Hyper Light Drifter: lonely world

After a successful Kickstarter in 2013, Heart Machine’s action/adventure has been among the most anticipated indie projects on the horizon. A recent hands-on demo showed off a two-hour segment of the game, and based on my time exploring, Hyper Light Drifter is well worth the excitement it has garnered.

With its top down view of the action, Hyper Light Drifter draws immediate comparisons to titles like Zelda and Diablo ingredients from both are sprinkled in. But with its stark post-apocalyptic setting and smartly designed combat system, Heart Machine’s project remains a fresh experience, distinct from its roots.

You play the Drifter as he explores a world of abandoned ruins and mutated monstrosities. The world is engrossing and mysterious.

Massive cyclopean blocks bear strange runes and symbols, with little explanation of what once built the structures. Even the Drifter’s inventory is something of a mystery new items must be tried out before you understand their uses, and objective items are collected with little idea of what they might do or how they function. A deep sense of analysis and discovery pervades the gameplay.

Players have access to several basic moves, but each gets more complex as you develop your skills. A sword slash is the easiest way to bring down enemies that get too close, and holding down the button provides a charged power attack. Ranged weapons map to another button, but it seems you can only carry one weapon at a time. These distance attacks are safer, but each drains some energy that refills on a cooldown or with a pick-up found within the world. The Drifter’s most compelling ability is his teleporting dash, which lets him zip in and out of danger, as well as flit between the precarious platforms hidden in the ruins. Careful timing allows the player to chain together dashes in long streaks to move across the screen in moments.

Enemies are abundant and unusual. Green mutants sprout tendrils from their back as they leap at you. Computer monitors scuttle about on spider legs. Hulking ogres leap across the room to smash into the ground. Like the Zelda games that seem to have inspired the project, each enemy has a distinct attack pattern to track. Even simple enemies can do damage if you don’t pay attention to how they move.

The ranged weapons you carry are as varied as the monsters they can kill. A powerful laser must be held down and charged for maximum damage. A rifle fires a blast halfway between a shotgun spread and a rocket barrage. A tiny grenade drone can be released, and then reacts to the movements of your analog stick to track down targets. Every tool changes the flow of combat, and how you approach encounters.

The world is split up into distinct sections or rooms, and getting to a door at the far end lets you breathe easier, since that means a checkpoint as well. Between one door and another, creatures converge on you from unexpected directions, massive blocks attempt to crush you, and the floor falls out from beneath your feet. Managing your limited health and weapon energy is vital to success. Hidden secrets beckon out of reach behind walls, enticing you to go back through the dangerous, laser-strewn paths you’ve already tread to find the secret passage you missed.

Throughout your explorations, an ethereal score sounds like it’s been ripped out of the synth-smooth science fiction movies of the 1970s. As battles commence, and the intensity heats up, heavier beats are layered onto the sweeping synth background harmonies, and then fade away as the fight concludes.

My brief hours with the game reassure me that Heart Machine is crafting a game worth paying close attention to in the coming months. The pixel-art visuals, challenging combat and platforming, and opportunity for discovery all left me eager to learn more about the strange and melancholy adventures of the Drifter.

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