DISCLAIMER: I also reviewed the game for IGN Greece (you can find said review here). This is my review translated into English with a few bits and pieces here and there that were added afterwards.
By far my favourite video game of all time, I realized I had never translated my 2k words review that I had prepared for it in Greek for IGN Greece a few months back. It only made sense to actually prepare it and publish it here too. Unfortunately, I’ve lost both the video files of me interviewing the main developer on-stream as well as my playthrough finishing the game on NG+. It is a mistake I shall never let happen again with other interviews and games.
September 13th, 2013. That is when the kickstarter campaign by Heart Machine started with the goal of funding the production of Hyper Light Drifter. It has been a long time up until the 31st of March, 2016 and the game was finally out. The result was simply oustanding and there were only a few small problems for a game that, even though came a bit late, was prepared by a very small team of indie video game developers.
The game’s story is just a huge mystery. From the description of the game, we know that we are one of the Drifters, seekers of knowledge, old and new, in a dark and savage world. Our Drifter is suffering from some sort of disease and our goal is to guide him through a journey in discovering some sort of cure for his sickness.
The game does not do words, dialogues or any sort of text. Whatever we learn, we do so through images, various happenings, visions our hero has and just a few hieroglyphics that are very hard to translate into normal words. Generally, from the start until the very middle of the game, I felt very lost, not knowing what is going on or what goals my Drifter had. But after a certain spot in the game, I started feeling that whatever I did was serving a bigger cause and I realized that my Drifter was trying to find a cure for his sickness and whatever I am going through, is because of that objective.
It is very important to say at this point, that the main developer of the game, Alex Preston (who I also had the chance of interviewing live on-stream), has a heart disease and as he himself has said before, the game sort of reflects his own life. His heart problems are also part of the reason why the game was delayed which is something noone can argue with. It only makes sense to have something delayed for such reasons and if anything, the final result was beyond good anyway.
The game has various smaller stories in it that we can’t really understand or explain but are also part of its overall beauty as a game. The marvelous pixel art was enough for my attention to be grabbed and kept in place, making me all the more interested as time went by in what the world of HLD had to offer for me. We do not often see games that tell us a story through characters with no voice and even less often do we see the entire storytelling happen only through images that come in a very unusual and surreal style.
Many times during the game, our hero sees visions of some kind. He sees various items and creatures that throughout the playthrough of the game, we understand more and more what they are about. We never fully learn the story of our Drifter but we continuously learn more about the sickness that is eating his insides (literally, since many a time do we see the Drifter cough out blood).
The most important thing to talk about in HLD though, is the gameplay, which manages to bring a very sharply made experience that balances between the difficulty of learning how to control your character and how difficult to deal with our enemies are. Usually, in indie games, the most improtant thing that I look at and always manages to impress me, is the fact that developers are able to deliver a very good gaming experience through something very simple. The same goes for HLD where even without too many explanations we jump straight into the game.
Many rushed to characterize the game as an indie, pixel-art Dark Souls like game. This particular statement I find entirely wrong since not only is the game not that hard to be compared to Dark Souls, but it is also unfair to make that comparison to begin with. Not only because Dark Souls is “better” or “worse”, but because I feel they are two very separate things. The difficulty of HLD might up to a certain point remind people of their experiences in Dark Souls but HLD brings us a very new and unique experience unlike other games.
At this point, I have to also say that I played the game with a controller and I do recommend it compared to the experience a keyboard and mouse can give you, since it makes platforming feel way more natural throughout the entirety of the game. The buttons and our abilities are very specific and easy. We have a button that allows us to dash (move fast towards a direction), one to hit with the sword, one to aim, one to shoot with our gun, one to interact with things in the world and one to heal ourselves. Later, we acquire a few more abilities, but the basic ones are our Alpha and Omega from start till the end.
Combat in the game is one of the main ingredients of its overall success, since it flows so naturally all the time. Our enemies have very specific moves and even though some of them are not that fast, the game’s goal is to make us think tactically as to how we will be able to tackle each and every different enemy in the world of HLD. Fast dashes, quick slashes, a couple bullets and then run again. We very often need to make plans in advance or die again and again before we manage to get out of a difficult situation alive and with our enemies facing the dirt.
I actually managed to finish the game on NG+ which basically handicaps you and leaves you with only 2 bars of health (instead of 5) and besides the fact that there were a LOT of things that would kill me with one hit (because they deal 2 points of damage) the game was super fun to finish even on that difficulty which was the highest. It is also important to note that on NG+ enemies are also faster.
To be more precise, even though most enemies are dealt with easily, every region’s boss has enough tricks up its sleeve to piss you off. Personally, it took me about 20 tries on some of the bosses before being able to down them. I found that rejuvenating though since it seemed more like a hard test of my skills and of how well I had learned the moves of my Drifter. Every boss is different and with unique abilities so that our hero can die in new and also unique ways.
