Each new console launch needs a killer app to show off what it can do. It’s necessary to deliver both the justification to the purchaser that they’ve made the right choice, and so that they can brag to friends and family about how incredible the incremental gains are. Without something to embody that it can all fall a bit flat. It’s a bit of a mystery then that both Sony and Microsoft haven’t brought much to the table that’s focussed on their respective consoles core strengths for this new generation, and whilst it’s not hurt pre-orders, there may be a few that are not as quick to adopt whilst the catalogues are building. However, there is one true next gen game that comes with the PS5, and possibly because it’s packed in it’s been overlooked. Astro’s Playroom is more than just a DualSense tutorial as it’s been touted, it’s a full bloodied platformer that would put some full fledged titles to shame.
Seemingly here to take over mascot duties for the PlayStation brand, Astro gets another outing from Team Asobi after the wonderfully fun VR title a couple of years ago. Astro’s Playroom is about the titular robot hero that lives inside the DualSense controller who you take on adventure through the innards of the PS5 hardware to understand more about what it does. That might make it sound like an interactive electronic engineering lesson, but it’s far from it. Guiding our hero through four distinct worlds that represent the cooling, graphics chip, SSD and RAM, this is a visually stunning, cute as can be homage to the last 4 iterations of Sony’s hardware, and it’s one hell of a nostalgia trip. It’s time to jump, bounce, spin and smack your way through tangible worlds within the core of the machine, all the while being charmed by a sense of playfulness and attention to detail.
The real workout is on the DS pad and it is a serious step on. The key components are the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, and so they get a lot of attention. It wouldn’t be right to miss out the other elements though, with the built in speaker, microphone and touchpad all playing their part. Astro’s Playroom brings all of them together to build a level of immersion and a sense of place that most other interactive methods can’t match. Haptics are ever present with the pitter patter of his tiny feet on every surface type from sand to clouds to metal, or when whacking an enemy, and they kick up a gear when it starts to rain; the triggers become tangible things when being used to operate springs or enable thrusters on spaceships, delivering a resistance and perceived precision not felt before; and the delight instilled in physically blowing to spin a windmill takes you back to being a child again as the resulting audio washes over you. There’s nothing quite like it.
It’s not just here for the new controller though, there’s a lot of effort gone into displaying what the key selling points of the PS5 are too. The whole game looks stunning in 4K and runs as smooth as anything. Colours, reflections, speed of loading, and just the level of detail on display is phenomenal. Partly this is the realisation of the leap in power, yet full credit needs to go to the conceptual artists and designers that came up with the landscapes. Everything has the characteristics of electronic componentry, even down to the ribbon cables that represent the swaying grass. Stop and spin the camera at any point and you’ll find something new to focus on that you’d not noticed. If it’s not the scenery then it’s the number of other bots littered around the worlds, hanging out, doing jobs, and pastiching well known video games. That turned into a personal minigame – which famous title are they acting out this time – though they’re only there to add a small distraction, and that could be why they work so well.
What really rammed home the graphical capabilities of the PS5 though is not what’s in the levels. There’s a PlayStation Labo which acts as a museum to all things Sony console related for the last 20+ years. Collect the artefacts during play and they’ll appear in a room that let’s you wander around the consoles and accessories, getting a good look at them from all angles, and it’s impressive. Even though Astro’s Playroom’s presentation is very cartoon like, these models aren’t and they are so like the real life articles it’s tough to believe they’re renders. Seeing the PS2 in its vertical stand brought memories flooding back, but smacking the power switch and triggering the initialisation sounds added the smile to my face. It’s truly wonderful stuff for fans and non-fans alike that reminds you not only of what came in the past, but what’s brought us to the current device.
Playing through Astro’s Playroom it’s hard to keep the fan boy locked down inside, it’s just so pro-Sony. It’s even down to the internal textures of the walls in the hub area that are made up of the PS symbols like the fins are on the outside of the real life console (and the grips on the DualSense if your eyes are good enough to focus on them!). The thing is you’d expect something like this to be really cheesy and mildly irritating as you get another bit of propaganda flung at you, but it’s not. It’s so charming and well put together that it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling you don’t expect. The only downside is it’s just a couple of hours in total to rinse it of everything it has, that might be why it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Let’s hope that the new mascot is here to stay and we’ll get at least a few full fat games before the tenth generation hits, Team Asobi would be criminally underused otherwise.
Astro’s Playroom comes free with every PlayStation 5 and is available now.