Does VR finally have its killer app?
The PlayStation VR, and virtual reality gaming as a whole, struggles to find its killer apps. Again and again, VR games release to quiet acclaim but, as VR games, they’re treated as curiosities. Like Wii Sports or Fruit Ninja for their respective tech, even the most successful VR games are rarely seen beyond their gimmick.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission proves otherwise. A remarkably polished and lovingly crafted 3D platformer, it makes one of the best cases for VR gaming yet.
Breathing new life into the genre
Developed by SIE Japan Studio and exclusive to the PlayStation 4’s PSVR virtual reality headset, Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a pretty traditional 3D platformer. Expanding on the single level seen in 2016’s The Playroom VR, it’s a short campaign of simple but inventive levels with the camera set in one direction behind the player, moving forwards like a rail shooter. Controlling the little bot hero is simple: it can jump (cross button), hover (hold cross button), punch (square button), and that’s about it.
That’s where the virtual reality aspect comes in, and it breathes new life into the genre.
Through virtual reality, Astro Bot gives players an extra role as the hero’s taller assistant, where you technically follow yourself as you jump your way through each level. Playing as the game’s camera and using controller-attached tools like a grappling hook and water hose, you cooperate with yourself. It’s not an entirely new concept, Astro Bot just pulls it off brilliantly.
Virtual reality is a must in Astro Bot and it can’t be played without PSVR, but it isn’t too heavy or involved compared to other more intense VR games. It isn’t stressful or exhausting and simply weaves virtual reality through a 3D platformer. If anything, Astro Bot is a relaxed and comfortable experience – which is the game’s ultimate strength.
By using virtual reality in this passive way, Astro Bot immerses the player far more organically. Its smallest moments are its most charming and absorbing, like following yourself around a corner by leaning around it or spotting a secret by peeking over a ledge. In these moments, SIE Japan Studio perfectly compliments the 3D platformer with virtual reality. They create something that’s most affecting and convincing in its subtlety than the intense experiences of other VR games.
It reminded me of motion controls in console gaming, which is so often clunky and irritating but works well when it’s passive and less obnoxious. Like Splatoon’s gyro-assisted aiming or, ironically, staying still and motionless in Until Dawn, virtual reality is most exciting when it’s intuitive and natural, complimenting a familiar experience.
It’s also one of the best looking PSVR titles, at least on a PS4 Pro. With its completely adorable art direction and character design, Astro Bot is distractingly, overbearingly cute. Levels are often striking and gorgeous, too, especially as they become larger and more complex with each new world. Plant-strewn cloud kingdoms, dank tombs, colourful underwater reefs, an exhilarating cart coaster through a lava-filled cave; Astro Bot hits the usual platformer locales with a plethora of charm. Along with the high anti-aliasing and high texture quality (for a PSVR title), Astro Bot is a looker.
Composer Kenneth Young, who’s best known for his work on Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway series, has crafted a selection of tracks that are just as distinct and endearing. Though the main tracks repeat across certain levels and themes, Young’s tracks remain catchy and memorable blends of electronica, disco and orchestral flair. They evoke an upbeat cosmic-flavoured curiosity and wanderlust, alongside a handful of rock numbers to match the hot-blooded boss battles.
A breezy time…
It’s hard to not bring Nintendo up when talking about Astro Bot’s level design, even if it doesn’t quite match the Japanese giant’s honed-over-decades pedigree.
Using the Nintendo formula of focusing each level around a fresh gimmick or twist, Astro Bot manages to constantly surprise. Every level has a refreshing new theme, a twist on the gameplay, a new set piece or yet another clever use of VR. It finds more and more ways to keep you interested and curious about the next level.
Difficulty ramps up gradually but as a whole, Astro Bot’s a breezy time. It’s more interested in making players swoon over its overwhelming charm than challenging them with intricate level design, and for most – especially as a VR experience – this won’t be a problem. The 20 core levels (not including boss fights) are simple, easy and focused on delivering fun and absorbing experiences, and though there’s definitely potential for more compelling level design, this doesn’t diminish how delightful Astro Bot is. There are optional challenge levels available but these might not be enough for those wanting something more difficult.
Coins picked up in each level can also be spent on a (totally optional) gacha-like crane game, where each prize adds another piece to a series of small dioramas. They’re not as cute as the one in PlayRoom VR unfortunately, where you watch little cowboy bots (cow-bots?) play poker or brutally beat up an arcade cabinet, but they’re still pretty darn cute. They also work well as a low-key introduction to the game’s VR experience and are great for giving younger kids a go.
… up to a point.
At first, Astro Bot works as a fantastic introduction to virtual reality and VR gaming. Unfortunately, this is only up to a point.
Astro Bot is a polished, laid-back and genuinely fun 3D platformer that’s easy to learn for folks who either don’t play many games or don’t play them at all. The in-game version of the DS4 controller has the relevant buttons highlighted and the level design is fairly relaxed, giving players room to stop at any point mid-level and catch their breath. It’s also one of the cutest games I’ve seen in a while, which definitely helps.
World 1 – the first four levels plus a boss fight – is a fantastic introduction for non-gamers, but afterwards, this crossover appeal drops. Though Astro Bot is easy for someone who plays games regularly, the default setup and difficulty (which can’t be changed in any way) can be unnecessarily hard for those more interested in the virtual reality experience than the challenge of the game itself.
Besides the boss fights, where you’re given a couple of extra lives, Astro Bot is a fragile little thing. It’s taken out in a single hit and then thrown back to the last checkpoint to try again. For an inexperienced player, this can make levels frustrating. Especially with motion sickness looming for some players, wasting their time playing the same sections over and over instead of having the option to move onto the next charming, adorable locale just hurts the overall experience. Boss battles can also feel over-long and challenging, giving you two extra lives but still tossing you back to the fight’s opening when they’ve been lost.
Astro Bot could really use something like the ‘Accessibility Mode’ seen in Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey, yanking you back to the last bit of solid ground when you fall off a ledge, giving you the option to skip difficult sections or letting you take a few more hits before sending you back to the last checkpoint. For a game that has such wide appeal and potential as an all-ages VR experience, Astro Bot caters far less to this inexperienced audience than it definitely could. Its worlds are adorable and beautiful and limiting these sights just to ‘gamers’ is short-sighted and disappointing, undermining the enjoyment for everyone else.
Even still, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, in its polish and elegant simplicity, is one of the most convincing cases for virtual reality gaming yet. Though it’s a very traditional game otherwise, Astro Bot keeps the negatives of VR to a minimum – namely motion-sickness and general exhaustion – and shows the potential of the medium when it’s incorporated gracefully into a broader gaming experience. There’s room for improvement but Astro Bot is a wonderful first attempt by SIE Japan Studio in creating a full-fledged VR platformer that’s reminiscent of Nintendo’s best. For now, Astro Bot is one of the few compelling reasons to invest in a PSVR.
A 3D platformer full of charm, polish and graceful design in every respect, Astro Bot Rescue Mission is the PSVR’s first true killer app. On its first try, SIE Japan Studio sets the bar high.
John reviewed Astro Bot Rescue Mission using a PlayStation 4 code purchased at retail.
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