Astro Bot is a supremely silly and incredibly smooth platformer


Astro Bot is as precise as it is ridiculous, and this is exactly what makes it so damn delightful. During my 30-minute demo at Summer Game Fest, I crashed into spiky obstacles, flew off the side of sky-high platforms, bounced into deadly projectiles and popped my little robot protagonist like an overinflated balloon — and I could not keep the smile off my face the entire time. The art style, sound effects and animations in Astro Bot are infused with childlike joy, taking the sting out of each failure. Simultaneously, each death felt avoidable with a little more practice, each leap landable with just one more try. Resets were quick and generous, encouraging trial-and-error while maintaining a superb platforming flow.

Despite its kid-friendly appearance, Astro Bot feels like a mature — and super tricky! — platformer.

This competency makes sense, considering Sony has had more than 10 years to perfect the Astro Bot recipe. The first official Astro Bot title was Rescue Mission, a 2018 PlayStation VR game and a semi-sequel to 2013’s The Playroom demo on PS4. Next, Astro’s Playroom came pre-installed on the PS5 at launch in 2020, offering a short but memorable tour through the features of the DualSense controller. All of these experiences were cute and well-executed, but as it turns out, they were long-tail teasers for the full Astro Bot game coming out on September 6.

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PlayStation

The SGF 2024 Astro Bot demo was on PlayStation 5 and showcased a few different worlds, each with a distinct gadget and map style. I tried out a dog jetpack that let me dash forward and a pair of frog-face gloves with spring-loaded punching abilities. The frog gloves were my favorite weapon of the day: the left glove was activated by the LT button and the right was attached to RT, and I spent most of this level rhythmically punching the air, just because it felt cool to do so. Throughout this stage there were also red sticky points to punch into, allowing me to hold the gloves in place and stretch out the springs, turning Astro into a robot-sized slingshot. You have to hold the triggers in place and pull Astro back before flinging its little body in the proper direction, which is sometimes directly into the face of a giant red octopus. Obviously.

Astro makes the most adorable wah wah wah wah sound when it dies, diffusing the disappointment of each failure. I heard this sound most often while attempting to clear a section of spinning, spiked balls and pink-glass platforms that shattered as soon as Astro skated over them. The fragile nature of the glass forced me to react with twitchy adjustments, ramping up the tension and encouraging replays. There were so many clever mechanics, tools and obstacles on display in the Astro Bot demo, including a throwable time-freezing item, a powerful magnet that picked up anything metal nearby, a line of flaming spheres that snaked rapidly across a platform, and even just the standard jump, which propelled Astro into the air and shot lasers out of its feet, injuring the blobs and other enemies below.

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PlayStation

The full game will feature more than 50 unique planets of platforming proficiency, more than 300 bots to rescue (more than half of which are classic PlayStation characters), and dozens of weird and satisfying tools to use. It’ll take about 15 hours to complete, and according to Team ASOBI head Nicolas Doucet, that length was chosen purposefully.

“Usually games use like one or two mechanics really well, and they build up on top of that, but this is really more about us rebooting everything for every planet, and just keeping Astro and the crew as the center point,” Doucet told Engadget at SGF. “But it’s something we decided from the beginning, that maybe as a result, it won’t be like a 50 hour game — but that’s okay. It’s better to have 15 hours of constant renewal than 30 hours where you feel like, sometimes, it drags a bit.”

Team ASOBI’s goal with Astro Bot is to offer a fresh experience at every turn.

“We want people to think, ‘What surprise are they going to throw next?’” Doucet said. “And if we can maintain that all the way to the end — even like, final boss, game ending, we are trying to keep that alive to the very, very, very last second of the game. If we succeed with that, I think people will have a good time.”

As in Astro’s Playroom, the DualSense controller has a starring role in Astro Bot. The game’s bots regularly fly around on a jet-sized DualSense and Astro is on a mission to collect friends and store them inside the controller itself. When new bots are picked up they appear inside an on-screen DualSense, and when players shake the controller in real life, it’s mirrored in the game. The little characters sway and knock into each other, and they can even pop out of the gamepad if it’s rattled in the proper way, and it’s all just pretty adorable.

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PlayStation

It’s refreshing to see Sony leaning into silliness.

“The design of Astro has a little bit of a tummy, and actually, the bots originally were supposed to look a little bit like toddlers,” Doucet said. “They look a little bit clumsy on their legs and, you know, their butts sticking out as if they were wearing nappies and stuff. The design came from that, so that the silhouette would be endearing and also a little bit silly. But that was separated from the tightness [of the mechanics]. It’s almost like there’s two mindsets, because the silliness can be there and we kind of laugh about it, but when it comes to clearing a challenge, it’s good to be tight. It’s only pixel perfect.”

The balance between acuity and absurdity is what makes Astro Bot so compelling, even just in its demo form. It feels like a solid platformer first, providing a mechanically sound foundation where all of the nonsense can thrive.

“The silliness usually comes from animation and the visual side, whereas the tightness of the gameplay comes from the engineering and really the game design and programming,” Doucet said. “If I go back to the origins of Astro, before being a funny-to-look-at platformer, it was actually a platformer that feels good, where the jump lands exactly where you want and starts when you want. Your input lag and all of that was really the focus point.”

The PlayStation demo space at Summer Game Fest was a cool cave of happiness, featuring Lego Horizon Adventures and Astro Bot, two games that turn classic Sony characters into irreverent cartoon versions of themselves. Considering some of PlayStation’s most popular protagonists are serious, grizzled warriors like Kratos, Joel, Ellie, Wander, the Bloodborne guy and Aloy, there’s room for these interpretations to go horribly wrong. Astro Bot gets it right (and it sounds like Lego Horizon Adventures does, too).

“The writing of the games isn’t as important to us as what the character background is,” Doucet said. “In the case of The Last of Us, for example, the main characters are good characters. They have complex decisions to make, but fundamentally, they’re good people. There would be nothing wrong about questioning, ‘Who is Ellie?’ and, ‘Who is Joel?’ And then, you know, parents and kids can exchange [ideas]. You can imagine a good conversation coming out of that.”

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PlayStation

The character I was most stoked to see in Astro Bot was the red-cloaked protagonist from Journey. While the meeting immediately triggered memories of loss, discovery and introspection, I was mostly just happy to see an old friend in an unexpected place. The fact that the character was guaranteed to be carefree and comedic here added an extra layer of mental security to the experience. A colleague who was watching me play didn’t immediately recognize the Journey character in Astro Bot and I was happy to explain it, automatically recounting some of my own experiences with the game from back in the day. It’s easy to see how Astro Bot will introduce new audiences to classic PlayStation franchises, while also reigniting those feel-good hormones in veteran players.

But I’ll be honest: I don’t really need the PlayStation characters in Astro Bot. They’re adorable and capable of generating a warm tinge of familiarity, but for me, Astro Bot’s allure doesn’t lie in its nostalgia play. Instead, I view the character appearances more like easter eggs, cute but not crucial to the actual gameplay. Which, I have to say again, is incredibly competent, replayable and fun. Stellar platforming is Astro Bot’s true joy.


Catch up on all of the news from Summer Game Fest 2024.



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