Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Astro Bot Rescue Mission

After managing to get a PS5 at launch, the first game I played was the pre-installed Astro’s Playroom, a fun introduction to the system and the new DualSense controller. I enjoyed it so much that I soon sought out a copy of Astro’s debut title, the PlayStation VR exclusive Astro Bot Rescue Mission, partly to have an excuse to get more mileage out of the headset. When I got around to playing it, I found it very charming and a great example of third-person VR.

The story of Astro Bot Rescue Mission is very minimal. After you meet Astro for the first time, an alien appears and wrecks the Astro Ship, leading you to have to recover five Ship Parts to repair it as well as rescue 213 Bots across 20 levels across five Worlds. Though simple, this provides enough of a motivation to progress through the game and search every last inch of every level for more Bots.

The gameplay itself is presented as third-person VR platformer, executed in a way that makes interesting use of its presentation. Astro is fully controllable in 3D space, however the camera, represented in-game as the player assuming the role of a larger Helper Bot, moves forward (and not backwards) alongside Astro as you progress and its positioning is based on that of the player’s field of view. In addition to a melee attack, Astro can glide for a short period using lasers in his feet, which is useful for traversing larger gaps or attacking some enemies from above. Additionally, Astro cannot fall off of some ledges and throwable objects have an aim assist, plus he can infinitely respawn at one of a given level’s evenly-spaced checkpoints. The player is able to participate in some of the action by using their head to bash breakable objects or enemies that target them and not Astro, or by using a gadget equipped to the DualShock 4 as given in a level.

Your primary goal is to rescue the Bots in each level.

Each of the game’s five Worlds has five levels, the last of which is a Boss while the rest each have eight Bots you can rescue, many of which are cleverly hidden throughout the level. Bosses have their own challenges and unique strategies, however the only way to challenge them after you beat them is through a Challenge level. In addition to rescuing all eight Bots in non-Boss stages, the player can search for a hidden Space Chameleon, which allows access to a Challenge Level based on the stage they were found in. Challenge Levels each have two Bots you can obtain, however you can only get both if you complete the challenge in the most optimal way possible or get the highest score you can within a time limit, which can often require a lot more dexterity than otherwise required throughout the rest of the game.

Each level has a number of coins you can collect, which you can spend on a claw machine within the Astro Ship to obtain toys, each try costing 100 coins. There are multiple types of toys you can collect, each based on different level types in the game, though you can only get five toys at a time per regular stage completed and one for each boss stage. Some of the capsules you can pull are actually bombs, though you are not penalized for pulling one aside from being out 100 coins. Collecting a toy in each level category lets you turn the interior of the ship into a themed playset and collecting more toys adds more elements to the playset, however you otherwise cannot freely look at the toys you collected.

The visual design of the game is heavily stylized, with all characters and some other elements taking on a mechanical appearance, however this works well in the game’s favor as it leads to enemies having unique silhouettes that let you distinguish them from a glance. As the game has no spoken dialogue, everything about the characters and their personalities are successfully conveyed entirely through a variety of different grunts and body language, alongside some very good sound design. The music itself is also varied and has some memorable tracks, though one thing I did notice was that, like in the later game Astro’s Playroom, some of it had a very familiar tune, which I was able to pinpoint as being similar to the song “Starlight” on the Muse album Black Holes and Revelations.

In what seems now as a precursor to Astro’s Playroom, Astro Bot Rescue Mission contains some PlayStation references, though not quite to the same extent. From what I was able to spot, one of Astro’s idle animations has him put on a PlayStation VR headset, and a small explosion of the DualShock face button icons can be seen whenever there’s an interaction with the in-game controller (ex. Astro, a Bot or a Ship Piece enters it; the controller is equipped with a gadget) or an enemy is defeated by Astro’s foot lasers. I also noticed the first boss battle takes place on what resembles a giant PS1, plus the boss of that stage attacks in a way that reminds me of the final boss from Astro’s Playroom.

Astro takes residence inside your DualShock 4 between levels.

Based on my own experience, some levels of the game managed to tap into some of my own personal fears, though this was most likely not intentional on the part of the developers. Aside from an unexpected horror-themed level late in the game, levels that caused some personal discomfort for me on a first run through included almost anything taking place high above the clouds, levels involving the ocean deep (save for World 2-2, which has a more “tropical” approach) and at least one level taking place in a cave. While the stylized nature of the game takes away from this to an extent, I think this only happened to me because the game is in VR, which adds a layer of immersion that I would not have felt otherwise. I was able to power through this regardless, though World 3-3, which takes place entirely in the deep sea, required some minor outside assistance for me to get through it, so I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing something similar if any of the game’s levels inadvertently brings out any similar types of phobias.

A more relaxing underwater presentation, in my opinion.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission is an interesting take on third-person VR and a fun one at that. The visual design has some level of charm to it and the gameplay is fairly intuitive in its approach to 3D VR platforming. If you have a PlayStation VR and/or are fond of the Astro character, this game is one you should consider for your collection.

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