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Astro's Playroom (PlayStation 5) artwork

Astro's Playroom (PlayStation 5) review

"Astro's Playroom is a pack-in worth your attention, even though it likely won't keep you coming back for more."

The DualSense controller that comes with your PlayStation 5 allows you to do a lot of things that I anticipate players will do only infrequently during the time they own the hardware. For instance, you can blow into the space just above the headphone jack, near the part of the controller adjacent to the dual analog sticks, and your breaths will register like they used to register with the old DS microphone. You can swipe along the track pad or press it as a button, or tilt the controller this way and that to use motion controls. And the vibration effect is super sensitive, as are the triggers, allowing for both precision input and feedback.

"That's neat, Jason, I guess," I can almost hear you saying. "But what does any of it have to do with the game you're supposed to be reviewing?"

Since the game I am reviewing is Astro's Playroom, controller functions actually are quite relevant. The game comes installed on the PlayStation 5 and its stated purpose is to introduce you to the DualSense controller and its capabilities. I'm reminded of how Wii Sports once worked with the Nintendo Wii, except the game in this case is geared more toward "core" players who are more likely to enjoy a Super Mario 64 clone than they are a trip to a virtual bowling alley, golf course or tennis court.

I fall pretty squarely in the game's apparent target demographic. While I enjoyed Wii Sports up to a point, for me its value came primarily from the ease with which it introduced more casual players like my father-in-law to motion controls. Even as a die-hard Nintendo loyalist, I messed about with the developer's ode to simplicity considerably less than one might suppose. And so it happens that for me, Astro's Playroom is the superior pack-in.

The game presents you with a hub area that connects four zones. Each of those zones are based loosely on the various parts of a computer or console, such as the memory or cooling system. They take the form of three-dimensional environs not unlike something Mario might run through: a jungle, a beach, a chilly wasteland, and a more sterile/futuristic environment. They are further broken into four individual stages, so that you essentially get 16 brief but reasonably satisfying stages.

Levels are alive with activity and secrets. Each individual stage contains four hidden memory cards, and there are a number of larger treasures too. These treasures appear as various hardware and peripherals from across the PlayStation's various iterations. When you pick up a treasure, it appears as a 3D model and you can tilt your controller to look it over, or zoom in and examine it more closely. The detailed models offer an interesting, nostalgic review of history that should be meaningful to those who lived through it and to those who are new to Sony's ecosystem but interested in getting a sense of place.

Stages are beautifully rendered, though without a lot of extra personality beyond the nods to both retro Sony hardware and sometimes to meaningful games and experiences fans may have enjoyed along the way. For instance, some robots sit huddled around a television as they boot up a game that plays the original sequence older gamers might recall fondly from years spent playing the original PlayStation. In another area, you can interact with Cloud's over-sized sword from Final Fantasy VII. Otherwise, the sights and sounds are fairly conventional, though polished to a lovely sheen.

As you might expect, given the game's purpose, you will have to use the controller in some unconventional ways to clear the campaign. For instance, in one scene, you have to tilt it left and right and use the shoulder buttons in conjunction with those movements to scale a wall while your little robotic hero is enclosed in a suit that resembles a lanky monkey. In another situation, you have to swipe the trackpad to propel a ball along a chute and platforms. In still other instances you must blow into the controller's base to power fan blades, or very carefully use the triggers to navigate tight corridors peppered with explosive charges.

Astro's Playroom by necessity includes decent variety, both because of the efforts to celebrate PlayStation history and because of the more pressing need to demonstrate the capabilities of the new controller. However, it doesn't last long enough to remain engaging beyond a few short hours. Once you have navigated the stages and found the various collectibles, which aren't ingeniously hidden in most cases, you'll likely be more than ready to move onto something else unless you either: have no other games to play; or love performing speed runs of the individual stages--an encouraged activity--to compare your performance to anything your friends might have posted. There are murals to assemble in your home base, using rewards obtained by spending your currency on gacha capsules drawn from a dispenser, but even that can't last forever.

Something else I ought to mention is that the game isn't especially difficult. I'm sure this is on purpose, since Sony likely doesn't want people getting excessively frustrated with pack-in software that is supposed to acclimate them to the new hardware. I just thought I would note it because if you're expecting to be challenged, you're in for disappointment. I did "die" a few times, but checkpoints are quite generous and most determined players ought to be able to get through any segment with sufficient determination. There should be very few tears along the way, unless someone is just learning how to play games. Possible exceptions to that statement are the final boss battle, which features multiple phases, as well as the aforementioned segment with the mechanical monkey suit. But practice makes capable, even there.

Astro's Playroom ends up being aptly named, because the title doesn't imply a wide breath of content a word like "playground" or "world" might have. And the game makes no attempt to deliver anything grandiose. Instead, it capably introduces the controller and its functions, and makes the experience pleasant enough that you're likely to reach the end wishing the whole affair had lasted three or four times as long and spent a little time doing more ambitious things with its various concepts. As a proof-of-concept gift that came with my shiny new PS5, I'll take it. And I know I too that I would greet the announcement of a fleshed-out sequel with genuine interest.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 18, 2021)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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