Sony released the PS Access Controller this week, a new PS5 peripheral designed to make gaming more accessible to those with disabilities or mobility issues. This concludes years of progress from the platform holder, which has seen it win awards for ground-breaking accessibility innovation in titles like The Last of Us: Part 2 and God of War Ragnarok.
Due to the nature of this product, we felt it was important as a publication to deviate from our usual review style. As such, we recruited the talented Sam Greer to share her personal experience with the product, as we know everyone will have a different relationship with the controller. We hope that you find her thoughts insightful and interesting.
To get into why I'm so impressed with Sony's new PS Access Controller, a bit of context: I suffer from benign essential hand tremors. I don't often talk about them publicly, partly because it's relatively quite minor compared with other more serious impairments. Over the last decade it's become worse and worse. While critical things have become affected (such as the essential ability to carry a cup of tea without spilling it) it's also impacted my ability to play games.
You don't quite realise how many games rely on precise controls until you become incapable of doing them. For me, the shaking and lack of fine control in my hands make it very difficult to coordinate button presses and use analogue controls. Aiming with action games in particular has become a real challenge since my fingers are constantly twitching and shaking. Fast-paced competitive games with "twitch shooting" like Apex Legends have become basically impenetrable. I also find difficulty with coordinating button presses. Getting my fingers to where they need to be is one thing but buttons that are too stiff or too sensitive leave me constantly hitting things at the wrong time or not at all. Armored Core VI (which I've completed twice now) became a significant challenge owing to the difficulty in using all of a controller's buttons. Even typing up this review takes significantly longer due to constantly hitting the wrong keys.
At my computer, I've benefited a lot from switching my regular mouse out for a vertical one. With a vertical mouse, my hand is at rest, meaning I'm not required to do any fine movement with my fingers and moving the mouse relies much more on my arm. It's got extra buttons positioned under my fingers so that they don't need to move to reach them. It has helped a lot. So when Sony talked about the Access Controller, my curiosity was piqued. I've not found a substitute for a joypad for the majority of my games and the most enticing part of the Access Controller was the promise of being able to have my hand at rest, with all the necessary buttons under it. Would this make coordination easier and more comfortable?
Sony sent two controllers for review, since the Access Controller can be used in conjunction with multiple devices, including the standard DualSense. That speaks to the versatility Sony is aiming for but it's nothing compared to how impressively customisable the device is. Every button can be swapped for one with a different size or shape, making it concave or convex. It comes with three types of thumbsticks that each feel wildly different to use. All the labels are rubber plugs that can be moved around so you can easily map out your layout how you wish. Not only is the box full of options impressive to have at your disposal, the ease of swapping things around has to be commended thanks to a gentle switch release and magnetic grips. The thumbstick arm can also be extended/retracted at any time so you can adjust it to make it more comfortable.
Users of the regular PS5 DualSense controller will also be delighted to hear that not only does the Access Controller come with a long USB-C cable (a bigger deal than it should be), the battery life is considerably longer. I’m used to charging my DualSense after every session of playing so the Access lasting a whole week without charge was very impressive. Perhaps that's because of the lack of haptic feedback but I'll be quick to admit I missed that very little and appreciated the longer battery life a whole lot. Even the packaging it comes in has been made considerate, with a single pullable paper strip making it possible to open the box one handed.
At first glance you can see it's been built with a completely different mindset from standard controllers. This isn't a device you clutch in your hand, it's something your hands sit on. Even the big central circle is its own button, depressed at a gentle squeeze from your palm. Admittedly this will probably require more space than most controllers, though I was able to sit comfortably with two controllers on my lap, so I didn't need to be hunched over a desk or table.
That's only half of it, though. The other half is the software side, mapping button layouts through the controller's "profile" system, where you can create multiple layouts, name them and assign them to slots (which can be flicked through via a button on the controller's base) as well as to different controllers all together. There's a clean logic to how Sony has organised this interface with a lot of necessary fail safes given players will be altering inputs but I have to say, the most difficult part was interacting with this. It's unavoidable given the extent of the options, and the ease of accessing this menu at any time does offset the hardships considerably. All the same, I had to spend a lot of time in this menu, experimenting and tweaking layouts, then hopping into a game to try them out, realising what was wrong, then going back to the menu to make more changes.
