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We played Astro Bot, and it’s the exact game PlayStation needs right now

Astro Bot jumps to save Ratchet, who is tied to a tree.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Summer Gaming Marathon Feature Image
This story is part of our Summer Gaming Marathon series.

On September 6, PlayStation is primed to break the mold. After years of tightening its focus on mature adventure games aimed at older audiences, its big holiday release is something much more family-friendly: Astro Bot. Positioned as a full-fledged sequel to the PS5’s free pack-in game Astro’s Playroom, the 3D platformer is the kind of old-school charmer that feels custom-made for kids and the young at heart. It’s closer in design to a Nintendo game like Super Mario Bros. Wonder than the cinematic action games that Sony has prioritized in recent years.

Though it may seem surprising to newer PlayStation fans, Astro Bot makes a lot of sense in the context of Sony’s full gaming career. The company made its name on mascot-driven platformers like Crash Bandicoot, turning a whole generation of kids like me into lifelong PlayStation owners. Sony’s first-party games have grown up alongside that audience, but have increasingly left behind young players in the process. That’ll change this September, and it could usher in an inviting new age for PlayStation.

I got a better feel for that approaching moment at this year’s Summer Game Fest, where I demoed several levels of Astro Bot and spoke to Team Asobi Studio Head Nicolas Doucet. It’s promising enough that Astro Bot delivers precise platforming, deceptively spectacular art direction, and wildly creative power-ups that rival Nintendo’s best ideas. What’s more exciting is the way it feels like a missing link between old and young audiences. It’s the exact game PS5 needs right now to bridge a growing gap between generations of PlayStation fans.

Tempo and melody

Astro Bot is technically the third game in the Astro series, but it may as well be the first for a lot of players. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission is a phenomenal, but underplayed platformer that made the most of the PlayStation VR. Astro’s Playroom was similarly positioned as a tech showcase, acting as a brisk four-hour rundown of everything the PS5’s DualSense can do. Astro Bot is much larger in scope than either of those games. It’ll contain 80 stages, 300 bots total to collect, challenging bonus stages, and more. Doucet tells me that a casual playthrough will likely take 12 to 15 hours, making it the series’ most fully realized outing to date. That’s why Team Asobi went with the clean Astro Bot as its title; it’s a statement, like when a band makes a self-titled album a decade into its career.

During my demo, I’d play a handful of levels from the first of its five (or perhaps six) worlds. Upon jumping in, I’m immediately reminded why the series is so special. The first stage begins when I fly through a sky full of pink flamingos, tilting my DualSense controller to steer the ship. From there, I land in a grassy patch with enough space to run around, reacquaint myself with Astro’s signature hover jump, and find some secret collectibles strewn about its interactive environment. When I sit in a serene pond and unleash a charged spin attack, the leaves around me individually float off in the mini tornado.

Astro Bot rides on a PS5 controller.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Doucet emphasizes that interactive charm as a big piece of Astro Bot’s success. “We think about the joy of just playing with a toy,” he tells Digital Trends. I can feel that as I poke around the linear stages I play. When I spin attack next to a bush shaped like a spiral, it reacts with a graceful corkscrew spin. Later, I knock a stack of cans over with a punch and watch liquid spill out everywhere (it’s one of those graphically intensive feats that shows how Team Asobi is leveraging the power of the PS5 even with a light, cartoon art style). It’s just a joy to hit every object in sight and see what happens.

That toylike appeal bleeds into the platforming and collectible hunting hooks. Like previous games, I find myself using my hover shoes to cross wide gaps and blast enemies below me. During my demo, I’d see that core get twisted in a lot of playful ways. To get one collectible, I’d need to cross a circular platform made of very fragile glass. Pieces broke off as I crossed over it, which meant that I’d need to make sure to leave myself a path when I ran back over it. One hidden puzzle piece (three of which are found in each main stage) is locked behind a clever DualSense puzzle. When I find a bunch of suspiciously marked squares on the ground, I need to walk over them, notice which one causes my DualSense to vibrate when I walk over it, and hover blast over it to get the secret. Each stage I played was filled with discoveries like that.

In a detailed interview after my demo, Doucet went in-depth when explaining why the Astro formula feels so ironclad. He comes back to that toy design philosophy throughout, but also stresses the more “serious” piece of the formula: ultraprecise platforming in linear levels that are structured like rides. It’s unsurprising given the quality of the stages I played that Team Asobi has that down to a science.

“Something that always comes back in conversation is the tempo and melody of the levels,” Doucet says. “It’s about having the right heartbeat so you never get bored, but you don’t get overwhelmed either. Whether it’s too many things thrown at you or too much visual detail. Visual detail is good on paper when you take a screenshot, but when you play the game and need to know your path, it’s really important that you can instantly see where you’re supposed to go … There’s also the melody of running around and doing jump, jump, jump, coin, coin, punch. That melody is something that your brain picks up, and it feels good.”

Astro Bot faces down a giant boss.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

I can especially feel those design pillars in the two challenge stages I played, one of which is hidden on the world one map inside of a passing comet I need to click on. While the main levels I played were breezier affairs that players of any age level can play, those extra stages offer tough platforming gauntlets that will test genre veterans’ skills (Doucet says they were easier initially, but the team turned up the dial for those players). One has me tossing a time-slowing object at fast-moving obstacles, like spinning platforms and rows of electrified, zigzagging spikes. They’re tough as nails, with no checkpoints to help, but incredibly satisfying to clear since precise jumping always means that success and failure are entirely in my control.

