Review: Astro’s Playroom (PS5)

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Like The Playroom and The Playroom VR before it, Astro’s Playroom exists, first and foremost, as a showcase of what a new piece of hardware can do. All three games come free with their respective systems (PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR, and PlayStation 5), with gameplay designed around showing off what can be achieved with unique new input mechanisms and ways of interacting with a game, be it the DualShock 4 controller’s touch-pad or virtual reality.

But where The Playroom and The Playroom VR were assortments of fun little minigames, easily forgotten once you’ve grown used to the new controls, Astro’s Playroom is a full-fledged game of its own, more akin to (the excellent) Astro Bot: Rescue Mission. It’s certainly a showcase for the new capabilities of the DualSense controller, but goes beyond that to be a fun and engrossing game in its own right, and, most of all, a celebration of 25+ years of PlayStation history.

Astro’s Playroom is a 3D platformer, with all the usual 3D platformer things—coins to collect, hidden collectibles to find, a simple combat system for dealing with foes, and jumping puzzles aplenty. But one of its neat twists on that formula is that it takes place entirely inside a PlayStation 5 system. When you look up from the “CPU Plaza” hub area, you can see the distinctive shape of the PS5 fan vents, and down below is an aquarium-esque tank home to a living CPU.

From there, you can visit any of the four different playful interpretations of PS5 architecture, where the platformer action takes place in earnest: Memory Meadow, Cooling Springs, SSD Speedway, and GPU Jungle. While they mostly serve to replicate the biomes that you commonly see in platformers, they come with neat little hardware-themed details, like HDMI ports in the rocks that decorate GPU Jungle and giant sticks of RAM that form a gate into Memory Meadow.

As you explore these different environments, Astro’s Playroom offers a great demonstration of the new features of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller—chiefly, the haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and built-in microphone. The different locales have you traversing a wide range of different types of ground, from grass to sand to ice to metal platforms, which all have a different feel thanks to the haptics in the controller. It doesn’t replicate the feel of walking on those things in real life (which would require a whole different type of input mechanism!), but gives each surface its own tactile sensation that’s distinct to the point that you could close your eyes, turn off the sound, and still know what kind of ground you’re walking on.

This feedback comes into everything else you do as well, from the impact of throwing a punch to the feeling of air resistance when you go out paragliding. But for me, the most impressive example is the first level of Memory Meadows, which sees you braving a variety of different weather effects. As you walk through the light rain, the controller creates the sensation of little droplets falling—almost like rain is “falling” out from the depths of the controller to the palms of your hands. As the rainfall gets heavier, you can feel the subtle changes in that sensation, and again when rain gives way to hail. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe; you really have to try it for yourself.

Astro’s Playroom also gives you plenty of opportunity to try out the DualSense’s adaptive triggers—that is, the ability for the L2 and R2 buttons to dynamically alter resistance. That means that when a level puts you in a mechanical frog suit that can only move by coiling its springs to jump, you can feel the gradual increase in tension as you prepare each leap. When you get a chance to play with a machine gun (that only shoots colourful balls—don’t worry, this is a family-friendly game), you can feel the short, sharp bursts of kickback in both the triggers and the haptic feedback. When you want to get some bonus collectibles from a rickety old gatcha machine, you can feel the resistance of a lever that often gets a bit jammed. 

The built-in microphone doesn’t get quite as much attention, but it does periodically come into play when you jump onto a moving platform powered by a pinwheel. In order to move forward, you need to create a gust of wind—by blowing into the controller’s microphone.

But beyond any DualSense gimmicks, Astro’s Playroom has a really solid core of 3D platforming. Each level gives you plenty of jumping and environmental puzzles to make you way through, as well as its own unique elements like a bow that you need to use to shoot distant switches, gusts of wind that try to blow you around, and thunderbolts to avoid. Every other level sees Astro jumping into a special suit, which varies from area to area—a couple of these levels turn him into a ball that you guide through pinball-esque levels, a couple of others put him in a little rocket that you have to fly through hazard-filled areas of space, and so on. It’s fun, classic 3D platformer stuff

No platformer would be complete without a wealth of hidden collectibles to find, and Astro’s Playroom is no exception. Venturing off the beaten track and choosing the hard path instead of the easy one is almost always rewarded with either a puzzle piece or an artefact, which then appear in the museum-like PlayStation Labo area of the game’s hub. Collecting them is enjoyable enough, but what really makes them worthwhile is what they are: a celebration of PlayStation’s history.

The puzzle pieces all come together to form a mural outlining the history of PlayStation, all the way from the original PlayStation’s T-Rex tech demo to the PlayStation 5. The artifacts you find are all PlayStation consoles and accessories, from stuff you couldn’t live without, like memory cards, to obscure little things like the PlayStation Mouse and PSP Camera. There are game discs decorated with Astro Bot-theme parodies of iconic PlayStation games, like “Botcharted” and “Botoroco”. Once you’ve collected them all, the PlayStation Labo room becomes a veritable museum of PlayStation’s legacy.

The celebration of PlayStation in Astro’s Playroom goes beyond those collectibles, too. The Labo room is also filled with other bots doing all sorts of things, from playing with a remote control Ridge Racer car to lying on the floor gleefully paging throw a PS1 game manual. You can get a bunch of other such toys from the aforementioned gatcha machine (using coins collected from levels—no microtransactions here), and once you’ve got them all, Labo becomes a hive of nostalgia-inducing bot activity as well as a museum. The game levels themselves are full of nods to PlayStation history in bot versions of memorable characters like Kratos from God of War, Kat from Gravity Rush, Pyramid Head from Resident Evil, and many, many others besides. Even beyond the lure of collectibles, fully exploring each level is worthwhile just to see all these little scenes. And if you leave Astro alone for a bit, he’ll pull out a PS Vita or PSVR to play around until you decide to pick up the controller again.

I think that’s probably the crowning achievement for Astro’s Playroom. It’s an excellent showcase for what the DualSense controller can do and a rock-solid platformer that’s surprisingly substantial for a free pack-in game, but it’s the journey through PlayStation history that really makes Astro’s Playroom stand out. There’s a lot of great stuff in the PlayStation 5 launch line-up, but the game that comes pre-installed on every console might just be the best of the lot.

Score: 5 stars

Astro’s Playroom is developed by Asobi Team and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It comes pre-installed on all PlayStation 5 consoles, and is also available as a free download for PS5 from the PlayStation Store.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.