Astro's Playroom (2020)

Selling the controller’s gimmick

It took almost a full two years for me to be able to get a Playstation 5, and even then, it required me to follow several discords and twitter accounts and check multiple times per day for over a week to be able to purchase one. And when it shipped, and I hooked it all up, I was greeted with something very rare in modern gaming… the console pack-in game. Back in 2020 at the launch of the PS5, it was talked about with near unprecedented praise, and I was very skeptical.

Astro’s Playroom is a PS5 exclusive game that comes bundled and pre-installed with every new PS5, and it’s definitely a video game, but much more of a demo than anything else, and honestly I feel very vindicated with how I felt about people talking about it back when it released.

Astrobot, which is now the unspoken mascot for Sony, is a small, bouncy little robot who squeaks and dances around like a modern tik-tok child, and I could probably hate him more, but only by a bit. And Astrobot is more of a species than a singular character, as there are hundreds of astrobots littered throughout each level in this game. They dress up like various characters from Playstation games throughout its multi-decade life. Each level has tons of robots hanging out together, and some are acting out little scenes, while one holds a video camera on his shoulders.

Examples would include one scaling a cliffside dressed as Nathan Drake trying to jump to a crashed airplane. Or another would be a cardboard box shifting around on the floor, only to be tossed aside as a robot dressed like Solid Snake jumps up and gives off the alert sound from Metal Gear Solid. Others include Alloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, the clickers and Jole and Ellie from The Last Of Us, Kratos and Boy from God Of War… the list goes on and one.. It’s a lot. And while it’s interesting, it feels like more thought went into those little setpieces than the majority of the gameplay.

The gameplay for the most part is very basic with little in the way of actual challenge. The “game” really is just a very small section that funnels you to each new area where you can explore a bit on your way to the end. And while again the set dressing around everything is unbelievably polished and “cute”, it feels very hollow if you don’t either, have a blinding passion for nostalgia, or if you just see through it as a very shallow experience.The robots have become the minions of gaming, just like the Rabbids used to be, and honestly, I just find them unbelievably annoying and I don’t like them at all.

While this is a game that is supposed to showcase the PS5 and all its wonderful never before seen tech, like very short loading times, like the PC has had for decades…. It really is just a showcase for the controller instead. Every level features a section or two that has you zip Astro into a suit for some gimmick gameplay. Either being a monkey that has you learn how the triggers can be programmed to lock and require hard pressed halfway down through the press. Or swiping the touchpad as you roll a ball around a course. It is interesting as a “look what this controller can do”, but like with most of that stuff, I just highly doubt it’ll ever be utilized beyond this demo. I truly think no devs, besides Sony first party, will ever do anything remotely interesting with the DualSense controller, and I think it’s a bad controller compared to the Xbox One/Series controller.

Everyone always talks about the Haptic Feedback being revolutionary. In a section, Astro pops open a little umbrella above his head, and walks around in the rain. The haptic feedback bumps the controller in several random spots ever so lightly, and it’s kinda neat… But then there is the microphone, and tinny splashes come out of the controller along with every bleep, bloop, scream and whistle that every character around you, including yourself makes. It was so un-enjoyable and annoying that I turned it down. Every few minutes, turning it down more and more until it was just off.

It’s part of the problem with gimmicks like that, sure it’s interesting to say “this can do something other controllers don’t” and it certainly does change the experience of the gameplay, but I don’t believe it’s for the better. Really, it’s just another way the Playstation controller can drain its already short battery life.

I hate to sound completely negative about the game, but nearing my 40’s in life, “Oooh shiny thing” doesn’t impress me much at all anymore. Gimmicks on controllers are just that. Like with Nintendo’s Wii U Gamepad, Motion +, 3D in the 3DS and Sony’s SixAxis and other peripherals that don’t offer much besides a look at how the controller could, but ultimately won’t be used… It's just an annoyance to play a game based solely on gimmicks and nostalgia.

In the end, Astro’s Playroom feels like a freebie game and that’s welcomed, when the last pack in game I believe was back in 2006 with the Wii’s Wii Sports. While it should have been marketed as a Controller showpiece and not really “hey look at the PS5 and how cool it is!”, it’s decent for what it is. In no way on earth should it be talked about as anything other than that, certainly in a Game Of The Year scenario, even if 2020 was abysmal in terms of Gaming. Really, in the end, I think it’s more of a weird mixture of a kids game marketed for adults. If you grew up with a Playstation console, any one of the generations, it’s cool to see the highly detailed models of all the consoles and peripherals. Maybe it’s lost on me because I still have those sitting on a shelf, and also worked around them for years. But the nostalgia factor isn’t enough to make this more than a marketing piece that utilizes a gimmicky controller and should be seen more as a “check this out for 20 minutes while your game downloads in the background”.