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‘Ratchet & Clank’ Is Like You Remember It, Just a Whole Lot Prettier

‘Rift Apart,’ the beloved franchise’s first wholly new entry since 2013, is beautiful, if a bit familiar

Scott Laven/Insomniac Games
Spoiler warning

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart begins with a tribute to bygone glory. Ratchet, the galaxy-saving lombax, and Clank, his robot buddy, are taking part in a parade. Like aging athletes suited up for an Old Timers’ Game, the rusty, retired duo jump, smash, and shoot their way across a series of floats designed to resemble the settings of the past adventures. “Don’t you think it’s weird to throw a celebration for us?” Ratchet asks his sidekick. “I mean, we haven’t done anything heroic in years. What if everyone thinks we’re washed up? What if we are washed up?”

Ratchet’s self-doubt doubles as metacommentary on the franchise he fronts. Rift Apart, which comes out on Friday for PlayStation 5, is the 12th console installment in the hybrid platforming/shooting series, which debuted on PS2 almost 20 years ago. Insomniac Games pumped out 10 Ratchet-related titles from 2002 to 2013, but the formula started to seem stale late in the PS3 era, and Insomniac moved on to fresher efforts (including Sunset Overdrive, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and last year’s Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales). Rift Apart is the first Ratchet & Clank game of any kind released since the 2016 reimagining of the original Ratchet & Clank on PS4 (and the accompanying flop of an animated movie). It’s also the first wholly new Ratchet & Clank title since 2013’s Into the Nexus, and the first full-length, fully featured Triple-A sequel—the sort Insomniac said it would be aiming to deliver this time around—since 2009’s Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time.

Essentially, the series skipped a generation of consoles and gamers alike. Thanks to that long layoff, Rift Apart has plenty to prove—not just as a reboot of long-dormant, high-profile IP, but also as a showcase for the PS5’s power. The first Ratchet & Clank game since Sony Interactive Entertainment acquired Insomniac in 2019 hits the market at a transitional time, when the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X have inaugurated the ninth console generation but the boundaries between old and new hardware are more permeable than they’ve ever been. Rift Apart is the rare Sony-published PS5-only title to premiere since the system launched last November, which puts the pressure on: Whereas cross-generation titles may make compromises to avoid overtaxing legacy systems, Rift Apart is built to take advantage of the new console’s strengths. The game succeeds in demonstrating that there’s still fuel left in the Ratchet & Clank tank, but from a gameplay perspective, the added horsepower provides more of a perk than a drastic reinvention. Rift Apart is a short-term treat for exclusive-starved PS5 owners, but it’s less a fundamental makeover than a Ratchet & Clank classic with a ray-traced, 4K coat of paint.

A few minutes into Ratchet and Clank’s game-opening victory lap, their parade is interrupted by Dr. Nefarious, the main antagonist of the series dating back to his debut in 2004’s Up Your Arsenal. Nefarious steals the Dimensionator (another series staple), which is damaged in the ensuing scrap. The mishap pokes a hole in the fabric of space-time, allowing Nefarious to escape to a mirror universe populated by analogues of Ratchet & Clank’s core characters: Emperor Nefarious instead of Dr. Nefarious, Captain Quantum instead of Captain Qwark, and, in place of Ratchet and Clank, female lombax Rivet and yellow robot Kit.

As the portals proliferate, Ratchet and Clank cooperate with their counterparts to defeat the two Nefarii and knit together the tears in their worlds. Rivet and Kit aren’t quite Bizarro Ratchet and Clank (which was Insomniac’s original plan), but they are opposites in one respect: Unlike the normally inseparable Ratchet and Clank, Rivet and Kit are loners who haven’t partnered up. Thus, the story centers not only on the quartet’s collective efforts to save existence, but on the bonding of the new duo and on Ratchet’s reaction to discovering a second lombax. It’s an elegant solution to the challenge of including enough callbacks to make the journey fulfilling for longtime players while also supplying an easy entry point for the new, next-gen audience that Insomniac hopes will stick around for the inevitable sequels to come.

In his review of the original Ratchet & Clank—which was published so long ago that the text featured separate sections and scores for gameplay, graphics, sound, and so on—IGN’s Douglass C. Perry likened the game to the crop of platformers that had harnessed the processing power of then-state-of-the-art consoles to catapult the genre into the third dimension. “We bought these new systems to experience something different and new,” Perry wrote, “and Insomniac’s game delivers a comfortable combination of familiar gameplay elements and a few new ways of playing the game. It’s not revolutionary, but that’s OK, because it’s good, solid long-lasting fun.”

