Arts quarantine theater

An epic adventure from the comforts of my bed

‘Hyper Light Drifter’ is both a personal story and a beautiful world wrapped in one

9398 hyperlightdrifter   liane xu
The final boss of the eastern region flings explosive ammo at the Drifter.
Courtesy of Heart Games

Upon starting, the game asks your name. As soon as you confirm, you are plunged into a starry darkness with a resounding, melodic ring. The camera tilts down and you are greeted with a world-view. A large bird-like spotlight shoots into the sky. The camera focuses on a diamond that slowly fills with light, and suddenly the world is awash in an ominous red light. A white beam erupts from the diamond, bringing about destruction and despair. 

The camera cuts to bodies in a red sea. A glitch and suddenly you appear, helmet low over your face, red cape draped calmly over your shoulders. You keel over as a coughing fit wracks you. A slithering darkness surrounds you. You spin around and slice the creature in half with your sword, but to no avail. Its shadowy tendrils reach towards you, and you have no choice but to dash away. Up a flight of stairs, wide-eyed behemoths greet you. Another glitch and you are back in the red field with a slender, black dog by your side. Buildings burst from the red sea, and a grand gate opens before you. You enter and are engulfed by even more darkness. It is suffocating. It grabs at you. You try to break away, but a diamond of light shines before you, reinvigorating the shadows and drowning you.

This is the beginning sequence of Hyper Light Drifter, a game meant to combine the best elements of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo per lead developer Alex Preston’s goals. Preston had also set to work on the game with the dream that it would tell a story personal to him. The Drifter’s unspecified terminal illness is a mirror of Preston’s congenital heart disease. The Drifter’s struggle to stay strong and keep going is a metaphor for Preston’s health journey. 

Beautiful motivation behind the game aside, the game itself is stunning. The pixel art is clean and not painful on the eyes the way 8-bit can sometimes be. The movement mechanics are smooth and intuitive (though it is probably important to note that I played this on a Switch. I started the game on PC before, but playing with a controller enables the best intuition). 

One of my favorite parts of the game is that it rewards the observant player. If you are prone to exploring every nook and cranny in an open-world game, Hyper Light Drifter is the game for you. There are secret rooms everywhere that will always provide a benefit to you if they are found, and the journeys to reach these rooms are often more satisfying than they are frustrating. The atmosphere of the game is also usually well-timed. The music will swell and crescendo to signify when the Drifter has come upon a notable landmark, perhaps the empty husk of a giant from a long-forgotten, violent past, or it will accelerate and get your heart pounding as waves of enemies descend upon the Drifter. No cue ever feels out-of-place, and the visuals are sure to lead you through a world worthy of discovery. 

Per the game’s inspirations, combat is also never simply hack-and-slash. It is a dance you must learn to navigate well. One misplaced dodge or attack could mean the end of the Drifter, so it serves the player well to learn the combat patterns of the enemies found in the game in order to develop a strategy that will get them through. The many bosses available in the game are also no laughing matter, and it takes time and dedication to pin down a set strategy for taking them down, one-by-one.

Hyper Light Drifter is a well-balanced game in all its aspects. It is not tedious to comb the maps for hidden treasures. It rewards the player for overcoming each new milestone and learning to adapt with each new upgrade and new enemy encountered. It gives a stunning journey that you won’t regret seeing to its completion.