Hyper Light Drifter

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Heart Machine for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Xbox One, originally released in 2016.
Hyper Light Drifter is an action-adventure where Drifters search the world for ancient technology and artifacts, slashing through roaming beasts and still-active machines. You take on the role of one such Drifter who is haunted by visions of what the world once was, finding himself under attack by some unknown creeping darkness, and following a black dog that seems to be guiding him. Something has happened to the world… A once great civilization has been destroyed, its people long dead, their bodies strewn across the landscape, and their towering sentinels now rusting into nothingness.

After a strange introductory cutscene – filled with chaotic imagery and rivers of blood – you gain control of the Drifter. His body is weak, however, and he struggles to rise. Oftentimes, he doubles over and coughs up blood, during which time the screen is covered in static, offering only questions about the nature of the world.

The Drifter awakens near a campfire, with a moss-covered monolithic structure behind him, seemingly topped with a face. He is surrounded by water and mountains and trees, but intermixed in all of this is rotting technology, jutting rebar, smashed bits of metal, and long-deactivated robot parts.

His journey initially sees him descending into an underground complex by way of a cargo elevator, and the rot below the surface is less prevalent than that above, with some technology still active. Still, it’s clear that much time has passed since any of it was put to use, as monsters roam about, foliage has begun to spring up, and corpses litter the halls.

Passing some robotic husks, the Drifter returns to the surface, surrounded by greenery, flowers, and birds, and he encounters an overlook with a city lying in the distance. But he is too weak to make it that far. A black substance begins rising up all around him, and he coughs up blood as the screen turns to static and a dark figure appears before him. Then, the screen fades to black.

The Drifter awakens beside a campfire, with a pink-clad warrior watching over him, before falling into unconsciousness once more. Later, he awakens again inside the warrior’s home, within the walls of the city.

Rising from bed, your adventure begins, although you are given very little direction as to how to proceed. The center of the city holds some ancient technology, with a design embedded in the ground that points in four directions. The player’s map is divided into four regions, one in each of the cardinal directions, with the city at its center.

The NPC’s around town don’t offer any assistance either, with most of them remaining mute, and a few speaking in wordless images that offer a small window into the goings-on of the world. Various shops offer upgrades (more on these in a bit), but you have no currency. And so, your only remaining action is to pick a direction and wander out of town.

The area to the south leads to a dead end, but the other three areas may be explored freely in any order, although their disjointed design makes navigation difficult. It is impossible to traverse the land in a straight line, as many areas may only be accessed indirectly, and the player’s progress is frequently blocked by obstacles that lack explanation.

Early into his adventure, the player encounters four different kinds of locked doors: Laser barriers may be opened by finding a nearby switch or defeating a set of enemies; some doors seem to require a key, but these doors are accompanied by strange symbols, and searching nearby areas reveals no keys; some doors have a cluster of squares that require you to hunt around the entire region to find the proper items to open them… but you encounter the doors before the necessary objects are revealed, and even then, some will not open.

This design creates a hostile setting for players who may otherwise be accustomed to more obvious solutions or more linear progression. In many action-adventure titles, worlds are handcrafted around your specific abilities, presenting themselves as a playground that you can freely explore and eventually overcome as you are shuttled from one ability upgrade to the next.

In Hyper Light Drifter, on the other hand, the world is designed to prevent progress and lock things away, hiding its secrets from all but the most dedicated. When you discover that your path is blocked, you shouldn’t expect to find a solution two rooms away… You’ll need to thoroughly explore and fight your way through hordes of beasties just to progress to the next section of the map.

The map is just as disjointed as the world around it, with gaps between sections, obscured areas, and no clear indicator as to where you will move when you travel underground and back to the surface. Your location is only noted by the “room” you’re in, not your position within it, and it’s entirely possible to take an elevator underground, walk 10 paces, and ride another elevator up, only to find yourself on another section of the map. And just because you’re adjacent to another room doesn’t mean that you can walk straight into it; often, the path forward requires a long and meandering path around.

Fortunately, travel is aided by the fact that teleporters appear in each of the areas, allowing for fast travel between the four major regions and the town at the center. In addition, killed enemies remain dead, which not only makes for easier backtracking, but also helps you to determine whether a specific area has already been explored.

The Drifter comes equipped with a sword that allows him to deliver a quick 3-hit combo, as well as a slow-firing handgun. The sword remains your primary weapon throughout the adventure due to its speed and versatility. Often, you will find yourself surrounded by enemies, requiring that you move in quick to deliver damage, and most enemies are stunned during the first hit of your combo.

The handgun is useful in some situations, especially when an enemy lies on the far side of a gap, but it’s difficult to line up a shot at long range and even harder to use on the fly, and you have a limited ammo capacity. After a few shots, the weapon needs to be recharged, which is done by breaking destructible objects in the environment and killing enemies, and it takes quite a bit of destruction to refill your spent chambers. Additional weapons are uncovered as you complete each of the regions – and two may be equipped at a time – allowing for a bit more usefulness once explosives and wider-range weapons are acquired.

Of primary importance is your dash maneuver, which lets you flit around the environment quickly to dash away from danger, or toss yourself headlong into the fray. Many enemies – particularly bosses – are very mobile and are capable of advancing on your position quickly, and it is imperative that you move out of the way of heavy attacks. The dash is also frequently required to cross gaps given the disconnected environments, and failing to cross a gap results in the loss of a unit of health.