Nineteen years later, the same could be said of Sony’s new system and Rift Apart. The core mechanics and gameplay loops that have characterized Ratchet & Clank since the start return in Rift Apart, tweaked and rebalanced but basically the same. Like its celebrated predecessors, the latest Ratchet & Clank is a potpourri of platforming, shooting, puzzle-solving, exploring, and collecting, melded with an RPG-esque upgrade system to produce a well-paced, accessible, and satisfying adventure that doesn’t last long enough to grow repetitive. (The main campaign runs about 10 to 12 hours—pretty standard for the series—though completionists and early adopters in search of a better ROI on their $70 investment could put in at least twice that long.)

Two decades, four console generations, and a dozen games later, a Ratchet & Clank player from 2002 would feel right at home here: shooting enemies and breaking boxes to amass bolts and buy weapons, then leveling up and tricking out their arsenal and armor while hopping from planet to planet. It’s still a fun formula, especially because it’s been so long since the last time. It’s just not an ambitious, Breath of the Wild/Super Mario Odyssey–style reinvention.

The much-hyped hook here is the addition of interdimensional rifts, which—like gravity in Into the Nexus or time in A Crack in Time—give the game its name and its special spin on the standard template. Some rifts are cobweb-shaped windows scattered around the regular levels, which allow players to teleport (or “rift tether”) to otherwise-inaccessible areas or get the jump on enemies in combat.

Other rifts lead to “pocket dimensions,” smallish areas adjoining the main environments where players can navigate obstacle courses to gain new gear. Insomniac leveraged the PS5’s solid-state drive to make these dimensions accessible—and, in some sections, to switch between Ratchet’s and Rivet’s universes—without any breaks in the action. It’s a nifty trick, though players can’t create rifts, Aperture Science-style, which might have made them more integral to the game.

In Perry’s review of the original Ratchet & Clank, he raved about how Insomniac “never once delivers a loading screen after the game initially loads up,” but old-school entries in the series weren’t pushing polygons like Rift Apart. Ratchet & Clank games always have been lookers compared to their contemporaries, but beauty in video games is often as fleeting as a system’s stay on the cutting edge. In my mind’s eye, the original Ratchet & Clank is still the stunner it was in 2002, even though the cold light of YouTube reveals it to look like what it is—a dated PS2 game, albeit a comparatively pretty one.

I played Rift Apart on a 4K screen, using a Pulse 3D wireless headset that Sony supplied. As expected, it’s a great-looking, great-sounding game, though Mark Mothersbaugh’s soundtrack made more of an impression on me than the 3D audio. Like Insomniac’s Spider-Man games on PS5, Rift Apart offers multiple display modes via a day-one patch: Fidelity mode, which features the highest resolution and runs at 30 frames per second, and the lower-resolution, 60-FPS Performance and Performance RT modes (the latter of which enables ray tracing in exchange for a further resolution hit). After trying all three, Fidelity mode seemed to move like molasses, so I stuck with Performance RT, which boasts some of the fancier lighting, precipitation, and surface effects without detracting from the smooth spectacle of attacking enemies and exotic scenery. As creative director Marcus Smith said in a teaser video from last year, “Everything is more, more, more.”

Rift Apart was co-directed by Smith and Mike Daly, Insomniac veterans whose credits include previous Rachet & Clank titles as well as Sunset Overdrive and the Spider-Man games. The studio has clearly learned some lessons from designing those games’ dynamic traversal systems. Rift Apart’s new wall-running, dashing, and tethering combine with holdovers like the Hoverboots, Grind Boots, and a descendant of the Swingshot to make it a pleasure to control (aside from a few brief flying sequences). An extensive array of accessibility options opens up that experience to a wider swath of potential players. In a departure from the typical game in the series, Rift Apart also boasts playable characters other than Ratchet and Clank, though this is less exciting than it sounds; the most frequent alternative, Rivet, shares Ratchet’s move set and inventory. While it’s nice not to be deprived of any weapons or gear when switching between the two, playing like a reskinned Ratchet leaves Lauren Mee’s script and Jennifer Hale’s voicework primarily responsible for (and mostly successful at) establishing Rivet as a compelling co-lead—and, perhaps, a future solo star.

Both lombaxes can call on the usual array of about 20 guns, which run the gamut from run-of-the-mill blasters, shotguns, and rocket launchers to weapons that pack both a punch and a punch line. (The Sheepinator is absent from the lineup of returning weapons, but the Topiary Sprinkler steps up to match its absurdity.) As in recent roguelike shooter Returnal, the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers are among the most “next-gen” aspects of Rift Apart. Firing feels more visceral than ever, and players can activate different functions or firing styles for each gun by pulling the right trigger halfway or depressing it fully. For instance, players can clamp down hard to empty both barrels of the Enforcer (a shotgun) or pull partway to shoot one. With another shotgun-esque gun, the Void Repulsor, a half-pull activates a shield, while a full pull drops the shield and fires the weapon. In the heat of a firefight, I often clenched too tightly to use these secondary abilities (or outright forgot to try), but the nuance would be welcome on higher difficulty levels or repeat playthroughs.

