2018 was finally the year I dove headset-first into the Virtual World, thanks in part to some significant PSVR bundle deals towards the end of the year. But for all the immersive fantasy worlds and intense rhythm-action experiences on offer, the hottest buzz of all was around a cartoonish 3D platformer starring a tiny robot who’s been a half-hearted mascot for the PS4 since the early days of the system.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission sees you take control of a floating robot who guides their small mechanical companion through a colourful series of environments in search of his missing fellow crewmates, as well as the key components of their damaged spaceship. Progression is broken down into a very old-school series of hub worlds, each with several distinct linear 3D platforming levels leading up to a boss fight. Structurally, it’s perhaps most reminiscent of the old Crash Bandicoot games — which I certainly enjoyed, but perhaps doesn’t seem like the most innovative concept in the year 2018.
What makes Astro Bot click, then, isn’t its overall structure, but rather the specifics of each level and how well each of them acts as a showcase for VR. Levels twist and turn, with your tiny bot buddy frequently hopping and clambering around platforms that work their way over and around your head, or require you to physically lean and peer around corners or over ledges to see hidden items or objectives. Giving your character a physical presence in the world really adds to the sense of immersion; of truly being a part of the action.
The environments themselves keep things varied too: dry, arid canyons where rock formations tower above you; dense bamboo forests where you must hurl shurikens to slice down the foliage which blocks your path; huge, sprouting ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ plants which twist and stretch their way up into the clouds, lifting the two of you up with them; underwater caverns where you must physically swing your body to crack through sunken ship wreckages and duck under nefarious stinging jellyfish.
I could go on and on, because that list is merely the tip of Astro Bot’s variety — but to do so would be to spoil a lot of the delight in surprise. Just when you think SIE Japan Studio might be falling back onto an idea that they used previously, they throw another twist into the mix to keep things feeling fresh.
It’s also impossible to understate just how damn charming the whole thing is when you see it for yourself. Looking at images and videos certainly conveys some of it; but actually seeing the little guy hop up on your controller, get right up to your face, and give you a happy little wave is extremely heartwarming. Throw in the vibrant, bright, polished visuals and the jaunty, uplifting soundtrack, and you have one of the most feel-good games I’ve played in a long time.
I was grinning from ear to ear from the opening level through to the final moments, and my only regret is that I sought out every single last collectible and now there’s nothing more left for me to do. If you have the chance, you need to play Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
This piece written for the Crate & Crowbar Community Critic Club.