Adrift is at its best when you’re simply taking in the view and absorbing the gravity of your situation
Given the grandeur of its setting, Adrift is a surprisingly intimate game. Opening in the aftermath of a catastrophic event on board the Hardiman Aerospace Northstar IV research space station, you find yourself in the space boots of mission commander Alex Oshima as she tries to piece together what caused the event and find a way home. But while the majestic wreckage of HAN-IV floats around you in the deadly vacuum of space, you’ll witness events from within a space helmet with nothing but your own thoughts and an ever-decreasing oxygen meter.
This contrast of epic scale and introspective human tragedy is Adrift’s most powerful trick, making for a disarmingly moving journey through the sterile remains of a broken science vessel. When you open a door to what was once a corridor and is now a dark void awash with shrapnel, and float beyond the threshold of what remains to look down past your feet to the Earth below, the effect is exhilarating. Later on in the game we’re forced to cross a large section of space in order to reach the relative safety of the station’s hub section, our EVA suit’s thrusters pushing us slowly towards our destination while minimalist electronica underscores the awe-inspiring view. For a game about survival,
Adrift is transcendently peaceful. Oshima’s EVA suit sprang a leak in the disaster, and your oxygen reserves require continual replenishment from O2 canisters that float about the place or, later on, O2 stations. The suit’s propulsion system also suffered damage, initiating an emergency mode, which shares your air supply for fuel (we’re not sure if Hardiman Aerospace’s engineers should be prosecuted for this innovation). So both breathing and moving put you in danger of suffocation, but at least refills are plentiful.
Additional suit-related dilemmas arise from bumping into anything, creating ominous fractures that form around the edges of your visor. Leaving this unchecked will lead to your suit’s systems being further compromised, but repair stations dotted about HAN-VI will provide a quick patch up. The precariousness of your situation is further highlighted by the fact that the slow leak of oxygen stops whenever you find yourself in a portion of the station that hasn’t been breached, making trips outside feel increasingly dangerous.
Avoiding smashing your suit into bulkheads and equipment is a tall order at first due to the idiosyncratic control scheme. Your thrusters allow you to ascend and descend, roll to either side and move on whichever plane you happen to be oriented, but keeping things graceful and in check requires gentle inputs and continual small adjustments. Despite the simplicity of the basics, the regularity of inputs required takes some mastery and makes navigation satisfyingly complex.
Three One Zero also fully explores the potential of a zero-gravity environment by positioning the fragments of HAN-IV in such a way as to disorient without confusing. You might enter a section only to discover you’re upside down, up and down can just as easily be forward and back, or a potential route could be obscured by the angle at which it sits in relation to you. But chunks of station are also used to subtly suggest the way forward without ever looking contrived. Descent veterans will certainly enjoy the exploratory freedom, even if Adrift’s reductive mini map isn’t up to the job of pointing you to your next objective. Those objectives are always the same: four systems must be brought back online in order to activate the escape ships, and in all four cases that means finding the system’s mainframe, fabricating a new core for it, switching on its cooling module, and finally installing the core. Variation instead comes on the journey to each of these areas, with each route made increasingly dangerous by exposed components, fastmoving debris and less clear signposting. Despite this slow trickle of fresh ideas and a few standout locations, the convincingly realistic design of HAN-IV results in a series of indistinguishable corridors and rooms which, while undeniably beautiful, combine with the repetition of grabbing oxygen canisters and completing similar objectives to make for a rather samey whole.
Even so, this is mitigated by the relatively short length of the game and suit upgrades later on that reduce your reliance on oxygen canisters and allow for more freeform exploration. The well-conceived and performed story, which unfurls via audio diaries, emails and the occasional transmission from Earth, provides surprises along the way, and the pleasure of proficiently manoeuvring your suit about the place never wavers.
Adrift earns its Intense comfort rating on Oculus’s store by testing the limits of your body’s tolerance for motion sickness as you somersault and barrel roll through space. But it’s worth acclimatising for what VR adds to the experience: the claustrophobia of your suit’s dwindling air is intensified by the feeling of being inside a space helmet with a visor centimetres from your face; and the dizzying scale of floating miles above Earth when outside the station becomes overwhelming.
In fact, Adrift is at its best when you’re simply taking in the view and absorbing the gravity (or indeed lack of gravity) of your situation. A post-release update that adds a mode that allows you to explore individual levels (once they’ve been completed in the main storyline) with unlimited oxygen is a very welcome addition, but it’s difficult not to feel that there was a middle ground to be explored between the game’s two extremes. Adrift nonetheless remains an absorbing and remarkable game, and one of the most powerful illustrations of how virtual reality can transform our relationship with gameworlds.