08 Jun 2021 1:58 PM +00:00

Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart Review: Fragile, Fickle Fun

Warning: This review contains some basic spoilers for the early/mid-game of Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart.

There’s a moment early on in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart where one of our heroes points at a cackling robot with angry eyebrows and, with complete and total sincerity, declares the phrase: “Put down the Dimensionator, Nefarious!”

That should sum up pretty much everything you need to know about Rift Apart; a game that was clearly meant to be a PS5 launch title before the world got all twisted and time began to distort into the infinite like the event horizon of a black hole. And while I’d genuinely love to call it my game of the year, that’s not quite likely to be the case - but more on that momentarily.

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Characters With Dimensions

The set-up is simple enough: Ratchet and Clank, the most cereal-boxy mascots in a galaxy where everyone looks like cereal box mascots, are living glamorous lives as acclaimed heroes when the dastardly Doctor Nefarious (no, really) steals and accidentally destroys a device used for crossing between universes. Reality is damaged and the three of them are trapped in an alternate dystopian dimension ruled by a brutal - and very familiar - dictator.

Ratchet and Clank have to team up with their gender-flipped alt-universe selves to beat both villains and get home, as well as try and distract from the fact that this is basically the plot of DC’s Injustice with (slightly) more furries in the cast.

So let’s get this out of the way - part of the remit of a console launch title is to be visually and technologically impressive, to wow the masses with the glamour of next-gen, but not to scare them away with anything too controversial or challenging. And in that regard, Ratchet and Clank basically serves up the intended meal. The plot is little more than a delivery system for set-pieces and colourful locales, but they are good set-pieces nonetheless, structured around various explorable levels on different planets.

Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart Review
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Expressive design and impressive graphics help add further character to the main ensemble.

Some early-to-mid-game spoilers for the next couple of paragraphs, but these events really need talking about, in the same way that an estate agent should mention whether a house has a balcony on the kitchen, or lead paint in the Nursery. This particular space odyssey is held together by a cast of four: Ratchet, Clank and their dimensional counterparts, series newcomers Rivet and Kit. And frankly, I spent quite a lot of the game wishing Ratchet would just push off and leave the rest of them to it. He’s a slightly bland hero and doesn’t have much of an arc beyond deciding whether or not he wants to meet more of his species. Fair enough, I hate family reunions too, but considering he’s already met Rivet by the second act and it went fine, it seems like a bit of a non-issue. Meanwhile, Clank is pleasant enough company, if a bit lacking for things to do, so all the big character nuance and development gets to sit on Rivet and Kit’s backs.

No problem there though; because I was surprised by how much I liked them by the end. Rivet in particular has a bouncy, tough quality that feels a lot more engaging than Ratchet’s inoffensively tepid personality. Kit can come across as a bit needlessly whiny at times, but it’s justified in-game as a genuine flaw that the others keep calling her out on, so I’m happy to let it slide. There’s also a rather sweet moral running through the plot about accepting your body for what it is, a refreshingly direct message for a game’s story to have, and one that gave me some extra respect for the writing team. It's pretty clear that this is Rivet and Kit’s story, that the classic heroes are just present because the franchise demands it, but I can live with that because the new kids are earning their keep fine enough. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see them.

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Applied Physics

If you played the previous Ratchet and Clank game, you’ll have some idea of what to expect from the gunplay - a huge range of upgradeable firearms that range from ineffective gimmick-blasters to unstoppable death machines, and each one clearly has its own purpose. The Headhunter deals with enemies at a distance, the Topiary Sprinkler locks them in place, and the Lightning Rod breaks the game and makes every fight humiliating. Seriously, it’s a homing electric gun that paralyses enemies, including bosses, and does sustained damage that also arcs to other foes halfway across the battlefield.

I had to force myself to use anything else, because there was very little that any of Nefarious’ forces could do against a sustained dose of AC current to the head, a whole platoon twitching ineffectively in place while I just held down the trigger and waited for victory.

Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart review combat
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Diverse, responsive combat helps distract from a few balance issues.

But it’s fun combat regardless. It’s springy and responsive, dodging, bouncing and blasting your way through foes, and the sheer range of guns on offer means that there’s a variety of combat experiences hardwired in. I also like that ammo for individual weapons tends to run dry pretty quick, so sooner or later you’ll have to either have to switch up tactics or make a dash for a stack of ammo crates, which helps keep things interesting.

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However, I’m a bit more mixed on the way that each gun levels up individually as you use them. It’s a fine idea, in theory, rewarding time spent using your favourite firearms, but it means the moment I maxed out a weapon, I almost never used it again, feeling obliged to wield an unlevelled gun so I wasn’t throwing away all the weapon XP I was earning.

