be centered on the Drifter, since he performs rapid dashes throughout the game. As annoying or interruptive as these camera shifts can sometimes be, once we recognize their necessity for both gameplay and the sake of graphics, they become something that can be appreciated in their own way. Maybe not entirely welcomed but appreciated, nonetheless.
The Hyper Light Drifter soundtrack by Disasterpiece (FEZ, Mini Metro, It Follows) is immersive and invisible. Mostly. There are moments in the game when the electronic sounds become frightening, hideous synthetic screams and dissonance. But these are accents of drama and suspense because the rest of the soundtrack is a smooth, mellow chiptune. Entirely synthetic except for a single track with piano, the music blends with the strangeness of HLD’s world and there are going to be times when you will hardly be able to tell its there yet you can’t shake its presence. If that is not the measure of success in a soundtrack, then I don’t know what is.
There is a sense of the organic nature of sound in this OST. Songs and themes build upon each other, adding instrument after synthetic instrument, until coming to full bassy fruition. This is most transparent in the four dungeon-areas. The music seems to start off simple upon entering the area, and then it rises and mounts until it becomes a whole new monster. On its own, the music sounds almost too ethereal and otherworldly. It fits hand in hand with playing the game. Trust me on that.
After being rescued by the Stranger, who is perhaps another Drifter, you find yourself in a village of survivors. There isn’t a soul there who can tell you what’s going on or even shoot the breeze beyond unintelligible musical tones (not unlike the interaction between player-characters in Journey) but it’s here that you can witness a few stories about the state of the world. This is how the characters communicate in Hyper Light Drifter. You are showed images from their memory and its up to you to interpret them without words.
What’s this story? “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” This method of interaction adds to the allure of this world. It’s not some diminutive form of storytelling.
In the central village, the Drifter can also purchase upgrades and new abilities. High on my priority list were enhancing agility and movement, med-kit capacity, and offensive capabilities. Each of the enhancements and upgrades are fairly unique, making the bustling village truly seem like a truck-stop for weird alien creatures with its diversity.
Not all the enhancements are in the village. Other collectible items include keys hidden throughout the world that unlock secret doors, cloaks of various colors with latent abilities, engraved monoliths and their ghostly attendants, and golden credits that serve as the game’s currency. Note that you must collect four gold pieces in order to make a single credit and the upgrades in the village generally cost either two or three credits.
There’s also a New Game + feature. That is definitely reminiscent of SNES RPG-ing. There are other games that originated the concept but New Game + was first identified by that name in the Super Nintendo classic, Chrono Trigger. In Hyper Light Drifter, New Game + starts you off with all of the equipment from your original save, as is typical, however you begin with a black cloak and dramatically less life. Like, a single hit from a boss will murder you. Instantly. Good luck. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to complete that.
The gameplay of Hyper Light Drifter is hard. More on that under the Difficulty grading below. With various different guns with different rates of fire and ammunition, as well as a range of quick sword techniques, HLD demands blink-of-an-eye reaction time and forces you to think on your feet. Successfully engaging in battle is easy to learn but hard to master. Perhaps that’s why it’s so fun and enthralling. It is skill-based so there’s the underlying sense of achievement, the feeling of “awesomeness” in weaving through enemy bullets and delivering the killing blow, like some sort of weird vigilante.
Oh man is it worth learning that hard-to-learn, skill-based gameplay, if only for one reason: the boss fights. Hyper Light Drifter remembered what made SNES-era games so amazing. Of course it was the boss fights! And these are extremely vicious, demanding, fast-paced, hectic, nerve-racking, stressful and I love them. You should too. Forget about boss fights that are mere exercises in lazy quick time events or button mashing messes. These bosses require, nay command, finesse from the Drifter. I truly felt that I needed to use every trick in my arsenal to overcome many of them and their pattern-based attacks were evocative of that bygone age of classics. They were the highlight of the game.
Finally, dashing is an essential part of playing as the Drifter. You’ll have to learn it, though the timing of chaining dashes can be tough at first to pick up. There’s simply no other way to evade enemy attacks. You’re dead without it. Good thing it looks so frickin’ cool!
