I had watched previous Adr1ft footage and was amused by the uniqueness of helplessly floating in space, isolated from communication and limited with resources. That said, playing the game – and doing so on a 35-foot HD screen at an AMC theater – provided a sense of wonder and a deeper level of immersion.
Throughout Adr1ft, players collect audio logs to piece together the astronaut's background and, ultimately, who she is and how she fits into the overall series of events. In the demo, I learned about crewman Andrew McDonough’s background, pieced together through audio logs that honed in on his personal life. This small example gives me the sense that, rather than just focus on the destruction of the space station and getting the astronaut back home, Three One Zero is touching on something more intimate. Coupled with the constant isolation and intentionally slow pace, Adr1ft becomes less of a physical game and more of a mind game. The logs are often placed away from the easiest path to the player’s objective, so players who are interested in the story will have to strategically manage how far they go out to collect those pieces while restocking their oxygen supply.
Built on Unreal Engine 4, Adr1ft shines as one of the most beautiful games I’ve played – and not just because it stays at 60 frames-per-second. Inside the space station's corridors, it illustrates what was once a pristine setting with minimalistic, stark white interior aesthetics – reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Audio logs, oxygen tanks, and other objects drift against the direction of the astronaut’s objective, and though they barely hindered her movement in my playthrough, they got under my skin as I kept wondering how long it would take for me to get to the next door.
The developers have added some interior variation so that floating from corridor-to-corridor does not get old quickly. The standout scene was a small biosphere with a lush cherry blossom-like tree in the center. As I drifted through the room, blossoms floated alongside me, accenting the intentional serenity that soothes the otherwise ongoing paranoia.
Particularly when outside the space station, Earth never looked so mystical. ADR1FT makes excellent use of the UE4 by giving Earth’s atmosphere some transparency and creating additional depth beyond that by varying the luscious green hues, illustrating topographical variation. The sun rays reflecting off the space station provide dynamic contrast to the scene and dramatize the astronaut’s struggle between the ruins.
The demo had a “pre-alpha” label the whole time, but it came across as a near-final build of the finished product.
The Sounds of Isolation
Adr1ft’s sound is not very layered, but mixes up how it uses its elements to create a different “soundtrack” for each scene. It maintains a hollow, isolating feel with the humming of the space station and the occasional opening of hydraulically-powered doors, and it cleverly varies the astronaut’s audible breath as her oxygen supply depletes. Once again, in another 2001 or Kubrick-like fashion, it uses music appropriately at a cued moment – something I won’t spoil but grinned at as I drifted toward my seemingly woeful fate.
A Subtle Struggle
Adr1ft implements simple mechanics that require the player to moderately calculate how strongly they’re using them. The player controls the astronaut’s movement speed, orientation, and buoyancy. Increasing movement increases the rate of oxygen consumption. Holding the trigger buttons controls the astronaut’s buoyancy, raising her up or down, and holding the shoulder buttons controls her six-axis orientation by rotating her clockwise or counterclockwise.
I subtly struggled to keep my astronaut’s path as on-point as possible and was always a little out of control. Adr1ft is slightly disorienting and alters the way it tries to steer the player off-course. For example, losing control of the astronaut’s buoyancy can mean missing an oxygen tank, and even if she still has enough oxygen to reach the tank, she’ll still burn some of that trying to go back.
Creative Director Adam Orth estimates the average Adr1ft playthrough will last four hours. My demo time was at the most 10-12 minutes, but in that time, I was as alert as I would be fighting an entry boss battle in an action-RPG. With that in mind, playing Adr1ft for four hours seems daunting, but if that’s what I have to do to see outer space like never before, then I’m up for the mission.
- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.