There’s a certain irony in a game calling itself a Zen Edition yet being infuriating. Absolute Drift is the pinnacle of this: looks pleasant and alluring, ends up blapping you in the face with challenge quite early on.
Set in and around the world of car drifting, it’s presented in stylish minimalism that pays homage to its Japanese roots and progression into the likes of Ken Block’s Gymkhana. It brings a level of fun/frustration akin to that of Trials or Skate: simple enough to pick up and play, but encourages fast reflexes and precision skills later on.
It’s been out on other formats for years now, finally making its way to the Nintendo Switch in the form of Zen Edition. The question being, then, is whether it still has the horsepower it had many years ago, or has the fuel run out for this ride?
Buckle up, as I’m about slide into your review window with a look at the high stakes world of throwing a car sideways around corners.
Slide It Like You Mean It
Drifting, if one is to consider it a sport, is the art of skidding in style. Unlike Need for Speed or Burnout, it’s not about throwing cars at high speeds around other racers, oh no. There are no other racers, for one, and there’s no massively open straights to get enough speed on.
Rather, think of it more an art of racing concept: less straights and more a tightly packed course. There’s no single player leaderboards or league tables, just a set task list for each course. For you lovers of high score, though, there are online leaderboards if you want to prove yourself.
Each track plays like most arcade checklists do, ranging from the easy enough to downright fiendish at times. Set scores are one thing, as is hitting a certain drift combo multiplier. Then, as you start to get to [figurative] grips with the game, you can aim for the harder goals. Like hitting certain drift lines, or making sure you “hit” a prerequisite amount of drift markers.
There are race style tracks, which are straightforward enough, consisting of a few laps each. Then, there are the mountain stages. Instead of laps, you have one shot on a massive, scenic track. The objectives in these are usually score-based, barring the occasional “finish in X time without crashing” objective.
Then there are your Gymkhana-style events, which are skill based events with a time limit. In these you’re to pull doughnuts around obstacles, spin in tight set markers and generally keep a trick combo going. Think Tony Hawk’s in terms of scoring, but pulling off 900° spins on the ground.
Bright and Beautiful
If someone told you this were a game about drifting and you went in blind, you might conjure up images of street racing and flashy neon lights. But there’s nothing Fast or Furious about Absolute Drift, there be no garish colours here.
Set in courses based in Japan, hooning around tracks named after famous locales is a delight. Having not been to Japan, I couldn’t tell you if the tracks based on Kyoto, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagano or Fukuoka had any real-world semblance to them. What I can tell you, however, is that they’re very pretty to look at.
The presentation of Absolute Drift is a sort of stark, minimal white look to it all. Objects of significance, like drift markers and bonus lines, are a contrasting red, whilst skidmarks are a definite black. You can customise your car to different colours if you wish, or keep it a brilliant white against the tracks.
The accompanying music is that of a low-fi, chill electronica soundtrack. There’s no Lil Jon shouting at you to get low, just ambients beats as you leave your (skid)marks around Japanese namesakes. It’s peaceful and yes, very Zen, as the name suggests. Which makes it such a contradiction when the game becomes bastardly frustrating.
Stop, Start, Skid
Controlling your ride in Absolute Drift is again pretty easy to get used to, hard to master. To avoid using the overused “Dark Souls because it’s difficult” analogy, there are different control schemes to utilise here.
The easiest enough is Automatic Transmission and whatever you want to map the handbrake to. That’s enough to get you started, as drifting is explained fairly easily in the Tutorial. Approach a corner, then as you hit the brake turn against the corner and keep applying the gas to maintain drift. If you’re too close a wall, ease off, then put your foot down and turn into the next one to continue your score.
That’s the basics, anyway. If you want to step it up and have complete mastery of your ride, that’s where Manual Transmission comes into play. Knowing when to drop down a gear into a turn, only to shift up to get that power/speed balance on a drift is a mastery in itself. I can’t claim to know the science behind the necessary ratios required for maximum drift, but it’s there should you seek challenge and Automatic is too easy for you.
It’s The Journey, Not The Destination
What makes Absolute Drift a lovely little joy to play is its approach to tackling events. If you want to get straight into a course, you can easily access this from the main menu. No judgement here, some people just want to get it done.
If you’re of a more curious and relaxed approach, however, there’s the Free Roam option instead. What this option does is plant you into Absolute Drift’s “hub” world instead. From here, you can hoon about the lands, choosing which event you’d like to do (providing it’s available to you). But that’s not all.
Dotted about each world are missions, all played out in real-time. These range from simple things like picking up spinning red crosses, to actual driving tasks. So you could be driving about and see a lamp with “Donut round the pole” next to it, for example. They start off simple enough, with harder examples like threading a needle with a drift as you advance through the worlds.
These unlock new events, worlds or even new cars, adding a little bit of fun and flair to the game. There’s nothing lost by not jumping into this straight away, but you’d be depriving yourself if you didn’t put some time into it eventually.
Normally, at least this far into a review, this would be the point where I point out the negatives in a game. Whilst Absolute Drift isn’t the perfect game, it’s certainly hard to find fault with it.
It’s not an impossible game, only one that you get better with a little thing called practice and patience. You can’t call it an ugly game or one that has terrible framerate issues, because it looks so smooth. The music doesn’t deserve derision because of how inconsequentially chill it is.
The car variety is a bit lacking, but again, it’s purely cosmetic. There’s no stats or pros/cons to any of them. It’s just down to the type of East or Western model you enjoy, be it [unlicensed] Jetta or Supra. The one thing that does grate, though, is that when you do get any speed, there’s no gradually engine noise rise. Instead, it keeps as this constant revving noise, like it hasn’t been programmed to go fast. It’s rare that you do have much room to go fast outside of events, but you will notice it.
The Need For Skid
Overall then, Absolute Drift is an absolute blast. Its charmingly minimal aesthetic is offset by its increasing level of challenge, which makes it a frustrating joy to play.
Any criticism of it being too difficult or not readily accessible comes from a personal skill level, not the game itself. It’d be far too easy to knock a game and dislike it because I couldn’t do it. It’d also be very lazy.
Sure, there are some car fanatics who want to fill that Need for Speed: Underground 2 gap, fair enough. But this game isn’t it. Nor is this a game for “purists” either. It’s not pretentious, it just looks that way with its art style.
Scratch the surface and there’s a wonderful little game to be had here. If you are a fan of any of the comparisons I’ve made then this’ll be for you. It has that arcade, “one more go” feel to it that doesn’t punish but encourage you. Is it difficult the further you get? Of course, but then that’s no different from any other game, if you think about it.
So instead kick back, get those thumbs appropriately twitching and have fun sliding your whip around corners at jaunty angles.
A minimal-looking aesthetic that fits the Switch perfectly, Absolute Drift is a delight to get absorbed into. You won’t master it straight away, but when you get the hang of it you’ll be hooning about in no time.
Absolute Drift: Zen Edition is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed on Switch Lite), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Android.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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