Hands-on with Hyper Light Drifter, plus why Heart Machine now eats "the good dirt"

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Written by Tim Clark

Let's be shallow for a second, and agree that if you were to judge purely on aesthetics, then there are few, if any, more exciting games in development right now than Hyper Light Drifter. Off the back of a video that lasted less than two minutes, plus some tantalising nods to Diablo and A Link To The Past, it went on to smash its modest $27,000 Kickstarter goal by an extra $618,158. So yes, it's safe to say people dig its kaleidoscopic 8-bit look *a lot*.

But how does it feel to play? LA-based Heart Machine, a four-person team now supplemented with some freelance help, are here at GDC showing off a playable build. Not of the main campaign – an ode to classic top-down RPGs which will see the Drifter searching the lands of Buried Time for a cure to his voracious illness – but of the horde mode. Fending off waves of enemies provides a perfect sampler of the frantic combat which will form the core of Hyper Light Drifter's gameplay. "This is what we’re using to try out new weapons, polish the weapons we have, and just have fun when we feel like playing," says game designer Teddy Diefenbach.

The Drifter has a couple of core moves – a Strider-style sword slash which, timed immaculately, can also deflect bullets à la Samurai Gunn, and a dodge/dash which reminds me of Ninja Gaiden. These are supplemented with a range of secondary attacks, which you assign by pulling open the inventory from the hovering Sprite Companion drone which drifts around near to the Driter, a bit like Navi in Ocarina of Time. "Yeah, but not annoying," says Alex Preston, who's the head of Heart Machine. "They don’t say ‘hey listen’ all the fucking time."

Of the secondary weapons we try the spread shotgun, which is self-explanatory, but provides the glorious kick a good shotgun should; a pink shard thing, which you jam into your enemy turning them into a walking bomb that explodes in a mess of bigger, equally pink, crystals; a boomerang that slices multiple enemies, but can be recalled early whilst in flight, adding a neat extra layer of skill; an enormous falling yellow block which can smoosh targets or act as a makeshift barrier; a rail gun which requires charging but proves handy against enemies stupid enough to approach in single file; and a homing bomb contraption that offers some much-needed crowd control.

What that list, which is by no means complete, doesn't tell you is how much fun Hyper Light Drifter already feels. The art style and animation, in conjunction with the responsiveness of the controls, create this crunchy, kinetic, instantly satisfying sort of feedback loop that makes us want to keep playing. I say 'us' because I'm playing in co-op alongside PC Gamer UK editor Samuel Roberts. We're constantly falling out over whose fault it is that we've failed to beat our best number of enemies killed, (46, since you ask – but the highest score so far at GDC is 95. The shame of it!) However, we also can't stop grinning, which again bodes well for the final game.

"From the beginning the game was developed as co-op," says Diefenbach, "and we didn’t want to make it an afterthought so we’ve been thinking about it everyday." Each player being able to select different sets of secondary weapons should make for some intriguing strategic choices in the main game and other modes. Not that Sam and I bother attempting any sort of plan beyond the usual Butch and Sundance just-run-out-and-hope-for-the-best nonsense.

Once inside the kill room we find waves of slimy green things that look like Dragon Quest flans, skull-faced gunmen, giant bouncy things with fists like compact cars and many more – it was hectic, we laughed, we died a lot. These enemies are all lifted from the main game, and display the same hyperactive sense of creativity as everything we've seen from Hyper Light Drifter so far.

Here's Preston on the art style: "I actually started making the game in a full HD, illustrated style, and I decided that’d be fucking insanity for one man to do that, so I went to a small resolution, a limited canvas. I wanted to make sure that also it reflected my style. For me colour and light matter a lot – so I think that’s what makes it impactful."

So when do we get to see the rest of it? The game isn't out until early 2015, and that could drift too. “It’ll be done when it’s done ultimately," says Preston. "No hard release dates yet.” However, the good news is you will be able to sample it well before then. "We’re planning for a summertime beta," says Diefenbach, " a closed beta so people can break the fuck out of the game." We wouldn't dream of it, but safe to say expectations are, if anything, only going to get higher from hereon in.

I ask Preston how much he really expected to raise when they launched the Kickstarter. "I don’t know, I planned for maybe $100,000 to $300,000 at the outset, and I planned for it also getting nothing as well. I planned for a lot of contingencies, but not this one." What would the contingency have been if you'd somehow come up completely dry? "If I got nothing I still would have been making it but I just would have been probably eating dirt. Through a straw." "Bad dirt, not even the good stuff," adds Diefenbach. "I eat good dirt now," agrees Preston.