In space, no one can hear you breathe rather heavily.
A game made with VR in mind (but which is playable by anyone the old-fashioned way in 2D, as I did for this review), ADR1FT puts you in the boots of the sole survivor of a space station catastrophe, and tasks you with investigating the wreckage while trying to survive long enough to make an escape.
If you try and imagine a video game built around that premise, you’re probably thinking of something like the movie Gravity, or The Martian. A series of puzzles, some tense set pieces, people shouting at you over a radio, that sort of thing.
ADR1FT is not like that. It’s much closer to an experience like Gone Home, or Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, or even the more recent Firewatch. Despite the destruction all around you, and the perilous situation you find yourself in, the game consists of little more than floating around a lot, constantly replenishing your oxygen supply and interacting with a select few key devices.
Which is fine! Like the two titles mentioned above, if your story and setting are up to the task, that’s an interesting foundation to build a game around. Keep the player just busy enough to keep them interested while a tale is told around them.
So it is here, the heavy lifting from the ADR1FT experience coming from the story that unravels as you scrounge through audiobook recordings and the odd computer terminal still functioning in the wreckage of the destroyed space station.
There’s a lot to take in, backstory for the characters you once shared a station with and chatter about things going wrong on a once-functional station, but it’s all a bit distant, icing for a cake we never ate. We never met these characters in the intro, or saw them die in front of our eyes in the opening level, so there’s very little to give a shit about reading their diaries and listening to their audio recordings.
Sure, they very broadly lead to an understanding of what caused the destruction of the station, but for the most part they’re all a bit mundane. You never feel like you’re uncovering a great mystery that’s going to impact your actions in the present, or reading backwards through a gripping tale. You just feel like you’re rummaging through a stranger’s sock drawer after they moved town in a hurry.
ADR1FT is fairly simple in terms of stuff you need to track, with no inventory screen and no map. Though it really could have done with that last one. The game’s repetitive architecture and propensity to have you back-tracking often got me lost, with a single “go here next” marker on your HUD not up to the task of accurately telling me where I needed to be in a complete 3D space.
The game’s limited interactivity is also a real bummer! The space station is covered in busted-up machinery, consoles, terminals, the works. Had your efforts to fix things and stay alive been genuinely interactive, or presented you with more challenges than simply moving between spaces and replenishing your oxygen supply, this game could have been really interesting.
Instead, it all just feels a bit dull. A sleepwalk through a disaster movie. I drifted from one checkpoint to the next, occasionally listening to some radio chatter, sometimes dying because I forgot to top up my oxygen, most of the time waiting patiently for a ramp in excitement, dexterous challenge and/or narrative shock that never came.
What ADR1FT gets very right, though, is the station itself, and your place in (and around) it. I wish I had a VR headset to play this with, because even on a 2D monitor, the look and sound of the game is fantastic.
Space feels vast and hostile, as it should. The station is beautiful, both when inside its functional sections, and when outside its ruins. It’s the kind of clean, stark aesthetic you’d find in 2001, or Moon, and while it gets a bit samey after a while there’s always room for little surprises, from rooms full of water droplets suspended in space to a blooming cheery blossom tree.
Given how pretty everything is, I almost wish the game had been even less of a game than it is. If that makes sense. If it had ditched the oxygen requirements and just let me float around, because ADR1FT’s best moments are always those when pushing off from one isolated section of the station to another, jetting off perilously across open space while Earth looms large below you and the stars loom even larger everywhere else. Dangerous, yes, but also gorgeous to take in.
It’s a breathless plunge, a real joy to move through, and its quality is aided by the game’s zero-g controls, which ditch the ability to walk entirely in favour of turning the player into a fragile little spaceship. Your right thumbstick orients your view while the left moves thrusters in various directions, letting you strafe, spin and soar through the game.
It could have been faster, and less clumsy in the tighter indoor spaces, but for the most part it’s an elegant way of overcoming what could have been a serious control issue.
ADR1FT is a game torn right down the middle. It places the player in a position of imminent danger, but invites them to relax and enjoy the scenery. It gives you a fun way to jet around in 3D space, then gives you nothing to do with it but navigate corridors. It wrote and recorded an extensive backstory, but presents you little reason to care about it.
In the end, we’re left with a game that’s much like its setting: beautiful, but short on oxygen.