I can’t say I had very high expectations for Astro’s Playroom, a game that comes free with every PlayStation 5 console. I figured it might be a cute series of minigames, akin to the robot-themed minigames in the PlayStation 4’s pack-in title, The Playroom. That PS4 game was the sort of thing you boot up once, mess around with for 30 minutes, and then forget it exists. Astro’s Playroom is not that. This free pack-in is one of the best games of 2020.
Astro’s Playroom is a 3D platformer in the spirit of Super Mario Odyssey. I run around as Astro, a blue and white robot who happens to match the color scheme of the PlayStation 5. Astro’s core moveset is simple: jumping, hovering with a jetpack, and punching stuff. That’s it. The world around Astro does give those abilities more range, from springboards to special power suits, but Astro alone is not much to speak of, and the worlds themselves, while very pretty, aren’t graphically life-changing in any way.
And yet, even when Astro is pulling off his most basic moves in familiar environments, this game feels revelatory. And that has everything to do with the DualSense controller. The PS5’s new controller combines a built-in speaker with vibrating haptics to make interacting with the world feel like it’s literally happening in your hand. Astro running across a sandy beach sounds and feels completely different than running on a fluffy cloud, for example.
In one level, I run Astro through a rainstorm, and an automatic umbrella pops up out of his head. Through the controller, I can feel raindrops pitter-pattering as the sound of the storm emanates from within. When Astro walks under an overhang, the rain vibrations stop, but the sound of the rain keeps going inside the controller. I step out, and the pitter-pattering picks up again. I literally sit there, standing in the rain, in awe of it.
Further selling this sense of immersion are the controller’s adaptive triggers. In my first impressions of Astro’s Playroom, I wrote at length about how cool they feel to use:
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.
What’s so remarkable about Astro’s Playroom is that while it’s ostensibly about showing off the features of the PlayStation 5, it’s also a fabulous platformer. Levels constantly throw me new toys to play with that totally change the way the level plays. Later levels include a spaceship (with rockets powered by the adaptive triggers) and a rolling ball (controlled by swiping the touchpad on the DualSense), intermingled with platforming sequences. The smooth, 60-frames-per-second gameplay makes controlling Astro a real treat. While none of the sequences are terribly difficult, there’s enough of a challenge here to keep me busy for around six hours as I chase the Platinum Trophy.
Astro’s Playroom is also, surprisingly, a true love letter to PlayStation history. Each of the game’s four main levels is littered with tiny nods to various PlayStation games, reenacted by adorable robots. Some are more obvious — like a robot with a bandana that pops out of a cardboard box — while others are more subtle deep cuts to the retro library (like 1995’s Jumping Flash!).
I even stumbled upon “artifacts,” hidden in the corners of some levels, that are actually just random pieces of PlayStation hardware from years gone by; finally, it’s the PlayStation 2 Network Adaptor’s time to shine! Once collected, these artifacts are sent back to the main hub of Astro’s Playroom, where you can run and bounce on giant-sized (yet photorealistic) versions of them.
I’ve never really felt like I had any serious affinity for the PlayStation brand — having grown up as a Nintendo kid — but seeing all these familiar references and pieces of hardware from the last 25 years actually brought back a lot of fond memories. For PlayStation die-hards, a run through Astro’s Playroom will be true bliss.
If you happen to be one of the lucky few with a PlayStation 5 this holiday season, there aren’t going to be a ton of games that really show off all the fancy features of this giant white tower in your house. Lucky for you, Astro’s Playroom is one of the best showpieces of the PS5, setting a new standard for what this next generation is really capable of.
Astro’s Playroom will be released Nov. 12 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a download code and final retail hardware provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.