(originally published October, 2014)

Image property of Heart Machine

Image property of Heart Machine

After falling in love during (and contributing to) its meteoric KickStarter, it was with great excitement that I finally sat down with Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter. Since its first trailer, I’ve been enchanted by the unique variety of the 2D action RPG’s elements: a dark atmosphere, a vibrant color palette, fast-paced combat, and a broken world waiting to be explored, all packaged in familiar 8-bit graphics. Sign me up.

As I watched the demo download, I began to worry that this game I so wanted to love would—like many others of late—be a tremendous disappointment. But I’m happy to report my fears were unjustified.

Players control the Drifter, a cloaked explorer armed with a light saber (for lack of a better term), and accompanied by a tiny robotic companion. The Drifter is on the hunt for four light keys amid a strange and foreboding installation replete with technological wonders both beautiful and grotesque. The place is a pitfall-laden labyrinth filled with mysterious, murderous creatures intent on your destruction.

Exploration comprises the heart of the game and even the demo’s tiny sliver of the world was a delight. The environment itself is a character; the act of exploring tells a story steeped in atmosphere. Strange containers filled with mutated organs littered the floors. Pipes twisted toward looming machines far off in the cavernous space. And innumerable secrets lay hidden just out of view or behind obscure passageways.

Because there is no map and nothing is explained, it often felt as if I was making new discoveries alongside the Drifter. Everywhere I looked there was some odd thing, some unexpected juxtaposition of organic and electronic that raised more and more interesting questions about the nature of the Drifter’s world. What happened to this place? Who created it? Why has it been abandoned?

The demo culminated in a foreboding moment of discovery I will not reveal here, but I expect is just a glimpse of the puzzles waiting to be uncovered. I was happily left with a keen desire to know more.

The excellent soundtrack fluctuated between moments of swelling wonder to stretches of oppressive dread. Danger lurks everywhere in Hyper Light Drifter and the ambient electronica helped keep the tension high. I realized during a quiet moment that I had been breathing too shallow for comfort, and this unconscious reaction was in part attributable to the menacing soundtrack.

If exploration’s the heart of the game, combat is its soul, and it’s this aspect of the demo with which I took issue.

To start, I’ll say controls were in general responsive and tight. Dashing—there is no jump button—around the screen in a burst of vibrant color was a joy. The Drifter walks at a relatively slow pace, allowing for more careful consideration of situations, but when the going got tough (and it always did), dashing became the default mode of movement for me. It is a versatile maneuver that can get you killed on small platforms, but opens up combat strategy, reveals new locations, and saves you in the event of impending doom.

The game’s combat is at its core about agility, but a variety of weapons are at your disposal. The Drifter starts with a light saber, which features a multi-hit combination, dash attack, and charged spinning attack. I gradually acquired a pistol, shotgun, rifle, and bomb weapon, each of which came with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Upon scoring multiple hits in a row, an energy meter built up and eventually released in a brief-but-devastating attack.

All enemies are susceptible to gunfire, but in order to shoot, the Drifter must stand still for a moment and aim. Aiming can be awkward with a gamepad (though the game is designed for its use), so guns were at times a minor source of frustration. I found they were most useful against large, slow enemies with longer health bars, but when faced with a multitude, standing still usually meant death.

And let me be clear: death comes swiftly in Hyper Light Drifter. Whether I was dashing to my end or being overwhelmed persistent enemies, the game was happy to punish my death with a return to a checkpoint. As a fan of difficult games, I enjoyed this aspect, but controls do suffer from minor hiccups that impede the fun and made some deaths feel undeserved.

I was frustrated on several occasions when it looked as if my saber ineffectually passed through an attacking enemy, doing no damage and costing me precious points of health. When I would attempt to dash to an enemy, blast them, then dash away, I was punished by an unexpected delay, interrupting the flow and fun of combat. Heart Machine has spoken about the desire to make combat “easy to learn, hard to master,” but these forced, unnatural pauses felt more like glitches than logical steps in a series of attacks.

Enemies were varied and interesting, each of them with very distinct behavior. I encountered lowly green beasts who would prowl and swipe at me; swarms of insect and slime minions; a variety of soldiers wielding rifles, rockets and swords; enormous beasts that would jump off-screen and descend on me from above. Frankly I was surprised at the variety of combinations I faced, keeping each encounter fun and challenging.

Whether or not the preview build will appear in the final release of the game, the Hyper Light Drifter demo is a tasty morsel of gaming goodness that has me hopeful the final product will deliver on the promise of its premise. A final launch date has not been announced, but the game is scheduled for release in 2015 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, PC, Mac, Xbox One and Wii U.