One of the most common notions in the game industry these days is that pixel art is overused, and I tend to agree with them. However, once in a while, a game comes around that reminds us of the style’s beauty. Pixel art doesn’t need to prey on retro fanatics, nor does it need to add camp factor to a game; pixel art can be beautiful, and can transcend expectations for the medium. Hyper Light Drifter is one of those games.
Game Name: Hyper Light Drifter
Publisher: Heart Machine
Developer: Heart Machine
Release Date: 3/31/2016
We stand now in a of golden age of media. People who grew up consuming classic cartoons and video games are adults making their own media that reflects their passion. As passé as it might be to say this, Hyper Light Drifter is a love song – a sweet melody taking us back to the age of The Legend of Zelda while offering up the cruel patterns and logistics reminiscent of a Dark Souls title.
Once the game starts, it is immediately engrossing; the player assaulted with beautiful and surreal imagery of life and death, and perhaps most notably, no dialogue. In fact, there is no text or voice whatsoever in the game and all communication (what little there is) is in the form of images. This creates a silent dignity in the game, a lone drifter fighting the corruption of the land, no noise escaping his mouth save for pained coughing due to his chronic illness. Perilous is his quest, and he can rely on nobody but himself, his weapons, and a weird electronic-interfacing firefly.
As verbose as all that is, it needs to be done justice. Hyper Light Drifter uses immaculate pixel art and the mysterious silent aesthetic of a Souls game to create a familiar yet unique world full of untold danger. Even the drifter himself, swaddled in worn down clothing approaching every target with only silence, his sword, and a gun he scavenged, is a testament and compliment to the game’s hush vibe.
Of course, the silent storytelling isn’t all that Hyper Light Drifter has to offer: the game’s combat feels like a hybrid of classic Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls, with the navigation and basic combat hailing from the former and the formulaic combat and exploration from the latter. It’s a strange balance that doesn’t give off the feel of an aimless adventure. The necessary calculation and exploration makes the game feel like the drifter has purpose, a true reason to fight and a real mission to carry out, even if it can be hard to determine exactly what that it.
In that sense, Hyper Light Drifter is a bit of a surreal experience.The world has lore, and that much can be seen from the surface, but the drifter has lore too; why is he so violently ill? What is this crazy dongle goblin that helps him open doors? Amidst all of these questions, it feels as though none of them matter; this is the story of a man on a mission, and the mission is what’s important now. It’s an experiment in mise en scene that fulfills its purpose perfectly.
Back on the topic of combat though, the balance between styles is somewhat strange and new, yet welcome and familiar. On a surface level, it’s dead simple: the player has access to a sword with a simple three-swing combo, a quick dash, and a pistol with limited shots that is recharged by landing sword swings (there are upgrades to all of these features plus some secondary items, but let’s focus on the basics for now). At first, this feels right at home with the style the game is presented in: a simple slog through levels made more interesting with puzzles and a pleasing aesthetic. That does hold true, but once combat begins proper, it is easy to tell that Hyper Light Drifter was aiming for more. Enemies are vicious and unruly, and can very easily overwhelm the player unlike the precedent set by the genre.
It’s on the player to assess the situation and act according to the situation at hand; every enemy telegraphs their attacks, and from there it is a test of the player’s awareness and knowledge to read and triumph over the pattern. It’s kind of a simple marriage between design elements, but they flow so well together that they just give the game this difficult-to-describe heft; it’s like the player and the drifter are separate but on the same wavelength, like they’re both engaged in a dance with death.
I’ve mentioned it before, but all around, Hyper Light Drifter is gorgeous. Every area in the game has a unique feel to it complete with immaculate pixel art that gives the game a strange air about it. It’s hard to call it nostalgia as the aesthetic feels so unique; it just feels like art. The landscapes, the enemies, even the solemn and determined sound design all come together to create an experience all its own. It is true that pixel graphics are overused nowadays, but I couldn’t imagine Hyper Light Drifter any other way.
Hyper Light Drifter
Like a pixel-laced dance
Follow me into the light
Hyper Light Drifter creates an atmosphere and gameplay experience all its own, incorporating simple yet deep combat and an immaculate world to set itself apart from the average indie title. If you like challenging, emotion-provoking, engrossing adventure games, Hyper Light Drifter is not to be missed.
- Immaculate art
- Engrossing world
- Well-designed combat
- Navigation/exploration necessary for progression is occasionally hidden a bit cruelly