Anyone with a PlayStation VR is familiar with the character Astro Bot, a perky and charismatic mascot mainstay of the The Playroom VR, who heads off to rescue his friends in a memorable mini-game pack-in. Utilizing a headset-oriented camera, players follow and control Astro as they bop around in search of lost robot pals, hiding behind bright foliage or dilly-dallying down secret paths. Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a full-length upgrade on that initial proof-of-concept, and gives PS VR gamers a signature exclusive to proudly lord over their non-VR-having friends.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission manages to both act as a showcase of that hardware while also bringing a superb design approach to the chosen genre. Beyond the impressive capabilities of the headset, the game features a few fantastic mechanical concepts that will endear you to the character beyond their raw cute-factor, which is no small feat. Astro Bot is a nimble little character navigating brightly-colored 3D environments, and they can jump, punch, and charge up a spin-attack, moves which have admittedly seen repeated use in countless platformers. However, this little robot has another important trick up their sleeve: a jump-jet technique that permits a temporary hover during every leap, damages any enemies caught in its line-of-fire, and precisely indicates where Astro will finally land.
This one seemingly modest mechanic proves ingenious, and handily solves one of the most prominent bugbears in even the greatest examples of the genre: the fussiness of predicting where a character will land in 3D space. Using the jump-jets, players can safely hover over thin tightropes and tiny ledges, always feeling secure that Astro won’t mistakenly plummet from a misread jump. Beyond these basic moves, certain stages offer specific tools that are integrated into the PS4 controller (following your movements, it’s always visible in the literal game-space), like a controllable grappling hook or water hose. While these tools are less notable and refined than the singular brilliance of the jump-jets, they boost player immersion in the diorama-like environments.
Remember when it was revealed in Super Mario 64 that Lakitu on his trusty cloud was the camera operator? Astro Bot Rescue Mission similarly personifies the camera control, only with the player representing their own large robot, traveling forward through each level while the controller moves Astro around. Swiveling the headset (a comfortable spinning desk chair helps) allows you to investigate the level geometry in every direction, helping to spot well-hidden robots as well as camouflaged chameleons, which then unlock challenging bonus stages. As Astro’s pals are discovered, they hop gingerly into the player’s controller with an animated flourish that is completely delightful, and finding some of the toughest ones — there are a total of eight per level, but one or two tend to be particularly well-hidden — requires some out-of-the-box thinking.
The gameplay loop of platforming and robot-finding doesn’t change much through the game’s five worlds, a framework which puts a lot of pressure on the quality of the level design to keep things interesting. Thankfully, every individual level in Astro Bot Rescue Mission features an imaginative approach to obstacle layout and navigation, shuttling Astro through bounce pads, secret windowed rooms, destructible environments, imposing bosses, and countless surprise reveals. One minute it’s a massive enemy emerging from a bottomless pit that targets the player themselves (requiring an IRL dodge or head-bop to defeat), then a bursting set of beanstalks carries you into the sky, leaving Astro in the far distance below, where you lead him on a long scamper back up into view.
The overall difficulty always hit a good sweet spot, rarely throwing anything too daunting in your way while ensuring that completing a level still feels rewarding. Checkpointing is peppered throughout, though it’s not uncommon to run into a surprise threat and be forced to re-do the last minute or so of gameplay. Luckily, any found robot friends never reset and player lives are unlimited, so it’s just a matter of reacquiring any lost coins.
In between levels, players can cash in those coins for special toys and props to engage in the spaceship hub. The coins are plunked into a little carnival claw game on the ship that serves various bubbled set-pieces, which can be used to transform the spherical spaceship into a variety of playroom environments. It’s a quaint diversion that can serve as a nice breather from the different worlds and challenge stages, shrinking the visual motifs found in the proper levels down to a cozy little play-set.
If anything, the only sore spot in the experience might be the over-stimulating soundtrack. There are a few pieces that stand out, like a pleasant track that plays during an underwater level, but most of it is just highly-caffeinated nonsensical pop, full of cringe-inducing record scratches and synthesized horns. It’s not enough to weigh the experience down, but it’s a meaninglessly raucous assortment of noise bereft of personality, and doesn’t compare to the characterful delight found in almost every other aspect of the game. The sound effects on their own are quite good, though, and listening for the warbles of hiding robots provides a hint for figuring out where they are — one that would be easier if the soundtrack’s intensity could just tone itself down a few notches.
The first board meeting held for Astro Bot Rescue Mission could have featured a single word written in all caps on a whiteboard: CHARM. It oozes through the game’s pores, but never feels like a cheap or thoughtless cash-grab; this isn’t another me-too half-baked mascot platformer fast-tracked out the door. The minutes or hours you spend with it never fails to provoke a well-earned grin, whether it’s from Astro mistakenly leaping onto your in-game headset and politely waving a cheerful hello, or the way the rescued robots huddle around in thankful awe when visiting the spaceship. The PlayStation VR’s killer app for 2018 is here, and it’s both a robust expression of the tech’s potential and a smartly designed platformer that can go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the genre.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission is available now on PlayStation VR for $39.99. Screen Rant was provided a digital PS VR code for this review.