I have really got to stop using the walls as brakes.
As my body bounced violently off the lip of the circular doorway I was trying to pass through, a new crack appears on my helmet. My suit is in bad shape, and I need to do something about the leaking oxygen fast or the number of people left alive on this fractured space station is going to drop to zero in a hurry. Using my small suit thrusters, I gently push myself toward the oxygen canister floating in front of me and re-charge my suit. Now I just need to remember where the suit repair station is. Was it in the hallway to the left, or back in the corridor behind me?
I spin myself around in what's left of the tube I'm sitting in, make my decision, and slowly push myself toward what I hope is the repair room. My Oxygen meter is dropping fast, navigation mistakes are going to get me killed right now. Every tap on the suit thrusters is slow and deliberate, guiding me as carefully down the shattered hallway as I can manage. My heartbeat is growing louder in my ears, breathing is becoming labored, and that Oxygen gauge just keeps dropping. One more doorway to go, and success! The repair system is still functional. I slide into the chamber and watch as the cracks in my helmet quickly vanish.
I'm not leaking oxygen anymore, but I still have to figure out how to get off this station alive. One problem at a time.
The quiet nightmare
Within the first few seconds of the story it is made clear things are bad. You're in an easily damaged space suit, your space station has split into several pieces, and you are alone in space. Most everything is broken in some way or another, and you need to figure out how to get back to Earth. Along the way, you pick up personal data files from crew makes that combine to tell a dark story. These little bits of story fill the gaps as you slowly push yourself around to survive, slowly pulling you in until there's little choice but to keep going to see how it all ends.
Adr1ft manages to be legitimately scary at times without relying on jump scares or loud noises.
Everything about Adr1ft is slow and deliberate. If you try to rush somewhere or if your goal is to beat the clock by getting somewhere before your oxygen runs out, chances are you're going to fail. Each section is built to be planned out, basically travelling from one oxygen canister to the next while aiming for the larger puzzles that need to be solved in order to get home.
The unique pacing doesn't make it easier to look around and absorb your environment, either. Every second of the game is spent micro-managing the small thrusters that propel your suit. Nudge yourself forward and watch and tweak the propulsion in every direction to keep yourself from slamming into something, which damages your suit and can lead to things like oxygen leaks in your suit. This isn't a game that lends itself well to a relaxed position, it requires constant focus and planning to successfully drift from one part of the story to the next.
There's a lot to like about the way Adr1ft functions. It's the kind of experience that encourages you to set aside the rest of the world for large chunks of time and focus entirely on getting your character through the next big step. The way the story unravels is compelling, and the game manages to be legitimately scary at times without relying on things like jump scares or loud noises. It's well written, and the core experience is unique enough that anyone can jump in and get something new from the game.
Drifting in VR
There's an almost organic feel to the combination of space simulation and virtual reality. That euphoric sense of drifting through the black, appreciating the vastness of the environment you're sitting in despite being fairly confined in reality, it just works well in VR. Most of the "space" VR experiences we've seen so far have been inside of a small ship or racing across the surface of something floating through space. Adr1ft takes you out of the relatively safe confines of a craft and adds a layer of vulnerability, adding subtly intense audio to really drive the experience home.
When you start running low on oxygen, Adr1ft kicks up the panic. Your characters heartbeat gets louder and faster, breathing becomes labored, and the HUD is constantly telling you just how screwed you are. One more than a couple of occasions, I caught myself slowly starting to panic in real life. Almost involuntarily, I started holding my breath and decreasing my physical movement in totally pointless exercises in conserving oxygen. That's a great indicator of VR done well, and it's something Adr1ft nailed.
This is an intense, emotional adventure enhanced in all the right ways by VR.
The amazingly immersive points in this game are often quickly broken by some unfortunately gameplay mechanics. When reaching for something in the game, there's an auto-assist function that leans your character toward a highlighted item to grab or use it. This is awesome when you need the thing in front of you, but really slows you down when you don't. The number of times accidentally highlighting an oxygen canister resulted in a full body flip while trying to pass it by and aim for something beyond the item right in front of you.
That grabbing animation raises another illusion-breaking problem — your character has arms that are not your arms. Adr1ft was originally made for the controller-based PlayStation 4 and Oculus Rift, and when you see some other set of arms reach for your helmet as you gas for breath is quickly shatters the feeling that you are the one in trouble. Recently added HTC Vive support did not change this mechanic, and in fact makes things a little more confusing when you can see the controllers in VR but can't use them to control the arms in front of you.
Distracting the user from total immersion aside, Adr1ft does a great job creating an emotional connection with the world and the character. The pressure of a VR headset against your face probably helps a bit with feeling like you're in a space suit to begin with, but when you start holding your breath and wincing as your character's body glances off a broken beam you know there are a lot of things being done right.
Well worth adding to your library
Adr1ft is one of those games you play at the end of a long day to relax, only to start swearing at yourself an hour later when you realize the intensity of the game has stressed you out in a totally different way. It's exciting and intense without things like jump scares or a fast-paced soundtrack, and while the VR aspects of the game aren't perfect it's still a ton of fun.
On average, a play through of the story will take you around 6-7 hours and you'll be hard-pressed to find a good reason to pull yourself away from the game once you enter the last two. This is an intense, emotional adventure enhanced in all the right ways by VR and deserves a spot in your library.
- Beautiful, complex environments
- Thoroughly compelling gameplay
- Some character animations break immersion
This review was conducted on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive using copies purchased by the reviewer.