Astro Bot stole my heart at Summer Game Fest 26

Astro Bot stole my heart at Summer Game Fest

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Every once in a while, a game comes around that wasn’t on your radar and absolutely blows you away. Over the past few weeks, that’s been Astro Bot for me.

I adored its 2020 predecessor, the PS5 pack-in Astro’s Playroom, but its three-to-five-hour total playtime left me hungry for more. Therefore, the reveal during last month’s State of Play that a full-fledged sequel, simply titled Astro Bot, is coming later this year had me incredibly excited. Taking that level of charm and creativity and extending to it a longer and deeper follow-up sounded too good to be true.

And now, after a 45-minute demo at Summer Game Fest in Los Angeles, I’m happy to say that Astro Bot is shaping up to be everything I could have hoped for — and more.

That all starts with a significantly expanded scope. Astro’s Playroom was designed to function as a showcase of the PS5’s technology, so each of its four worlds (and associated four sub-levels) was themed around the console’s various components. Astro Bot, however, sprinkles all of those tactile DualSense features onto a sprawling Super Mario Galaxy-esque adventure spanning more than 80 stages that aren’t simply inspired by PS5 hardware. In my demo, this included a luscious and serene garden, a sprawling trap-filled factory floating atop the clouds, and a deadly island duel with a giant robotic octopus, as well as two tricky optional challenge levels that require you to avoid hazards and temporarily freeze platforms to reach the end goal.

Part of that means creating a greater variety of unique level gimmicks that aren’t just one-offs to highlight specific aspects of the DualSense. The first level I played introduced a power-up that let Astro turn into a giant balloon that could inflate and deflate to reach different altitudes, and it’s already easy to imagine how that could be used in different platforming challenges. But it was another level’s gimmick that was particularly entertaining, giving Astro extendable, weaponized arms like the characters from Arms. At first, this was just used to punch enemies from afar, but it soon evolved into makeshift grapple hooks that let me swing from specific points like Spider-Man.

Doucet said it was a key focus for the team was to have those kinds of abilities that offer evolving utility throughout the campaign. “Let’s say you have two levels with the same power — we just make sure that the use case of these power-ups is overlapping just a little bit, but at the same time they’re very different.”

He points to the major boss of the demo, the giant octopus. After using your stretchy arms to punch the weak points on its tentacles, you then have to slingshot toward the creature to damage its eyes.

“So there’s a level with that. But then later, the same kind of spring punch can be used to actually start grabbing enemies and pull them out of holes and swing them around — that kind of thing,” he said. “We don’t put all of these use cases in one place and then repeat it; we actually split them in a way so that it feels like even though you’re getting something familiar, the way it’s going to be used, it’s going to be new. So that’s the kind of thing that runs through — that freshness.”

Adding even more variety is Team Asobi’s approach this time around to incorporate the larger PlayStation brand. Part of the charm of Astro’s Playroom was how it paid tribute to the history of both PlayStation hardware and software in the collectibles you could find and characters you could meet. In Astro Bot, Team Asobi has taken that even further by featuring over 150 familiar faces from across the PlayStation pantheon. But it isn’t just about tripling the number of cameos — it’s about giving them more meaningful roles in the campaign.

Towards the end of my demo, after I’d beaten the octopus, the island ended up getting destroyed and Astro was stranded in the middle of the sea in a cute little inflatable pool tube. “Oh no! What am I going to do?” I thought. Then, lo and behold, none other than Kratos and Atreus from God of War appear in a boat and rescue me. After punching away a little squid, Kratos grumpily yeets both me and Atreus onto a flying DualSense controller before hopping on himself and we all fly away to end the level. As someone who loved God of War Ragnarök so much that he wrote a semi-viral heartfelt essay about the game, I was overjoyed to see these two have a more active role in the story. Moreover, the icon for one gated-off level in the overworld featured Thor’s hammer and Odin’s Ravens from Ragnarök, suggesting that we’ll get an actual stage themed around Sony Santa Monica’s masterpiece and, presumably, other PlayStation titles as well.

In Astro’s Playroom, the nods to other franchises were largely just in the background, like a bot based on Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake playing with a gun or a group of bots gathered around the Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII. Therefore, I’m ecstatic to think of all the delightfully inventive ways Team Asobi has more deeply integrated these characters into Astro Bot‘s campaign. Even in the two challenge maps I played, I had to rescue Jak from Jak and Daxter and The Traveler from Journey, further incentivizing me to complete them. Other confirmed guests include higher-profile figures like Ratchet, Clank, and Rivet (Ratchet & Clank), Aloy (Horizon), and the Hunter (Bloodborne) and deeper cuts like Trico (The Last Guardian) and Lammy (the PaRappa the Rapper spin-off Um Jammer Lammy).

The goal, Doucet said, is to pay homage to PlayStation’s history in creative ways that appeal to both veterans and new, younger audiences.

“We never name them directly. We allude to them because it’s more fun to talk about Ratchet as ‘a Lombax from another galaxy,’ as opposed to just saying ‘Ratchet.’ So we’re trying to kind of have these funny ways to describe them. And then later, when you collect them, and you do a full set, if you go around and punch them, they have funny reactions that are linked to the game. So Ratchet will lose all his bolts and pick them up like a greedy guy. We add a little twist — he doesn’t do that in his game — but he does pick up a hell of a lot of bolts,” he said with a laugh.

“So we play on that and try to add a twist. Whatever was iconic or remembered by the players, we tried to twist into a joke or a visual gag that can be enjoyed by young kids who don’t actually play these games, but also enjoyed by the people who actually play this game. Playing on these two fields is a big part of this game. We’re trying to be really accessible to a younger audience; it might be the first game that some people play [a platformer]. It’s a pleasure and honour and responsibility at the same time.”

The sheer variety and charm in the brief glimpse I got at the game, coupled with Doucet’s clear enthusiasm and creative passion, have me even more excited for Astro Bot than I already was. Out of the couple dozen games I got to play at Summer Game Fest, this was easily my favourite, and it’s quickly become my most anticipated game for the rest of 2024.

Astro Bot will release exclusively on PlayStation 5 on September 6th, 2024.
Image credit: PlayStation