Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart: The Kotaku Review

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart: The Kotaku Review

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is an enormous, breathtakingly beautiful third-person action platformer for PS5. It has hours of exquisitely crafted worlds, world-leading platforming, and a bold, engaging story told by a superb cast. It’s just… so did 2016’s Ratchet & Clank. And, well, 2002’s Ratchet & Clank. Rift Apart is an unquestionably brilliant game, but despite everything the dimension-jumping trailers might have suggested, in many ways it’s the same game developer Insomniac has already made several times over.

Rift Apart begins with an air-based parade for rodent-and-robot heroes Ratchet and Clank celebrating their victories after saving the worlds the last few times. The wonderfully overblown celebration exists to remind us of the hyperbolic nature of the series, sneak in a subtle tutorial, and show off just how much a PS5 can do when it’s not being asked to render individual human skin cells. The screen is an explosion of detail and colour, the parade balloons soaring between the intricately lavish city buildings, meticulously animated crowds on either side, as confetti rains all around, all alive around Ratchet as you run and jump through it all. But then, wouldn’t you know it, that awful Dr Nefarious shows up and steals Clank’s gift to Ratchet, a reality-splitting device called the Dimensionator.

Clank’s generous idea was for Ratchet to be able to use the Dimensionator to jump dimensions and discover, at last, if there remain any other Lombaxes. (Which of course, thanks to a bulbous marketing campaign, you know there are. Or at least, is, because the game’s pre-titles cutscene shows a pink-grey Lombax, Rivet, bravely rescuing an innocent creature from the clutches of her world’s Nefarious’ goons.) Meanwhile Ratchet’s Nefarious inevitably presses too many buttons at once, and everything goes haywire, pulling the titular heroes apart, and dragging them into an alternate dimension version of their own universe. This world’s Nefarious has actually succeeded in his attempts at domination, but now reality is being pulled apart by the dimensional rifts that litter the planets.

Immediately you’re playing as Rivet, voiced utterly perfectly by an almost unrecognisable Jennifer Hale (best known as femShep), who discovers Clank and immediately pairs up with him, despite not believing a single word he’s saying about who he is, where he’s come from, and how he’s best friends with another Lombax. Hers is a dark, cruel world, where a far more successful Dr Nefarious’s troops rule the streets, and all live in subjugation to his cruel whim. Or at least a family-friendly cartoon version of that. (“Please remember to thank your Emperor before, during and after making your purchase.”) Then it’s back to business, exactly as you recognise it from previous Ratchet & Clank games, but with a different colour Lombax. There are crates to smash, weapons to buy and upgrade, enemies to blast and smack, and lots of splendid cutscenes to thoroughly enjoy.

The main difference — and having finished the game and explored its New Game+, I’m bewildered that this is the main difference — is that here when you get to your ship and switch between planets, sometimes you play as Ratchet, sometimes you play as Rivet. While of course this has huge impacts on the game’s story, it doesn’t have much of an impact on the way the game plays. Rivet has a hammer instead of a wrench. The end. Weapons, tools and abilities you gain for one character are automatically available to the other. Neither expresses surprise that they can suddenly slide super-fast along the ground, or whatever it may be — the closest the game gets is Rivet’s being confused to have some extra weapons at one point). There’s never any difference in how you play either character. Which is odd.

Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku

There are, however, some new ingredients in here. There is, as I mentioned, a skill gained to rapidly zoom around, which is very welcome in some of the larger open areas. There are a bunch of new mini-games and puzzle types, which we’ll get to. And as you’ll know if you’ve seen any trailer, there’s the ability to pull distant rifts toward you, such that you appear next to them — essentially a fixed-point teleport. Add in a huge collection of new and classic weapon types, and if you’re anything like me you’re now wondering, “But when’s he going to get to how the whole dimension jumping thing affects how you play?” I’m, er, not. Because it doesn’t.