Without any dialogue, you’ll learn little about the world of Hyper Light Drifter, even by the end of the game. That’s not really the point though, is it? Remember that this is a personal experience in allegory and abstract. There is no exposition here. And I think that’s for the better. HLD doesn’t get burdened down in over-complicated impressions of Tolkien high fantasy. Thank God there’s no cumbersome names pretending to Gaelic or Elvish to try to labor through. There’s no pretense of alien languages or place names or yawning sessions of lore to muddle through. Hyper Light Drifter is free from all that.
I’m not going to even try to “analyze” the allegorical dreamscape of this game. Maybe someday. But that’s a topic for an entire post in and of itself. Better men (well, more interested men) have already done the world a service in attempting to navigate the metaphors and imagery here. Does the Dog represent Anubis, Egyptian deity of the afterlife? Does the Diamond represent a cure that cures the world and (hopefully) the Drifter himself? Does the shadowy Demon represent all of the fear of death and the paralysis of doing nothing, accomplishing nothing in life because of the fear of death? I don’t know. I didn’t create this game. I could only “feel” it as I experienced it. A lot of impact here but it’s hard to put down in words and nail down to exact realities.
Some have said the ending is disappointing. My own wife, God bless her White Out soul, groaned a bitsy when we watched it together. I understand. There’s a lack of resolution. Certainly there’s a lack of explanation. But for the sake of the experience itself, there doesn’t need to be explanation. And so it is with life itself: when is there ever resolution and explanation so long as we’re still living and still breathing and still fighting off the things which frighten us?
Heck yes Hyper Light Drifter is a hard game. Thanks for asking. Even though there are no lives and no continues, no fretting over dying and having to start all over, it’s still a grueling task to complete this game. When the Drifter dies, he teleports back usually to the beginning of the room and appears to awaken, rising off the floor. Perhaps this hints at a kind of cyclical nature to the Drifter’s existence?
There were more than a few moments when I was all: “Really?” It was quite surprising what Hyper Light Drifter expected me to do in some situations. But we are lucky that HLD is as short as it is. I couldn’t imagine keeping up this kind of tension and taxation upon my attention and skill for much longer than the game’s duration. Four dungeons is enough. As hard as it is, it’s a good thing HLD is short.
Since it’s brimming with secret passageways, lost treasures, numerous outfits and upgrades, as well as a New Game + and a storyline that bears closer inspection, can we say that Hyper Light Drifter is replayable? Well… maybe. It certainly deserves more playthroughs, though the exacting challenge of the whole thing is a vote against going through the four dungeons one more time. Especially on New Game +. That’s a bit of a shame considering the kind of scrutiny HLD needs. Perhaps I simply just don’t have the skill and determination necessary to put myself through something like its New Game +, though the normal mode is something I can’t see myself never revisiting again. Plus, I’ve still got to find all those secret tidbits!
Though Hyper Light Drifter wears its influences on its sleeve, it’s the combination and presentation of its emotional beats and borrowed scenery that makes it a unique and engaging experience.
HLD is both like and very much unlike anything I’ve ever played. Sure, I felt A Link to the Past and Crystalis in it. But I also encountered Alex Preston in it. It’s chemical hues and air of mystery place it high on the list of hipster games, but it’s stuck in no rut. It may be an indie game and you can tell by one glance at it, but you’d be a fool to pass it up just for that.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I’m not sure that Hyper Light Drifter, despite everything I’ve said about it, is for everyone. I don’t believe for a moment that it has the kind of wide appeal that triple A games can boast. Remember, this is an indie game (if the graphics and music don’t tip you off). But I find myself more and more gravitating toward games like this. I had high expectations for Hyper Light Drifter since the day I was first mesmerized by its spectacular release trailer. It did not disappoint me.
Life is indeed precious. It’s precious because it is brief. If nothing else, Hyper Light Drifter’s heart reminded me of that. Yes, in an abstract way. But it did.
“…whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
-James 4:14 (nkjv)
Aggregated Score: 9.1