When I sat down for a good half-hour with Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter, its Legend of Zelda-style overhead perspective did a great job of misleading me. After walking into battle under the assumption that enemies would fall just as quickly as Link's brain-dead foes, I quickly had my butt handed to me roughly a half-dozen times as punishment for my presumption.
The retro aesthetic is a popular one for indie games—I said as much in my recent write-up of Nicalis' Castle in the Darkness—but, in many cases, it can often be misleading. Some developers use this style to help prospective customers understand, exactly, the type of antiquated experience they're trying to capture: Take one look at Shovel Knight, for instance, and it's not hard to determine its direct inspirations. Hyper Light Drifter, though, is attempting something a bit different. Rather than trying to emulate an older style of game, Heart Machine uses older works like Diablo and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as jumping-off points rather than a foundation.
"I don't know if we follow the path of just trying to remind you of certain games," says Alex Preston, Hyper Light Drifter's main creative force. "There's definitely tenets, some traditional gameplay components that we've taken from Link to the Past and things like that—older games that we love. But it's the modern day... [A]nd we keep that in mind, and we use a lot of modern sensibilities with our game design and with the way the we structure the game, and that way that [it] feels and plays. It hardly plays like an [older game]. Go back and play Secret of Mana—that game's pretty clunky these days... That's not at all what we're going for; we want something that feels great to play."
Hyper Light Drifter's combat—which made up the bulk of my hands-on session—indicates just how much this game portrayed in chunky pixels strives to feel like a modern experience. Rather than presenting enemies that follow simple routines and move seemingly at random, Hyper Light Drifter's are much craftier than you'd expect—and, at times, downright mean. Going on the offense also entails keeping defense in mind, sort of like what you'd find in any Platinum (Bayonetta, The Wonderful 101) game: Here, dodging is essential, since even the wimpiest enemies tend to strike back immediately after taking damage. Once combat clicks, Hyper Light Drifter has its spry hero darting from enemy to enemy, getting in a hit or two before zipping away to the next target of interest. And once you figure out how to effectively take out a mob of foes that once tore you apart in seconds, it feels good.
Of course, having only checked out the combat of Hyper Light Drifter—and not necessarily the connective tissue—I can't speak much to any other element of the game. It's been in the works for quite some time, (before its 2013 Kickstarter, even), and what Heart Machine had on display looked like a production years in the making. If they manage to stick the landing, Hyper Light Drifter will definitely make for an indie worth investigating when it releases (at an undisclosed time) later this year.