Time has stopped, or perhaps come naturally to an end. Civilisation has fallen to war, armies have clashed and colossi have done battle. The world is moribund, without the vigour to recover from the effects of this cataclysm. Hyper Light Drifter is a dungeon crawl clearly having The Legend of Zelda (1) as its inspiration, but it distinguishes itself from that earlier video game by its focus on precision combat and most notably by the peculiar melancholy of its mysterious never-future.
We are the eponymous drifter, would-be ransacker of the hi-tech caches that survived the cataclysm. We have pried too deep, become ensnared by the evil we disturbed, and now we are doomed to die of a soul sickness that causes black ichor to puddle and suck at the fabric of this neon world. So we go in search of cure or vengeance, discovering various foes to slay and a few friendly characters who tell us their stories. It seems that everyone is in stasis, undone by tragedy or obsession and with no hope but to wait for a denouement. Our own predicament is just a symptom of this world’s need for rebirth – or at least a proper death.
We drift and delve to a soundtrack by Disasterpeace that speaks of wonder and peril in equal measure. Alex Preston’s luminous pixel art gives us naïve crisply rendered scenes that tingle with possibility: chasms and islands, nooks and cells, copses and glades; we admire the view and then prod at the boundaries for secret paths. There is a profound sense of wanderlust to our journey, that we go on because of an unquenchable thirst to sample the farthest corners and darkest domains, that we are fated to be the mechanism by which this world regards itself.
Our fate is, of course, to die. But there’s time enough for some busywork before then. The most tenacious players will obtain and decipher scraps of lore that make oblique reference to the events of the cataclysm and that do nothing to dent the mystery of its cause. The questing not the quest is given primacy in Hyper Light Drifter: the game asks only that we go and see what things there are, that we revel in the magnificence of this glimmering corpse.