Hands-on with Adr1ft, a beautiful space survival sim

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It’s instantly clear that the annoyingly named spaceborne survival game, Adr1ft, is inspired by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. You’re floating through the black in the wake of a space station disaster, your goal is to survive and find a way a home. I tried out a demo on the GDC show floor last week. It was a simple level about catching oxygen canisters while drifting through a doomed locale, but the rich Unreal Engine 4-powered sci-fi imagery made it incredibly exciting.

Getting a little momentum boost consumes your oxygen, meaning you have to balance the risk of using up oxygen while still having enough of it to get to your next hit of the stuff. This is an engaging risk vs reward problem that creates real drama. Collecting the canisters isn’t as simple as just going through one—you have to line up your character and then reach out and grab it with a button press. Skilled players might even be able to pick up two in the same instance if they’re precise enough. Controlling your character oddly feels like docking in Elite, with both sets of triggers on the pad used to control altitude and spinning.

Nailing the directional movement and seamlessly keeping your oxygen in check without fluffing it feels satisfying. Using a whole load of oxygen only to bump into a space station wall or some stray electricity (obviously, because this is a videogame) is less encouraging. When you’re about to die, the screen turns black-and-white and your vision gets blurry, as per every FPS of the last ten years. Since you’re dealing with a lack of gravity, too, hoping for a last second reprieve with your character’s arm stretched out reaching for air, it makes that antiquated device feel a bit fresh again. This might not be strong enough to be the basis of an entire multi-hour game—and it won’t be, there’s plenty more to the final game—but it’s an effective way of conveying desperation in Adr1ft.

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The art direction is the other treat here. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a clear influence, judging by the abundance of clean white surfaces around the station, but Adr1ft also pulls in plenty of other contemporary-looking space stations from popular sci-fi, including the newer Star Wars films. An effective device in the demo is the use of space doors (I can’t think of a better term to describe them. Blast doors, I guess?) that hide exactly what you’re going to see next. When you pry one open, you’re treated to a new space vista, usually of beautiful crumbling wreckages. These moments nail the sense of space-wonder the team’s talented artists are going for.

Playing the 10-minute demo of Adr1ft is something I’d class as a genuinely memorable and worthwhile experience. Jetlagged after GDC, I find myself unable to remember so much of what I saw at the show, but damn, I won’t forget the first time I saw an enormous pink-leafed tree surrounded by glass looking out onto space in Ad1ft. That alone was very cool. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the game will be about, but if nothing else, this first hands-on was a convincing proof of concept.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.