3D platformers and VR aren’t typically used in the same sentence. While some certainly exist, most players think of VR as opportunities to create immersion through the first-person perspective. Japan Studio has decided to rectify this stereotype and in doing so have actually created one of the greatest titles for the medium so far.
When PSVR launched in 2016, Japan Studio released a free game titled Playroom VR, combining a collection of tech demoes that showed the possibilities with PSVR. One of those titles was Robot Rescue, a 3D platformer that many PSVR gamers adore to this day, but was so short, many of them were rioting for a full-fledged follow-up. Fast forward to 2018, and Japan Studio have dropped Astro Bot: Rescue Mission and I am flabbergasted by the results. It’s a rare game that seems to understand what makes a truly great 3D platformer (a skill that is lost on almost everyone but Nintendo), while also understanding the strengths and limitations of VR that can transcend the medium to the next level. Astro Bot has enough content and variety to keep you hooked for a number of hours, while permanently stamping a smile on your face throughout the whole experience. Because, why so serious?
Astro Bot: Rescue Mission plays like most other 3D platformers. You control the instantly likeable Bot character with the Dualshock 4, using the sticks and face buttons to jump, float, punch and spin throughout the 25 levels trying to rescue your robotic colleagues along the way. However, even as a traditional platformer it provides some best-in-its class mechanics, animations and design. This was surprising to me as a fan of 3D platformers, having been burnt out by so many disappointing recent non-Mario games that include; Sonic, Yooka-Laylee, Bubsy, Super Lucky’s Tale and Knack to name a few. In fact, if Mario didn’t exist, Astro Bot could be one of the best 3D platformers I’ve played in over a decade.
Quite simply, one of the best 3D platformers I have played in a decade
The game has you controlling two ‘beings’. The first is the protagonist Bot, who you’ll be controlling in a traditional fashion as described above. Bot might not seem as beloved as Spyro or Sly Cooper but his constant reactions to the player (looking at the screen and waving) or the little victory dance he performs at the end of each level, combined with his adorable but non-translatable voice makes him quite the lovable little hero.
The second playable being is an ‘overseer’ role where you basically act as the game’s third person camera. You can look around with a 360-degree view as well as below and over you at your leisure revealing secret passages and collectables for your little buddy to head over to. The camera will slowly move forward as Bot reaches certain checkpoints. This creates some incredibly intuitive game design that is only possible in VR and sets the game apart from its other platforming peers.
While the game’s main objective is to reach the end, there is also a secondary objective to rescue eight of your robot peers in each level. Some of these are hidden behind walls you need to peek around to see. Sometimes they’re hidden at the bottom of cliffs, and only looking below can reveal their location. I was looking behind me, around corners and above me constantly as my Bot balanced across metal beams above me or slowly made his way up a mountain while looking down at him like the Astro-God I was.
However, this is not always practical and may be the only criticism I have of the game. While looking behind me was manageable given the fact I was using a swivel chair (which I highly recommend when playing this game), it was looking above me that destroyed my neck. Instead of putting the headset down and letting my neck rest, I decided to keep playing because I was having so much fun with the game. However, I had to go to the masseuse the next day and believe me when I said I did not get a happy ending. I am not sure how you can actually rectify this as the game was designed to look up. Physically standing doesn’t help as my headset just disappears from the playing area. I just caution that when playing the game, make sure you can spin in your chair and try not move your neck around vigorously. Take your time.
Go go gadget!
The platforming mechanics and animations are super tight enhanced with the use of gadgets which act as power-ups in the game. These gadgets are tied to the light-bar of the Dualshock 4 allowing you to help Bot navigate through the obstacles. Use the hose gadget to water flowers and grow new parts of a level in spectacular fashion or clean up muck spread out across the world. Use the ninja stars (vertically or horizontally) to hit switches or lodge new platforms in soft walls for the character to jump across. My favourite gadget is the torch light that reveals hidden locations or invisible platforms for our little friend to cross.
All of these are simple gadgets that are used in clever ways to overcome obstacles, all while being able to control the protagonist. Putting out a fire on a series of platforms will only last so long, so it’s up to you to quickly navigate across as soon as you have watered them down. I also had little to no issues with the PSVR’s tracking, which is a sigh of relief as it can make or break some games on the system and the PSVR’s tracking hasn’t exactly had a completely clean record.
The level variety is also brilliant. Not only do you have your typical beach, desert, sky, underwater and horror-based levels, but you also have carnivals, construction and enchanted forests as well. Within each of these types of environments, you’ll be doing something slightly different. One level is an on-rails mine cart ride, while another has you escaping the belly of a giant whale. While none of these are potentially novel, Japan Studio nailed each level with a sprinkle of polish and charm on top to make each and every one memorable.
There are five worlds each with a boss at the end and each boss is just as memorable as the levels you play to reach them. For instance, one such boss is a giant gorilla that tries to bite down at you. Dodging the bite leaves his jaw stuck into the concrete, giving you the chance to shoot your hook-shot gadget into his teeth and pulling it out leaving him vulnerable to Bot’s attacks. Each boss is unique, colossal in size (making it even sweeter in VR) and utilises lessons you’ve learned in preceding levels to beat it. This is how boss fights should be done.
A lot of the game’s charm also comes down to its excellent visuals. I’ve always held the belief that animated properties look better in VR and Astro Bot is the best demonstration of this. I don’t remember seeing any pixilation whatsoever, which is admittedly an issue in 90% of PSVR’s library. It’s clean and bright palette is striking to behold and little is done to bring that quality down. It looks as good as any 3D platformer on a PlayStation 4 and I don’t see any indication that makes it look like a step-down from any Nintendo platformer visually. Furthermore, the stationary camera position and third-person perspective minimises any potential for vertigo or motion sickness, which is most common in first-person VR games.
Each point of praise that I have rambled on about keeps leading up to the same result – a giant dumb smile on my face. Whether I am bopping my head to its engrossing soundtrack, using one of the gadgets in smart ways, finding a cleverly hidden bot to rescue or just watching Astro disco-dance with me at the end of each level, I was always feeling like I was a child again, making it more nostalgic than most other 3D platformers aiming to recapture the 90s. It’s particularly interesting that these moments only occur in great 3D platformers (like revealing a hidden star in Super Mario Odyssey) or great VR games (like aiming and killing enemies with the AIM controller in Firewall Zero Hour).
Astro Bot isn’t just a fantastic game because it’s a great 3D platformer or because it utilises the best parts of VR in clever ways. It’s not even a great game due to the amount of levels, personality, soundtrack, charm or excellent level design at an affordable price. It’s a great game because it does all those things and more, and ends up being much more than the sum of its already excellent parts. In every sense of the word and in every factor of its design, it is a surprise hit. It outshines almost all its platforming competitors with polished mechanics and animations, a catchy and mesmerising soundtrack, memorable boss fights and a charming world full of secrets and surprises for you to unravel from beginning to end. It outshines most VR games because it doesn’t try to overreach in what it tries to do and avoids common VR criticisms such as bad tracking, short running time, motion sickness, pixelated visuals and shallow gameplay. It achieves this by knowing exactly what it is and executing a clear vision in the VR space. The result is Astro Bot: Robot Rescue, one of the greatest 3D platformers in the last decade and one of the best VR games released to date.
Reviewed on PSVR using a PlayStation 4 Pro | Game purchased for review purposes