The Drifter has only five units of health, and strong attacks can reduce this meter by two. Fortunately, the player is able to carry up to three reserve batteries, allowing him to recharge his health to full with the press of a button… although there is a momentary delay that makes recharging risky during battle. Additional batteries are found fairly regularly and even more are tucked away in hidden areas, and these are stored by a little hovering robot that follows you around. The robot also occasionally highlights hidden paths, and acts as a light source in dark areas.

To help turn the tide against your enemies, a number of upgrades are available for purchase at the shops in town, although currency is quite rare, appearing only when defeating major enemies or discovering hidden alcoves, and only occasionally left in plain sight in destructible boxes. The player must collect four yellow chips in order to create a single spendable unit of currency, and most upgrades require two or three units to purchase.

Upgrades fall into multiple categories, each affecting a different ability, and each is offered with only a visual representation of its function and no supporting text. Sword upgrades allow you to perform a wide powerful swipe, deflect bullets, or strike enemies while dashing. Dash upgrades allow you to absorb projectiles as you dash (and retain them as ammo), perform a powerful follow-up strike, or even dash continuously – with the proper timing – allowing you to zip around the area with no cooldown period. You can also purchase gun upgrades that increase the coverage of your projectiles, health upgrades that let you carry more health, and an electrical stun grenade that has a wide area of effect.

Provided you have the proper currency, these upgrades may be purchased at any time and in any order… and they are all entirely optional. It is very much possible to complete the game without ever making a single purchase, and none of the upgrades make the game appreciably less difficult; they merely allow for the application of additional tactics in battle. Many of the upgrades require the proper timing to execute, which adds an additional layer of difficulty to some already tough encounters, requiring an even more tactical approach. But mastering these techniques can allow players to dash around levels, slash through enemies, and knock back projectiles, taking out rooms full of enemies in a veritable ballet of destruction.

But no matter how good you are at basic combat, there’s a good chance that your first boss encounter will shut you down pretty hard, as these beasties move quickly, can dish out a load of damage, and have long life bars. As such, players can expect a few abject stompings before coming to terms with the boss’ movesets and behaviors, after which, even the player’s default weapons will see him through the fight. It’s even possible to employ some advanced strategies like causing a boss to repeat some easy-to-dodge attack animations, or luring the boss into defeating its own support characters, making the encounter that much easier.

Overall, the game is difficult, but mastery of the controls and close attention to enemy behaviors eventually allow skilled players to deal with loads of disparate enemies in tight quarters while taking a minimum amount of damage in return. Some enemies swarm the player, others plod around and soak up a ton of damage, still others fire off projectiles to cause damage from a distance, and a few even have large area-of-effect attacks.

Here again, you can occasionally use enemies against one another. For instance, pop-up turrets can be real bastards as they unleash huge sprays of bullets, but these same turrets can be used to block incoming fire. Rocket-firing enemies can cause damage to fellow foes, allowing you to lure rockets to damage your intended targets, causing damage and sometimes knocking them off platforms to their deaths. Some areas feature plant creatures that take only a single hit of damage, but they explode shortly after being killed, allowing you to use them as grenades to harm other enemies, or even to set off a chain reaction to clear out a row foes in one fell swoop.

There are a few environmental hazards as well, such as floors that drop out as the player walks across them and spikes that jut up from the ground, requiring some properly timed dashes. The gradient-filled environments can hide the fact that the player is standing against a drop-off and not solid ground, potentially leading to the occasional cheap hit (especially during the heat of battle), despite the Drifter’s short animation to clue in the player. Checkpoints are infrequent, but it is possible to game the system a bit by leaving a room and reentering to reactivate the auto-save and record your progress.

That said, exploration is highly encouraged, particularly for those players looking to unlock new abilities and increase their stats, given the rarity of currency. There are hidden paths all over the place, and nearly every overgrown patch of foliage or tiny ledge leads to a reward just past the next screen transition. There are even some invisible platforms and other well-hidden secrets that lead to distant and otherwise unreachable treasure caches.

Even some required items are fairly well hidden, although their general locations are highlighted on the map. Numerous additional secrets and unlockables remain very well hidden and are likely to be unapparent on an initial playthrough, although players can go back and search the regions as they like, or start again in a New Game+ mode.

The player also encounters some mysterious figures on his journey, including the aforementioned pink-clad warrior, who appears to be a Drifter himself, as he seems to be afflicted with the same illness as the protagonist, further adding to the mystery of the world.

Aesthetically, the game sets itself apart with its limited color palette, heavy use of neon colors, overabundance of the color pink (including bright pink blood), gradient fills, loads of character animation frames, detailed bits of rotting mechanisms, strange overgrown technological ruins, and some downright creepy robot sentinels whose giant “corpses” loom over the landscape. The supporting esoteric electronica soundtrack was composed by Rich Vreeland, a.k.a, Disasterpeace.

Hyper Light Drifter was developed by Heart Machine, under the direction of Alex Preston. The studio was named as such due to the fact that Alex was born with heart problems that required extensive hospitalization and the use of medical machinery, and this also inspired the Drifter who is stricken by a mysterious illness.

Additional design and code were provided by Beau Blyth (Samurai Gunn) and Teddy Dief (The Moonlighters, Shove Pro), among others, as well as additional design and story by Casey Hunt, sound by Akash Thakkar (Freedom Planet), animation by Sean Ward, additional design by Lisa Brown, and additional art by Cosimo Galluzzi. Music for the game was composed by Rich Vreeland, a.k.a, Disasterpeace, who also composed the music for FEZ, Bit.Trip Runner 2, Krunch, The Floor is Jelly, Shoot Many Robots, High Strangeness and the film It Follows. The game was created in GameMaker Studio and was funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign.