It has a critical average of just 56 on Metacritic, with writers praising the visuals and atmospherics but bemoaning the slow pace and lack of variety in its gameplay. More than two years after its release, and currently enjoying a heavy discount on the PlayStation Store, we revisit Adrift: a much-overlooked and, arguably, underrated and misunderstood astronaut sim.
The choice of subject was always a bold one for Adrift (styled ADR1FT) and its developers, the now-defunct Three One Zero led by the somewhat controversial Adam Orth. Sole survivor of an unexplained but catastrophic event aboard a large space station orbiting Earth, the player adopts the role of Commander Alex Oshima, who's left alone and struggling to survive, and make sense of, the events that have left the station in pieces.
Its core premise is that oxygen is in short supply – but as well as needing it to breathe, it's also required to traverse the surviving modules and half-destroyed debris of the space station and, most thrillingly, the large expanses of open space between. Every adjustment to your trajectory spends precious O2, and so one of the game's fundamental challenges is to find your way around as efficiently as possible while topping up the precious resource at any opportunity.
It isn't easy. Navigating space in zero gravity is more complicated than your average Earth-bound first-person game. In addition to moving forward and backward and strafing left and right, you can also adjust your altitude (for want of a better word) and rotation. And all the while you're managing and wrestling with inertia. As is correct for a game set in space, once moving you stay moving until you willfully try to stop.
On PS4, the left stick is what physically gets you around, but though the right stick adjusts your view in familiar style, it has little to no bearing on your trajectory. You can turn to look at a passing oxygen canister, sure, but unless you make some other adjustments to your course you're liable to watch it drift by.
The game offers a few concessions to make getting around just a little easier. The first is that the kinetic inertia doesn't apply to your rotation, so if you set yourself spinning with a press of the L1 or R1 shoulder buttons, that movement will mercifully stop upon release. The second is that simultaneously pressing both the L2 and R2 triggers brings the player to a standstill – though, as with almost every other in-game action, this costs oxygen. Lastly, a decisive press of the L3 button will "right" your rotation so, for example, the signage on the station's walls appears the right way up.
Though one doesn't walk around the game's environments, Adrift is the spiritual kin of so-called walking simulators like Firewatch and Everyone's Gone to the Rapture. Like those games, there isn't a tremendous amount to actually do in Adrift, but unlike those games, which are set very much on terra firma – this makes a lot of sense for a game set among orbital wreckage where, one imagines, there really wouldn't be very much to keep you busy.
And unlike Firewatch et al, where moving around is something you do to progress the story, moving around in Adrift is very much the game. Though the complications of the controls take some getting used to, once mastered, there is a wonderful grace and sense of flow to your movement. You gradually learn that the merest tap of a shoulder button can be the difference between serenely drifting through an airlock and colliding heavily into it (which, as you might expect, also costs valuable O2).
Also much criticized was the game's mini-map, which as you'd expect points you toward your next objective. But the familiar 2D mini-map is a very different prospect in a truly 3D zero-g space. What appears to be ahead of you could be above or below, and it's easy to become frustrated as you literally bang your head against a wall while trying to find your way forward.
But there's another way to look at it. And I say this in a gaming landscape awash with triple-A open-world games where the map is just one way to keep the drip-drip of dopamine hits coming as you hoover up the collectables, here's a game that does things differently, choosing not to hand over easy progression. Making sense of the map and finding the correct path can, in a sense, be viewed as a puzzle and all the best puzzles take time and patience to solve.
In advocating Adrift it's tempting to sell it as a piece of hardcore science fiction which puts the supposed cold reality of space before disposable gaming thrills. Or one could talk up its credentials as an immersive virtual reality experience, coming as the game did to HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, though sadly not PlayStation VR. And it's tempting to dwell, too, on the game's beautiful visuals and scene-setting – which the reviews at launch acknowledged were a strength of the game. But all of this would be to sell Adrift short as a game that's satisfying to play in its own right.
Adrift is currently a mere £4.99 (US $6.50) on the PlayStation Store until September 19. That's little more than the price of a hipster coffee, and perhaps worth a punt for something a little different – a thoughtful walking sim unfettered by the limitations of gravity.
For an extra taste, Adrift's original trailer can be seen below.
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