God it’s nice to play something that reminds you that VR is, in fact, really fricking cool, isn’t it? Forget empathy machines, social futures and advanced AI for a minute; these are not Astro Bot Rescue Mission’s concerns. Like a certain Nintendo plumber before it, it wants to capture the heart of the platform it’s harnessing, dialing in on the electric excitement that comes with the best VR, a kind I’ve experienced precious few times. It’s a fitting reminder of just how fantastic this medium can be when freed from its many complications.
Astro Bot sticks with what developer Sony Japan knows it can do, third-person platforming, and uses VR to augment it in wonderful ways. For starters, it craves a certain kind of spectacle, the type that really wants you to believe what you’re seeing. Along with the likes of Moss and Wayward Sky, this is further proof that third-person VR not only works but can be just as powerful as the best first-person experiences. Diving head-first into the game’s diorama-sized worlds is an absolute delight whether you’re leaning back to watch your adorable robotic companion scuttle underneath you or judging the distance of a vertigo-inducing canyon jump.
It’s the proximity that works so well. Rescue Mission is a master at tricking your brain to believe the virtual is real, even if it’s just for a split second. Certain enemies will spit pink goo directly at you, for example, and your reaction to dodge comes from natural instinct. The same is true when you return footballs with your head or even smash into walls and structures to bring them toppling down. There’s a physical connection to your VR avatar here that Sony Japan mines for plenty of gold, making this a dependably surprising experience.
Nowhere is this truer than with the game’s brilliant use of DualShock 4’s position tracking. Not only can you see your controller virtually represented in the world at all times, but it’s a mechanic unto itself. In some levels, for example, you’ll be able to fire a grappling hook that latches on to certain points of the environment. Astro can then jump onto the rope and walk across it while you raise your hands to allow him to reach higher areas or help him avoid incoming projectiles. There’s a lot of genuinely inventive stuff like this (one section in which you race to the end of a tomb whilst clearing the path with ninja stars is a real highlight), and it gives each of the 26 campaign levels something to call their own along with varied environments and set pieces.
Gimmicky? Perhaps, but Astro Bot lays on the VR delights so thick and fast you won’t have any time to realize or, frankly, care. Each level holds eight hidden bots that have ended up in a whole manner of inconvenient places you’ll need to rescue them from. That requires you to keep your head on a swivel at all times, checking every corner and sometimes even under the platforms you’re standing on to locate your friends. If it sounds like busy work let me assure you it’s anything but. There’s a childish, hide and seek joy to leaning over a wall and discovering a bot snoozing just behind it or peering down a chasm to find one crying for help and it fleshes out the world in powerful ways. I was constantly searching every nook and cranny for hidden areas and the level design really stands up to that kind of scrutiny. Using positional audio (headphones required) to locate harder to spot bots is an especially nice touch.
Needless to say they’re as cutesy as it comes and Sony Japan uses them to make this a deceptively personal affair. Bots can be spotted around the world busying themselves with fishing or cowering in the grass (I can’t help but wonder how much influence Sony Japan’s Ape Escape played in this design). Lay off the joystick for a while and Astro will take a break to wave up at you with an impossible amount of enthusiasm. When transitioning to and fro levels he’ll hop back onto your DualShock and house himself neatly under the touchpad or execute the most endearing rendition of the Night Fever dance you’ve ever seen when he reaches his goal. In the menu, meanwhile, you can reach out and bat him away with your controller. Astro Bot might not have VR’s most realistic world, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to lose myself in it from start to finish.
Perhaps the most important point to make here, though, is that under all of this snazzy VR spit n’ shine is something that’s incredibly fun to play in its own right and even innovates in meaningful ways. Astro Bot doesn’t just settle for a breezy tech demo with simplistic design; its campaign took me about four hours to see through and I missed at least one bot in the vast majority of the missions. Level design is greatly enriched by the 360-degree nature of VR, taking gameplay into new angles and perspectives you couldn’t achieve with a traditional camera. Astro often has to run circles around you to reach his objective and it’s hard enough keeping up with him when you are the camera, let alone your joystick.
Astro’s controls, meanwhile, are tight and responsive, and his moveset includes the rather excellent ability to glide in the air whilst shootings lasers from his legs (which, helpfully, also assists in jumping gaps). Most of the game’s more traditional enemies do end up feeling like cannon fodder rather than an actual threat, but more elaborate foes that require a more innovative approach are peppered throughout. Not only that, but the 26 challenge levels unlocked by scouring the main missions for camouflaged chameleons (another inspired touch) bring some finger-knotting trials and effectively doubles the amount of content. As the name suggests, they’re designed to push you but are also thoughtfully removed from the view of players who don’t want that experience. That said the later campaign missions don’t slouch on the difficulty either. Some of that can come through awkward moments, like the inability to move your camera backward (which also means you’ll likely have to restart the level to find missed bots), but for the most part I found the difficulty to be fair and fun.
Boss encounters are a real highlight, too, making especially great use of VR. Their size is really something to behold, as is their cartoonish, lively animation that can actually make knocking their teeth out (literally, in some cases) feel a little guilty. They can be drawn out, though, and even though you’re given three hit points to face them, it can be frustrating to die right at the end of a 10-minute battle and have to start over.
Astro Bot is not here to reinvent the wheel or claim the throne as VR’s killer app; there are enough games trying to do that already. Instead, it fuzes the thrill of seeing a virtual world come to life with the dependably engaging gameplay of one of gaming’s most beloved genres and explores what that can mean with fascinating results. It’s a refreshing reminder of just how astonishing VR can be when there’s nothing in your way, and it’s an absolutely essential experience for any PSVR owner.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission launches exclusively on PSVR on October 2nd for $39.99. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.