America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 01st Dec 2020 | 1,883 views
When anyone utters the term "tech demo" there may be a half-dozen examples that spring to your mind. Regardless of whether it's unsettling conversations with a boy or drab showcases where hundreds of balls drop at once, these presentations are accustomed to being hands-off affairs. They're only to be gawped over, not tested, by the masses. What if that weren't the case? In an ingenious marketing move, Sony figured its most effective method of propaganda - in the loosest sense of the term - for its new console and controller would be a free packed-in 3D platformer: Astro's Playroom. Not only has Team Asobi effectively (albeit inconsistently) argued for the DualSense's features, but also solidified Astro Bot as another valuable mascot.
Befitting for the device it's housed in, Playroom takes place within a fictionalized version of the PlayStation 5. A couple of gigabytes' worth of every owner's hard drive has been refashioned as a technological theme park to PlayStation's storied history. Acting as the main hub, the story begins in the CPU Plaza with four distinctly themed worlds open to collect-a-thoning: SSD Speedway, Memory Meadow, Cooling Springs, and GPU Jungle.
As anyone would suspect with a platformer, each area sells disparate gimmicks instituted in the controller. Some of these will be more familiar to seasoned veterans, such as the revised touchpad, but what Team Asobi is really trying to sell you on is haptic feedback. Since Astro's feet are essentially sensory peg legs, every floor permutation, be it grassy, metallic, or anything else, is translated to the backside of the DualSense. Any walking interaction presents a kind of tactile synesthesia; the thing you're holding is communicating Astro's best understanding of each platform's dimension and density. It inspired a fun, short-lived challenge for me: mute my headset/TV, close my eyes, and envision the texture of a given surface through my mind's eye.
This type of sensory information is further communicated by the DualSense's adaptive triggers. Whether it's the tension in pulling an arrow or individual rocket boosters, there's distinct weight and character given to interactions. The 2D rocketing sections were my first real test with these triggers and they take me back to testing out that old Forza Motorsport 5 demo for Xbox One, when jamming the brakes felt more challenging. Playroom feels like the next logical step when it comes to applied pressure.
Not all gimmicks are created equal, however. Unplugging my headset mid-conversation with a friend just to blow a stupid, colorful fan isn't the best way to sell the DualSense's mic; to my chagrin, I only discovered the disable option for these parts after completion. Asobi & I were on the same page for how useless it is. Although less egregious, the motion-based hang-gliding offers no excitement or complexity. Keep the controller tilted upwards until you need to dive. Fin. No dipping downwards to gain velocity - either that or it's a bit more finicky than I expected. Those segments, along with the less-enjoyable roller-ball level utilizing the touchpad, start to craft a specific narrative: I’m a bigger fan of the newest features than of the mini-games centered on DualShock 4-birthed revisions.
Leaving the controller proselytizing behind, Playroom also succeeds in its platforming gameplay too. The foundation is fundamentally basic but reaches beyond that with its nuance and finesse. Despite meeting a dreadful end by every enemy type, a part of me appreciated the gravity of insta-kills resulting from any damage. General locomotion feels smooth, with little details like momentum boosts from mid-air punches expanding Astro's repertoire. One of my favorite details is Astro's double jump boost being hyper-focused plasma beams shooting through his robo-feet. They're more than aesthetically satisfying; they're actual lasers that can cut through enemies and manipulate seesaw platforms. Whatever quibbles may crop up for some enemy placement or occasional camera wonkiness are distractions to what's otherwise a mechanically sound game.
One of the funniest (or saddest) comparisons I can't help but make is the insane difference between this full-on PS5 exclusive and the PS4's own platformer exclusive: Knack. One of the key comparisons going through my head comes down to visuals. If you ran both games at the same framerate and dropped Playroom to sub-HD resolution I'd still praise this game more. When it comes to mascots it comes back to one thing: character. From the dressed-up robots acting out visual vignettes from PlayStation & 3rd party franchises, to Astro’s light-blue cape, there's a whimsical nature bursting at the seams here which I never felt from that hideous rock golem. To me, his design ranks up there with Sackboy/Sackgirl in likeability.
In regard to the worlds comprising various PS5 components, not being the most visually or aurally complex title doesn't rob it of any of its quality. You get more than what you don't pay for. SSDs coming with next-gen consoles translates to lightning-fast load times between Playroom's levels. Another welcome surprise was Kenneth Young's musical composition blending various pop and techno themes. One prominent example locked in my head is the GPU Jungle's OST; beyond that, the added touch of carving the lyrics in a secret area was brilliant too.
Considering this is the first free game I've reviewed here without any asterisk regarding microtransactions or battle passes, my frame of reference has to be changed accordingly. Rather than questioning if it's worth your money I only have to consider if it's worth your time. Even though I disliked some aspects, and the adornment of all things PlayStation may not hit me the same way it may for dedicated fans, I still think there's something worthwhile from the venture. The runtime feels like it'll clock in at just under three hours, but additions like Network Speed Run's online leaderboards and the PlayStation emporium of discovered artifacts (dubbed “Labo”) could double or triple your time. It’s a much more ephemeral experience for me since the credits rolled, but still a respectable bargain nonetheless.
Free pack-in titles flaunting controller gimmicks is something more expected from Nintendo than Sony. That’s an earned nod of approval all of its own. When considering the promising leaps here, Team Asobi did a solid job of showcasing the DualSense's potential similar to Wii Sports back then. Although not reaching those same revolutionary and addictive heights, Astro's Playroom is nevertheless a respectable assemblage of PlayStation antiquity built on a competent platformer.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.