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Astro’s Playroom is the PS5’s Wii Sports

The pack-in game is so much more than a tech demo

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I’ve developed an incredibly annoying habit while playing Astro’s Playroom.

It’s a game that comes bundled with every PlayStation 5, and it’s designed to show off the new console’s DualSense controller. Most notably, it takes advantage of the gamepad’s incredibly subtle vibrations. And every time I felt something new I just had to share. I’d pass the controller to whoever was nearest and ask, “Can you feel those raindrops?” “What about the crunching sand as you walk on the beach?” “Hey, jump on that platform: doesn’t that feel like shattered glass?”

The novelty still hasn’t worn off. Astro’s Playroom could easily have been a simple tech demo, and in a way it is that. Its main function is to demonstrate the possibilities of the DualSense. You can see the ways the controller can further immerse you in the game when you feel the tension of a bow and arrow before firing off a shot, or when your hands can sense the wind steadily pushing you to the side. But Astro’s Playroom is also a great game. It’s the kind of charming 3D adventure rarely seen outside of Nintendo, one dripping with inventive ideas and heartwarming details. And it might just be the ideal game to sell you on a PlayStation 5.

At its most basic, Astro’s Playroom is a fairly straightforward platforming game. You play as a cute little robot named Astro, exploring four different worlds set in a universe that appears to exist inside of a computer. You’ll collect coins, stomp on enemies, and poke around in search of secrets. There are boss battles and one-off sequences, like one where you have to pilot a small spaceship through dangerous caverns, or another where you use a bow to pick off faraway enemies.

The worlds themselves strike a great balance: they’re big enough that you can explore freely, but not so huge that you’ll find yourself getting lost. It’s a directed experience with the illusion of freedom. Astro, meanwhile, has a small range of basic abilities — a jump, a punch, and a rocket-powered double jump — that are put to use in clever ways. The double jump, for instance, naturally lets you reach higher areas. But the blast from the jump is also a form of attack, giving another option for taking out bad guys. While the game is straightforward, these abilities usually give you a few ways to tackle problems.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

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There are a few things that elevate Astro from being just another fun-but-forgettable platformer. The main one is the controller. I still remember the first time I played Super Mario 64, and how amazed I was that pushing the analog stick slightly would make Mario walk, while a stronger push would make him run. Playing Astro’s Playroom with the DualSense is a similar experience.

The first thing you’ll notice are the vibrations. The first level of the game opens with Astro barreling down a waterslide before splashing in some water and walking up onto a beach. You feel each of these moments in your hands. It’s hard to put into words, but the thunk of landing in the water is a dull, flat sensation that feels, well, like landing in water. Similarly, there’s a grainy effect when you walk across the beach, as if you could feel the sand. The vibrations even alternate between the left and right sides of the controller as Astro walks, so you sense each footstep.

The sensations continue throughout the game: a gush of air as a flying car zips past, the crackling of broken glass under your feet, the soft patter of raindrops. You don’t just feel that it’s windy, you can tell which direction the gust is coming from. When rain shifts to freezing rain, it’s immediate right away. Most of these sensations are also amplified by sound through the DualSense’s built-in speaker. The combination of vibration and sound is incredibly effective: most of the time I could close my eyes and still understand what was happening.

The other major feature of the controller is its new triggers that utilize variable tension, essentially creating feedback depending on what you’re doing. In one sequence, you’re piloting a small aircraft by using the left and right triggers to control the engines. A soft press will move you slightly, while a full press will shoot you through the air. The farther you press, however, the more difficult it becomes. It won’t exactly strain your fingers, but the feedback gives you a better sense of what you’re doing. The same goes for shooting a bow and arrow, where there’s a real sense of tension as you pull back on the string. My favorite example of just how tactile this can be is a capsule toy machine where you spend coins to get new collectibles. Here the triggers act as your hands: you use the left to give a tug on the machine’s arm, and the right to crush the capsule and reveal the toy inside. It’s incredibly satisfying,

These aspects don’t fundamentally change how Astro’s Playroom plays. It’s still designed like a fairly traditional 3D platformer. But they make those moments you’ve experienced before feel more interesting and immersive. There are some elements of the game that seem like a gimmick — blowing into the gamepad’s mic to turn a fan, or using motion controls to help a robotic monkey climb mountains — but, even after hours spent with the game, the haptic feedback never gave me this vibe. It was additive. It didn’t change the core of the game, but it made the overall experience better.

Aside from being a technical showcase, Astro’s Playroom is also a game that was clearly made with a lot of care and passion. It’s essentially a love letter to everything PlayStation. Each world is themed after a particular computer component, and one of the main goals is to collect secret items that are all pieces of classic PlayStation hardware. There’s even a trophy room where you can interact with them, using your little robot hands to turn on a gigantic PSP Go, or hop on the eject button of an original PlayStation to see the lid pop open.

It’s all very silly, but the interactive bits make it fun to play around with. Even better: as you explore each level, you’ll spot other robots acting out scenes from classic PlayStation games, from Final Fantasy VII to Ape Escape to Death Stranding. There are platforms made up of old-school PlayStation memory cards and DualShock buttons. The whole game is like one giant, interactive Easter egg. Heck, even the credits are playable.

The closest parallel to Astro’s Playroom that I can think of is Wii Sports. Both are games that were explicitly designed to showcase a new controller. But both also transcend that goal, shifting from tech demo to straight-up fun game. It takes only a few moments for Astro’s Playroom to show why you’ll want to play with a DualSense, and over the course of its run time it keeps giving you new reasons.

I can’t imagine playing it with a standard controller — though I’m sure my family hopes I run out of new discoveries soon.

Astro’s Playroom launches November 12th, bundled with the PlayStation 5.

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