Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

New console, new dimension—same old Ratchet And Clank

Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart, the franchise’s mostly triumphant PlayStation 5 debut, doesn’t innovate, but it also doesn’t alienate.

Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart
Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s been five years, and the better part of a console generation, since the last Ratchet And Clank game landed in the hands of the series’ fans. (And even then, said PlayStation 4 game was a reboot of canonically nebulous status, tied to the dismally received 2016 movie.) Before that, you have to go back all the way to the series’ heyday on the PlayStation 3, where the “Future” subseries of R&C titles defined the limits of its take on 3D action: Lots of jokes, semi-creative gunplay, and some light platforming and puzzle-solving action.

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And, wouldn’t you know it: Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart, the franchise’s mostly triumphant PlayStation 5 debut, offers its players a whole bunch of jokes, some semi-creative gunplay, a little light platforming, and some very familiar puzzle-solving action. It doesn’t innovate, but it also doesn’t alienate; if you want a video game where an alien cat man and his droll robot friend have Saturday morning cartoon adventures while killing monsters with some very silly guns, Ratchet And Clank has been here for you for going on 20 years, and it’s here again for you now.

This, despite a whole bunch of new window dressing, up to and including a new playable character: Ratchet’s alternate universe counterpart, Rivet. Voiced by the apparently tireless Jennifer Hale, Rivet is doomed to live in a universe where bumbling villain Dr. (or, rather, Emperor) Nefarious has won all of his battles against the galaxy’s heroes, instead of getting his butt periodically kicked—a juicy alternate universe setup that the game loses interest in with a quickness that’s frankly kind of shocking. When our Ratchet and Clank inevitably get dumped into this neck of the multiverse through typically MacGuffin-y means, one might credibly expect the series’ tone to take at least some kind of shift toward the darkness to reflect this new, villain-friendly reality. One would be wrong—and that extends all the way to Rivet herself, whose lifetime of losses to a totalitarian robot dictator has left her with a personality that is more or less exactly the same as Ratchet’s, except maybe 1% more sarcastic or world-weary. All in all, it’s a bizarre waste of a premise.

That extends to pretty much all of Rift Apart’s dimensional conceits, annoyingly, from “pocket dimensions” that are simply easily traversed bonus levels, to a whole slew of largely indistinguishable alternate universe counterparts to the games’ existing cast, to a moral tone that doesn’t deviate one whit from the series’ original “With friendship, all is possible!” flavor. Even when the dimension-hopping eventually bleeds into the gameplay—most notably in a pair of levels that let you zip between abandoned and functioning versions of a couple of planets—it’s only ever used in the most rote, “door is blocked, jump to universe where door is not blocked,” fashion. Outside the occasional fun of seeing the two Nefariouses banter with and bounce off of each other (Armin Shimerman has always been delightfully over-the-top in that role), you could honestly strip the whole “Rifts” identity off of Rift Apart without having much of an impact.

Rivet, trying out her hoverboots.
Rivet, trying out her hoverboots.
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The good news is that, underneath all that dimension-hopping frippery, Insomniac Games has still made a credibly enjoyable, very traditional Ratchet And Clank game for players to fall back in sync with. The pleasures of this series have never been in the story, but in their play—and especially in the usual array of weirdo guns that you can buy from cheerfully murderous vendors, and which then level up alongside you as you use them. Rift Apart keeps that tradition alive (the pinball-based gun that lets you repeatedly bounce a projectile off a hapless enemy’s head comes immediately to mind, although we were also partial to the bomb-dropping attack drones), with plenty of juicy upgrades to dig into as you lightly customize your big dumb guns. The focus on vehicles to break up all the running and gunning is still there, too, and while it’s not all uniformly successful—these games have never had the best time with flight—the level that sends you rocketing across a vast alien desert with rocket shoes strapped to your feet is a genuinely thrilling highlight, and probably the closest Rift Apart ever gets to kicking things up from “comforting” into “actual excitement.”

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Of course, Rift Apart isn’t simply a Ratchet And Clank game; it’s also the latest PlayStation 5 exclusive, the newest of what’s only been a handful of chances for Sony to put its big white box through its paces. We can’t speak to the game’s 60 fps Performance mode, unfortunately, which wasn’t patched in until shortly before release. But the visuals overall are perfectly crisp, and appealingly cartoonish, and the shooting itself is solid. On the other hand, the PS5’s adaptive pressure triggers continue to be a feature in desperate search of a reason to exist (and “hold the button halfway down for aim mode” just isn’t going to cut it). And the overuse of the controller’s built-in speaker—which, unless you adjust it, will make a noise of some kind every single time you pull the trigger—is a minor crime against humanity. The game offers a “midnight mode” that quiets the damn thing; needless to say, it’s always midnight in our house.

One area of customization where Rift Apart deserves to be called out for praise, though, is in accessibility. Besides offering a wide variety of difficulty options, the game is probably the most robust title we’ve ever seen in terms of offering specific options to make the game playable for people unable to use or uncomfortable with using a traditional controller setup. Commands can be easily set to directional pad shortcuts, platforming controls can be simplified, and shooting can receive a wide array of assists—all designed with an eye toward ensuring that anyone who wants to play this latest Ratchet And Clank can do so. If Rift Apart disappoints because it falls back into a safe, conservative mindset in almost every aspect of design, its devotion to innovating with its accessibility options still deserves sincere acknowledgement.

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Despite its ostensibly far-flung setting, Ratchet And Clank: Rift Apart is going to feel very familiar to anyone who’s spent much time with this franchise over the last two decades of its existence. That’s a bit of a bummer, in so far as there are a lot of Ratchet And Clank games out there that you can draw parallels to here, and very little that’s going to feel genuinely fresh or new. But that familiarity also extends to being familiar with the core, unshakeable competence of these solid platforming adventures that are designed for pretty much anyone to have a good time with. As a dimension-hopping adventure, Rift Apart might leave something to be desired. But as a reunion with one of gaming’s most energetically silly franchises, after so many years away, there are worse things you could wish for than the same old Ratchet And Clank.