A screen shot from the video game Astro's Playroom.
Courtesy of Sony
Games

'Astro's Playroom' Is a Great Showcase for PlayStation 5's Weird Controller

It's also a surprisingly good platformer that'll put a big smile on longtime fans of PlayStation games.
November 6, 2020, 1:00pm

Some notes I took while playing Astro's Playroom:

  • The bridge feel on the controller
  • The "soft" touch to hold onto a broken piece of rock
  • omg the machine gun feel
  • ahhh THE WIND THE WIND
  • oh my god the MUD
  • the rain pitter patter….and then the hail pitter patter

On the one hand, Astro's Playroom is, in large part, an elaborate tech demo for the PlayStation 5's fancy new DualSense controller and one of the few exclusives. On the other hand, the fact it left me scribbling incoherent nonsense hints why it's so exciting, and I ended up spending several hours unlocking every secret it was hiding—and I want to keep playing. 

What is the point of games that arrive alongside new hardware? With rare exceptions, they do not demonstrate what's unique about a new piece of gaming tech—that's eventually worked out over time. They exist to give people, specifically people excited at the prospect of the new, something to do, and it's often coated in the familiar. There are exceptions, of course. Super Mario 64 laid the groundwork for 3D gaming, Halo: Combat Evolved proved shooters could not just work, but thrive, on consoles. And Wii Sports kicked off a motion controller revolution. 

There's a lot to like—to love—in Astro's Playroom, but whether it's fleeting or a path forward is hard to say. What I can say is I had a tremendous amount of time playing every part of it, even if I suspect we'll later look back and wonder why more didn't take its lessons to heart.

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Astro's Playroom, which largely consists of players guiding a cute robot around colorful worlds and grabbing collectibles, exists to give PlayStation 5 owners something to do after you've plugged the console in. You don't have to wait for it to download. It's a free tech demo to showcase the fancy new features of the DualSense. The controller Microsoft is shipping with its new Xbox is a fine iteration on what's come before, but there's nothing mysterious about it. The DualSense, on the other hand, is weird! Astro's Playroom delights in this fact.

But it's a challenge to explain why Astro's Playroom works because what makes it special involves the indescribably detailed rumbles of a controller, combined with a tiny speaker working in concert with triggers sporting nuance beyond merely pressing a button. In Astro's Playroom, a DualSense feels like an adult version of Bop It!. It's been transformed into a toy, and those elements are crucial to why it's more than merely endearing. Stripped of these elements, Astro's Playroom would still function as a worthy and pretty distraction because it's fundamentally a good platformer, but it's the special sauce of the DualSense that elevates it.

(It should be noted these advanced features of the DualSense can be turned off for reasons of preference or accessibility, and none of them are required to functionally play the game.)

I can tell you Astro's Playroom makes the simple act of crossing a bridge charming, as the DualSense bops in rhythm with your character's toddler-like pitter patter steps and little clunkclunkclunk noises pop out of the DualSense's built-in speaker. I can tell you I quite literally Laughed Out Loud while sliding down a virtual hill of mud, the controller conveying a sense of weight as I waded out. At least I can show you how much I love this digital zipper:

Is this next-gen? A gimmick? Do I even care when it's this fun?

We've come a long way since the days of the Rumble Pak on the Nintendo 64, but even as recently as last generation, can you really remember the last time a rumble left a lasting impact? It's background noise, the kind of thing you notice when something blows up—or you accidentally set the controller down during a cutscene and it slowly rumbles off the desk. 

The DualSense, as demonstrated by Astro's Playroom, wonders if there's room for more. Can rumble become part of play, elevated to aesthetic? A rumble is a rumble is a rumble, until it's suddenly not. But it’s easy to imagine games not developed by Sony ignoring this entirely, and once again, it fades into the background.

We've been here before, as recently this past hardware generation. On Twitter, former Kotaku editor Kirk Hamilton noted a certain passage from his 2013 review of the Xbox One:

As someone that largely ignored their Xbox this past generation, I must admit: I did not know this feature even existed. It also posits a potentially worrying path forward for the DualSense, one where only a handful of games take the time to really unpack what it's capable of doing.

And remember the Switch's fabled HD rumble, that somehow made it possible to distinguish between individual marbles while you were holding a Joy-Con? It's been totally abandoned.

But it's worth noting Astro's Playroom is worthy of your time, DualSense or not. The game's developer previously worked on Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, a best-in-class experience for PlayStation VR. Similar to Astro's Playroom, Astro Bot accomplished two things: it confidently understood what was cool and elevating about VR and it was a damn good platformer that made jumping and exploring a delight. That remains true in Astro's Playroom.

One reason I've compared playing Astro Bot to playing a Nintendo game is the sincere attention to detail featured in both. 

Longtime Sony fans, in particular, will be delighted at how many old school throwbacks to PlayStation history are scattered throughout Astro's Playroom. You will think these references can not go any deeper, and then, happily, they will. One made me choke up.

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But beyond the nostalgia, when I play a Mario game, I'm constantly rewarded for my curiosity. Finding collectibles does not feel like a chore, it's a prize for being inquisitive. Both Astro Bot and Astro's Playroom share this trait, which is why I spent extra hours poking around and finding every little thing the developers had hidden away in the game's 16 levels. (There are a few more, depending on how you're counting.) Finding the hidden objects in Astro's Playroom feels like you're playing a game of hide-and-seek with the designers. You know the solution is staring you in the face, but are you clever enough to suss the answer?

It's also an instance where the new features of the new, albeit cumbersome, PlayStation 5 interface come in handy. It's rare that I want to find all the collectible junk in a game, but there are times where I feel pulled. Astro's Playroom was one of those times, both because it was a pleasure to find the shiny bits and because I wanted a reason to keep playing. But even that has its limits, and when you're stuck trying to figure out where one last thingamabob is squirreled away, that's when I seek a YouTube video or, more likely, give up.

Part of Sony's pitch for PlayStation 5 is that YouTube video should already be there for you, either created by the game's developer or submitted by another player. When I first started playing Astro's Playroom, there was nothing to see, but over time, the developers started adding videos as guided tutorials for finding what I was missing. Again, getting around the fiddly PlayStation 5 UI can be a chore, but fundamentally, it worked. I was able to snap videos showing where the missing collectibles were to the side of the screen, while I continued playing the game and got myself into the same position as the video. It's useful.

It's true that, at times, I probably gave up on finding something a little sooner than I might have otherwise, because it was so easy to pull up the hint. But more often, I would use it exactly as that: a hint. I didn't want to know precisely where the hidden object was, I wanted guidance on where to start looking. This resulted in me pulling up a video, seeing what area it was recorded in, and then picking up my search there. It still made discovery satisfying.

That's a good word for Astro's Playroom as a whole: satisfying. It feels good to look at, it feels good to play, and it functions as a justification for Sony's experiments with DualSense. Whether those experiments pan out is somewhat out of Sony's hands, but Astro's Playroom offers a roadmap for how other developers could take advantage of it. If no one else does—well, at least we'll have Astro's Playroom. And Astro's Playroom is pretty damn good. 

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).