Hyper Light Drifter Director Alex Preston wants to know how it’s going. I tell him I’m dying a lot. “Yeah, that’ll happen,” he responds with a nod of his head. It happens on what feels like at least a dozen instances before I even reach the oversized frog boss in Hyper Light Drifter‘s PAX Prime demo. It’s a playable slice of the game that could by no means be described as long, one that could likely be dusted off in only a few minutes were it not so difficult to survive it. But when it comes time to square off against the frog boss, it’s instantly clear that the preamble was nothing more than a casual stroll through the world of Buried Time. This is a very hard game, but one that just might be good enough to make a glutton for punishment out of the player.
That’s a lot of tries
The frog’s health bar is intimidating, especially when my sword and gun attacks hardly seem more effective than poking him with a stick and tossing pebbles at him might be. When I get close enough for a sword strike and greedy enough to try to sneak in two or three, the boss slaps me away, dealing far more damage to me in one hit than I him in three. With each new death — and I suffer many of them — I come back at him playing a little more conservative, a little more strategically. Not that it matters much; every one of my many, many attempts ends in failure with the frog’s life meter always still replete with an embarrassing number of bars.
Preston says there’s no trick to it, just patterns and patience. “Just pay attention to the pattern, kill the little shrub things, they blow up, makes it a little easier,” he offers. “Compare it to any Dark Souls boss, just pay attention and stick to it.”
The frog, seemingly so disgusted by my pathetic attempts at heroism that he can’t keep down his lunch, routinely barfs up the aforementioned shrubs. They’re almost more of a gift than a threat, though. Sure, they explode, but killing things with your sword grants ammo for your gun, which in this battle allows me to stand at a distance and take some potshots at the boss. He’s not completely defenseless, though. After a few seconds he unleashes deadly jumping attacks that the Drifter must avoid with his dash move. It’s easier said than done, and I’m consistently smashed to death. Still, I keep coming back for more until the frustration of those waiting in line behind me grows palpable enough that it can no longer be ignored.
Preston remarks that it sometimes takes “like a million tries” to be successful. But he doesn’t want his game to frustrate, just to challenge. “There’s a threshold that you have to play with too. So you gotta allow leniency in some ways. You can’t go too far, because then it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t want to play this game.’ And we’re making the game for us in a lot of ways.”
Not so hard after all
“Us” is Heart Machine, Preston’s team of six that found itself with over $600,000 to make a game it originally asked Kickstarter backers for a lean $27,000 to help it create. The list of indie developers who’ve received substantially more crowdfunding than they asked for is not short, and it’s full of beneficiaries who’ve admitted to having trouble living up to the expectations that coffers overstuffed by gamers bring. Preston doesn’t count himself among them.
“It hasn’t been that hard,” Preston says, looking and sounding for all the world like he means it. “I think what’s difficult is focusing the game after a while.”
While Heart Machine did expand its team when it got more funding than it asked for, Preston says his studio has remained mindful of the fact that it’s still a diminutive one. The team thinks realistically about what it can do, what it wants to do and how long it will take to do it. In that way he says it’s able to stay within its means.
“We’ve been working on it for two years now, and the scope of it has always been pretty manageable, and we’ve cut and trimmed and redone and refocused and… Like any game, there’s tons of stuff that you just don’t get to or just, ‘What are the vital things you want to actually polish?’ It’s been totally manageable.”
One thing that’s certainly been well polished is the feel of striking things in the game with your sword. Swiping at the frog boss, stabbing smaller enemies and even chopping up patches of grass and bushes a la The Legend of Zelda feels good. Really good. Because everything from the weight of your swings, the sound of your strikes and the way things fall apart feels good, you can’t help but waste time channeling your inner landscaper. Indeed, Preston says that feel is a big deal for both him and Lead Programmer Beau Blyth.
Preston rattles off the individual components that make it all work: “Impact and the amount of frames that things happen in and the sound that comes and there’s the delay and a little bit of shake.” He knows players aren’t going to notice those individual components, but he hopes they will notice the satisfying result of those components all coming together.
Not so fast, either
Despite Heart Machine’s realistic goals for itself and its focus on what it considers to be Hyper Light Drifter‘s core features, the studio still had to announce a delay just days before PAX. Accepting that the delay into 2016 was necessary wasn’t difficult for Heart Machine, though explaining it to fans was. Preston says it was hard to explain exactly what the team is feeling about it, but the reaction from gamers has been pretty positive.
“The internet can be a mean place, but for the most part I think people understand. Like, you see what happens when games don’t get pushed back, especially recently, there have been plenty of games that should not have been released. We don’t want to be in that situation. We want to deliver on what we promised.”
Delivering something that was promised to play “like the best parts of A Link to the Past and Diablo, evolved” by next spring sounds like a task even more difficult than besting a big frog with an upset stomach. Preston, though, is more confident in his abilities as a game designer than I am in mine as a drifter.
“Yeah, we’re pretty comfortable. I think we’re pretty good. We’re confident in our release window.”
That’s good, because even after taking a beating, I want another crack at that frog without the pressure of a line behind me. And I don’t want to wait past next year for it.