Game Picks: ‘Adr1ft’ is a beautiful, immersive space trip

In “Adr1ft,” an astronaut at an orbital space station has experienced a “catastrophic event.”
In “Adr1ft,” an astronaut at an orbital space station has experienced a “catastrophic event.”

Here’s an acronym you may as well get used to now: FPX stands for “first-person experience” and it’s the emerging designation for video games and virtual reality titles that employ a first-person perspective, but eschew any combat or fighting. Compare with FPS, which stands for “first-person shooter.”

The orbital catastrophe game “Adr1ft” ($29.99 / rated T) is a perfect example of the immersive FPX approach, and it’s being deliberately marketed as such. When it was released as a PC title back in March, it was heavily hyped as one of the first top-shelf titles designed with the Oculus Rift VR headset in mind.

“Adr1ft” has now been released to the PlayStation 4 as a non-VR standalone game, and it’s a beautiful piece of work, even minus the virtual reality hardware. (An Xbox One version is coming later this year.) The game puts you behind the helmet visor of an astronaut stranded in orbit, and the experience is like nothing you’ve ever played.

Zero gravity

The setup: Players assume the role of astronaut Alex Oshima, commander of an orbital space station that has just experienced a “catastrophic event,” as Mission Control calmly describes it. Yes, you could say that. When the game begins, Alex has just regained consciousness and is floating in space among the wreckage of the station, which is in pieces all around her.

If you’ve seen the movie “Gravity,” you’ll recognize the dilemma – and the fantastic imagery on display. The Earth turns majestically below, orbital debris cascades in all directions and unfiltered sunlight bathes the wreckage in a surreal glare. Alex sees everything through the visor of her EVA (extravehicular activity) suit. The perspective is slightly fish-eyed, with digital readouts superimposed in the corners of the field of view.

It’s a beautiful, eerie and utterly terrifying opening sequence. Reeling herself into what’s left of the space station, Alex must salvage equipment to repair her leaky EVA suit, then piece together the mystery of the explosion. And, ideally, find a way back down to Earth.

Aside from the astounding visuals, the principle appeal of “Adr1ft” – for veteran gamers, anyway – is the unique zero-gravity environment and control scheme. Other games have attempted zero-g scenarios, but “Adr1ft” operates on a whole ’nother level. Micro-thrusters on Alex’s EVA suit allow her to move and spin in any direction, but the game’s physics are exacting.

For instance, inertia is maintained for both Alex and everything floating around her. Objects in motion stay in motion. Meanwhile, the space station itself is moving on its own parabolic arc. Thrusting over to an airlock door – or intercepting the vital oxygen canisters floating about – requires feathering the buttons just so. It’s a largely intuitive process and unlike anything I’ve ever played. I found myself leaning and twisting on the couch, trying to grab that oxygen that’s … just … out … of … reach....

It’s a trip, man

The game’s sound design is similarly precise and built to generate tension. As Alex’s EVA oxygen runs low, her breathing becomes quicker and more panicky, and you can hear her heartbeat over the insistent beeps of the life-support system. Claustrophobic persons may want to skip this game altogether.

While the game is technically an open environment, progression through the plot points is essentially linear. Alex must move through various segments of the ruined station to salvage equipment and reboot systems. Audiotapes and computer terminals fill in the back story.

Visual cues are usually sufficient to indicate the next course of action, but not always. The 2D mini-map on the helmet display isn’t much help navigating an incessantly spinning 3D virtual space. I got stuck several times and the spatial disorientation can be maddening.

But that’s the point, really. “Adr1ft” is the closest any of us are likely to get to an actual zero-gravity experience and that’s where the “X” portion of “FPX” comes in. Older games like “Portal” or “The Witness” are essentially FPX in nature, but they’re focused on puzzle-solving and exploration. “Adr1ft” is offering a fundamentally different gaming experience.

Word is that Sony will release its long-awaited VR headset, the PlayStation VR, in October. It will be fun to double back and play the game again in true virtual reality. Meanwhile, “Adr1ft” is well worth checking out on the flat screen. I recommend playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while you drift around in orbit. Oh, it’s a trip, man.

“Adr1ft” is now available on Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 4.