He may be small, but only in size.
When Sony built the DualShock for the original PlayStation, it turned to Japan Studio to make a game that demonstrated the potential of its new controller. What we got was Ape Escape, the dual-stick controlled platformer that became an instant classic. Now Japan Studio has focused its attention on PlayStation VR and has created the best showcase of the hardware’s potential I’ve seen yet in Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
Astro Bot’s story is thin, but it’s enough to justify its galactic adventure. The charming robots from the Playroom series are hanging out on their spaceship, practicing the floss dance, when a Big Bad Alien attacks their sentient ship and steals its VR visor, sending them scattering across the universe. The opening cut-scene immediately highlights the advantage of VR. The characters start way off in the distance, before quickly shooting down and getting right in your face, which made me instinctively shift backward in my seat several times.
The traditional gameplay of guiding an onscreen character across precarious platforms and around deadly enemies is augmented by having you inhabit the body of another robot that looks like a limbless version of Nintendo’s R.O.B.. You’re actually in the scene, automatically progressing through each level as you control Captain Astro, moving your head to get the best view of the pathways ahead and around you. The new camera perspective takes some getting used to; initially I would instinctively turn away from a straight path to look at different parts of the level, only to turn back and find I’d been leading Captain Astro off a ledge.
Enemies can be bashed with a tap of the square button or destroyed with Captain Astro’s handy foot lasers, which double as a means of extending jumps. There’s not much variety to these enemies, but the simple rhythm of combat feels good. There are also enemies that ignore your robot pal and target you directly, spitting vision-obscuring goo onto the visor screen that needs to be literally shaken off.
This shaking action is used regularly and is great in theory but I found when the action was hectic a vigorous shake of my head would dislodge the PSVR headset and necessitate a pause to fix. Ducking and weaving around slow-travelling projectiles is much more gentle and getting hit results only in a short shattered glass effect. The task of moving your body to avoid the attack of a robotic bee while trying to perform precise jumps across narrow gaps with a separate character feels like the video game equivalent of patting my head and rubbing my stomach.
Go Go Gadget
Not every level requires this degree of dexterity – more traditional platforming fills out Astro Bot’s five worlds. The controls are tight and responsive, and the platforming slowly ramps up in difficulty but always remains surmountable. What makes each level unique and constantly delightful is how camera control is used to create challenges. A level’s path may lead above and behind you, forcing you to turn completely around in your seat. Other times there’ll seem to be no way forward until you physically lean to the side to see a platform that was obscured by a pole. Some walls can be knocked down by smashing your face into them, and paths can be revealed by using one of the level specific gadgets.
These gadgets might transform your in-game DualShock 4 into a grappling hook that can be used to pull down walls or create tightropes for Captain Astro to walk across, or a ninja star launcher that can slice through enemies and lodge shuriken into walls to create new platforms. They’re all activated with intuitive touchpad inputs: ninja stars, for instance, are thrown with a swipe up and aimed by moving the controller around in space. Similarly, flicking the controller as Captain Astro balances on a tightrope slung between it and an anchor point sees him bounce high into the air. For the most part, gadgets work as intended, though I did have issues with the grappling hook distinguishing between me trying to pull a wall down and bouncing the line to move Captain Astro.
Each level has eight crew members to rescue, coins to collect, and chameleons hidden in the environment to find. The little robots can sometimes be cleverly hidden, but their cries for help, delivered through PSVR’s 3D audio, help to pinpoint their location. Rescuing the tiny automatons is a joy – after you give them a swift kick in the bum they soar up into the air before plummeting down into your controller. Any other rescued robots then pop up to cheer. It’s a good example of the charming energy that pervades Astro Bot as a whole.
Each level also has a camouflaged chameleon to find. I enjoyed having an excuse to pause to appreciate the level theming as I sought out a glimpse of a bulging chameleon eye, and collecting each level’s hidden lizard unlocks a challenge level. These are significantly tougher than the main missions and a great inclusion. Trying to speed through a platforming challenge, for example, is all about finding a good rhythm and is immensely satisfying to get right. You’re then rewarded with a gold or silver Astro Bot to add to your crew.
Rounding out each world are bosses that range from a giant robot gorilla that will literally have you pulling teeth to a wig-wearing corseted spider whose webs are no match for some well-aimed ninja stars. The boss challenges are quite traditional in design, but their spectacle and VR presentation are some of Astro Bot’s most impressive moments. That said, the late-game bosses ramp up significantly in difficulty and playing the same initial waves of a battle multiple times in a row led to some of my few moments of frustration in Astro Bot.