Review: “Astro’s Playroom”

Astro’s Playroom is a game filled with so many Easter eggs that the few moments where players actually do anything mechanically interesting are themselves actually the Easter eggs. Or maybe it’s an exceedingly literary tech demo, one that gets so lost in its own details–the microscopic detail of the X/O walls in the CPU Plaza that mirror the grips of your new DualSense controller; the vibratory differences in texture between sand, water, and gravel–that it often forgets to be a game.

In actuality, Astro’s Playroom is an advertisement. It looks backward at Playstation history, filling each area with cute little dioramas–Cloud’s sword, the Uncharted climb up a collapsing plane, was that Maximo? Jumping Flash?–that come across as treats rather than meals. None of the inventiveness of those set-pieces or the ingenuity of those games are actually on display. Everything is borrowed, the better to distract you from the mundane Knack-ness of it all, and even there, at least that game grew (literally and figuratively) over the course of a campaign. Here, we just get a collection of first chapters, which, given the janky controls for Astro’s springy or air-gliding forms, is probably for the best.

Everything is borrowed, the better to distract you from the mundane Knack-ness of it all.

Astro’s Playroom is essentially Dreams, but speaking directly to developers as opposed to empowering casual players to become creators. It’s setting the lowest possible benchmark for the creators of Horizon: Forbidden West to have to exceed with their bow-and-arrow mechanics, which are disappointingly reductive here. It’s doing some sort of weird reverse psychology, where it hopes that by disappointing players with its weird, unaimable space blaster they’ll be more keen on the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which will surely do more than the basic haptic pew-pew-pew.

There’s no doubt that Astro’s Playroom is charming, and it absolutely does showcase the DualSense, from the pitter of Astro’s little feet to the patter of raindrops falling on his cute little umbrella. But these are gimmicks without any staying power. There’s a level on the beach that looks like a sandbox, but it’s as much a sandbox as it is a playroom: everything is constrained. At best, it’s like a third-person Where’s Waldo? in which you can look for the Crash Bandicoot Astro, or the one buried in the snow, laugh for a few seconds, and then forget it completely and move on to the next carefully curated exhibit. Where is the density of Astrobot Rescue Mission VR, which modeled all the cool PSVR functionalities, or of Super Mario 64, which firmly established the 3D platformer, while also being a wonderous adventure? I played Sackboy: A Big Adventure on PS4, but there’s little that Astro’s Playroom models that couldn’t have been more compellingly conveyed in that game’s PS5 version.

These are gimmicks without any staying power…laugh for a few seconds and then forget it completely and move on to the next carefully curated exhibit.

It is fitting that Astro’s Playroom ends with a boss fight against a discarded tech demo from the PS1-era, since that’s what this game is. It is a missed opportunity, given the game’s curatorial power, that you do not fight similar versions of this boss in PS2, PS3, and PS4 forms. And it is frustrating that the boss’s final PS5 form plays out identically to the PS1 encounter, as if to say that despite all the advancements in technology, AAA games aren’t actually evolving so much as getting shinier. Pretty, yes. Pretty disappointing.

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