It has a critical average of just 56 on Metacritic, with writers praising the visuals and atmospherics but bemoaning the slow pace and lack of variety in its gameplay. More than two years after its release, and currently enjoying a heavy discount on the PlayStation Store, we revisit Adrift: a much-overlooked and, arguably, underrated and misunderstood astronaut sim.
The choice of subject was always a bold one for Adrift (styled ADR1FT) and its developers, the now-defunct Three One Zero led by the somewhat controversial Adam Orth. Sole survivor of an unexplained but catastrophic event aboard a large space station orbiting Earth, the player adopts the role of Commander Alex Oshima, who’s left alone and struggling to survive, and make sense of, the events that have left the station in pieces.
Its core premise is that oxygen is in short supply – but as well as needing it to breathe, it’s also required to traverse the surviving modules and half-destroyed debris of the space station and, most thrillingly, the large expanses of open space between. Every adjustment to your trajectory spends precious O2, and so one of the game’s fundamental challenges is to find your way around as efficiently as possible while topping up the precious resource at any opportunity.
It isn’t easy. Navigating space in zero gravity is more complicated than your average Earth-bound first-person game. In addition to moving forward and backward and strafing left and right, you can also adjust your altitude (for want of a better word) and rotation. And all the while you’re managing and wrestling with inertia. As is correct for a game set in space, once moving you stay moving until you willfully try to stop.
On PS4, the left stick is what physically gets you around, but though the right stick adjusts your view in familiar style, it has little to no bearing on your trajectory. You can turn to look at a passing oxygen canister, sure, but unless you make some other adjustments to your course you’re liable to watch it drift by.
The game offers a few concessions to make getting around just a little easier. The first is that the kinetic inertia doesn’t apply to your rotation, so if you set yourself spinning with a press of the L1 or R1 shoulder buttons, that movement will mercifully stop upon release. The second is that simultaneously pressing both the L2 and R2 triggers brings the player to a standstill – though, as with almost every other in-game action, this costs oxygen. Lastly, a decisive press of the L3 button will “right” your rotation so, for example, the signage on the station’s walls appears the right way up.
Though one doesn’t walk around the game’s environments, Adrift is the spiritual kin of so-called walking simulators like Firewatch and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Like those games, there isn’t a tremendous amount to actually do in Adrift, but unlike those games, which are set very much on terra firma – this makes a lot of sense for a game set among orbital wreckage where, one imagines, there really wouldn’t be very much to keep you busy.