2017 saw a bit of a resurgence in the 3D platforming genre, spearheaded by Kickstarter project Yooka Laylee and followed by the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy and A Hat in Time as the year came to a close. Still, interest in the genre remains high with Spyro: Reignited Trilogy just around the corner and more crowdfunded projects in the works. While Super Lucky’s Tale and Mervils VR could be argued to be the genre’s first true foray into the realm of virtual reality, neither truly tapped the potential the added layer of immersion could provide. That’s where Astro Bot: Rescue Mission for the PSVR comes in.
Released this month by Studio Japan, Rescue Mission is the full realization of a mini-game found in the PS VR Worlds software that came bundled with many PSVR units upon release. The prototype was a single level platformer that centered around navigating an adorable robot through a cartoony landscape, picking up as many of his scattered friends as possible before making his way to the end of the stage. The setup for Astro Bot: Rescue Mission is much the same as the prototype. Your pals are scattered all across several different planets thanks to an alien antagonist and it’s your job to platform your way through twenty or so stages and save as many as you can while collecting pieces of a broken space ship held by the world bosses.
Presentation-wise, I don’t think there’s much I can say about Rescue Mission because it’s one of those “you need to see it to believe it” situations. I will say that the characters, enemies, and locales all have an insane amount of charm to them in the same way that many triple A Nintendo platformers do however. Astro himself even behaves similarly to most mascot platformer protagonists from the late 90’s, with tons of idle animations and expressions dependent on where he’s at. In the levels themed around lava and fire, he’ll stoop over and pant as if he’s exhausted. If you point the flashlight tool at him, he’ll cover his eyes and shake. In the underwater stages, he’ll even get “stuck” to your headset like a starfish if you move towards the camera. The hidden robot buddies are equally as charming, with some of them dangling off cliffs, roasting marshmallows near lava waterfalls or just hanging out with a bag of popcorn on a hard-to-reach platform. Studio Japan has succeeded in creating a very likeable protagonist and cast of surrounding characters, even if their designs are on the simple side.
The sound design is equally as impressive. Many of the tracks in the game mix electronic music with a variety of other genres, with the mood of each piece fitting well with the environment it’s played in. The futuristic city stages have peppy, upbeat music with plenty of beeps and boops woven in. The cavern stages have an air of mystery and the lava stages feature a bit of heavy metal. Like with Rayman Legends, audio cues will indicate when to start hunting for collectibles. Robots will cry “help me” when near, and the single hidden chameleon in each stage will often make a noise to prompt you to move your head around to track it. Thanks to these cues, I never got frustrated trying to figure out where that last hidden robot or a particular chameleon was when going for the platinum trophy.
Astro himself has a simple moveset that consists of running, jumping, punching, and a spin attack that can be triggered by holding square for a period of time and then releasing. He also has a double jump that serves as a second means of attack for dispatching monsters that are either electrified or spiked. In addition to handling the robot, the Dualshock Controller itself is used for several power-ups. The hookshot from the prototype returns, and there are several new additions such as a shuriken that can be flung by flicking the touchpad to create makeshift platforms and a flashlight that will allow you to see invisible platforms and eliminate ghosts. Just moving Astro around feels good, as it should for any platforming protagonist and the utilization of the controller for various tools makes for some clever challenges and boss encounters.
Progression is gated by a padlock blocking off each world’s end-boss that requires a certain amount of robot buddies to break, though I never found myself needing to backtrack to find any additional robots at any point in the adventure. The bosses themselves are quite inventive despite nearly all of them following the standard “dodge the attacks and wait for an opening” protocol. Gadgets often come into play at some point in each fight, such as tossing shurikens at webbing to bring a boss down to eye level or using the hose to douse projectiles before they hit Astro. Without spoiling too much, the final boss does break away from the traditional formula and is quite possibly one of the most imaginative end bosses for a 3D platformer I’ve seen in quite some time.
A common problem of the genre is a poor camera. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here thanks to the camera primarily being controlled by head-tracking. It will move forward as one progresses further into the stages, but you’ll be able to see everything that you need to by moving your head. At first, I found this difficult to adjust to as I’m quite used to controlling the camera in these games via an analog stick, but it quickly became second nature before the end of the first world. Once adjusted, peering around corners or looking over pits to see what’s lurking down below becomes entertaining in its own right and helps with the overall immersion.
The more challenging portions of the game are stashed away on a separate planet, unlocked by spotting a hidden chameleon in each main stage. These range from platforming challenges against the clock, boss rematches and one-off mini games that award robot buddies based on your performance. While nothing here is of Super Meat Boy caliber, the challenge levels are still as entertaining as the main game and are chock-full of interesting level design. Perhaps my favorite of the bunch is “Aquatic Antics”, which thrusts Astro into tubes of water that wrap around the playing field, tasking you with dodging sharks and electrical hazards while making your way to the exit. A minor gripe I have with the challenges are the aforementioned boss rematches, as the fights aren’t changed up in any way. It felt like a bit of a missed opportunity not to add some new patterns or throw in additional hazards to contend with on the second go.
Rescue Mission is fairly forgiving to the casual player who isn’t looking to do everything there is to do in the game. There are no lives to keep track of and collectibles stay collected after dying. World 4 and 5 do offer somewhat of a difficulty spike, but it was more than welcome to me as I was breezing through the game up until that point. The true challenge, as with many of the best in the genre, is collecting everything. As mentioned earlier, there are platforming challenges against a timer in the optional content. The time limits are exceptionally strict, and there’s absolutely no way the average player is going to get both robots on their first try with many of these. For some, my times were just milliseconds below the necessary time needed to be rewarded with the second bot. These aren’t quite as painful as the time trials in the Crash Banidcoot N Sane Trilogy, but still tough and rewarding to craft an optimized path through.
Overall, Rescue Mission truly is one of the best VR games I’ve played since picking up the PSVR almost two years ago. Not only that, but it’s one of the best modern triple A 3D platformers I’ve played on a non-Nintendo system in years. In hindsight, it’s a game that could have worked without the VR, but the added depth and immersion coupled with the rock-solid level design and charming presentation makes for something that’s quite memorable. While the game may only have a 5 hour run time for non-completionists (and perhaps double for the genre enthusiast that wishes to grab every last collectible), damn near every second was enjoyable. It’s taken some time, but I think PSVR has finally found its killer app…and perhaps a mascot!