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PlayStation VR has a killer app, but it’s getting buried by 2018’s biggest games

Sony releases a VR showstopper

Astro Bot Rescue Mission - holding controller in front of Astro Bot Sony Interactive Entertainment/JAPAN Studio

Astro Bot Rescue Mission is so good, and I came so close to missing it. The latest PlayStation VR exclusive is an exceptional showpiece for the platform, but the barely audible buzz around the title speaks to PSVR’s woes in 2018.

It’s rare to play a game with such a clear sense of purpose. Its designers — Sony’s prestige Japan Studios team — want simply to delight you. Each level is a fountain of new toys, gags and ideas. Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a platformer keenly aware of the platform it’s on.

You and your controller exist in the game world. You play as a benevolent robot holding the DualShock. You aren’t an invisible god; the tiny robots you’re tasked with saving all know that you’re there. They give you pointers, celebrate your successes and sometimes tell you where to look. In the world of Astro Bot, I feel like we’re all in this together as they squeak at me with their little high-pitched voices.

And my interactions with the world felt direct and real.

My own little robot operates like a remote-controlled toy. It waves at me when it catches me looking directly at it for a few moments, and splats itself against my virtual visor when I get too close. My little robot friend never holds my mistakes against me, even though they sometimes culminate with his untimely destruction.

The sense of space and physicality of the stuff within it is impressive; this is what VR should bring to a game in an ideal world. Each time I play, it’s as if I’m visiting a new planet and making itty-bitty friends.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission exhibits a Nintendo-like ability to introduce new skills, allowing me to try them in a comfortable environment before I’m asked to perform them under pressure. And yet, I never feel the game holding my hand. Early on, I unlock gadgets for the controller that let me shoot a grappling hook for my robot to climb on. Or I shoot a stream of water to blast objects and enemies. There are dandelions to blow and items that must to be broken with a headbutt. Often I just enjoy being a passive observer, waiting to see what the game does if I don’t intervene.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission solves a classic VR camera problem

Standard platforming games usually show you a large swath of the world on a single screen with the camera pointed exactly where it needs to be. Astro Bot Rescue Mission turns your head into the camera, and then puts secrets, characters and paths all around you, including above and below your normal plane of vision.

The player has complete control over where they look, but the game’s designers control where the player moves in the world. Here’s what I mean by that: Imagine standing on a platform that’s pulled around amazing action scenes where you can look anywhere at any time, and you are rewarded for doing so with a variety of little visuals details.

The sense of a real physical closeness or distance between you and your character continues to influence my emotional reaction to the game. Watching as the robot swims further and further away from me as it explores a crevasse deep underwater, I worry about my little buddy. Rollercoaster levels where the cart flies through dangerous environments far from me feel more reckless, like watching my kid playing in the street, knowing that if something went wrong I wouldn’t be able to get there in time.

SIE Japan Studio

I have physical while playing; there are walls I need to look around and boundaries to peek over. Since I exist in the game, where I physically stand in the play space also matters; it takes a moment to get used to thinking of how I move my body and head as a mean of getting an advantage. The more I move around, the more I can see of the game, finding secrets the creators have tucked into crevices and corners.

The game comes with 20 levels with eight robots to find in each one, six boss encounters and 26 challenge areas along with a crane game-style room where you can cash in your coins for play areas and collectibles. There’s a lot to see and do, and the number of interesting, one-off ideas and surprises the game hurls at you is, in a word, generous.

It’s one of those experiences that needs to be, well, experienced. I hope Sony decides to pack this in with PlayStation VR units for the holiday season, because this is easily one of the best showpieces for VR — of any kind.

I don’t know whether the lack of conversation about the game is due to the chilled reception of VR in 2018 or too many other big games launching this month. Don’t let either distract you from this gem. Astro Bot is a beautiful world and I encourage everybody to visit.

Astro Bot Rescue Mission was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Sony. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.