The motto of the Hardiman Corporation, makers of the Northstar space station that players explore in Adr1ft, is “Mankind above all else.” But that double meaning works only in the literal sense, in that players float rather majestically above Earth itself. Beyond providing players with some breathtaking views of the planet over the course of one disaster-filled in-game day, the familiar blues giving way to a halo of green or a fiery “nighttime” glow, the game seems to care very little about mankind.
Sure, there are some scattered email terminals and audio logs that strongly hint at protagonist Alex Oshima’s recklessness being the cause for the Northstar’s damaged condition, and players can recover personal effects from the corpses of the other crew members, but Adr1ft is much more focused on simulating the wreckage of space itself. It’s like watching The Martian without Mark Watney’s comic, self-deprecating narration. Unlike Gravity, which spaced out its most fraught scenarios between moments of calm, Adr1ft is in a constant state of panic, as Oshima’s spacesuit is badly damaged and leaking for almost the entire game. There’s no time for players to do anything but help her repair the suit and the station in order to activate the escape pod back to Earth. It’s tension to the point of tedium.
To its credit, Adr1ft tries hard to be more than the zero-G equivalent of a walking simulator. There are four different modules that Oshima has to repair in order to reactivate the escape pods, and each has different challenges associated with it. The communications array in VOCALIS accustoms one to navigating around moving objects, SOLARIS’s damaged power systems require you to dodge oxygen-draining electrical wires, and MOBILIS’s shattered hull puts your precision-propulsion skills to the test. But these are slight modulations on an otherwise one-note experience: Follow ambiguous map markers while collecting the floating oxygen tanks that will keep Oshima alive. The lack of any major twists or complications makes the whole thing feel like a lengthier version of the game’s initial training simulator.
A stronger story might’ve helped to distract from the game’s entropy. But the discovery that the medical officer, Edwards, was a recovering drug addict who lied on his applications is meaningless, as are the concerns of scientist Hudson, and the wonder expressed by longtime astronaut Olivier. But these characters are long dead by the start of the game, and while the protagonist is supposed to feel guilty for pushing them toward the catastrophic system failure that ripped the station apart, there’s an emotional vacuum between Captain Oshima and the players. The sight of a crewmate’s prized boxing gloves eerily floating in an empty cabin might mean something to Oshima, but to the player it signifies nothing more than the objectivization of a character. It doesn’t help that the act of salvaging and returning to Earth one personal item from each astronaut is reduced to an optional fetch quest.
But therein lies Adr1ft’s biggest problem: its struggle to find a way to balance its admirable design with its gameplay. At the start of the game, the thrusters in Oshima’s suit are badly damaged, which causes her to move in an irritatingly slow and cumbersome fashion. That’s probably realistic, but it’s not fun, and it reduces the majority of the game to the single survival-based act of floating from oxygen canister to oxygen canister. It’s a linear act that discourages exploration and the opportunity to admire some of the environments. Moreover, while drifting at one’s current rate of momentum is a “free” action, any adjustment to that thrust drains a player’s oxygen tanks. To that end, there are times when players all but have to take their hands off the controls, lest they accidentally run out of air.
A post-game Free mode allows missions to be repeated with a fully functioning suit, one that isn’t constantly leaking air, but if anything, this only emphasizes how the initial limitations on movement are used to stretch out Oshima’s rather straightforward repairs on the station. Most of us have long dreamed of traveling to space, and though Adr1ft might offer the best simulation to date, players might want to wait for a less bumpy ride.