Beautiful and isolating, but drifting aimlessly.
Adr1ft is a beautiful recreation of floating through the terrifying and lonely vacuum of space in a bulky, near-future spacesuit. This journey through a thoroughly destroyed space station has some moments of serenity and beauty, especially when looking down on the Earth below. But it struggles to build a game around its simulation, and soon becomes as directionless as its name suggests.
The opening is a huge missed opportunity. When you complete the training tutorial, Adr1ft begins by having the main character wake up as the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her space station, and that left me feeling felt cheated. Not only do we not get to see an elaborate destruction scene like the one that most likely inspired this game in the movie Gravity, we don’t get much of an idea of what this enormous station looked like intact. It’s understandable that developer Three One Zero isn’t made of money, but this is a case of a cut corner that hurts: an implied spectacular event just isn’t effective.
From there, as you set out to find a way to not die alone in the cold darkness of space, Adr1ft justifies itself by doing a good job of creating a feeling of isolation and quiet desperation. The space suit you’re in functions more like a vehicle than an outfit, and in order to move around in zero-G you have to learn to deal with complete freedom of as well as momentum. It’s unfortunate that we’re not allowed to customize our keybinds, but the default setup works well enough, and gamepads are supported.
Adr1ft cheats its physics a bit.
Adr1ft cheats its physics a bit, in that in reality continuing to thrust in one direction would cause you to pick up speed indefinitely, but here we’re capped at a plodding pace. It’s understandable – they wouldn’t want us to get going fast enough to uncontrollably blow past our target or splatter ourselves against a chunk of debris – but at the same time there are some long stretches where you’re floating from one station section to the next when you can probably safely get up and get yourself a drink before you arrive. Even when your speed is eventually upgraded, it could still be a bit faster.
Another limitation is that your suit is leaky, so you’re constantly on the verge of running out of air. Getting close enough to grab the comically plentiful oxygen canisters you need to stay alive is, at first, a good way to practice precision movement. (Grabbing one makes me think of Space Balls’ President Scroob every single time.) Oxygen is also used as propellent for your suit, so the more you move, the faster it burns. Failure to refill your supply before heading out on a long trip between station fragments causes a suitably unsettling, gasping death by asphyxiation.
Adr1ft reveals itself as a two-hour idea stretched into a six-hour game.
The problem is that beyond that constant task, there’s very little to do in Adr1ft, so it inevitably devolves into numbing repetition that reveals itself as a two-hour idea stretched into a six-hour game. You’re sent on one repair mission after another, including one series of “go-there-fix-that” tasks that uses almost the exact same computer voice four consecutive times to describe your objective. If I wanted to design a game that inspired deja vu and frustrated players by making them feel like they were making no progress at all, this is exactly how I would go about it.
All of these tasks boil down to chasing the pointer on your compass.
Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me as much if all of these tasks didn’t boil down to chasing the pointer on your compass until you find the button Adr1ft wants you to push. That frequently became frustrating too, because navigating three-dimensional space based on two-dimensional directions isn’t easy. And if you don’t like chasing mission indicators, too bad: there’s no way to ignore the directional pointer and try to find your own way, because your objectives aren’t clearly explained enough that you’d know what you’re looking for, and even if you did there’s no map, and little by way of signage to guide you to them.
So slowly moving from place to place without running out of air is about 90 percent of what you’re doing here. It feels a lot like the underwater level of every first-person game of the 2000s, except there are no enemies, which is appropriate for a game like this. You’re not totally safe, though: Adr1ft does eventually fold in some hazards to avoid, such as arcing electricity from damaged sci-fi stuff, but it’s handled poorly. Beams of energy feel starkly out of place in this near-future setting, and often seemed to hit me (draining oxygen) when I appeared to be nowhere near them. Maybe that has to do with not having a clear idea of where my body was because of the bulky suit.
On the other hand, the bits and pieces of story that are presented in audio logs and emails from your former crewmates are all well written and acted, and some of the characters who wax philosophical about life and death in space have genuinely interesting things to say. However, having finished Adr1ft, I still don’t fully understand what exactly happened that caused the station to break apart or why – I just know who was responsible for it. Maybe that answer is floating out in space somewhere. It’s all a little awkward, too, since our semi-mute character clearly knows exactly what happened the whole time, but we have to figure out the mystery while embodying her.
While it dramatically overstayed its welcome, I still couldn’t help but be impressed whenever I floated outside the ruined station. Adr1ft revels in the beauty of viewing the Earth from orbit, and that is its single best quality. At certain points we see the surface lit up by the lights of civilization, and even tinged green by aurora borealis. So at least it leaves us some awe-inspiring sights to remember it by.