Alex Preston still is keeping mum on what the story is with Hyper Light Drifter, the stylized action role-playing game that became an indie game to watch for this year after it obliterated a modest five-figure Kickstarter goal back in October.
"I'm not talking too much about the story, just because it's something I'd like people to experience on their own," Preston told me after I played one stage of the game's main campaign. In past exhibitions, he and Teddy Diefenbach, the co-founders of Heart Machine, had only been showing a co-operative arena mode.
"I think people are very curious about the story, but I always say the same thing, which is, 'You'll get to it when you play it,' because for me, that's such an integral part of the experience," Preston said. "I know that seems like a vague answer. I don't want to talk about, because it's important. Movie trailers blow it all the time, and some games are like 'We're doing this, and we're doing that,' and you get into the story before you even play the game."
"I think people are very curious about the story, but I always say the same thing, which is, 'You'll get to it when you play it.'"
Even if they're showing off the singleplayer campaign now (it will feature drop-in/drop-out co-operative gameplay), it's clear they want this to be as personal an experience for the player as it is for them, Preston in particular. The Drifter is on a mission to a ruined, violent world, hoping to find some means of curing or at least quieting the mysterious disease that haunts him. It's directly analagous to the heart condition Preston has battled since birth (and, of course, the studio's namesake.)
The soft-spoken Preston mentioned none of that to me, though he doesn't hide it, and has discussed it in other interviews. Hyper Light Drifter may be an allegory for Preston's personal story but it's not one he's going to impose on players, to force them to empathize with the rather serious challenges he has faced. They'll have to come to their understanding of it on their own.
"I had a lot of ideas for a world I wanted to create," Preston said, when I asked what creative itch this game was meant to scratch. "Really it's about the designs of the world, and being able to roam in this world that I've had a desire to create for a long long time. The creatures in the world also are a part of that. What really makes it for me are the environments and the sense of exploration."
Hyper Light Drifter sought just $27,000 when Heart Machine took this concept to the crowd; it raised nearly $650,000 from almost 25,000 backers, its appeals to old school gaming resonating deeply, as well as its soothing soundtrack and pixelated visual style. Preston said originally the game was going to be "a full HD, very illustrated concept," but in early prototypes he realized that it would be too much work for one person. "So I decided to go with a much lower resolution, pixel-art basically, as long as I could make it my own," he said. "There's plenty of good pixel art out there, but there are specific things that I like, which is color, and blending, and light. We can do more with less."
Hyper Light Drifter is planned for PC (Linux, Mac OS and Windows) PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Ouya and Wii U, and a release by the end of the year, or early 2015.
It was tough for me to personalize the experience with it based only on a single level toward the beginning of the game. (It's also tough to see things like leveling up and upgrading weapons or acquiring new ones.) The low-res visual style belies the swift and often brutal action — both in how The Drifter cuts down his implacable adversaries, and vice versa. The Drifter's standard melee attack with the sword is always an option, unless enemy numbers are too strong. A flash-dodge helps him get out of the way fast (and is used to traverse gaps or leap to other portions of the world). Health is purposefully low (I think it was something like five hits) to keep players from just grinding through with sword attacks. It'll take some use of the alternate attacks that a player may access from the Sprite Companion who circles The Drifter.
Left to my own devices — of course — when I picked my loadout, naturally I went with the cool, destructive sounding rail gun. And indeed it is cool and destructive, but the lock-on time necessary with a laser sight (controlled with the right analog stick) made it suboptimal, for me anyway, on this level. After being killed off I selected what is basically a boomerang ranged attack with my sword, which can be dumb-fired a lot more easily and has a quicker recharge.
Health pickups were scattered across the level, but players will need to apply old-school 8-bit survival tactics and pick them up only when they're nearly out of health, as these completely refill one's health. This was particularly true in the boss battle I fought which didn't go so well the first time. I was fighting what were essentially cultists of this "post-post-post apocalyptic world," as Preston put it. (I called them rappers, because they seemed to be wearing clocks.)
The monks' numbers made range attacks difficult. , but ultimately I prevailed, seeing how Preston and Diefenbach are make this a skill-gated game. Technically I could have made it through with that rail gun — there was nothing special about the boomerang sword, other than I was better at using it. The Drifter is not required to pick up special gear before moving on — if the player is good enough. This should open the game up to some interesting YouTube runs by hardcore fans once it launches.
I did have a strange concern, though, that the cultists I had attacked may have been peaceful, that I may have been in the wrong. No, Preston reassured me, even though I was the aggressor, that was called for. However, "There will be some creatures in here you can kill that may not be a threat. The way we're balancing enemies and NPCs, there's not always a clear choice on some of these. So it could be like you're killing a creature that's relatively peaceful but may just be defending its territory." You'll know pretty quickly when you've killed something that maybe didn't need killing, Preston assured.
"You're a pretty fantastic monster murderer, but there are some spaces we're leaving open for some different contexts with NPCs," he added. None of those contexts were in my level. But with none of the story explained beforehand, and my guard up, I was thinking slightly more deeply about something that otherwise could be taken for button-spamming violence. I'll give Heart Machine credit for that, even if it wasn't intentional.