The “pack-in game” is a longstanding tradition in gaming for console launches that, depressing, seems to have lost popularity. The Wii U is the last console I can think of that had a pack-in game, and even that was only if you bought the more expensive 32 GB model. To the best of my knowledge, no pack-in game was included with the Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, or Xbox Series X (I’m not counting the subscription games). Sure, the PlayStation 4 had The Playroom, but I doubt anyone would seriously consider that a true “game” given that it was just a few shallow mini-games and how barebones they were. PlayStation 5, however, is a return to form in this regard with Astro’s Playroom. Not only is this a cute little game that comes pre-installed on every PlayStation 5 console, but like Wii Sports and NintendoLand did for the Wii and Wii U, respectively, it also serves as a brilliant tech demo to show customers just what their new console’s controller is capable of.
Astro’s Playroom is a 3D platformer reminiscent of the genre’s 5th generation glory days. There are four worlds - each themed on one of Sony’s previous home consoles - all connected by a hub world. Each world is broken into four levels for a total of sixteen, and within each level are puzzle pieces that go into completing a huge PlayStation mural in the hub world as well as hidden collectables - models of Sony’s previous console models and their accessories - that show up as decorations in the hub world. It gives the game the feel of an appetizer-sized collectathon platformer like Banjo-Kazooie. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to bother playing the game, let that push you onto the “Yes, Please” side.
As a platformer, controls are what will make or break Astro’s Playhouse for gamers, and the controls here are as tight and responsive as I would expect from a Mario title. Describing exactly what makes the controls for this game feel so good is hard to describe, though. You know how food reviews will often talk about “mouth feel” as a metric by which to judge food? It’s kind of like that, although I’m not sure what you’d call it. “Hand feel”? “Control feel”? Whatever you want to call it, it’s that thing you can’t quite put your finger on but that just feels right with a game, and Astro’s Playhouse has that in spades. The haptic feedback vibration, the adaptive triggers, the touchpad, the gyroscopes, and the overall more ergonomic design of the controller all come together to form one of the best “feeling” platformers I’ve played in a long time, and all of this is from a free pre-installed game. Even the controller’s built-in microphone plays a role in gameplay.
Astro’s Playhouse may not show off the new hardware’s visual power like Demon’s Souls or the frame rate stability like Call of Duty, but it’s no slouch, either. The characters models are bright, the worlds are colorful, and ray tracing adds a certain flair that I never even knew older games were missing. The crispness of the detail and shine of the lighting effects, even for a short pack-in game, drive home the point that this isn’t just a stronger and oversized PS4; this truly is a next generation machine that delivers a next-generation experience in every sense. While the sound design doesn’t really show off any neat hardware features or controller gimmicks, it is absolutely worth mentioning here as Astro’s Playhouse has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a 3D platformer. It strikes that perfect balance of unobtrusive yet addicting. It’s not Mariah Carey in November and December, but every song on this soundtrack is an earworm all the same except these songs won’t have you bashing your skull against a cinderblock wall by the end of November.
What really sets Astro’s Playroom apart from “just another tech demo” is the underlying theme of the game - an homage to the PlayStation brand’s history. Every major first party accessory for all four previous consoles and both previous handhelds is represented and honored here through the puzzle piece mural and the collectables, and for lifelong PlayStation fans, that’s got to be something special to witness. Even for someone like me who grew up a Nintendo gamer and didn’t jump on the Sony bandwagon until the last year of the PS3’s generation, it hit me in the nostalgia. That’s the thing about video games especially for us Millennials; even if you didn’t have a system growing up or weren’t a fan of a brand, you probably had a friend who did have it and played it with them. I never had a PS1 until 2009, but I played it a lot at John’s house. I never had a PS2 until 2009, but I played the hell out of it at Thomas’s house. This game is a tribute to the legacy of the PlayStation brand as much as anything else. If you have a PlayStation 5, don’t let the “Oh, it’s just a dumb tech demo” mindset deter you; this is a game in its own right, and it deserves your attention.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.