A resounding success that delivers the PSVR’s Mario64 moment.
If Sackboy were the hero for PS3, then this little robot is carrying the sword for PSVR and after his small tastes of action in playroom he is now treated to his own full blown adventure thanks to Sony Japan studios, a collective you are almost certain to have played a game from. Ape Escape is likely the longest and most famous, something of a core ingredient for PlayStation consoles since the first, it has been nothing if eclectic. This has been mirrored with the formats and medium, consoles, handheld and VR have all been on the receiving end of their skills or publishing power.
He is a Star Boy!
The title may have grabbed you and it is something I do not take likely, simply this is one, if not the best integrations of the VR format I have experienced since launch, before I get into why I feel it is a similar moment to that paradigm, I need to bring you up to speed. The inception is simple, some selfish nasal debris has decided to bully your friends, steal your ship and scatter your crew across 5 linear worlds leaving one lone hero to save them all, so far so 90’s. Your mission is to explore these realms, rescue your colleges and rebuild your ship, which bears a striking resemblance to a VR headset. These cover a range of themes from dark caves, jungles, ocean depths and lava-stricken lands that would fall perfectly in-line with any Sonic or Mario title. The difference here your presence within the story and adventure is something of a starring role and what sets this apart from all 2D platformers and be under no confusion, this is a platformer in every sense.
You are required to locate you trapped friends across each of the 4 levels per 5 worlds. 8 of your crew are hiding away within each of them and some are easier to find than others, but as the worlds tumble the difficulty of this bot hunt increases alongside the skill requirement. Similar to the superb Moss last year that I touched on in my 2017 VR titles, it breaks down the 4th wall by not only involving you, which that did, but acknowledging your presence within the world itself. This core feature seems simple enough that many other titles should have followed it, some have, but none have designed the entire experience around it to this degree. You control your little Star Boy around these precarious worlds using a variety of precision jumping, simple attacks of strikes, spins or foot lazers mix with a variety of puzzles and mutli-pronged and quite simply superb level design, the kind of ingenious craft I have not enjoyed since those hallowed days of Platforming’s heyday. Using no more than 2 main buttons for one half of your digital duo seems minimal in this rammed control system days but simplify to intensify is the order of the day. This is a rousing success as you almost intuitively control the bot without any guides required, like a true classic game it is simple to learn but difficult to master.
No 5 is Alive
Much of this is that you yourself are an element within the success of this story, not just idly sitting on your chair pressing buttons, instead being the eyes & head to see the end of this tale. You have to lean forward to see what is lurking behind that wall or up small sections to find secret areas or one of your hidden crew. The real star is the 360 degree designed levels that put you at the centre, you path is on rails through game, controlled by your progression of the hero at large. Many of them require you to sit up, look around and even turn fully in your seat to make that jump, solve that conundrum or even see where that elusive 8th bot is hiding. Quickly this becomes the most engrossing platformer I have ever played and takes me right back to the space age wonder that the N64 classic ushered in with those intuitive controls, excellent level and world design and most importantly bedrock camera system that almost every other game since has used as the basis. Here YOU are the camera so this is the most perfect camera system you could ask for, well when obstruction or view is not woven into the design. Expanding this further is enemies will attack you, spit goo that needs to be shaken off by your head, something you will naturally do as you play, dodge hornets, headbutt them or scenery and even acquire various tools throughout play such as an in vogue grapple hook, ninja stars or water gun that adds yet more dimensions to this full 3D extravaganza.
You are tasked to clean up sticky goo, water plants for progression, pull down walls or deflate balloons and even create make shift platforms on the fly to progress. All of these elements combine to create the most absorbing experience I have had in VR without feeling anything but joy, sickness here is very very low as movement is natural from your head and lateral movement is kept to a minimum, the design is always aware you are sitting down, keeping the captivating escort and hectic moments safe enough to not have your breakfast joining in the fun. What really seals the deal and takes this beyond any other platformer you have played is the simply stunning quality of the visuals and the PSVR headset, a game where graphics make an even bigger difference than others is VR and Astro Bot is frankly a Pixar level VR game from a visual and animation perspective.
As you are always pressed nose close to much of the world and characters within detail and simplicity is key. The team have maximized the finite resources here with remarkable results that are some of the best you will see from console powered VR. You lean in to see Astro waving at you, blinking and all manner of action and idle animations, another offering to the platform gods. Smooth and fluid animation is used across all characters with Bot being the standout as he runs, sways, swims, spins, slides and darts around he portrays all the nuance of a little character out to rescue his friends. Much of the world and enemies in the game, including the outstanding boss battles, mix up key-frame animation with Morph shape animation that mixes vertex blends rather than all limb and skelatol rigs, much like Nintendo have been doing for years in many of its Mario titles and we saw in Abzu mixing up traditional rig animation and blend shapes within vertex shaders reduces the load on CPU and memory while allowing a variety of objects to move, sway and come alive with liquid fluidity.
