The opening scenes of Hyper Light Drifter are straight from the playbook of the early days of Anime on Western shores; Incomprehensible scenes of foreboding prophecy accompany a blast of light and disintegrating titans before a hint of story is teased: a white crystal just out of reach; encroaching inky tendrils; an devilish obsidian presence. An undisclosed amount of time later your charmingly animated avatar wakes up in a pastel world and staggers around with a distorted cough, hacking up pools of lurid blood. Where Hyper Light Drifter and those Anime broadcasts part ways is that the former is a complete and supposedly focused artefact, whilst the latter were often confusingly repackaged or unfinished articles. The reason their stories so often felt loose and disconnected were because they literally were, either through the lack of a second series or the mistranslation of script issues.
Heart Machine’s game is full of immediacy and punchy combat, but its story commits a cardinal sin in the post-Souls world by confusing obscured and cryptic storytelling with good storytelling. The Souls series bifurcation of lore and gameplay works because it's hard to avoid the titbits of lore that form the strands of the grander tapestry unless you steadfastly refuse to read any item description or listen to the handful of NPCs that litter the world. Even if you do, the game is totally compelling with its use of gate-keeping enemies and the traversal of increasingly antagonistic terrain indicating the ascent to something meaningful.
Whilst Hyper Light Drifter teases through enigmatic pictures a history of natives driven from their lands by encroaching invaders, and machines of war being built under the feet of peaceful cities, it feels too much like the core of the narrative is locked away. There are too many arbitrary blockades that have you tediously rubbing up against the edge of levels to find poorly telegraphed secrets and keys for locked doors without much to entice you to bother with the chore. Ultimately there is little to tether the frame for frame repeat of the preface that plays out after every boss triumph to the rest of the world, and the game doesn’t go far enough in its attempts to tell its story through motion.
Luckily, the main drive of the game is the combat, which goes a long way to redeeming these narrative issues. Comparisons with Nintendo's own action RPG series are unavoidable, and the brawls home in on the do-or-die feel of the old 2D Zeldas, where getting locked into a room with enemies whilst on low health felt genuinely thrilling. The Drifter has a better set of tools to deal with the various foes, with a variety of projectile weapons, a sword, and lightning fast dodges, all at their disposal. Slick animation along with the pause-on-hit feeling borrowed from Wind Waker onward makes the action feel frenetic and staccato, with just enough rhythm to prevent it from falling into chaos.
The map system also falls foul to the same cryptic obscurity of the storytelling, feeling more like a surrealist take on of an overworld map as opposed to anything particularly useful for the player, but there are plenty of people out there that enjoy this inscrutable puzzling, it would just be nice if there were some way of making it easy to parse for those who don’t. Finally, the health system ties neatly into the wounded Drifter - his death rattle cough feels appropriately weighty when it happens - but the difficulty in securing health packs before fights is counter to their interesting pause which accompanies their use, even in combat, and suggests a different method of procurement such as a static number which regenerated could have perhaps worked better.
Although the lack of story gives little reason for progress, the gameplay and exploration still has a sense of forward momentum, which makes me wonder why it needed a vague outline of a story grasping at something more meaningful beyond the initial beats: a world on the precipice of disaster and the wounded and waning Drifter who has to stop it. The rest of the gaps are filled in by Disasterpiece’s superlative and evocative score, and it’s contrary to the refinement and maturity of the other areas of the game that the story feels the need to fall back on such inane arcane scribblings.