Before I get too far into this, I want to celebrate what this game does so well, because I had a fantastic few days on the couch with it. For starters, it smacks you around the head with how brain-dazzlingly stunning it looks. With every generation of console, I’m always bewildered by the effort spent aiming toward photorealism, when cartoons can live outside of any uncanny valleys, and far better stand the test of time.

Play 2016’s Ratchet & Clank and you’d think you were playing something state of the art — until you boot up Rift Apart. With the paucity of new-generation releases and the focus on rendering grim-dark frowning human faces, seeing what the PS5 is capable of here is a revelation. The sheer level of detail, even in the distant backgrounds, constantly amazed me. Let alone the Pixar-like gorgeousness of the main characters, each cutscene looking like it should be on the big screen. Each new planet made me gasp at the astonishing level of detail and wonder how my PS5 wasn’t fizz-popping and bursting into flames at the number of animations running at any point.

Then you’ve got the cast, of course featuring James Arnold Taylor and David Kaye as the main pair, with the aforementioned and always excellent Jennifer Hale as Rivet, plus Armin Shimerman as Dr Nefarious, along with a bunch of other familiars. (Although I should say, while “Mrs. Zurkon” is unquestionably the funnier name for a mobile weapons vendor, I do miss the excellent voice work of Travis Willingham as the Gadgetron.) Everyone is great, giving this the usual Ratchet & Clank feel of a big budget movie, and the gags hit well. However, it should be added that, through no fault of the actors, the game whiffs badly on every attempt at sincerity. Each time it immediately descend into sentimentality and schmaltz, relying more on mopey music than decent writing to convey the mood. But when it’s funny, it’s funny.

Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku

Side-quests and extras from the previous game are swapped out with variants this time out. Instead of Clank’s mini-puzzles with those mode-transforming bots, this time he creates paths for lemming-like holograms across obstacle courses by placing variously powered orbs into sockets. Perhaps he’ll put a speed orb in front of a jump orb so they leap a spinning blade, or instead weigh down the blade so it falls beneath their path. These are neat challenges, involving intuition and experimentation to get right, and are always very satisfying to solve.

Instead of a collection of Ratchet’s optional rail-sliding challenges, Rivet takes part in arena battles that earn her various prizes. These can be used to get lots of extra bolts currency if you’re wanting to get a new weapon you can’t quite afford, but they feel rather thrown away by the game — completing all 15 doesn’t get acknowledged, not even via a PlayStation trophy! There’s no tiresome podium screens to skip, but it’d be nice if it at least noticed.

There are bugs to ride, along with other creatures later, which make for some fun super-fast racing sequences. And there are dimensional pockets to discover, which offer mini-platforming challenges that reward you with new armour to wear. New armour offers small bonuses whether worn or not. Actually equipping it is purely aesthetic but fun, since you can change the colours to make some bonkers outfits.

Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku

There’s also a brand new puzzle type, in which Ratchet releases a teeny spider-bot into corrupted computers, whom you then directly control to battle infecting viruses. These are lovely, and better still, develop their own mini-narrative as you progress through them. Like Clank’s puzzles above, all of these can be skipped by a menu option if you’re stuck or just not enjoying them. God bless Insomniac for that — I didn’t use it at all when I played, but of course that option should be there for people who came for the action-platforming, not the puzzle solving.

You know Insomniac can make a great Ratchet & Clank game, since the studio’s been doing it for almost 20 years. There is nothing here that would put off any fan of the series, yet it’s still a completely welcoming and inclusive story for newcomers (not least because Rivet’s perspective offers an outsider’s view on the recurring characters or running gags.) It’s just, after I finished it, I booted up the PS2’s original, and my goodness they’re similar games. They control the same, the crates explode into bolts the same way, you have the same goals, the same characters, and the same enemies.

