Last year, LA artist Alex Preston asked for $27,000 to make an action RPG called Hyper Light Drifter. In October, after the Kickstarter campaign ended, he’d raised well over $600,000. His team includes Rich ‘Disasterpeace’ Vreeland, who composed the beautiful soundtrack for Fez, Beau ‘Teknopants’ Blyth, developer of Samurai Gunn, and others. Known collectively as Heart Machine, this is a team bursting with talent and creativity, which is evident in every frame of this confident debut.
I launch our preview build and find myself in a green forest dotted with alien-looking ruins. A light rain falls and yellow birds skip through the grass. Vreeland’s music drifts in, which has echoes of Fez, but is gentler and more minimalist. There are no enemies and no instructions. I feel my way around the controller and discover that I have a sword, a gun, and the ability to dash a short distance—but so quickly that it’s more like teleporting. I head north and find a temple-like structure studded with glowing lights.
It’s a sedate opening to what I quickly discover is actually a fast-paced and surprisingly challenging action game. The top-down perspective and dungeon-esque levels are reminiscent of Diablo, but it’s no RSI slugfest. Surviving encounters with the game’s oddball cast of enemies takes finesse and careful timing, almost like a pixelated Platinum brawler. There are basic drones you can merrily slice your way through, but gun-toting skeletons and hulking cycloptic ape-things force you to make ample use of your dashing ability and projectile weapons. Their patterns are easy to learn and exploit, but the challenge lies in fighting multiple enemy types at once.
As I make my through the temple, dungeon, castle, or whatever this place is, I’m struck by just how little the game is willing to reveal about itself. Moving between chambers, fighting increasingly bizarre enemies, I figure out that I have to find a certain number of keys strewn around the map to open a locked door—a structure anyone who played Fez will be familiar with. This lack of hand-holding will split opinion in the same way Polytron’s game did, but to me it gives this strange, vivid world a genuine sense of mystery. I have no idea what I’m doing here, but I want to find out.
The game’s red-cloaked hero wields a sword made of glowing blue light and can fire a number of guns, including a powerful laser that requires a few seconds to charge up, a pistol that fires in short bursts, and a scattergun of sorts. Combining the two with the dash move makes for some brilliantly slick, kinetic combat. You’re constantly on the move, flitting rapidly between enemies. Some levels have deadly pits in the floor that will swallow you up if you’re careless with your dashing. Dying resets enemies and places you back at the entrance, and you’ll find yourself repeating rooms over and over again until you find the most efficient route through them, Hotline Miami-style.
The stylish pixel art, vibrant colour palette, and flowing, expressive animation make Hyper Light Drifter a consistent delight for the eyes, but I’m glad it’s not just a pretty face. There’s real depth to the combat, complemented by light, responsive controls and satisfying visual feedback. A special move sees our hero explode into a flurry of strikes, lopping an enemy’s head off with a crimson splash of blood. But even after a couple of hours, the enigmatic nature of the game means I still don’t know how I actually trigger this. It just happens—but when it does, it feels amazing.
The Super Nintendo is an obvious influence. The level design is pure Zelda. The combat has shades of Secret of Mana. The atmosphere has the same dark, alien tone as Super Metroid. But it also has its own distinct personality, and doesn’t feel—like so many pixelated Kickstarter games—a shallow, derivative nostalgia trip. Its visuals and a lot of its design are steeped in the 16-bit era, but with a fresh, contemporary edge. If it’s this good now, I can’t wait to see what the finished game has to offer.