Discover what destroyed your space station… and how to get back home.
PC Release: March 28, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Sometimes the key to surviving a difficult situation lies in realizing one’s own role in it. That motif is rarely explored in survival video games; oftentimes the protagonist is simply thrust into a disaster and expected to survive it for as long as possible. Adrift is different. It’s a game that encourages players to discover the truth as they’re fighting for life… and to accept that truth even as they may be fighting to deny it. These and other fights inform Adrift, the subject of tonight’s review.
Adrift‘s concept has unorthodox origins. When the Xbox One was first unveiled back in 2013, gamers and critics were rightfully outraged over the dumb stunts Microsoft was trying to pull at the time. The most infamous of these was that the Xbox One required an Internet connection to even function. To make matters worse, studio head Adam Orth took to social media to belittle those concerned, infamously typing “why would I live there?” in response to one concerned user who was in the sticks and didn’t have access to steady Internet. When someone else opined that the constant connection requirement was a bad idea, he simply replied, “deal with it.”
Orth’s comments weren’t the stupidest things a Microsoft exec could say to angry gamers… but they were still pretty damn stupid. They certainly evidenced how out of touch Microsoft was with both its customers and reality. As for Orth, the backlash against his comments was so severe that he quit his job at Microsoft and took some time to think about how people recover from disasters of their own creation. To Orth’s credit, he was innovative enough to take that life experience and turn it into a tangible product: that product is the video game being reviewed here and now.
Adrift kicks off as player character Alex Oshima watches a piece of the space station she was in charge of fly right past her head. She quickly realizes that she’s floating in space, all by herself, in the midst of a debris field that was once the rest of the station. With no recollection of what happened, Alex quickly floats to an intact piece of the station to find a way out of the debris. Unfortunately, the escape vehicle is locked off behind a broken computer core, and the components needed to fix it have been knocked all over the place.
If Adrift is any indication, humanity will not have mastered keeping spare parts close at hand by the year 2037. It also seems a bit peculiar that the station needs to be functioning in order to escape from it (if it’s functioning, why would someone need to escape?). Whatever; it’s the impetus for exploring the station’s modules, keeping an eye out for details, yadda yadda yadda.
The entirety of Adrift is played in zero gravity, and the game does its best to simulate moving in that environment. As Alex, players can air-thrust around the game world, as well as rotate in circles and come to a complete halt. That last feature may not sound all that noteworthy on paper, but remember that this is zero gravity; players who don’t pay attention to their own trajectory risk slamming into walls or careening into the void.
Adrift caught a ton of flak for these movement controls, and to be fair, they could stand some refinement. Even when Alex’s suit is repaired, she moves at a snail’s pace. With respect to the fact that Adrift is meant to be played at a slow pace so as to soak up the atmosphere, it doesn’t need to be played at the speed of tar going uphill in January. Eventually Alex can upgrade her thrusters to move at a somewhat fast pace, but don’t go into this game expecting to jetpack around like Diddy Kong.
The rest of Adrift‘s gameplay revolves around survival and exploration. Alex’s suit sprung a leak, so it pays to make sure there’s a floating oxygen container nearby whenever possible. Players who don’t stock up on good ole O2 risk suffocating. This survival challenge is compounded by the fact that the suit draws air for both breathing and movement from the same supply. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Adrift encourages moving slowly (especially if asphyxia is the alternative).
Players also have to keep an eye out for more visceral obstacles. There are lots of live wires floating around the station, as well as chunks of debris that all happen to have at least one pointy end. Alex’s suit is also apparently made of Styrofoam, because one brush against the wall and bam, WE GOT A BREACH! Luckily, players can upgrade and repair their suit as they go along, and these upgrades are presented at an even pace so as not to create crushing difficulty. These elements comprise a subtle but vicious survival challenge.
Another element informing Adrift‘s vicious survival challenge is its level design. Though most of the space station’s modules are intact and linear on the inside, Alex also has to navigate hazardous debris fields to get to where she needs to go. Floating through these fields can be very tense, especially when players jump at getting hit by an unseen obstacle. Navigating deep space is brought to terrifying heights in Adrift, which is probably why this game gets compared to that movie Gravity all the time.
Unfortunately, Adrift‘s enthusiasm for debris fields is also where its level design is at its worst. Certain sections of the game are easy to get turned around in, and even Alex’s built-in scanner is only so good at pointing out the way forward. It’s annoyingly easy for players to get lost in space (without even The Robot to chide them) and run out of oxygen before reaching a close enough module. When this happens, the nail-biting tension of these space crossings is replaced with something much more rote: irritation.
Luckily, players can also lose themselves in a less literal, less frustrating sense. Adrift is an absolutely gorgeous title; in fact, it’s one of the most graphically sophisticated games ever developed. Adrift compacts thousands of colors into its visual design and its textures are so sharp that they may very well cut players’ eyeballs. The level of detail on everything from Alex’s gloves to a floating pack of space-rice is insane; more insane is how masterfully the game’s lighting is implemented to interact with and give volume to these objects.
The price that players must pay for all of these high-end visuals is Adrift‘s equally high-end system requirements. The game runs well on PC, but anything less than a powerful gaming rig might shed tears and/or explode when running it. For players who have a big rig and still experience problems, Adrift provides a top-tier options menu with customizations for everything audio, visual, and in-between. Toiling away in the options for a few minutes is worth the experience.
Adrift is worth experiencing for more than just the visuals, though. Sure, it also has stellar voice acting and a creepy soundtrack befitting a graveyard in space, but the narrative makes for an enjoyable sci-fi thriller. The “thrill” lies not so much in the game’s insistence that Alex go get backup floppy disks (which is a bit repetitive), but in navigating the broken station and learning about the lives of its inhabitants. As so many games in this vein do, Adrift leaves audio diaries and open email accounts just drifting around for players who are hungry for backstory.
Adrift‘s story is told through those diaries and emails. It’s a tale that revolves around not just pure survival but also unchecked ambition and, ultimately, guilt. This isn’t spoilers territory, by the way; the game makes it clear from the get-go that Alex isn’t just an innocent bystander in the destruction of the station. Not only does this narrative give off a creepy vibe; it’s well-paced and dispenses details just around the next corner. The tension of Adrift lies in uncovering what Alex’s exact relationship is to the world around her… much like what Adam Orth contemplated following his departure from Microsoft.
Provided that players have a decent rig and are willing to put up with slow controls, Adrift is a sci-fi thriller worth experiencing. It looks great, sounds great, and does a good job at delivering a suspenseful story about being marooned in space. As for Adam Orth, it sounds like he’s not only learned from his mistakes, but turned those mistakes into a genuinely good game. Adrift is a game worth getting, and Orth’s future endeavors are worth paying attention to.
You can buy Adrift here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.