This trial and error process was somewhat fun of course. There's a profound novelty to being able to arrange a piece of hardware to fit your needs as opposed to adjusting yourself to learn how something is expected to be used. It's just a bit time consuming is all. I hope that once these are out in the wild players will be swapping layout ideas to help each other more quickly land on something that works, though sadly, there's no way to share layout profiles that I saw. Being able to swap them through the PlayStation Network would be a huge boon.
For the purposes of review and getting a feel for the controller, I simply played the games I usually play on the PS5: Returnal, Armored Core VI, Dead Space, Ratchet & Clank, The Last of Us: Part II, God of War, and Demon's Souls. Returnal and Armored Core VI, as you might expect given they are action games which tout incredible difficulty as a feature, proved to be the most demanding but the obstacles really came from not yet being familiar enough with the setup (not helped by the need to make several adjustments). In spite of this, even after a few days, I was surprised how quickly I got on board and was able to enjoy having all my buttons immediately available without me having to move my fingers at all. The standard joypad configuration I'd taken for granted for so long now only makes sense on the merits of its familiarity rather than its actual ease of use.
After dozens of hours, the above picture was what I landed on across all the titles I played. I have a profile for the "left" and "right" controllers, splitting the usual interface across both hands which are able to lie comfortably on top of the whole setup. In a word, it is luxurious. A setup with my hands at constant rest, hitting buttons with a press of my palm or gentle nudge of my finger. Getting used to this after a lifetime of basically the same joypad over thousands of games, is not easy and the muscle memory still isn't quite there. Yet I can honestly say I might never have been so comfortable playing games. No crab claw grip, no fidgeting with keys or buttons in a hurry, no dealing with accidental pushes of the shoulder buttons. As a piece of hardware this might undoubtedly be one of the most impressive things I have ever used in all my time playing games. The designers have built a device that can accommodate not only a user's impairment but also their imagination and ingenuity.
Mileage will vary and as noted at the beginning, my impairment is relatively minor. I can't say how others will fare with it but I would expect, given how specifically it was able to address my issues, and given the degree of customisation, many others will be able to create a layout that meets their needs. Genuinely, the Access Controller feels like one of a kind right now. Though that does touch on some of my issues and concerns.
If you're looking at the above picture of my ideal setup you might be struck by the same thing I was: you need two Access Controllers. The biggest obstacle facing the use of the Access Controller is the fact that for the overwhelming majority of games you're going to need dual analogue stick control. The Access only comes with a single joystick. To have a second, you either need to use it in conjunction with an already owned DualSense, purchase an expansion peripheral that can be connected to the device, or pair it as I did with a second Access Controller. Either way, to play games with dual analogue controls (which, I should point out, is a lot) you're going to need something extra which seems like a big ask for a peripheral already priced considerably higher than a regular DualSense (at time of writing, $89.99/£79.99). It's new hardware with an extensive array of kit, the high price point isn't a surprise, but I don't think it's unreasonable to hope that the default setup should accommodate a feature essential to the majority of videogames on the console. To achieve my ideal setup you're looking at spending a considerable amount!
Which begs some scrutiny over how this device will fare long term: how committed is Sony to supporting it? The platform holder famously restricted PS4 controller use on the PS5, so will the same apply when the PS6 launches in four or five years, rendering this accessory useless? And what good is this for the health of the industry if it's a patented bit of technology kept exclusive to one console? For this device to become the gold standard there needs to be a re-think about its price point and a real show of commitment to its ongoing support.
Divorced from the price, two paired Access Controllers customised to my personal needs is the most comfortable way to play games I've ever had in my life. What a delight it is to so easily have options about how to accommodate my impairments and play games on my own terms. I've never been afforded this freedom before. Which only makes it more painful that such accessibility is kept behind a high price point. This is ultimately very expensive for the best controller setup available, and it's a lot to ask not knowing if that investment will be supported long term and into the next generation of consoles. If this becomes another abandoned peripheral alongside the likes of the EyeToy, and confined to a single system, is the Access Controller really the answer to disabled gamers problems or another failure from the industry?
Here's hoping Sony can address those concerns because I really do think this is a special, much needed alternative to a standard that has endured for almost my entire life.