[review heading=”Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart” image=”https://www.gizmodo.com.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2021/06/09/b90212f58724b33a7a4551dc733a4e7b.jpg” label1=”Back of the box quote” description1=”Sixteenth time’s the charm.” label2=”Type of game” description2=”Third-person action platformer” label3=”Liked” description3=”Incredible graphics, great characters, and so much fun.” label4=”Disliked” description4=”The lack of new ideas, the lack of inspiration.” label5=”Developer” description5=”Insomniac Games” label6=”Platform” description6=”PlayStation 5″ label7=”Release Date” description7=”June 11, 2021″ label8=”Played” description8=”18 hours to complete the main game with 96%, a bunch more for the NG+” ]

What’s so peculiar here is just how much Rift Apart doesn’t seem to know what to do with its own ideas. Maybe you saw those dimensional rifts in the trailers, and you — even unconsciously — conjured up mechanics and conceits for them. If so, you’ve already had more original ideas than Insomniac managed to put in the game.

Firstly, there are two Lombaxes, which should obviously open up so much variation. But as I said, you sometimes play as one, sometimes as the other, but both play identically. It may as well be just one of them, but for the actor making the remarks, for all the difference it makes beyond the plot.

But perhaps more significantly, the entire game is themed around dimensional rifts, yet is set almost entirely in the one dimension. It has that neat, mind-bending gimmick where you pull a local yellow rip around you so as to end up standing on the other side of it (my head never managed to be OK with this, finding it brilliantly disorienting), but that’s just a teleport to a nearby point on the same level. There are dimensional pockets to find, but these are just mini-challenge levels to win new armour. Those moments you saw in the trailers, where Ratchet flew through rift after rift after rift into different worlds — they’re just for the cutscenes. In the end, you’re just planet hopping like last time, only in a different dimension.

It feels like such a weirdly missed opportunity. While this is a superb third-person action game, utterly packed with the same joy as 2016’s game plus a few new tricks, it feels weirdly lacking in inspiration. As much as I’ve hugely enjoyed playing it, and as stunned as I’ve been by its art, in the end it is just another one: Bigger, prettier, with more moves and weapons, but no new underlying force I can find that might have propelled its creation. Given the opportunities dimension-hopping could have provided, this lack of originality feels strange, especially with the PS5’s tech. It shows that it could do it — there are levels split between two times, and you jump back and forth between them, the world redrawn around you as you play, no loading, no hesitation. I badly wanted to do the same things in dimensional rifts.

Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku

My expectation, driven by the game’s marketing, had been one of seamlessly switching between dimensions, perhaps with some excellent opportunities for gags. I loved imagining Clank and Ratchet accidentally finding themselves in our world, maybe Insomniac’s offices, just for the sight gag. Or they could surely have briefly appeared in Spider-Man’s New York? Maybe bumped into Spyro? Imagine a moment where they encounter 2002’s Ratchet and Clank, PS2 graphics and all! But you’ll have to imagine, because what you get here is a very vanilla R&C experience. There’s your collection of planets, you fly between them to complete missions/side-quests, and you watch cutscenes where the baddy mucks about. It’s just this time sometimes you’re Ratchet, sometimes you’re Rivet. You’ll have a brilliant time! But you’ll be absolutely bemused by what it doesn’t do.

The game was also glitchy in a way the 2016’s game was not. I often got stuck in scenery, or navigated my way to areas I wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully a lot of that will be addressed in the day one patch that obviously wasn’t there when I played, but I worry that too many sections of the map were reachable when they clearly weren’t meant to be, while others that looked like they should be were blocked off by invisible walls. Maybe it’s a consequence of larger, slightly more open levels, but it did surprise me in an Insomniac game.

Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku
Screenshot: Insomniac Games / Kotaku

Rift Apart is, beyond doubt, a fabulous game. It took me 18 hours to reach the credits, because I hunted down every scrap of Raritarium, looked for every secret I could find, and just bathed in its visually astonishing art. I had the best time doing it. Yet, the further I got, the more it nagged at me just how little this series has advanced in 19 years. If having the dimensional conceit and the extraordinary tech wasn’t enough to inspire something new, then what will? If there’s another Ratchet & Clank to come, it’s going to have to make some significant changes, because this might be the last time it can be repeated through its charisma alone.

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