When you’re ready, the first step is the toughest, though there aren’t really any steps to take in Three One Zero’s Adr1ft. A parable of entering the VR medium itself, Adam Orth’s indie title challenges you to move according to the world around you, adapting to circumstances as opposed to domineering over them. It doesn’t help that the zero gravity space setting renders you powerless and awkward, even if you’re not engaging with the VR medium for the first time. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity serves as a bit of inspiration, premise-wise, but there’s something more mysterious afoot in Adr1ft‘s desolate surroundings. Hope isn’t a catalyst for change – it’s given way to survival by pure instinct.
In the year 2037, players control Alex Oshima, an astronaut who’s recently regained consciousness in the wake of a horrible tragedy to befall the Hardiman space station. Divided into various subsets, you’ll make your way across various modules, attempting to bring the station back to working order. Escape will eventually be your goal when it’s all said and done but Adr1ft isn’t your typical thriller.
Your first instinct won’t be to run as fast as possible. When you start training, you’ll immediately learn how to ascend, descend, activate thrusters, roll to the left and right, and ultimately stabilize your frame in zero gravity. Regardless of what you do, every movement – aside from looking around with the mouse – will deplete your O2 meter. The game itself starts you off with a depleting O2 meter in addition to your regular actions. Quickly navigating to safer zones and collecting O2 vials to keep your gauge up is the key to survival.
However, in a clever twist, Adr1ft wants you float along in your surroundings to save oxygen. Here’s an example: Rather than thrusting to a door, you can choose to silently glide towards it. Of course, it’s not as simple as simply going with the flow. Various obstacles and wreckage dot your path. Bumping into them and your surrounding environment will cause your EVA suit to take damage. Repair stations allow you to bring the suit back to working order but this is Adr1ft‘s not so subtle way of informing you to watch where you’re going.
It’s an interesting concept when paired with your movement options, even if it does result in some rather awkward positioning problems. Can’t grab that O2 vial as you’re slowly losing consciousness? Well, it’s probably because you didn’t orient yourself to the right or left properly. Given that the tutorial doesn’t really explain this, there were instances where one simply mashes F before positioning properly and grabbing the O2 vial. It’s annoying and doesn’t get any easier as the game goes by. Thankfully, the initially hard to handle controls become a little more manageable. You’re not necessarily meant to be in control but it’s possible to have some as opposed to none.
Let this be noted though that if any game’s visuals could make you forget about its underlying technical issues, then Adr1ft is it. Unreal Engine 4 never ceases to impress by default but Adr1ft‘s wrecked space station is just too beautiful to ignore, even if you have to recover some back-up drive or some other item. Discovering the hydroponics sector for the first time, along with the big beautiful cherry blossom tree? Creating awe-inspiring graphical moments is tough in this day and age but Adr1ft makes it look so easy. Even when you’re wandering through debris in space or navigating those clean-cut white interiors, the game just looks beautiful without overwhelming you with its technical prowess.
The story-telling approach in “walking simulators” (heavy emphasis on the air quotes) isn’t exactly one that will gel with all players. Adr1ft features some likable characters through its audio logs and manages to build sympathy for its protagonist Alex through e-mails with the crew. Special note must be made of the writing and voice acting – it feels just right. Nothing overtly cinematic but perfectly dramatic in keeping with the situation of a freaking space station being wrecked.
Again though, the overall pacing and plot, while interesting, isn’t enough to distract you from floating here to there and awkwardly collecting audio logs. In a way, the movement actually does a lot to make the actual progression a challenge – you can’t just blindly rush through areas because it’ll end in your death. But when you have to be so measured in your approach and monitor that O2 meter at all times, it does discourage the exploration aspect just a tad. If nothing else, it will encourage you to play slower and notice your surroundings more often.
Adr1ft as a whole, to this reviewer, at least is unique. Not in a “walking simulator” sense that won’t appeal to select groups of players. Or in terms of its understated and amazingly well-done presentation that seriously makes you stop and want to admire it all. This isn’t your typical video game and it can be annoying when some of the issues that games suffer like freezes or awkward controls crop up. And despite the mystery surrounding the story, it didn’t feel as initially compelling as I would have liked.
Nevertheless, with a four hour (or so) runtime, Adr1ft is something that every gamer should experience. It’s an interesting first person adventure that doesn’t beat you over the head with fetch quests or indecipherable puzzles. It’s not your typical horror title full of jump scares or moments of rushed survival. Adr1ft‘s tension is decidedly low-key, lurking in the background at all times and challenging you to be patient and observant. Whether this sounds like a fun video game to you or not, there’s no denying that’s an experience that everyone should partake in at least once. However, like Sandra Bullock, don’t be surprised if you don’t immediately return after crashing back to Earth.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Beautiful visuals courtesy of Unreal Engine 4 but also thanks to stellar environmental design. O2 consumption is an interesting mechanic, especially when paired with zero G movement. Strong voice acting and writing. Fairly good exploration aspects and a lingering feeling of tension that's fresh
Controls and mechanics take some getting used to. Not orienting one's self properly to pick up O2 canisters is aggravating. Good story that felt like it could have been told better. Overall pacing and design won't be for everyone. The odd game freeze.
Like riding a bike in zero gravity, Adr1ft takes some getting used to and offers an interesting, fresh and beautiful presentation. Sure, it has some rough corners but it has several more bright spots.
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