The latest Sony exclusive is set to be a milestone for VR gaming, with a stunning new 3D platformer thats the best on PSVR.
No matter what you play, the first time you put on a VR headset is always amazing. But the novelty can last mere minutes if the game itself isnt equally interesting. There have been many great VR titles in recent years, including Resident Evil 7, Rez Infinite, Tethered, WipEout, and Moss. Some are ordinary games that also have a VR option and some are made exclusively for use with a headset, but Astro Bot is better than any of them.
The experience of VR is not one that can be got across easily in words, pictures, or even videos but weve never be so impressed with the technology as we have with Astro Bot. There are other reasons to make the comparison, but the one thing we keep coming back to is the first time we played Super Mario 64; that magical moment when gaming went from 2D to 3D in one sudden, mind-blowing leap.
Astro Bot isnt quite as good as Nintendos classic, and there have been plenty of quality VR titles before this, but it still feels like the same sort of milestone. Were certain we played the entire game with our months wide open and now that its finished we almost feel like we have withdrawal symptoms. Its easy to get wrapped up with hyperbole when talking about Astro Bot but it really is that good.
The surprising thing is that Astro Bot is not completely new. Its an expansion of a mini-game included with the free Playroom VR app, a 3D platformer in the style of the Super Mario games where you control a cute little robot called Astro who is trying to find his friends and piece together the parts of his spaceship. You exist in the game world as a larger robot following silently behind but its Astro youre controlling with the DualShock controller.
The best comparison for Astro Bot is probably Super Mario Sunshine, mostly for the fact that Astro has jet boots that work very much like the water jetpack and allow him to hover for a few seconds and accurately pick his landing spot. Other than that all he can do is jump and punch but while the game is more simplistic than a non-VR platformer, its not by much.
Since your head is essentially the camera the sense of immersion is incredible, with an amazing sense of height and depth. Many levels have you peering down into the far distance or across seemingly infinite expenses of water or clouds, while the enemy bosses you encounter at the end of each of the five worlds are absolutely gigantic – and if it werent for the cartoon art style theyd be completely terrifying.
The quality of the visuals seems almost impossible given the PlayStation VRs limited resolution, but its the attention to detail that impresses as much as anything. From emerging from the ocean depths with seaweed dangling from your head, to aircraft tumbling through the sky, and a friendly giant robot tearing up bits of the scenery to help you theres an effortless magic to the whole experience, that manages to leech the maximum amount of charm and fun out of every encounter.
This really does feel like the sort of VR game Nintendo would make if they had the chance. Although it is cheeky how much Sonys Japan Studio steals from various Mario games, including robot enemies that are clearly thinly veiled copies of Mushroom Kingdoom regulars such as the Goomba, Wiggler, Pokey, and Bullet Bill. But the comparison should primarily be taken as a compliment towards Astro Bot, in terms of its excellent level design and its ability to keep surprising you with new ideas.
The ghost level towards the end is a particular highlight but theres also an amazing mine cart stage that works a bit like Amplitude and is absolutely thrilling. On top of this are over two dozen challenge levels that you unlock by spotting a hidden chameleon in each stage. These are completely new creations and can vary from anything from a platforming time trial to unique mini-games like a whack-a-mole style shooting gallery.
Although you move forward through the game automatically (and cannot reverse, unlike the original Playroom game) your role is not entirely passive. Sometimes you have to headbutt obstructions out of the way or attack enemy bees that aim for you and not Astro. There are also other enemies that will spit goo at you, and other little one-off interactions that we wont spoil here. As a result, you always feel part of the world and not just an unconnected observer, as you occasionally stand up or peer through the scenery to see Astro better.
The primary way you can help though is with gadgets that appear on many of the levels. The three most common are a grappling hook, which can be used to pull down scenery or used as tightrope (including bouncing it to get Astro higher); a water jet that can revive plants or cool lava; and a shuriken that can be fired at whatever angle you hold the DualShock.
These gadgets are extremely fun and add some interesting puzzles but activating them via the touchpad means they can be awkward to use. Having to aim the gadget and have Astro run and jump at the same time is almost impossible and could have been easily solved by changing the buttons.
The games biggest flaw though is having to judge some of the angles when jumping. Because you are the camera there are practical limits to where you can look, which causes a few leaps of faith or missed landings. Its rarely an issue though (apart from anything the game isnt particularly hard) and probably an intractable problem given the set-up.
Despite the niggles Astro Bot is a joy to play through and the most fun weve ever had in VR. Because you only ever move forward through the levels theres absolutely no problem with nausea and the only limiting factor is how good you are at platformers. Like the more puzzle-orientated Moss, Astro Bot proves that a game doesnt have to be first person to take full advantage of the hardware and it shows that VR can mean more than just languid walking sims and tech demos dressed up as real games.
In years to come, as VR technology advances, were sure Astro Bot will end up looking as primitive and restrictive as Super Mario 64 does now but it wont ever stop being fun. Given the costs involved wed hesitate to recommend buying a PlayStation VR just for a single game. But if you do have access to Sonys VR headset, and you only play one game on it, then it should definitely be this.
Astro Bot: Rescue Mission
In Short: The most visually impressive and entertaining game on PlayStation VR, with an incredible sense of scale and boundless imagination.
Pros: Solid 3D platforming and excellent level design, with lots of hidden secrets, one-off tricks, and fun gadgets. Stunning visuals, with an amazing level of detail and interactivity.
Cons: Platforming can occasionally be made more difficult by the restricted camera angle. Use of the touchpad makes some complex manoeuvres fiddlier then they should be.
Formats: PlayStation VR
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Japan Studio Asobi! Team
Release Date: 3rd October 2018
Age Rating: 7