Picture this. You’ve just finished your second run of Dark Souls III, and you want more - more tense combat, more gorgeous dying worlds, more music you could just drink in, more isolation and fear in a world that’ll kill you, drag you out of the grave, and kill you again. Sound familiar? Then I’ve got just the remedy.
Hyper Light Drifter is the first game by indie devs Heart Machine, and the product of a long-held dream by director Alex Preston. Preston wanted to take the exploration and world-building of the top-down Legend of Zelda games and mix it with the combat and darkness of Diablo, and on both counts he has certainly succeeded. Hyper Light Drifter follows a nameless protagonist, on their quest to… well, I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. HLD takes the Dark Souls approach to story and setting, whereby everything must be inferred by environmental clues and the little exposition you’re given, but steps it up a notch: in this game there is not a single written word. Not a one. Dialogue is represented pictorially, and the only sound stirring the world is the clash of weapons in combat and the frankly gorgeous soundtrack delivered exquisitely and hauntingly.
"Preston wanted to take the exploration and world-building of the top-down Legend of Zelda games and mix it with the combat and darkness of Diablo, and on both counts he has certainly succeeded."
The sound really can’t be understated in this game. Sprawling vistas offer the sights, invariably stunning in their beautifully reconciled imagery of the ancient and the futuristic, and the music half of the atmosphere equation comes courtesy of Disasterpiece, whose melancholy chiptune jams will see you through the emotional despondency of HLD’s sparing yet oddly touching narrative. The protagonist is well and truly up against the odds, outnumbered in every fight and invariably falling to flurries of blows dozens of times before finally attaining success. Their allies are few, and their victories Pyrrhic. It is, arguably, easy for indie titles in the current climate to win over our emotions: talented musicians are everywhere, pixel graphics are relatively straightforward and cheap to create as well as being very popular at the moment, and gamers are always up for gameplay that embodies what they miss about the retro classics HLD strives to honour. That argument could be made, but it won’t. Hyper Light Drifter does all of these things, and certainly doesn’t do anything exceptionally novel with them, but it does them tremendously well. The aesthetic is stunning, the combat absolutely challenging enough to offer frustrated Dark Souls veterans something new to grind their teeth over, and the whole thing makes for a nice little timesink even if you don’t care to unpack the story.
If you like the kind of skirmishes that make you hold your breath and grit your teeth, Hyper Light Drifter has what you need. If you like a soundtrack that drips with liquid beauty, with adrenaline-coursing peaks and moody falls right where they belong, Hyper Light Drifter has what you need. If you like roaming through breathtaking scenery in a world of overgrown ruins, lifeless colossi clinging to mountains, and subterranean labs bristling with hostile machines - Hyper Light Drifter has it all. The question isn’t whether Hyper Light Drifter has enough to offer; it’s whether you have enough to take it on.