Where do you find the heart of a new piece of hardware? Thankfully, Sony’s included it on the hard-drive of every PlayStation 5 it’s shipping: Astro’s Playroom is a pre-installed 3D platformer that puts the console and its DualSense controller through their paces, and plenty more besides. It’s a thing of spark and wit, and quite possibly the best 3D platformer I’ve played outside of Nintendo’s own efforts.
If you’ve played PlayStation VR’s Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, you may well have seen this coming. This is another Sony Japan Studio joint, headed up by French designer Nicolas Doucet, and it inherits an awful lot from the delightful little 2018 game. Captain Astro returns, Aibo’s distant cousin serving as an affable lead loaded with a jetpack-enabled double-jump and always ready with a gleeful wave to camera. Like the best platform characters, he’s buoyant with his own inner life even before you’ve pressed a button – leave the controller alone and Astro will whip out a Vita or a PlayStation VR unit and play happily by themselves.
It’s a piece of impeccable fan service, as is the entirety of Astro’s Playroom, its premise a doe-eyed hymn to the history of Sony’s video game adventures, from the demo disc that came bundled in with the original PlayStation all the way through to the all-new DualSense controller whose abilities are proudly shown off. There are four worlds with four levels apiece, each world styled after a previous generation of PlayStation hardware: the PlayStation 1’s light grey plastic textures the cliff faces of Memory Meadow, its walkways the cables of original PlayStation controllers. Elsewhere you’ll climb ledges made of DualShock triggers, dodge transistors – hell, you’ll even find yourself singing along to a ditty written in tribute to a GPU.
This is a dazzlingly self-reflective thing: the hidden collectibles dotted around each level are hardware and peripherals that range from the well-known – UMDs! Multi-taps! – to the truly obscure. If you’ve any love for PlayStation you’re going to feel smothered, and even the indifferent will surely be swayed by the overwhelming nostalgia on display, something shored up by the dozens of cameos from stars of Sony’s past. There’s Lara and Dante and – oh my sweet lord is that a Vib Ribbon reference?
As much as Astro’s Playroom is in thrall to PlayStation’s past, when playing through its splendrous levels it’s Mario that it often invokes – a compliment rather than a slur, even if the reverence for Nintendo’s flagship series might overstep the mark in the case of one particular wriggly enemy. It deserves a place among the greats though – Astro’s Playroom has the coherence, character and abundance of ideas, executed with real clarity, of the very best platformers. It’s a world that’s inviting you to prod around, and it’s always ready with ever more inventive ways to react to the player – a trait picked up from the more tactile world of VR that the team explored with Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
Astro’s Playroom has a new tool in that regard, of course, with the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller and its haptic feedback. It’s not exactly an innovation – jump in the water of Astro’s Playroom’s Cooling Springs and you’ll feel a bloopy splash, an effect that brings to mind the Switch’s HD rumble and the fizzing soda sea of Mario Odyssey’s Seaside Kingdom – but it’s pushed to enjoyable extremes here, with a new level of fidelity. Tiptoe along glass and you’ll feel a plink-plonk beneath your fingers; elsewhere you’ll be buffeted by breezes that seem to roll across your palms, while on beaches you’ll feel the shifting sands under Astro’s feet.
It’s a phenomenal thing, taken even further with adaptive triggers that provide meaningful, forceful feedback. An array of neat set-pieces make the most of this – there’s a springy suit that offers real tension in the triggers, working in tandem with the DualSense gyro, and a monkey suit you swing and grip your way up a cliff-face with. The DualSense gets a proper workout, and even the touchpad – that curious thing introduced with the last DualShock that never seemed to find a purpose – is put to use as you zip yourself in, or use it like a trackpad as you guide a ball through a stage (Marble Madness creator and PlayStation 5 lead designer Mark Cerny must be humbled by the reference).
Is improved force feedback and the same funny little collection of gyros and touchscreens carried over from the DualShock 4 really the next-gen difference? I’m not entirely sure, and it may well prove to be another false dawn that, like HD rumble on the Switch, is a pleasant addition that soon fades into the background. Maybe it will be catch on and be more widely supported, with sections in Astro’s Playroom featuring traditional video game playthings such as arrows and guns displaying exactly how much the DualSense can add as it chugs along with a gatling, or while the adaptive triggers let you feel the precise tension of a bow string.
That’s neither here nor there, though. While promising a glimpse of the future, Astro’s Playroom is a gloriously old-fashioned thing at heart, a characterful, character-driven platformer that has been built to showcase a particular piece of hardware. So often that’s where magic in video games happens, and that’s most certainly the case here. On its own, this is a beautifully crafted, exquisitely paced and absolutely gorgeous 3D platformer. Combined with the hardware it’s bundled on, it’s something very special indeed – and one of the best launch titles I can remember in an age.