Alien psychedelia meets bleak loneliness in this hauntingly surreal adventure.
There’s something Breath Of The Wild-esque to Disasterpeace’s mournful, minimalist piano score for Hyper Light Drifter. That is, until the synthesisers join. They chime and whir, they bleep and bloop, they pulse like a heartbeat and yawn in great sweeping waves of distorted off-kilter electronica. What was haunting yet familiar suddenly becomes expansive and utterly terrifying.
And that pretty much sums up Hyper Light Drifter. As much as Heart Machine’s game is indebted to Nintendo’s Zelda series, it’s in a world all of its own that’s as intimate and introspective as it is sprawling and horrifying. It may have a top-down perspective and a hero tasked with exploring dungeons and killing mighty boss enemies, but this bleak, alien fantasy is a more surreal take on the formula that fits neatly in the palm of your hand on Nintendo’s Switch.
That music isn’t just for ambiance, though. Its use is far more symphonic: one moment it’s contemplative and subtle, the next it morphs with rhythmic urgency during battles, then it soars majestically as the camera swoops away from its hero to show some great robotic titan in the distance, the sad image of an ancient future now lost and decaying.
And that’s what Hyper Light Drifter does best: mood. Not only does its music and stunning pixel art create a sense of creeping anxiety to match the mysterious disease its hero gradually suffers from, it also mirrors the lonely solitude of adventure. This isn’t a plucky hero on a fun quest to save the princess; it’s a dread-filled tale of suffering, of striving against the odds, of a brave hero in a world of weirdness.
The mood is only exacerbated by the ambiguous narrative and minimal storytelling, with frequent use of still images and montage, the hero and characters silent beyond the sweeping score. It lends the game an eerie, unsettling atmosphere, though it is at times a little too obtuse for its own good. That’s especially true of the start when little is explained and you’re simply left to head in a direction of your choice and figure things out along the way.
The effort, though, is worth it. In the four compass directions, you’ll discover mountains scattered with the quiet stillness of snow, alien forests blooming with colour, lakes, deserts and more. Hidden beneath the surface are technology-filled dungeons that bleed into the overworld through a sometimes difficult to navigate map.
Enemies are fought with both a laser sword and a variety of guns – ammo is replenished by attacking with the former so you’ll need skill with both weapons. Later areas swarm the hero with enemies that require exceptional timing to dance around, while bosses provide some punishingly tough moments. Fully explore the dense, labyrinthine world and you’ll uncover currency with which to boost your skills, health and ammo.
Indeed, Hyper Light Drifter is not a long adventure in itself, but the world is chock full of collectibles and secrets. Many of these are obscured behind the environment, but learning to read the level design is rewarding – this becomes almost puzzle-like if you strive to collect everything, the only time the game tests your brain more than your fingers. There is arguably too great a focus on combat, especially later in the game.
The biggest puzzle of all, though, is working out what it all means. Lead developer Alex Preston suffered from heart disease during the game’s development, which has heavily inspired its concept. Yet the sparse narrative only hints at a story; instead, the player is allowed to fill the void with their own thoughts and horrors. This vibrantly psychedelic world of Cthulhu-esque enemies, suffocating loneliness and that haunting Disasterpeace score cannot fail to absorb you and terrify you in equal measure.