The hero travels the 4 corners of the world, north, south, east and west with the center being the city hub where we can come back to and buy new abilities or upgrade our weapons and gear. In order to buy or upgrade stuff, we need various gear bits that we can find hidden in every nook and cranny the world has to offer. Generally, the game has tons of secrets. Trust me, I know it because I am the 0.3% of the population that owns the game and finished it on 100% completion. They are hard to find, but so rewarding when you are done with most of them. The movement on the huge map of HLD is also quite simplistic and easy to understand since we are allowed to teleport to various locations (1 for each area) making it easier for us to roam around, since all we have to do is press a couple buttons to travel very far.
When i say there are lots of secrets though, I mean it. Even after the ending of the game, all the hidden doors, hard to find spots and even harder to spot passages that we didn’t know existed, are still out there, waiting for us to go and find them. It is very hard to say “I finished the game” when there are so many things to discover. I personally took it upon me to take some time and finish all of it, relying on some guides here and there in order to find the last few hidden things.
It is also worth noting that the game works with checkpoints. That means that if you die somewhere, you will respawn at the nearest checkpoint save which is probably a room or two behind from where you died. This, quite often, helps us, but there are times when the last save was quite far behind. This means we need to be careful when crossing a location so that we don’t die before we reach the next checkpoint save.
HLD is probably one of the best examples of good use of pixel art in a game. It gives us feelings of nostalgia and it shows us something different at the same time, mixing both realistic and abstract sketches that, on their own, manage to bring a unique atmosphere to the game. Everything inside the game, from our own character and the creatures we fight, to the simple lights and the various souless objects, are drawn and animated so artistically that it makes the game flow so naturally. This natural flow is made even better by the lack of any bugs on the animation. The gameplay does play a very important role in being able to adjust to the character’s movement as much as we need, but it also gives life to the non-living world of the game. Many items maynot move at all but various effects make them feel lively and they emit a certain kind of unique atmosphere. The loneliness that we feel from the very start of the game, starts going away as we see more and mroe things moving around us so organically and then it gets lost again, when all we have around is, is nature that is barely moving.
The graphics are all handmade and even though it is pixel art, we very often find parts in the game that remind us of how beautiful the world of HLD is. In pixel art games, we usually have the issue of over-used art assets that end up being very tiring and making various locations feel repetitive and boring to the eye. HLD drops all of that and brings constantly new little details in all the different locations of the game, pinning our interest throughout the entirety of a playthrough of the game.
The music of the game, made by Disasterpeace, takes us to a foreign and lonely world. For anyone who has seen the movie Blade Runner, then you can picture a similar emotion since the music of the game could very easily be put next to the OST of Blade Runner. Loud synthesizers with lots of ambience that make the basses tremble whenever something important happens in a cinematic cutscene. On the other hand, every region, has its own music theme and area bosses has their own little jingle as well. The music that plays while we are trying to beat a boss is what makes us want to keep trying to beat it (and face a lot of deaths in the process) and it also makes it fun.
The sound effects of the game are not really something extraordinary and are generally very simplistic. Some sounds have more importance than other though and they allow us to know if an enemy is getting ready to attack. Overall, we train our reflexes through both visual and aural interactions provided by the game.
Besides the inclusion of a small, fun mini-game of soccer against a small creature that we can find in the main town, the game has a NG+ mode and a bunch of other features. Recently, co-op was added and trust me when I say, it is EVEN more fun when playing with a friend or your significant other. The trick in that case is that when you spawn your friend, you lose a bar of health and get stunned during the process of birth for a second or two. If your friend dies, then you have to do it again.
I personally cannot wait to see some speed runners try to finish the game in record times. It will be quite funny to see them die again and again in the process. The only achievement I personally do not have yet, is actually the one where you have to finish the game without dying. Good luck with that….
Personally, I really enjoyed the game and especially after a wait of 3 years or so, it was totally worth it and it was all that I expected and more. The result that Heart Machine delivered was more than what everyone was hoping for, putting the bar even higher for all the indie companies that are running kickstarter campaigns with unique ideas. My favourite part of the game was its atmosphere and how I sometimes felt entirely submerged into the foreign world of HLD, feeling like a Drifter, exploring and roaming around in forgotten tombs and labs.
Hyper Light Drifter puts us in a beautifully drawn world full of different creatures, secret passages and impressive battles with unique bosses, making the game not be jealous of any other game of its kind. Good atmospheric feeling, a lot of content and fantastic music implementation. If anything, I personally believe that this is going to be another legendary indie title that a lot of other games will be looking up to.