For the longest time, the words “bundled software” was almost unanimously code for “This is probably pretty naff”. You remember Alex Kidd on the Master System? I think we can all admit at this point that it wasn’t a very good game, but it came bundled, so everyone played it. Then Wii Sports came along and changed the game. You could hand your Wii remote to your nan, and she knew how to go bowling. It prompted the system to sell gangbusters, and would go on to be one of the biggest selling games of all time thanks to its “free with console” status. While it’s unlikely that Astro’s Playroom will have your elderly relatives clamouring for another go on “That game station box thing”, Astro’s playroom is absolutely the piece of bundled software that helps show off the shiny new toy you’re about to put down £450 for, and it does so in some ways that I don’t think anyone was expecting.
Astro is probably going to be a character that some people don’t recognise. A fleshed out version of one of the many robots that were included in “The Playroom”, a free title on PS4, he starred in his own excellent adventure on the PSVR, Astro Bot Rescue Mission. Astro’s Playroom sees him stuck inside an enormous, cartoonish PS5 console, complete with areas for each of the system’s new characteristics. You’ve got GPU Jungle, SSD Speedway, Memory Meadow and Cooling Springs – each designed with themes that complement the relevant part of the PS5. Centrally, you have the CPU Plaza that acts as the hub. Throughout the levels, you’ll be able to pick up collectible ‘artefacts’ that will evoke memories of PlayStation systems past, with each area focusing on one of the four previous consoles. To be honest, the general theme of the levels is pretty loose, with the exception of Cooling Springs, which goes from a warm and sunny beach to the icy innards of the system. It’s a clever way of representing the areas, but doesn’t really do too much for me when it comes to the likes of the SSD Speedway, which is essentially a futuristic platform level and not much else.
That’s not to say I don’t like it, however. Each area is really carefully crafted, with plenty of beautiful graphics and shiny surfaces to demonstrate things like the real time Ray Tracing that the PS5 can produce. It’s by no means a graphical powerhouse, but it’s running at what appears to be a native 4k resolution, at a solid 60 frames per second throughout. A modest showcase, then, of what the console itself can put out.
What really cements Astro’s Playroom as the first must-play title on PS5, however, is what it does with the DualSense. Naturally, taking all of the kit out of the box and plugging it in seems like an exciting moment, but if you’re sitting there thinking “I want something truly next-gen”, then wait until the adaptive triggers fight you back for the first time. There is a brief demo when you boot up the game that introduces you to the concept of the adaptive triggers, and it’s when you feel the very real, very obvious resistance that’s offered up that you start to realise just what Sony’s latest remote can truly do. As you traverse the levels in Astro’s Playroom, though, you get to jump into different mech suits and start to appreciate the marvels that they’re already being lauded as. My personal “wow” moment came as I jumped into the monkey suit in the GPU Jungle areas. Pulling down on the trigger felt a bit more restricted than normal, but about three quarters of the way down, it suddenly felt a lot harder. Pushing my way through that led to the robotic simian on screen grab the hand-holds in the wall I was climbing up with a bit more strength. The best way to describe it was that it felt like the GameCube controller’s triggers. Pushing about halfway down felt fine, but then there was that definite “click” at the end. As soon as I died or turned the controller off, though, it immediately went back to being a traditional controller. There is no immediate feeling of the adaptive nature being turned on, it just… well… happens! The first time I played through these sections, it legitimately felt like a little bit of magic was happening in my hands, and it completely sold me on the tech inside.
The other big thing that the DualSense offers is the haptic feedback in the controller. Taking on the Switch’s “HD Rumble” and actually putting it to good use, the haptics in the DualSense really come alive with Astro. Running around on the beach legitimately feels like Astro’s feet are pushing down into a pile of sand inside the controller. Similarly, walking headfirst into a massive dust storm feels like there are particles of grit being thrown at you and being blocked by the gizmo in your hands. Water feels suitably swishy when you jump into it, and when it starts raining, you can swear you’re feeling the positions on the controller that individual drops are hitting, all with different strengths.
There is something delightful about Astro’s Playroom, and a large part of me hopes that Team Asobi are working on another fully fledged Astro title. There’s a definite charm to the entire experience, whether you’re platforming your way through the worlds, or just stopping to have a bit of a dance party, it’s hard not to play this game without a smile plastered on your face the whole time.