Heart Machine’s 2016 game Hyper Light Drifter has been in my orbit since it came out. I’ve listened to its soundtrack--composed by Disasterpeace (of It Follows fame)--many many times as I write my dissertation. It’s a calming, ambient synth-filled journey, and it’s the perfect thing to have on in the background while writing.
But I hadn’t played the game.
Hyper Light Drifter was recently released on the Nintendo Switch in September, and yet again I thought, “Huh, this game looks cool. I should play it.” But this time I did play it. Here’s the thing--I love Metroidvania style games. I wrote a blog post about my love of Hollow Knight, Team Cherry’s 2017 game where players get to be a tiny bug fighting with a nail as a weapon. It’s cute, and challenging, and so so fun to play. I figured that Hyper Light Drifter would have a similar vibe, with an emphasis on exploration and cool atmosphere. Yes, it’d be hard--most Metroidvania games seem to be for one reason or another, and the reviews for HLD were no different--but I wasn’t expecting it to be so hard.
The game’s premise is simple, or at least I think it is. The entire narrative is communicated without words, so it’s up to my interpretation, I suppose.You play as a warrior of some sort, cursed with a horrible affliction that causes you to cough up brightly colored blood. In order to defeat whatever is causing the illness, the tiny warrior must travel in all four cardinal directions and defeat bosses in order to send up a beacon that does...something. I haven’t finished the game yet.
But Mary, why are you writing about a game you haven’t finished?
That’s an excellent question, hypothetical reader. I don’t like to admit defeat, and I’m not admitting it this time either, but the truth is that after beating the North, West, and East, I needed a break from HDL. I attempted to fight a miniboss almost 100 times before finally downing his tiny robot body. And then I put the Switch down and told myself I needed a break. Maybe a months long break.
There’s something rewarding about a super challenging game. It instills a sense of accomplishment over something simple, and makes a day feel productive even if it isn’t. Sometimes, like in Hollow Knight, beating a particularly hard level or area allows players to uncover a juicy bit of lore. HLD isn’t doing that for me so far. Sure, I can more or less tell what’s going on, and yes the game is beautifully colored with a retro feel, but beating a particularly hard area only means that a harder area awaits nearby. There’s a sense of desolation in HLD, and the end is hard to see--unless the end is dying in a pool of your own pink blood.
One thing that HLD has going for it is a co-op mode, thought the co-op mode is local only. I tried to play it once, and admittedly it doesn’t make much since. The Drifter can, at the expense of one precious bit of health, generate another drifter to fight alongside him. Because the game is so fast-paced and difficult, health matters--a lot. I found myself not wanting to spare the hit to generate another drifter, and when I played as drifter number two, I felt useless more or less, like the game hadn’t really thought through what having a co-op mode meant. Also, I’m not sure HLD is the type of game that needs a two player mode. It’s something you need to play alone to punish yourself with, much like The Binding of Isaac.
HLD is smartly made, particularly in its art and music, but ultimately it falls a little flat for me. I want games with more story, with more structure than HLD. I need clear goals and payoff for wins. I’m enjoying the game so far, even though I’m two years late to it, but I wonder what the game would be like with words--I’m always hung up on words. If you enjoy challenging games with light narrative payoff, give Hyper Light Drifter a try. If you like more story-based games with easier gameplay, you might want to sit this one out. Either way, this game is a big step for indie developers and it’s always good to support small companies and see what sorts of creative things they come up with. Long live indie games!