Astro Bot Rescue Mission
Sometimes a game’s greatness sneaks up on you. And sometimes it’s an individual moment of brilliance that convinces you of it. World 2-2 of Asobi Team’s VR platformer, a stage called Beachside Boogie, is one such moment. It is that rarest and most precious of things: an enjoyable underwater level. And yet it’s as we emerge at the end that the magic happens. Breaking the surface, we become aware of fronds of seaweed dangling in front of our face. Turning to the right, we see a mirror: a robot wearing a snorkel and a slimy kelp wig peers back. Our gaze is drawn to another robot playing keepy-uppy: our tiny charge, Astro, engages it in a short-lived kickabout, before we follow suit, destroying a larger variant with a game of steadily quickening head tennis. There’s just enough time to kick in a sandcastle (rewarded by a cascade of coins) before we head for the end-level goal, and realise we’ve not stopped smiling for the last five minutes.
When playing any VR platformer, it’s natural to imagine what a developer like Nintendo EAD might do with the tech. It says much for Astro Bot Rescue Mission that you’ll probably find yourself thinking, ‘Pretty much this’. Its trick is to give you a physical presence within the game. As in most thirdperson VR games, you observe the action from a slightly elevated position, but here you take a more active role, with the controller in your hands also afforded a place in the virtual world. While it’s mostly used to control Astro in relatively conventional fashion, every so often you’ll find a large chest into which you can slot it to unlock a new attachment, aimed with the DualShock’s gyros and fired via the touchpad. A nozzle lets you water flowers and douse flames, while a grapnel lets you latch onto hooks to pull out platforms or create tightropes for Astro to teeter across. With a shuriken launcher you can sweep a finger forward to hurl throwing stars, cutting through spider webs and bamboo canes and even creating temporary platforms when you embed them in wooden surfaces. It revisits some of these ideas, but never so much that you tire of them.
When you’re not equipped with any extras, the platforming itself is fairly basic. Activated by holding X in mid-air, Astro’s jet heels are functionally similar to Super Mario Sunshine’s FLUDD, albeit with a shorter hover time. Despite a perspective that should make gauging Astro’s position in 3D space easier, you’ll need to make plenty of mid-air adjustments, and the jets let you see exactly where you’re about to land. Otherwise there are no special techniques to master, and the odd spinning or collapsing platform aside, not an awful lot to really test your twitch skills.
That’s less of a problem than you’d think, because there’s more to Astro Bot beyond the straightforward running and jumping. You might be called upon for something as crude as headbutting an obstacle, whether it’s in Astro’s way or simply obscuring your view. If there’s a projectile to hand, you can look at an enemy to lock onto it, and your little friend’s aim will be unerring. Your ultimate objective is to retrieve five pieces of Astro’s broken ship, but until then your main aim is to rescue your missing crewmates – variously resting, hiding, tied up or otherwise trapped in the non-boss stages. You’ll often hear them before you see them: your initial instinct will be to reach for the right stick, before you remember that your head is the camera, and you can simply turn around, lean and peek or even stand up to spot the hapless bot. There’s still the small matter of getting Astro over to them, at which point a boot up the backside will send them flying over to the in-game controller, with any others you’ve previously rescued popping up to greet them before they cram themselves back inside. There are countless charming little touches like this, with new ideas introduced up to and including the final encounter. You’ll arrive at a haunted house where the controller becomes a torch, not only lighting the way, but revealing translucent platforms, flashing ectoplasm-spitting ghosts and freezing gargoyle statues to trigger rising platforms. There’s a minecart level of sorts that’s more like a rollercoaster, the track eventually snaking up to the ceiling so you’re gazing up at it from below. You’ll duck and dodge missiles that are fired directly at you rather than Astro, while in one thrilling late-game boss fight, you’ll need to shake off a squid that attaches itself to your visor. On a return visit to Beachside Boogie, we glance around and notice the same boss swimming around in the background: the kind of tiny detail a lot of players will miss, but that makes these worlds feel all the more envelopingly alive.
The things it gets wrong are equally small. Despite the 3D audio, it can be hard to pinpoint where the robots’ cries are coming from – and easy to confuse them with Astro’s own chirps – and if you can’t find them quickly, the squeaky sound becomes a nagging annoyance. Now and again, checkpoints are spaced a little too widely, which tends to coincide with an uptick in the number of enemies and hazards, or moments where your attention has to be in two places at once. And the reach of Astro’s melee attack feels a touch ungenerous, compounded by some iffy collision detection and occasionally unhelpful views.
Otherwise, Astro Bot’s biggest problem is that it will only ever reach a fraction of the audience for the likes of Crash, Spyro, Ape Escape – or, indeed, any of the other 3D platformers that made their name on PlayStation. And that’s a real pity, because it’s better than any of them. There are some VR games that still make our stomachs flip, but this captivating adventure is one to make the heart soar.
There’s more to Astro Bot beyond the straightforward running and jumping