The worlds all feel very active as you play, grass sways, flags billow, mushroom lights bounce and cannonballs spin and smash your visor as you admire these silky smooth vertex rotations and shifts, another factor that gives the whole thing a polished and, dare I say, Nintendo feel of quality to it.Physically based materials and lighting are another element that seals this VR journey. You get to admire metal grills, parquet floors, dank caves and they all achieve a consistency that impresses. Light plays a vital part of this as you wander into these darker sections or gaze out across a sun drenched beach, watching your little one paddle in the pools below. Post effects are also added into the pot giving wavering caustic reflections on water or surface refraction using a pixel shader distort over the top that tracks the waves and ripples. The water and physics in the game are equally if not more impressive, water jets from your controller follow another likely vertex solution that fakes fluid simulation very well, as they break into drops and splash down upon impact into particle debris. Larger pools of water bob, reflect, refract and sway with a similar quality even picking up objects with surface buoyancy. All serving a purpose and some of the best levels and moments in the game occur under, just above or best lerping between the waves. You can even collect a little rubber ring to keep you character on the surface and ride those waves man. As your head goes under the sound is distorted and occluded then returns when out leaving water droplets running down your visor or sea-weed dreadlocks, hmm this looks good, of work it, work it.
Sound is excellent and like the visuals accompanies or increases the moment to moment action, from water distortion, background themes and the use of direction and reverb keeping scale as distance moments loose the higher frequency sounds and delay others. Scale is a great work to describe one of the best parts here, your adventure takes you across so many moments, battles and sights you are constantly looking forward to the next level. Something I have tried to keep to a minimum here so as not to spoil many of those moments which are a key segment here. They are simply marvelous as you stare out over the levels, which are not big from an end to end point, some of them you can see the end from the start. It is the way it works you into getting inside this, looking around at all the little bits, understanding the edges or hidden parts that may offer extras or secrets to find. In true Nintendo style, each world is culminated with a he boss battle, from Giant Apes to lava spewing Octopi the ooze all the wonder, majesty and style of the entire worlds themselves. While playing I could quickly see many influences on the title, Mario Sunshine is clear with the water gun, lazer feet showing obvious nods. The fluidity of jumps and response of controls mixed in with the safety edges that remove almost any moments of frustration creeping in as you wobble at edges. Some segments can leave you with a very limited view at times to see and practically blind, these are few and far between though. The grapple hook come tight rope are ingenious which still do not give you breathing time as what ever you can do the enemies can also.
Battle of the Bro’s
Frame-rates are a vital element of VR and although this does not demand as high as other VR titles I did notice some signs within the headset, likely falling back to interpolating to 120Hz using re-projection or time-warping. On lateral movement in the head-set I did pick up some blended signs of this which point to the fact it falls back to this if the 8ms budget is missed, never an issue though, something true for both models. The difference between the base and Pro models follow a very similar theme, resolution. The game uses an adaptive resolution with scales the image quality slightly when needed, this can be picked up easily as levels load as you see obvious pixel breakup, shimmer and crawl as the level draws in. It may be that the temporal AA is disabled during these sections though as it might affect the image more than just allowing it to draw in. But once we are into the action this quickly cleans up even on the PS4 to be somewhere around 900p level from a rough estimate. The Pro pushes this to 1080 maybe higher which can be clearly noticed on distance views across both consoles even from the 1280×720 feed we get from the breakout box. Dense foliage is where the Pro advantage stands out, the grass and leaves can blend into a green blur at times on the PS4 but are cleanly resolved on the PRO. Aside these minor differences though all other elements remain the same from material quality, texture resolution shadow cascades and lighting are all a match between them. Minor texture streaming issues from Mip Map levels can happen infrequently on the PS4 which I never noticed on the Pro, likely due to that improved bandwidth. If you are looking to pick this up then both versions are close enough to not be of any great concern.
My only gripe is some of the checkpoint moments can force you to repeat long sections just to die at the same point again. Enemy design is the perfect balance of Mario Cuteness and comedy horror but I would have loved to see more variety in them. 20 Levels and 6 boss battles offer a good 6 or so hours of enjoyment if you speed through and are good. But the extra 26 challenge level and speed runs are addictive and add many more hours as does the need to 100% each level which will likely double or even triple the time you get from this £25 or $30 VR game and for that price it feels like a fun packed bargain.
Short Circuit Summary
Astro Bot is a game I stuck almost 4.5 hrs in one sitting on to cover for this review and I purchased it myself. I was hooked by the style, humour, presentation and proficiency in the level and puzzle design. It is a simple, elegant ultimately linear platforming title that on paper simply sounds like a retro themed modern take on that. It is the high production values, super smooth animation, PBR material and excellent lighting system that raises it above many other titles on a visual level this would still be a great looking 2D platformer in VR (which as much as I try can never be portrayed accurately here) it is one of the best. The level design is simply superb and the flow of the game, grander moments and integration of you into it all is what seals this as quite simply the best example of VR games done well. Not possible on a flat screen it takes the medium and does not try to make it fit the game, instead shapes the game around it with astounding success. If Nintendo made VR titles this would most likely be the result, it has the charm, charisma and unassuming intelligence of Team red all it is missing is a red plumber to fix those leaks.