Commander Alex Oshima’s space station, the Northstar IV, has suffered some kind of catastrophe. She’s all alone: the crew are dead and the station’s critical systems are offline. She can’t remember who she is or what happened to her. What’s worse, her suit is compromised and she’s swiftly running out of oxygen. This is Adr1ft.
In order to return safely to Earth, you’re going to need to restore power to each of the four major systems of the Northstar IV – life support, communication, power and mobility. Each system’s mainframe is located at the far end of each of the four spokes sticking out from the Northstar’s central hub, but the immense amount of damage to the station means that you’re going to be making quite a few forays out from the safety of the station’s pristine, 2001-alike corridors and into the depths of space.
“The first time you use a door in the station, only to have it open out onto a stunning vista of debris-filled space, is exhilarating and terrifying all at once”
Indeed, the first time you use a door in the station, only to have it open out onto a stunning vista of debris-filled space, is exhilarating and terrifying all at once. But, in the early game, stepping out into the void is a dangerous practice. Your EVA suit has been damaged to the point where oxygen is being used for propulsion, as well as being used to keep you alive. Movement uses oxygen to a greater or lesser degree and your continued need to breathe steadily depletes it over time, too – particularly when you’re outside. Oxygen can be replenished by grabbing portable oxygen canisters when you pass them, which you’ll do fairly often, and filling your reserves through a valve in your helmet. You can’t carry these canisters around, though, so you’ll need to be on the lookout for any green flashes that you see floating about on your mission.
As you may be aware, there’s no gravity in space and – what with this being an incredibly realistic space-based survival game – there’s none on the station, either. Getting used to the game’s 3D controls – not to mention having to balance your relativistic motion – is a challenge in itself and you’ll probably spend the first 20 minutes or so caroming off the walls and smashing into the sides of doors as you try to float past or through them. That being said, once you get the hang of it, the movement controls feel quite effortless and you should have no problems threading your way through some of the tighter – and deadlier – later sections. Bashing into walls, doors and, even, chunks of foam are all problems for your space suit, though. Over time, the suit takes damage – losing more and more of its integrity, and your oxygen, as it does so. Fortunately, there are repair booths at key locations on the station but you definitely should not count on them being available whenever you need them. While I never destroyed my suit completely, I certainly got into enough trouble that I spent a good five or ten minutes being super careful and, as a result, nearly ran out of oxygen, before finding the next repair booth.
Your suit has an inbuilt, short-range sensor included and you can use this to ping items of interest on your travels to have them show up on your radar. Your radar also serves as the method of tracking your current objective but it falls some way short of being actually useful. What with the game having a complete 360 degree range of motion and pieces of station being scattered all over the navigable space, you’d have thought that developers Three One Zero would have looked to Elite: Dangerous‘ 3D sensor system (or similar) to more accurately represent the location of mission-critical items but, instead, you’ve got a flat, 2D disc that’s incredibly difficult to read accurately. As a result, I spent a lot more time than I should have getting lost and going around in circles while trying to get to the next objective.
“The nature of the space that you’ve got to navigate through to do your job makes the game more of a challenge in platforming than in puzzle-solving”
There aren’t really any puzzles in Adr1ft – in fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s something of a walking simulator (though one with a bizarre understanding of “walking”) – and the main missions are incredibly linear, not to mention boringly similar: repair the mainframe, find a cortex disc-thing, install the cortex disc-thing. However, the nature of the space that you’ve got to navigate through to do your job makes the game more of a challenge in platforming than in puzzle-solving. While your first system reset is fairly basic, the others build on the challenge by throwing more and more elements into the mix: snaking messes of ex-corridors to navigate, cowl-less conduits spewing electricity to dodge and huge chunks of debris knocking you off course, at best, or, at worst, terminally damaging your suit.
Exploration is a key part of Adr1ft and the only way to really experience the back-story of the station and the people who inhabited it. As in most games nowadays, audio logs and email threads are the chosen method of conveying much of the Northstar IV’s recent history. You’ll find consoles tucked away in odd corners that will play recordings of crew logs, conversations and observations right up until the day of the explosion, chunky audio logs spinning through the corridors that help flesh out the backgrounds of the now-dead crew members and personal (and private) email threads on computers located inside crew quarters that shed more light on the day-to-day goings on, and some inevitable personal issues, in the station. There are also collectible and hard-to-spot SSDs floating around that, while not giving you any more information then and there, are useful to find for the end of the game and you’ll probably have to go back around after getting the systems up and running to collect them all. The most harrowing thing that you will find, though, are the bodies of your fellow crew members and the small personal effects that you’ll often spot nearby, reminding you that you had a responsibility to these people and that, for whatever reason (and no fault of the player), you’ve failed them all.
Possibly the most impressive aspect of Adr1ft is its graphics. I spent quite a lot of time venting oxygen out into space just so that I could look at all of the prettiness. A destroyed space station has never looked so good – especially not one that you can float around in. The designers have, obviously, taken no small cue from Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and there is more than a hint of the Nostromo and Abrams-era Enterprise in the design and layout of the Northstar IV. Saying that, though, the space station does manage to stand apart from on-screen anaolgues in a number of ways. Adr1ft‘s story means that, throughout the station, you’ll come across rooms full of plant-life – now, unfortunately, totally dead. That means lots of floating leaves and, in one incredibly beautiful spherical chamber, cherry blossoms. Globules of water hang, suspended, in zero gravity and, outside, clouds of debris help mark your route between the dismembered sections of the station. Unfortunately, the audio can’t be said to be at quite as a high-standard. While it serves the purpose of making the situation feel more real, it seems as though the music has been intentionally added to unnerve the player or make them think that something is going to happen when, in fact, nothing ever really does. One thing that the audio team did do right is the low oxygen warning – as opposed to blaring alarms and heavy breathing, the first indication that you get that something is amiss is the insistent pounding of blood in your ears. The first time you hear it, you’ll know something’s very wrong.
“Possibly the most impressive aspect of Adr1ft is its graphics… A destroyed space station has never looked so good – especially not one that you can float around in”
Adr1ft‘s PC debut was delayed from a 2015 release to coincide with the launch of the Oculus Rift VR headset and features full Occulus Rift support. As I don’t have access to a Rift headset, I played the standard edition of the game and, while I had a lot of fun with it, I can imagine that VR adds a whole other level of enjoyment to teetering on the edge of space that you just can’t get from a monitor (not even of the 4k variety). That being said, Adr1ft isn’t the game that is going to make me want to go out there and drop a little under £500 on an Oculus Rift. While Adr1ft isn’t the most engaging or thrilling game you’ll play this March, its unique perspective, stunning graphics, challenging platforming mechanics and, director, Adam Orth’s very personal and metaphorical story make it a definite choice for those amoungst us who want a slightly slower paced game, without all that faffing about with health bars and weapons, that allows you to take your time, explore the game’s devastated setting and put together the pieces of an intriguing story that makes you question who’s to blame and whether you’ll ever really be able to succeed in bringing Commander Alex Oshima back home.