Adr1ft is a beautiful hell. You play as Alex Oshima, an astronaut who returns to consciousness and finds himself being hurled into deep space from the force of an explosion on your space station. You grab hold of a cable and pull yourself toward the relative safety of the remaining structure, but your suit is damaged and each movement costs precious oxygen. Bottles of the stuff float throughout the station, and you can reach out and grab them as you float by, briefly extending your life.
At this point, you are given no idea of where you are or where you need to go, and any wrong turn or indecision is fatal. Like some ancient Greek king sentenced to eternal punishment inside the cover art of a new-age CD, you experience the unique beauty of floating through a decaying space station, with sparkling shards of solar panel and perfect spheres of water all gently caressing your face as you peacefully drift along—repeatedly, endlessly suffocating. It doesn’t take long before you repair your suit’s oxygen tanks and have more freedom to move around before you run dry. Now that you no longer die so frequently, the opposite problem sets in as Adr1ft becomes a gorgeous, melancholic game that doesn’t know how to sustain itself.
Adr1ft was designed with consideration toward playing it on the Oculus Rift. Taking advantage of the VR headset’s immersive possibilities, it’s a game that focuses on perspective, movement, and presenting stunning views. Even playing on a regular screen, you feel the ground dropping away from under your feet as you float out into open space and see the whole curvature of the Earth spread out before you.
If poorly executed, a game spent floating in zero-G could feel like the most interminable video game water level ever: disorienting and unnavigable. But Adr1ft hits that sweet spot between control and chance. You may occasionally get buffeted about by environmental detritus, but control of your suit is refined enough to allow for both subtle tilts or great, wheeling somersaults to reorient yourself on your path. Often, you need to traverse a gulf between station segments along a crooked path. Nudging your suit thrusters so the whole world tilts to accommodate you and bringing a clear route into focus is a delight, as if you’re solving a jigsaw puzzle from the perspective of the piece.
Navigation is actually easier when you’re outside the confines of the space station. The shredded debris forms a morbid breadcrumb trail to follow between the shattered islands of station remnants. As long as you stay within that cloud, you know you’re going in the right direction. It’s only when you find yourself floating in perfect, pristine blackness over Earth that you know you have gone too far and are lost. Moving around inside suffers from the station’s uniform design. It has four quadrants, each defined by a different accent color that marks the otherwise identical white, sterile hallways. It’s a pleasing look that’s reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris futurism. Unfortunately, the uniformity just makes it even easier to get lost. When you’re given full 360-degree movement, it’s common to get turned around when chasing some piece of data and go out the door you came in, not realizing the mistake until you’ve accidentally backtracked down three more hallways. Your 2-D map is only marginally helpful for navigating the fully 3-D space.
Alex has seemingly no memory of the events leading to the station’s destruction. While traversing the ship, you can collect audio logs and access email chains on computer terminals to fill out the story. It never feels particularly compelling to gather and curate all this information. You are on a disintegrating platform and every breath is borrowed. The how of your situation is so immediate, so all-encompassing, the why greatly recedes in importance. It’s difficult to work up the enthusiasm required to be a space-station detective when most of your energy is spent constantly pinwheeling toward the nearest canister of oxygen to huff just to keep from passing out.
It’s the exact kind of concept that works at odds with the world Three One Zero has created and is illustrative of Adr1ft’s biggest problem: It’s a beautiful, pensive experience married to stale, incompatible game design. Unlocking each new section of the station prompts the identical set of tasks. Attempt to reboot the mainframe. The mainframe is offline. You have to make a new part. Travel to one end of the station section to manufacture the part. Return to the other end to install the part. Start all over in a new section. It’s the kind of busywork that’s been present since the first generation of 3-D games and a stark contradiction to Adr1ft’s contemplative mood. The game trembles on the knifepoint between poetry and tedium. It presents something magnificent but sustains each note just a little too long—shifting from awe-inspiring, past meditative, and into repetition as the unchanging station interiors and tedious tasks stretch on just long enough to drain an otherwise unique creation.