Astro Bot Rescue Mission Review
by Dylan Blight (PSVR)
Captain ASTRO needs your help for a daring mission! Grab your PS VR headset to blast off on an epic adventure to rescue his spaceship’s lost crew-bots. Explore vibrant and immersive worlds PACKED with enemies to fight, secrets to discover, bots to save… and huge bosses to face.
As virtual reality continues to grow as a new medium, many are trying to do some really interesting games and experiences that could only be developed for VR. Astro Bot Rescue Mission isn’t inventing new genre’s, it is taking an old, classic video game genre and bringing into the VR world -- but to amazing effect.
If you played The Playroom VR you would have tried out Astro Bot already as one of the mini-games included in that collection is basically what Astro Bot Rescue Mission is today. You control Captain Astro, whose goal is to collect up his lost buddies, kick some alien-butt and make their way around some treacherous platforming across several different worlds and locations.
There is a short film available in VR called Invasion! that had me grinning a lot while watching and the opening of Astro Bot Rescue Mission reminded me of that as it had me equalling raising into a smile. A short story is a good way to describe the plot of Rescue Mission as well. An alien steals a PSVR headset (yep) unit from your ship -- your sentient ship by the way -- and then takes off, knocking a bunch of your crew across several different planets along with parts of your ship. After that, the plot is basically non-existent. In this way, the game is very reminiscent of 80’s and early 90’s platformers where the set-up and ending had some story, but everything in between didn’t really matter. It’s all an excuse to send you off on the adventure and it’s the journey that’s important, which is the same for Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
Astro Bot World 1-1 Gameplay
What VR offers to third-person platformers is hard to sell and easy to experience -- although that's easily said for most VR things. Astro Bot does start simple enough as it puts you in fairly straightforward levels that feel like something out of a classic platformer, or some of my favourites like Mario, or Crash Bandicoot. When you approach the end of the first level however it teases you as two gigantic ape arms reach up and grab something from a tower above you. I thought to myself "wow that’s huge, I wonder if that’s the boss for this planet?" Spoilers: that’s the boss and I’ll get to that in a moment. In the second level, which is designed around a construction site, you begin under a bunch of railing and looking up can see a buddy to save. The game teaches you to always be aware that you are IN the game and you should be literally moving your head around to find stuff. So I move the Captain, jumping up several platforms and slowly make my across the thin platforms to save my crew member, fearing more than you would in a normal game with the depth VR adds. Further, in the level, you’ll have to peek your head around objects to safely navigate platforming the Captain and then use your head as an object to break stuff blocking your way, further cementing that you are IN the game.
One of the most unique things about Astro Bot is that you’re a character in the game and although I couldn’t explain the theory or logic behind it, it’s a unique idea. Again, if you played The Playroom VR you would have seen the character you play as, some sort of robotic being who happens to carry a DualShock around.
At first, it may seem weird to have your PS4 controller physically in the game world; or the fact The Captain is looking at you, waving at you and playing around, but you’re not just a camera in the world, you are a character. The fact you’re in the game becomes a bigger part of the gameplay as your progress and the development team at Japan Studio do some unique and funny things with you in the game.
With the DualShock also being in the game and an item, it can feel weird, or even unnecessary to see, but it gets a collection of gadgets to use. In several levels, you’ll be able to insert the controller into a chest that upgrades the controller with a gadget until the end of that level. These range from a water hose, throwing-stars, to a grapple hook and more. Of course, they all have a different use. The grapple-hook lets you set up a way to have the Captain traverse sections, the throwing-stars lets you cut down certain objects in the environment. The combination of being IN the game through the use of VR as well as controlling the Captain and using your body and controller as objects in the game as well really is Japan Studio making the best of everything they’ve got to work with.
Platforming in Astro Bot Rescue Mission is typical fare. You'll start with simple platforms you can do in one jump before getting into gaps requiring double jumps. The later levels add in rotating platforms and other things to make the experience a little harder and at first you may think controlling the Captain in a 3D space may be hard to judge where it's landing, but it's not at all. A smart design choice has a small light stream below from Astro’s jet-pack whenever you activate the double-jump, which is the design choice that ties together the platforming so well.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission doesn’t just expect to win you over with its cute robots and fun gameplay though, it features beautifully designed and varied locations that makes it easily one of the best looking PSVR games I’ve played. I had several ‘oh-wow’ moments as I made my way through the games five worlds. Travelling through deep caves with glowing mushrooms and caverns holding secrets; attempting not to burn to a crisp traversing a lava-filled treacherous planet and travelling deep under the beautiful blue ocean to find what lies below. Although Astro Bot can at first seem to play safe with its levels, it builds you up eventually into level designs that couldn’t be done outside of PSVR and becomes something more than simply bringing an old genre into a new technology, presenting not only well designed levels for the genre, but beautiful use of the technology to deliver breathtaking gameplay and environments.
Although the enemy variation is limited to enemies that will charge you, enemies that can fly and ones that have spiky bits, you can take them down with a combination of a simple square button attack or the thrusters in your boots used for double jumps. The bosses in Astro Bot are much more exciting, filled with some much character and designed wonderfully -- and they’re huge and I mean huge. VR does size better than a normal gaming experience could ever do and half the fun in battling the bosses in Astro Bot is just enjoying these giant creatures in front of you. None of them are terribly hard (one gave me a tiny bit of trouble) if you know boss battle tropes for the genre, but playing them in VR does allow Japan Studio to integrate elements that you couldn’t do previously, although I don’t want to spoil all the fun.
In each level, there are eight buddies (crew members) to collect up and a hidden chameleon to find. The chameleons are semi-invisible and you have to look at them for a couple seconds to ‘collect’ them which is a neat idea for VR collectables. You hunt them down by keeping your ears open for the sound they make, which is no different to the buddies which will be yelling out for help and you can track them with the great use of 3D audio. I often would hear one or the other and sit still twisting my head around in several directions trying to pinpoint which side of the room the noise was coming from.
My biggest annoyance with Astro Bot does happen when you’re trying to find collectables. As you move through the level you’ll automatically move forward when necessary and although you can move your head up down in and around, you can’t actually control your body. Meaning that if you realise you just missed a collectable, you can swing your head around 180-degrees and run back as the Captain to try and find it, but if you need to be able to see it like you need to for the chameleons, you’re requiring another playthrough.
Beating the campaign will probably take you around six hours, more-or-less depending on how much you’re stopping to mess around and looking for collectables. Each chameleon you find unlocks a challenge level for you though, totalling up to 22 challenges. These range from time-trial events to beating bosses without losing any HP and will provide a decent amount of content after beating the game, although it would have been nice for the challenges to have online leaderboards.
I grew up when Sony’s mascots were all basically platformer characters and now, Sony’s lead mascots are all from mature games and big bombastic franchises. To think that a fun little character designed for the Playroom series, a tech-demo, could end up being the mascot for Sony’s VR platform is kinda crazy, but I love it and Astro Bot Rescue Mission is simply, amazing — a pure joy and a wonder that is a must play for all PSVR owners. Japan Studio has breathed fresh air into the genre and reinvigorated it for the future, as well as showing how great VR can build upon more genres, not just first-person shooters.
Developer: SIE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PSVR (reviewed on normal PS4 + PSVR unit)