And for more traditional platforming fans looking for a meta challenge, Doucet says that the entire game can be completed without using the hover jump at all. That’s how meticulously Team Asobi has crafted its platforming gauntlets this time around.

Staying fresh

The tough thing about demoing a platforming game like this is that the early levels are always going to impress. That’s where a game like Kirby and the Forgotten Land tends to dole out exciting new powers and surprises at a rapid clip. I saw that same design philosophy right out the gate in the first three levels of Astro Bot, each of which had its own distinct power that totally changed how I played. In one level, I grabbed the Bulldog Backpack, which would allow me to boost through weak walls, dash in the air, and gather up trash around me to create a giant ball I can toss at platforming moving targets.

A snake boss sideswipes Astro Bot.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Another power gives me a pair of froggy boxing gloves. Those aren’t just used to punch enemies, with the left and right triggers controlling the corresponding hand. I can also grapple and swing off of objects with them, as well as turn myself into a slingshot by grabbing specific points and pulling my control stick back. Each power I found carried a delightful surprise that served multiple purposes. Though you might assume that Astro Bot will eventually run out of those discoveries after a few worlds, Doucet says that the team designed around that pitfall.

“In this level, you got to play with the Bulldog booster,” Doucet says while showing off the overworld. “That power-up will come back in the 4th galaxy, but it will be a completely different use case of it. When we develop the power-up, we have a number of use cases. Let’s say you have five of them. We’re going to use the first two a lot in the first level and a little bit of the third, and then the third one will be an introduction. We’ll use the third, fourth, and fifth in that other level. Even though it’s the same power-up, the context is different enough.”

Boss fights help break up that flow too. The one big bad I took down here was a giant squid wearing boxing gloves on each tentacle. Naturally, I’d need to avoid some attacks and eventually punch the gloves off each tentacle, one by one, by using my froggy power. It’s not a rinse-and-repeat fight, though; it features multiple phases that almost play out like movements in a musical piece. I take out some summoned enemies, dodge punches that come up from the ground, do a bit of swinging platforming when it moves to a new arena, and eventually slingshot myself into its face to deliver a powerful blow.

We’d rather have a 12-hour game where every level feels unique …

It all feels more dynamic than your typical platformer boss that cycles through stages. That’s thanks to a staggered design philosophy where Team Asobi slightly overlaps the squid’s attacks to make it feel more reactive. When the squid summons a bunch of little enemies for me to defeat, it doesn’t wait for me to beat the last one before moving to its next phase. Instead, it starts to change when there’s one more left. Those are details that players may not be able to put their finger on, but they can be felt in lively gameplay.

Curation is also crucial here. While Astro Bot is the biggest game in the series, the team showed restraint when creating levels for it. If levels ever felt like they were getting stale, they ended up on the cutting room floor.

“It’s a big game, but we were never driven by just the size,” Doucet says. “We’d rather have a 12-hour game where every level feels unique and the density’s just right. It’s like when you go to a meal and you have really lovely stuff and you want a little bit more, but it’s just enough, as opposed to feeling stuffed … There’s been levels that we cut just because we felt like there was nothing wrong with them by themselves, but they just feel like another experience I had a couple of hours ago. We don’t need it. It’s better that we take it out so the whole time can be spent making the rest richer.”

Bridging generations

What strikes me as I play is how well Astro Bot feels tuned for both young and old audiences. The toylike interactions and simplified controls will speak to kids, but adults still have plenty of challenges to clear and secrets to collect. That checklist includes hidden bots in each level, which includes 150-plus robots themed around PlayStation characters. One level has me saving Ratchet and Rivet from Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. Another featured an adorable Kratos, who flies off to his own little God of War-themed galaxy in the overworld map once found.

We can use the game as a generation bridge.

There’s a clever trick to how characters are chosen for each level. The main stages tend to feature newer and more well-known PlayStation mascots that kids are likely to know. The more challenging bonus levels, though, get into deep cuts that’ll reward the older players who can beat those gauntlets. The better a young player gets, the more they’ll be experiencing PlayStation history.

“A 30-year history is actually a generation,” Doucet says. “A lot of the people who grew up with PlayStation as teenagers potentially have kids themselves. We can use the game as a generation bridge. In hindsight, of course, it’s going to happen, but we get a lot of stories of people who played with their daughter or son and it was their first platinum trophy. We get to be in that moment; it’s the touch between two generations. Perhaps the parents still play, but have a little bit less time, but they want to introduce their kids to games. They do that through a character that brings a whole history along.”

Astro Bot dresses up as Kratos.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Doucet calls the desire to bring generations together a “noble cause,” and I tend to agree. While I enjoy playing titles like The Last of Us Part 2 as an adult who craves thematically rich art, I want young kids to have the same kind of playful experiences I had on PlayStation growing up. They need games like Spyro the Dragon to spark their imaginations and get them excited about games. If you stop building experiences for those players, you’re going to end up with an audience of aging players who slowly atrophy as adult responsibilities eat away at their gaming time.

Astro Bot feels like a playful reminder that we should never leave kids behind. And based on the promising levels I’ve played, Team Asobi is doing that without alienating older players either. That multigenerational approach could turn Astro Bot into PlayStation’s most beloved series if the whole game is even half as delightful as the surprises hiding in its first world.

Astro Bot launches on September 6 for the PlayStation 5.

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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