Plugging in a new games console for the first time, there’s always a question over what you’re going to play on it first. With PlayStation 5 you might be looking forward to a first party exclusive like Spider-Man: Miles Morales or Demon’s Souls, or you might have been holding off for a few days to experience Watch Dogs Legion or Dirt 5 at its best, but let me tell you this: you should play Astro’s Playroom. I mean… it’s free and it comes preinstalled, so why wouldn’t you?
Every era of PlayStation needs a characterful platforming star as its family-friendly mascot, and Astro has seemingly taken on that mantle from Sackboy – I’m sure Sackboy will have some expressive emote in response to this. Astro is simply charming, with his back-leaning running animation or as he spots your camera panning around him and waves, and all his animations have a hyperactivity to them – it barely takes a few seconds before he’ll whip out a PSVR headset or drop to the floor to play PS Vita. That’s really why he’s the new mascot: he is PlayStation, he shares the two-tone design of the PS5 and PSVR before it, he lives in a world that is utterly obsessed with everything PlayStation – the game as a whole is celebration of everything to do with Sony’s gaming brand.
The game is split up into four distinct areas, highlighting the PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 eras with all manner of collectable trinkets to find. There’s the consoles themselves, of course, their iconic DualShock controllers, and even more obscure things like the PocketStation, the PS Move gun accessories, PS2 network adapter, and so much more. Each area also represents different parts of the PS5 architecture. Cooling Springs starts off on a beach with a giant fan overlooking before you head inside, while the SSD Speedway has plenty of wooshing flying vehicles and rocketry.
It’s presented in a lovely visual style, running at 4K with a perfectly smooth 60fps while showing off many of the new visual techniques that the PS5 can offer. Astro’s design has plenty of metallic elements, the back of his head reflecting the worlds he’s exploring and making use of the PS5’s ray tracing as it does so. There are limits to how far they can push the ray tracing though, as shown in the PlayStation Labo area where all your collectables are displayed. As you run around and slap things, you might notice how quickly the ray traced reflections on all the shiny surfaces drop off and make way for standard cube maps, and how they only seem to appear at certain angles even on perfectly shiny surfaces like the original PS3. As much as ray tracing is talked up for the next generation, this is another sign that it will have to be used in moderation.
When you get down to it, Astro’s Playroom isn’t really about graphics and collecting cute trinkets, it’s about the DualSense controller. It opens with a tour of the controller’s capabilities, from the haptic rumble to the adaptive triggers at their most violent excess, from the motion sensors to the touchpad, to how the loudspeaker is now paired with a microphone.
Astro’s Playroom does not hold back in using all of these elements at every possible opportunity. Simply running around the world, his little footsteps are accompanied by little tip-taps from the haptic motors that change in strength and texture depending on the surface he’s running on. That’s augmented by having the sounds of his running fed through the little speaker on the controller.
It doesn’t take long before you’re zipping (with the touchpad) Astro into a springy frog suit, that you power up by pulling on the triggers that resist your pressure, before letting loose and directing his jump with the motion controls. Then there’s the monkey suit, where you’re tilting with the motion controls to reach before grabbing onto handholds with the triggers that offer an additional click as you depress them past the midpoint, or rattles your fingers as you swing and grab onto bouncy ropes. Or there’s the ball which is a showcase for the way that the haptic motors can relay different feeling textures to you, from the different between road and sand, from juddering metallic rumble strips to bouncing over uneven rocks. It’s truly impressive how effectively it conveys all these elements through the controller.
It’s pretty clear that this game is intended as a showcase, as a tech demo not far removed in intent to PlayStation VR Worlds. It uses all the DualSense’s capabilities to their gimmicky maximum, where most games will use these effects more sparingly as more of an additive instead of the main attraction. You might be finished with it after a couple of hours, but Astro’s Playroom will feel special for quite some time to come.
Then again, it can also feel a bit much. Unless you’ve got your TV pumping out sound at its loudest, the default volume of the DualSense speaker becomes pretty obnoxious within minutes with so much audio piped through it – I turned it down to around 30-40% of its volume in the system settings.
Speaking of audio, the soundtrack is cheery and chirpy, but it’s all endlessly looping eight bar refrains that goes beyond being a catchy earworm to the wrong kind of infectious by the time you reach the end of a level. Not only that, but you can’t turn the music down or off, and it actively gets in the way of letting you appreciate some of the spatial audio effects that the game can produce. Pop a set of USB or DualSense-connected headphones on and you’ll surely want to hear things wooshing past you clearly, but you’ll get an earful of repetitive music that drowns it out.