There are few things in life as satisfying as a good 3D platformer. Each time I play games such as Super Mario Odyssey, Ratchet & Clank, Crash Bandicoot, and countless other character-driven action platformer games, there’s always a smile firmly plastered to my face. The bright colors, whimsical music, and precision controls tap into the core of what makes video games so much fun. But we’ve rarely seen this genre explored in VR thus far.
Lucky’s Tale (and more recently Moss) are rare exceptions, but most developers seem to think that playing a third-person game in VR is pointless. Luckily, I’m here to tell you that Astro Bot: Rescue Mission from Sony’s Japan Studio is a third-person 3D platformer built from the ground up specifically for VR and does a remarkable job of selling the genre for the platform.
Back when PSVR first launched it came bundled with a free little pack-in collection of mini games called The Playroom VR. Most of these games were designed with multiplayer in mind and provided asynchronous thrills for everyone in the room — both inside and outside of VR. However, it also included a brief single player-only platformer called Robot Rescue. We loved it so much we called for Sony to make it into a full game and — despite the odds — someone was listening.
At a recent pre-E3 preview event we got the chance to go hands-on with Astro Bot, the full game based on the seed of an idea found in Robot Rescue, and came away extremely excited to play it in its entirety.
What struck me most when I first sat down with Astro Bot is just how polished it feels. The opening moments showed a globe-style world stage with multiple levels spread across it. The developer queued up one of the early stages for me to give a try. Once loaded, I look down at my controller and see the cute little robot peering up at me (shown below), fully aware of my presence. With a press of the X button he’s blasted out into the world, ready to track down his lost comrades on a daring Rescue Mission.
The developer told me that there will be five worlds in total to explore and over two dozen total stages, including six boss fights. Including all of the extra challenges, collectibles, and replayability they liberally estimate it could take upwards of eight or more hours to finish everything. In the span of 20 minutes I did two of the early stages and a boss fight, so if that math holds true, it’s probably more like 3-4 hours just to finish each stage, with all of the collectibles and extra content adding on the rest. That’s just a guesstimate though.
For a game like this, that’s a pretty solid chunk of time and already means it’s outpacing the likes of Moss and Lucky’s Tale from a sheer length perspective.
Controlling the little Astro Bot was dead simple and special abilities will be earned slowly over the course of the whole game. At the start all you can do is jump, hover with a jet pack, punch to attack, and do a charged spin attack for sustained damage.
Near the end of the second non-boss stage that I played I got the grappling hook ability, which you might remember from the Robot Rescue demo in Playroom VR. This shoots a rope out of my controller (that’s right, it’s 6DOF tracked in 3D space in the game at all times) onto compatible surfaces for pulling things down or letting Astro walk along like a tight rope.
Astro Bot carves out a name for itself in its admittedly small genre niche of VR by doing wonderful things with scale and player presence. Several moments in the two levels I played required me to physically move my head and controller in 3D space — things I’d never do in a traditional Mario or Ratchet & Clank game.
While climbing a tower I have to lean forward and backward to keep track of Astro’s movements. In a later level, the developer describes playing the whole stage from below Astro as he runs along the tops of leaves, meaning all the player sees are shadows. Several hidden collectibles can only be found by craning your neck upwards, turning around and looking behind you, or daring to peak around to the most hidden corners of stages.
In the image below you can see an example of how small Astro is in comparison to the first boss I faced — a giant ape that kept trying to eat me.
While Astro Bot: Rescue Mission may at first glance seem like a game that could exist outside of VR or a game that shouldn’t be in VR at all. But to dismiss its innovations as gimmicks and its charm as meaningless would be a profound disservice. Personally, I can’t wait to venture back into this world, peer down at the hundreds of trapped Bots scattered across the game, and do my part to save them with Astro by my side.
Now here’s hoping that Insomniac can take a hint and make a Ratchet & Clank VR game next.
Astro Bot: Rescue Mission does not currently have a release date or window, but we should expect to hear more about it at this year’s E3 next month. As a Sony Japan Studio title this will be a PSVR exclusive. Let us know what you think so far down in the comments below!