There are also puzzles, the most common of which is an extra-dimensional thing where Clank steers around a constant stream of clones using special orbs, fans and bounce pads. It’s not especially challenging and there’s even an option to skip them entirely, but they can be a nice palate cleanser after a while spent fighting and jumping around. And if you skip them you also basically skip over Clank’s entire purpose in the story, so I don’t recommend it.

Speaking of jumping around, platforming is frequent and full of variety. Too much variety, frankly. You can jump, double-jump, try the Phantom-Dodge, the grappling hook, grinding shoes, gliding propellers, dimensional tether, hurlshot, wall-jump, magno-boots, hoverboots, the better kind of hoverboots, the Speetle, the purple dragon, and Christ alive, I can’t remember my mother’s face for all the extraneous variations of “jump over gap” that Sony is giving me. And sometimes you just fall down the gap anyway, because choice-paralysis takes you mid-trajectory and physics grabs you before inspiration does.

Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart Review Platforming
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Platforming options go wide, rather than deep.

And to clarify, none of these individual mechanics are bad - a lot of them are quite fun, in fact - but I feel the game never fully realises the potential of any of these elements. There’s an area someway in where you unlock the fast-moving rocket skates that allow you to power across any battlefield at astonishing speed, and the map you get them in is an open mesa with ramps and rocks and boosters spread around. Suddenly it feels like an exciting, unconventional racing game! I was thrilled, looking forward to blending high-octane speed with shooter combat… and then it didn’t happen. Once the mesa area is done, you keep the rocket skates, but there’s nowhere else in the game that gives you space to really use them, beyond a couple of preset tracks where you have no choice but to use them. Consequently, they just become an expensive gimmick that teases you with what might’ve been.

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The best platformers do not do this. Look at Hollow Knight, a game with barely four or five platforming mechanics, but it works them to the bone and gets everything it can from them. Rift Apart takes a diametrically opposite approach, often just doing something new rather than digging deeper into what it already has.

Hell, that might as well be the tagline for this game. I didn’t notice it at first, taking my time to snuffle around for collectables, but a colleague pointed out that if you just follow the plotline for any amount of time, you quickly notice that this story is screaming forward at a breakneck pace. Characters are introduced, contextualised and immediately tossed away the moment we’re used to them. Gorgeous new locations unfold before us, then get instantly folded back up to make room for new ones. More, more, more!

I suppose you could argue it’s more of a picaresque approach, or that it’s mimicking an episodic feel to match the Saturday morning cartoons that inspired it. I guess there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but what’s a lot harder to excuse are the bugs, and here’s the point where you and I really need to have a talk, Ratchet and Clank.

Broken Reality

This is what throws me every time I sit down to play Rift Apart. The game is clearly, in many ways, a technological masterclass, with gorgeous visuals, complex particle effects, even doing that very cool thing where enemies you shoot get damaged in precisely the point your shot hits them, a blaster bolt shearing away a robot’s chassis right at the point of impact. It’s often downright breathtaking, a superb feast for the senses that exhibits both the skill and imagination of the developers, with vast cosmic vistas and spectacular battles crossing space and time…

Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart Review
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Awesome visuals and effects are often brought down somewhat by errors and bugs.

And then it crashes. Or freezes. Or I get stuck in a wall and have to reload a checkpoint. Or a white cube appears that I can’t get rid of. Or the frame rate has a brief panic attack. Or the audio desyncs in a cutscene. Or a major subquest gets permanently locked off because the game didn’t spawn in one of the essential items, and so my scavenger hunt must go partially unscavenged.

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Actually, I don’t know with total certainty that the last one was a glitch or just me getting confused, but I can’t help but assume it’s an error at this point, and that’s kind of the problem. If you only look at the Rift Apart experience as intended, what you’ll get is a fun, mildly-unfocused game that gives you everything you’d expect and leaves it at that. But it’s quite hard to relish when it feels like I’m fighting bugs from start to finish, and they got a lot worse as I got further in.

I don’t want to be bitter about this - a lot of games have had this problem over the last year or so; an unavoidable consequence of difficult working conditions. I do not doubt that the developers were doing the best they could and that patches are coming soon, but glitches were a real issue in my playthrough, and it’s left me pretty wary about jumping into New Game Plus.

Verdict

A certain level of scrappiness can be charming, but it’s harder to excuse in a big-budget project like this one, and three crashes in an hour is far too scrappy to be overlooked.

Still, I do have a fondness for Rift Apart, perhaps because I do get the sense that this was a project built with love, yet not so much love that it wasn’t willing to experiment and try some new things. Once all the many, many bugs are fixed, this’ll be a pretty good game for families to enjoy, and a superb showcase for what the PS5 is capable of.

3.5/5

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)

Amazon (UK) £69.00
Amazon (US) $69.00

Review copy provided by the publisher

Reviewed on PS5

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