What’s the best drift in the world of racing games? Maybe it’s the blue-blooded pair of Out Run, with its stick-induced shift that broke a thousand arcade cabinets, and OutRun 2, with its majestic arcs. Or perhaps it’s something more modern – Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit with its big-bottomed supercars, or Burnout which helped birth Criterion’s particularly weighty take on the artform. Whatever your own pick might be, I’d like to introduce a new contender to the debate: allow me to introduce Inertial Drift, a novel and exquisite thing.
The elevator pitch is simple – this is a twin stick racer – but requires a little more explanation. In Inertial Drift, your left stick steers as it does in many other racers, though if you depend on that alone you’ll soon find yourself noisily scraping along the walls. It’s best to think of the steering input as a modifier for your drift angle, that angle controlled with your right stick. And then it’s about working the two in tandem, maintaining momentum and as outrageous an angle of attack as you dare, glancing apexes with a side-turned nose.
That’s the fundamentals, but writing them down plainly doesn’t do justice to the glorious interplay between the two, or to where Inertial Drift takes them. It’s a game that asks you to put in a little groundwork – it’ll take at least half a dozen laps to start to get comfortable with Inertial Drift’s ways – but it’ll give you so much in return. Belfast-based developer Level 91 knows it’s on to a good thing with its core mechanic, and goes about exploring it in ever-exciting ways.
There’s a selection of cars that feel distinct, each breaking traction in its own way – maybe it’s a dab of the brakes, lifting off the throttle or simply yanking the thing sideways – and each balancing on the edge of that traction in its own way too. It means that, having already had you familiarising yourself with the idiosyncrasies of its handling, Inertial Drift will have you relearning all over again with each new car, and understanding how best to push each one to its extreme. Not that I’m complaining in the slightest, because everything Inertial Drift does, it does with style.
That style might be familiar for stalwarts of the genre, and especially to fans of one particular late-90s classic. You can see traces of Ridge Racer Type 4 throughout this, from the long glowing brake light trails that extend from a drifting car to the sinewy electro that soundtracks races. It’s there in the visuals – which also take a healthy dose of inspiration from Capcom curio Auto Modellista with their heavy cel-shading – and the twilight that enshrouds tracks that have you winding down mountain roads, through city highways or speeding along seaside routes.
There is something a little rudimentary about how Inertial Drift looks, but it’s all made up for by an abundance of character. Amidst a generous package – there’s an arcade mode, a challenge mode where you can unlock new cars, leaderboard challenges and style events where your drifts are graded – is a story mode that somehow works. It plays out like vintage Fast & Furious, with a cast of likeable car nerds all propping each other up as they take on the challenges of the road. It’s an uplifting thing, this, helped along by the fact there’s never any real fail-state in the story mode – there are times to beat and drivers to best, but if all goes awry you’re left to pick yourself up and move on, with a word of encouragement or two from your friends to pull you through. It’s heartwarming stuff.
Inertial Drift has its quirks – that drift mechanic won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and I can imagine a fair few bouncing off this hard after they’ve spent one lap too many bouncing off walls, while the lack of clipping in competitive races can also seem a little odd. Personally, though, I get why you’re allowed to drift through other racers like they’re ghosts. Inertial Drift is about you and the road, pure and simple. It’s about placing this novel twin stick drifting in your hands and letting you explore its nuances, and exploit the potential in each car and each apex until you edge further up the leaderboard. It’s just about the most stylish, thrilling racer I’ve played in an absolute age.