A new generation of gaming is here, and the PlayStation 5 has some truly innovative features to show off to the world. Guiding the new system into the hands of gamers is the pre-installed launch game, Astro’s Playroom, from developer SIE Japan Studio. More than just a standard tech demo or stripped-back teaser, the game infuses the new bells and whistles of the DualSense controller within a richly designed 3D platformer to create an immersive experience that delivers on the system’s exciting possibilities.
However, while the game’s masterful implementation of haptic feedback and the adaptive triggers certainly provides a looking glass into the future of gaming, Astro’s Playroom also has fun looking back at PlayStation’s storied history – now over 25 years in the making. The game stoked my nostalgia for the brand in a way Sony’s never quite managed before, even if I wish I could’ve spent a bit more time in this wonderful robotic world.
Astro’s Playroom is now available on PlayStation 5 (pre-installed for free on every system).
STORY – SOMETHING OLD AND SOMETHING NEW
In what I’m sure will create headlines all around the gaming industry, Sony has pulled back the curtain to reveal your PS5 is housing a community of adorable little robots who love to cosplay as iconic PlayStation characters. Indeed, the world of Astro’s Playroom takes place inside your next-gen console, with each of the four main worlds – GPU Jungle, Cooling Springs, SSD Speedway, and Memory Meadow – is based on one of the system’s inner components.
The actual story of the game is incredibly light, if not practically non-existent, but that’s by no means a complaint. The objective of completing the worlds and building up your virtual collection of PlayStation merchandise is perfectly acceptable for the wide range of gamers the PS5 is targeting. Instead, Astro’s Playroom shows no restraint in piling on the fanservice, and I was down for it all the way.
Each of the four worlds also attaches to one of the four previous generations of the consoles – meaning platforming objects, decorations, and the aforementioned cosplaying robots pull from the brand’s rich history to create a nostalgic portrait of what’s come before. It was small touches like seeing a Kratos robot rowing alongside an Atreus robot or jumping between platforms shaped like the iconic PS face buttons that made me feel proud to be a PS gamer; that’s something Sony hasn’t always gotten right.
Previous attempts at fanservice like the well-intentioned but poorly executed PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale or the PlayStation Classic missed the mark by feeling like half-baked attempts at capitalising on the breadth of Sony’s gaming past. This game understands why so many people have connected with these systems, games, and characters over the years and make no compromise in representing those icons to its fanbase.
GAMEPLAY – PLAYING WITH POWER
At its core, Astro’s Playroom is a fairly standard, albeit highly competent, 3D platformer. The worlds are linear affairs, with the player progressing through a mixture of traditional platforming sections and parts involving special power-up suits that makes use of the DualSense controller’s unique functions. It’s structurally basic but molded with enough design flair and neat ideas to keep the experience feeling fresh and exciting no matter how familiar you are with the genre.
The most important part of any platformer is how the character feels, and I’m pleased to announce that Astro controls with the precision and effortlessness of a well-tuned instrument. His move set of jumping, punching, and gliding doesn’t inspire a lot of originality on the surface, but the developers find clever ways to extract the most from these time-worn mechanics. For example, engaging the rocket boosters not only allows Astro to glide for a couple of extra seconds, but it also deals damage to any enemies or fragile objects that are unlucky enough to be caught underneath. This actually became my preferred method of attacking as its versatility felt way better compared to ground-based combat.
And while the worlds are straightforward experiences taking you from point A to point B, there’s enough incentive to poke around their hidden paths thanks to the cool Sony items and puzzle pieces that serve as the game’s collectibles. I wish more of them were scattered around the actual levels instead of being included in an arbitrary claw-machine minigame, but filling up the PlayStation Labo with gorgeous models of old systems and obscure accessories (did you know there was a PlayStation Mouse?) filled me with so much joy.
Astro’s Playroom is more of a game than it has any right to be given its instant accessibility to all PS5 owners, but that doesn’t mean it’s a very long one. It took me around four hours to complete all the worlds, attempt every speedrunning level a couple of times, and acquire around 90% of the collectibles. It’s also not a difficult game, which feels appropriate for the younger demographic it’s aimed at but doesn’t help with increasing the already short playtime.
With that said, I found the one-hit-kill mechanic to be counterintuitive to the otherwise player-friendly design choices that dictate the rest of the game. It was annoying to get instantly punished for not knowing how to deal with an enemy I was encountering for the first time, but a healthy offering of checkpoints never made failure a major setback.
A SENSE OF THINGS TO COME
Of course, I’d expect all of that from a well-designed 3D platformer. What I wasn’t prepared for is how the DualSense controller completely innovates the immersive touch-based feedback in almost every aspect of the game. At the risk of sounding really annoying and basic, it’s truly something you need to get in your hands to properly understand its impact. But this is my job, and I’ll do my best to try and communicate just how game-changing the new sensory features heighten the overall gameplay.
The DualSense’s haptic feedback distributes the vibrations in extremely precise ways to mimic the sensations being experienced in the gameplay. This can be as simple as the controller rippling as you walk through blades of grass or softly buzzing as each raindrop falls on your umbrella. It’s yet to be seen how much developers will lean into this new technology, but Astro’s Playroom brings the controller to life and stimulated my sense of touch like no game has before.
The previously mentioned power-up suits make the most of this next-gen controller’s groovy new features. Importantly, they are well-designed mechanics first and fascinating tech demos second. Three of the four of them use a combination of the haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and motion controls. Of those three features, the adaptive triggers had my index fingers going through a religious awakening. It’s insane that gaming has reached a point where revving up a rocket ship or grabbing onto handholds genuinely feels like the real deal. The context-sensitive resistance placed on the triggers provides these already engaging sections with an added dose of wow factor.
The other power-up suit rolls Astro into a ball that can only be moved by swiping on the touchpad. This was definitely the least inspired of the suits as it involves inputs that could’ve been achieved on the DualShock 4. However, overall, these power-ups added some welcome variety to the gameplay while showcasing the potential of the PS5’s immersive controller. They’ll be the first things I’ll make my friends play when they come around to try my PS5.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO – CUTE, CLEAN, AND CATCHY
I won’t pretend like the visuals of Astro’s Playroom had my jaw firmly dropped from experiencing the awe of the PS5’s graphical capabilities. With that said, this is a very, very pretty game. Everything from the lighting to the textures to the models are created with polished attention to detail that only reveals its true quality the harder you look. The art style neatly holds everything together and smartly infuses the physical components of PlayStation’s hardware within an appealing cartoony world.
I started playing the game on launch day (November 12th), and my head has been filled with the game’s earworm of a soundtrack ever since. Mixing techno beats, robotic vocals, and wistful melodies resulting in music that manages to balance sounding futuristic and timeless all at once. It’s catchy and fun, although I may need therapy to remove the GPU Jungle song from endlessly repeating in my head.
There is a novelty to how snappy everything is in the game thanks to the PS5’s advanced processing power. Loading screens are practically non-existent, with the transitions between the main hub and the levels barely taking a couple of seconds. It just makes everything so seamless, so smooth and might be the understated champion of the game’s technical achievements.
Astro’s Playroom was reviewed on PlayStation 5.