Replay value is overrated in a world in which a low percentage of players finish any given game even once, but it may matter in this specific case. Although Sony claimed last month to be developing 25 first-party exclusives, Rift Apart is one of only a handful of Sony-published PS5 exclusives released so far or scheduled for release before the end of this year, along with Astro’s Playroom, Demon’s Souls, Returnal, Final Fantasy VII Remake: Intergrade (which also comes out this week), and the upcoming Deathloop. That library is even thinner than it looks, given the nature of some of those games. Astro’s Playroom is both a great game and an extended tech demo that can be completed in a single session. Demon’s Souls is a remake. Intergrade is an enhanced re-release of last year’s Final Fantasy VII Remake (plus some PS5-only DLC), and Deathloop, now slated for mid-September, has already been delayed twice.

That light lineup of exclusives contributes to the sense that the PS5 is still inessential. Rift Apart’s arrival helps address the software shortfall, but because its innovations are built on the back of a platformer that’s still fairly faithful to its PS2-era roots, it doesn’t dispel the perception that the system is an incremental upgrade rather than a revolutionary leap. Despite the dearth of exclusives, though, people are snapping up PS5s as fast as they can find them, which—thanks in part to an enduring global chip shortage—isn’t nearly as fast as they’d like. But bottlenecks are nothing new for console launches, and the PS5’s production difficulties didn’t prevent it from selling at an unprecedented pace for a Sony system in its first several months after launch.

A steady stream of games designed for PS5 could help the company keep up that pace, but only a trickle of first-party exclusives are coming soon. Prior to the release of the Xbox Series S/X, Microsoft was up front about the fact that its first-party titles wouldn’t be exclusive to the new system for some time after launch. Last May, SIE president and CEO Jim Ryan seemed to espouse the opposite view, saying, “We have always said that we believe in generations. We believe that when you go to all the trouble of creating a next-gen console, that it should include features and benefits that the previous generation does not include. And that, in our view, people should make games that can make the most of those features.” Ryan cited the PS5’s DualSense controller, 3D audio, and SSD as examples of Sony’s intention to “give the PlayStation community something new, something different, that can really only be enjoyed on PS5.” That statement seemed to reaffirm Sony’s longstanding strategy of building a killer lineup of games that are only available on its latest, greatest box.

In practice, though, the company has hedged its hardware bets. The Spider-Man games, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and Horizon Forbidden West (which may or may not make it to market this year) are all crossplatform titles that are playable on PS4. Last week, head of PlayStation Studios Hermen Hulst suggested that the same would be true of highly anticipated 2022 titles God of War and Gran Turismo 7, saying, “Where it makes sense to develop a title for both PS4 and PS5—for Horizon Forbidden West, the next God of War, GT7—we’ll continue looking at that. And if PS4 owners want to play that game, then they can. If they want to go on and play the PS5 version, that game will be there for them.” Forward compatibility is the new backward compatibility.

Hulst conceded that “it’s also very important to have showpieces for PS5, hence the development of Returnal and Ratchet that are exclusive to PS5.” But it’s not tough to follow the company’s calculus. Sony has sold slightly more than 8 million PS5s, but lifetime PS4 sales have surpassed 110 million. It would be bad business to cater to the former audience and ignore the far larger one. Yet until Sony is selling a deep selection of souped-up, PS5-only titles, there won’t be pressing reasons for those PS4 owners to upgrade.

That dilemma won’t be a big problem as long as the demand for PS5s outstrips supply, and as long as Sony keeps raking in cash from PlayStation Plus faster than it can by breaking even on selling new systems. But it could mean that Sony won’t stop supporting its “last-gen” system as quickly as it used to, and that future first-party titles won’t make the most of the PS5’s power until later than usual in the console life cycle. Not that anyone knows what the console life cycle will look like at a time when even Sony is porting PlayStation games to PC, when new systems make old games look and feel better, when game consoles routinely receive mid-generation revisions, when graphical leaps between platforms and generations are more subtle than ever, and when cloud gaming threatens to topple the entire console structure.

At a time of turmoil, at least we can count on the constant of Ratchet & Clank. A parade might be a bit much, but Ratchet isn’t washed up. And as always, he looks better with age.