Last year, an independent developer known as Heart Machine launched a Kickstarter campaign for Hyper Light Drifter – a 2D action RPG which likened itself to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo. Asking for a modest $27,000, the project went on to amass an impressive $645,000 and has easily become one of the most anticipated games to grace the crowd-sourcing platform. Nostalgia being the powerful force that it is, it didn't take much for me to become one of the game's 24,000+ backers. So when I heard that the title would be making an appearance at PAX East 2014, I had to see for myself if I had fallen victim to my love for any and all things sprite-based or if I in fact had contributed to an aspiring indie sensation.
The demo begins with HLD's 8-Bit hero sprite-ly companion on a grassy plateau. In the distance, a stoic figure eagerly awaits for me to interact with it. I approached the NPC hoping for a bit of guidance or perhaps even answers to my most basic of questions: who am I, where am I, and what exactly was I doing here? The figure, however, offered no such insight. There were no words exchanged between us. No hints of what I was to expect on the journey ahead. All it showed me was a few sparse images and hoped that I would be able to piece together its cryptic meaning for myself. So, reluctantly, I continued forward.
Ahead of me, roaming the world's simple yet breathtaking world, were a handful of enemies. With a few swipes of my energy sword, my foes fell to the ground. Victory would be short-lived as just I was able to gather myself another batch of baddies appeared before me. My sword, while perfectly capable of taking care of business, wasn't about to steal the spotlight though. Fortunately, the drifter comes equipped with a healthy variety of sub-weapons which include the likes of a shotgun and a boomerang-type object. After handing my enemies their collective 8-Bit butts, I took a moment to play with the game's controls, noting how responsive the experience felt. From general movement to combat, the latter of which became quite hectic and chaotic as the demo progressed, was consistently fluid. There was no denying I was having fun. Wave upon wave of minions fell by my blade and I absolutely loved every second of it…until it got dark.
For a game that so revels in its charming and nostalgic atmosphere, its simplistic aesthetic deceptively hides its darker elements. After a fair amount of pummeling I received from a large group of enemies, I was shocked to see my drifter leaving behind tiny red pixels of blood as I pressed onward. The game doesn't necessarily try to mask its gore (if you could even call it that). Dispatching foes comes with a decent amount of blood. I just wasn't expecting to it trickle out of my character. It gives a greater sense of urgency to my injuries than The Legend of Zelda's incessant 'you're low on life' beeping ever could. As I staggered forward and tried my best to fight off certain death, I collapsed, and my time with Hyper Light Drifter came to an end.
My time with Hyper Light Drifter, while brief, was enough to remind me why I backed the project to begin with and why it has been on the receiving end of such high praise. From the simple graphics to its minimalist soundtrack (care of Fez's Disasterpeace), Hyper Light Drifter was one of the best experiences of PAX East 2014. It does not rely on my strong emotional ties to the 8/16-Bit era to achieve its level of greatness. Instead, it plays out like a tribute to all I loved as a young gamer and elevates it to places I never thought possible.
Heart Machine promises a 2015 release for Hyper Light Drifter, a semi-excruciating wait for someone as taken with the game as me. In the meantime, I'll be keeping a close eye on the project and doing my best to spread the gospel of its greatness.