A thoughtful look at the new platformer that comes with every purchase of the new PlayStation 5 game console.
From the get go, you know Astro’s Playroom will be a different kind of an experience. A virtual version of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller appears on the screen and with a flick up on the touchpad, the cartoon robot Astro jumps out. You enter a small, but tall room.
Here in this hub, called CPU Plaza, you find a variety of gates to the four worlds of the game. These tantalize you with bigger worlds to explore. But there are other things that draw your attention — strange switches, floating puzzle pieces, and a strange congregation of fellow robots in the level below you, viewable through the glass floor.
Playroom was developed by Asobi Team, a division of PlayStation’s Japan Studio. It is a platformer, a game where you move a character and jump platform to platform, usually facing enemies and challenges. Super Mario Bros. is a classic of this genre, as is Sonic the Hedgehog. And like heroes of the past, our protagonist has a variety of moves that are his own. Astro can jump, he can float for two seconds with jetpack-like tech, and he can punch enemy robots.
Playroom has that alluring combination that many great platforms have, a mix of challenge and exploration. As you go from world to world, you find your attention drawn to things to interact with, or paths to explore, or enemies to defeat.
The tacit goal of platformers is to get to the end of the level, to finish the stage and move on to the next. But the joy of a platformer like Astro’s Playroom is the wandering, the puzzle solving, and the collecting of all the things.
There is that moment of piqued interest when you find a new path to follow, the thrill you feel when you figure out a puzzle, and the warmth of victory when you defeat a difficult sequence of obstacles. This all crescendos with the grand sense of achievement when you have completed a level — not just gotten to the end, but found and done everything possible inside it. Like all solid platformers, Astro’s Playroom has this all in spades.
Sony decided to include this title with the system for more reasons than just provide a free game for new PlayStation owners. The first reason seems to be to show players what the PlayStation 5 can do. The game has short loading times, one of the advantages of this newest console generation’s embracing of solid state harddrives. There is also the detailed, but cartoony graphics. Characters and objects are rich with fine textures, fancy particles are found on each board, and the levels are large as you see them stretch into the distance.
But given even greater emphasis are the features of the PlayStation 5’s controller, the DualSense. As this will likely be the first game that many new users of PS5 play, Playroom provides a primer on the capabilities of the new hardware players will be using every time they use their console. There is the fore-mentioned use of the touchpad at the game’s start, but other interactive features where you nudge and swipe on the pad come during the game. There are also moments where you use the controller’s mic and control things by blowing on it. And a speaker on the controller is providing unique sound effects tailored to your actions.
The complex vibration capabilities of the controller are featured as well. Different sensations from strolling through sand on the beach or sliding on a patch of ice are felt through the plastic grips and buttons. Most impressive of all, is the vibration felt through the new trigger buttons. These are used extensively in some unique interactions, like climbing trees, accelerating a rocket, or using levers.
Since you can feel vibrations in the triggers themselves, and because these triggers have a feature unique to this new generation of consoles, the experience is unlike games in the past. The triggers can now provide different levels of resistance against your touch when needed, requiring more force to pull that lever, for instance. So each unique interaction feels different from that combination of specific vibration and resistance. These different interactions throughout the game spice up what could be repetitive gameplay, creating a game where what you are doing is changing every few minutes.
The second reason the PlayStation team seems to have included this game is to mark the historic nature of a new console release. The best way to do that? Giving the players an exploration of the history of PlayStation. Scattered throughout the levels, hidden in out of the way corners or discoverable through solving puzzles are Artifacts. These artifacts are pieces of hardware from the different PlayStation generations.
Each of the four levels focuses on a particular generation, from the mid nineties’s PlayStation 1 to the recent era of PlayStation 4. Every conceivable bit of hardware can be found, from PS1 memory cards, to PS2’s modem, to the cameras used by PS3 and PS4. When the level is completed and you return to the hub world, detailed models of the hardware appear in a Lab area, where you can walk around them, a one-inch robot climbing over the milestones of gaming history.
The artifacts can feel a bit self-serving, but a more enjoyable stroll through PlayStation history can be found inside the game. There are friendly robots tucked in corners of the levels, acting out famous games from all the different generations of PlayStation. It becomes a little game in of itself to recognize these vignettes. A few stumped me, but mostly I was overjoyed to see classics like Tekken and Silent Hill represented, along with recent masterpieces like Last of Us. There are a few dozen in the game to surprise players.
The wonderful graphics, the fun and engrossing gameplay, the use of the new controller, and the focus on PlayStation’s history all come together to create a unique experience that can only be of this particular moment in gaming. If you are unboxing the latest PlayStation anyhow, it is worth taking a look at Astro’s Playroom. You may find yourself enraptured and delighted by this platformer. And while it is not as long as the typical game you would purchase, for a free pack-in, it is quite a value.
Three stars out of four.
[Hardware and Software provided by PlayStation. Images courtesy of PlayStation.]
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance journalist who has been playing games since the Atari days and covering them for 15+ years. You can find links to past work at KevinOhannessian.com and contact him with khohannessian AT gmail DOT com.