The new consoles launching this fall have a comically small list of exclusive games. For the Xbox Series X, there are literally no games that you can only play on that platform. For the PlayStation 5, there are two. One of them, the Demon’s Souls remake, has gotten the bulk of the attention and enthusiasm, but it turns out that I’ve been vastly underestimating the other one: Astro’s Playroom. It may be the best pack-in game since Wii Sports.
Astro the robot doesn’t have a huge fan base. Its ilk were first introduced in The Playroom, a pack-in game for the PlayStation 4’s launch in 2013. It was a series of minigames designed to show off the features of the console, and one of those games featured adorable little bots that you could “capture” in your controller using augmented reality and motion controls.
Astro returned in 2018 with a stand-alone title: Astro Bot Rescue Mission. And while it was a shockingly excellent platformer, its exclusivity on PlayStation VR meant that the audience for it was extremely limited.
When Astro’s Playroom was announced as one of the two PlayStation 5 exclusives, I expected something similar to the minigame collection of 2013. But that’s not what this is.
Astro’s Playroom is a platformer ostensibly designed to show off the features of the PS5’s new DualSense controller. While some of these features, like a built-in speaker, were in the PS4’s DualShock 4 as well, there are major leaps in vibration and trigger adaptivity that make the DualSense an obvious upgrade. Astro’s Playroom manages to integrate these features naturally into the framework of an extremely good platforming game.
Due to embargo, these impressions are limited to covering the first of four areas of Astro’s Playroom, but even within that first zone, there’s a lot that shines.
The game is themed around the idea that you’re running around inside your working PlayStation 5. The first area, Cooling Springs, is filled with waterslides and glaciers, implying that it’s keeping the heat down to a manageable level. This cute theming runs throughout the game, showing off different chunks of the hardware.
As in any great platformer, it’s a treat to just run around the environment in Astro’s Playroom. Astro doesn’t have as wide a range of talents as, say, Mario in Super Mario Odyssey, but he does have a handy jetpack, a fierce spin attack, and the ability to tug on ropes real hard. Each of these activates the new haptics in the DualSense controller, showing off the nuances of the enhanced vibration technology. As just a simple example, if you walk across a glass surface as Astro, you’ll feel the small tippy-taps of each step within the controller. Tugging on a rope to launch an underground enemy into the sky yields a far different experience, with a more intense vibration within the whole of the controller, followed by the ka-thunk of Astro falling back on his robutt.
The controller’s new trigger technology also comes into play throughout Astro’s Playroom. One of the new features of this generation is the idea of “adaptive triggers.” Basically, it means that the triggers can offer resistance if you’re trying to perform some task that requires a lot of effort. With the feature turned off, the triggers will do a full pull as normal. But once activated, the triggers might stop halfway into a pull, requiring extra effort to “push past” the resistance to get a full trigger pull.
In Astro’s Playroom, the adaptive triggers come up a lot, but the most obvious demonstration of them is when Astro hops into a spring suit. Once inside, the game turns into a side-scrolling platformer, as Astro is able to launch itself to the left or right using a giant spring in its legs. I can make small jumps by pulling the trigger halfway or longer jumps by really squeezing it, but every small movement of the trigger increases the tension and vibration, like I’m really pressing down on a heavy-duty spring. The illusion is incredible, making me feel way more connected to the events on screen than I would without this tension.
Other DualSense controller features like the built-in microphone — which you blow into to make an underwater propeller spin — don’t make quite as much of an impact. Back when the Nintendo DS launched, Nintendo was convinced that folks really wanted to blow into microphones for various tasks. They did not.
But even when all of the bells and whistles of the DualSense controller aren’t on display, Astro’s Playroom is still a great platformer that shows off an imaginary world inside your PlayStation 5. The entire game is packed with adorable references to classic PlayStation titles, as reenacted by the crowds of robot spectators. One of the earliest shows a bot with a beard and a massive red tattoo sailing along in a boat with a smaller bot — a clear nod to the latest God of War. There are dozens of these Easter eggs hidden about these levels, providing a real treat for anyone paying close attention.
Without playing it, it’s easy to write off Astro’s Playroom as a silly, ignorable pack-in game, something to fill up your system storage while you wait for the actual games to download. But it turns out that this is one of the best platformers Sony has ever made, matching the charm and fluidity of a Nintendo platformer while also demonstrating the power of this new console. It should be a major launch-day treat for those lucky few who managed to score a PlayStation 5 pre-order.
Update 11/2/20: The original text mentioned that the Xbox Series X also supports adaptive triggers, which is incorrect. The text has been updated to reflect this.