As for pack-in games, Astros Playroom doesn't seem too exciting at first. It's not an instant classic like a bundled Super Mario or something with the obvious allure of Wii Sports. Sony made a wise decision, however, to bring Astro to every PS5 owner: it may be the ideal showcase for the console's new DualSense controller.
The game itself is a pretty simple 3D platformer, but one that has charm. Everything is bright and colorful and there are lots of fun little animations. If you leave Astro alone for too long, he'll pull out a PSVR and start playing on its own. (If the adorable robot character seems familiar, it's because he's also featured in the PSVR title Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, another game that's supposed to showcase new hardware.)
Everything takes place in a retro-futuristic world that is divided into several levels. For this preview, however, I'll only discuss the first, called "Cooling Springs".
Sweet as everything is, at first it seems generic. You start on a beach, collect coins, jump around and hit enemies with your little robotic fists. It's all very peaceful and charming. Mechanical dolphins swim through the water and you can pound around beach balls. Later, move on to other themed areas like a robot hotel and a frozen arctic region. It's not particularly difficult, but there is a really playful tone to it. You will spend time sliding down icy ramps, jumping off diving boards, and figure skating around enemies. All kinds of classic PlayStation Easter eggs (which I won't spoil for you right now) are scattered throughout the level.
The most interesting thing about Astro's playroom, however, isn't how it plays – it feels. Sony's new DualSense controller is the biggest gamepad redesign since the introduction of twin sticks in the mid-life of the original PlayStation. Two of the showcase features are all about feeling: there are triggers on the back with haptic feedback and variable voltage, and the controller has much more subtle vibrations. Both can be seen in the first phase of Astro.
The vibrations are felt almost immediately and the variety is pretty incredible. You can feel pieces of sand crunch when Astro is walking on the beach, there is a heavy plop when you jump into the water, and there is a satisfying tension when you pull on a rubber band. I especially loved the colder region where you can feel Astro trembling. What is remarkable is how different they all feel. Every sensation is accompanied by a sound effect from the built-in loudspeaker of the DualSense. When you combine the physical and acoustic sensations, the experience becomes all the more immersive.
The same applies to the new haptic triggers. Normally the R2 and L2 buttons behave like normal buttons, but provide feedback in the form of voltage in certain sequences. There are essentially two states when the button is pressed. You can easily press down halfway, but a full press takes a little more force. In the opening stage of Astro, for example, there are side-scrolling sequences in which the bot jumps around in a spring-powered mech suit. (Don't ask.) To take a quick jump, press the trigger halfway, but to start across the screen, you need to pull it all the way down. It makes big jumps all the more satisfying as you have to add the extra power.
The level also uses other controller functions. You can blow into the microphone to spin a fan, move a zipper with the touchpad, and there are the necessary motion controls. None of these are new like the vibration and haptic triggers, but it's pretty impressive how many things Sony has put into this gamepad.
Of course, it's impossible to know how things will play out for DualSense. Astros Playroom is an adorable little game that just got even more charming thanks to these new features. But it was also explicitly designed to take advantage of them. Wii Sports was amazing, but few Wii games made motion controls nearly as compelling.
Right now it's not clear if other games and developers will use DualSense in the same way. Like HD Rumble on the Nintendo Switch, they could be a forgotten gimmick. But in the case of Astros Playroom, at least it's an incredibly fun gimmick – and one that should keep new PS5 owners happy when the console launches on November 12th.