While playing the latest release in Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank series, something wasn’t sitting right with me.
At first, I thought that maybe I was the problem; was I expecting too much from the game, with it being my first hands-on experience with a title built specifically for next generation hardware? As I ruminated on it further, I realised this wasn’t the case. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is no doubt a good game, yet it rarely recalls the aspects that initially made the franchise one of PlayStation’s greatest. Instead, this latest sequel seems content in trading a dynamic range of gameplay for a breed of spectacle and prescribed excitement that feels more akin to a closely monitored rollercoaster ride.
In earlier titles, Ratchet & Clank’s gameplay consisted of roughly four distinct attributes: combat, platforming, exploration, and puzzle solving. Platforming and combat were always most prominent within this tried and tested mix, but the exploration and puzzles were substantial enough to keep the flow of the games from becoming too formulaic. In Rift Apart, there two elements have been diminished to where they feel like mandated footnotes.
This is most apparent in the game’s level design. The numerous branching paths that used to occupy levels are now short detours that lead to barely hidden collectibles, and while this trend isn’t new to the series, it feels more apparent than ever. Previously, collectibles such as the illustrious Gold Bolts took a fair bit of digging to find, and I’d generally finish my playthroughs of the previous games having only nabbed a few of them, despite being relatively thorough in my searching. This time around, I ended up with 21 out of the total 25 just through playing the game naturally, and I was able to seek out 9 of the 10 Ryno Spybots (which award the player with arguably the strongest weapon in the game) without any kind of meticulous digging. The only collectibles in the game that I needed to consult an external guide to find were the nine CraiggerBears, which only award players with PS5 trophies, and even those haven’t been hidden, and are instead innocuous enough to naturally blend into the environments.
Even when level design gradually became more linear in Ratchet’s later outings, it still felt like there were secrets to uncover on each planet. The few planets that do try to recapture the adventurous nature of previous games in Rift Apart still fall short. The landmass may be large in these areas, but the various collectibles and side activities are marked with waypoints. Intuition is no longer incentivised or rewarded when markers are used to dictate points of interest.
Clank sections make a return, and while I found these to be annoying pace breakers in previous titles, I welcomed them this time around. Regrettably, this might be because they’re the only sections of the game where true brain teasing puzzles are present. The nifty environmental puzzles of old, which would have Ratchet utilizing specific gadgets to navigate different traps and barricades, are nowhere to be found, and the tricky hacking puzzles have been ditched in favour of rather repetitive shooter segments where the player controls a small spider robot. The Clank sections aren’t enough to totally make up for the other omissions, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless, so it’s utterly bizarre that Insomniac has included the feature to skip each of them, despite them being mandatory story sections. I’m all for player accessibility where appropriate, but I find it harder to respect a developer that pulls needless compromises on their vision for the sake of trying to accommodate for everyone’s tastes. It feels spineless, and maybe the reduction of puzzles is a by-product of this mentality.
Not even platforming retains the same prominence that it once did. Both Ratchet and Rivet’s movement has been slightly constrained, with crouch-jumping nowhere to be seen, and the long-jump being replaced with a dash ability that can also be used on ground or mid-air. The two can wall-run along specific surfaces, but in most cases these sequences are very short, and any player with a shred 3D platforming experience will circumvent them all without second thought. The game features a number of Pocket Dimensions which contain standalone micro-challenges, yet these pale in comparison to what returning fans have seen before.
An argument in favour of the pruned gameplay is that Insomniac and Sony want to make this game as appealing to younger players as possible, but Ratchet & Clank has never had an issue with capturing the hearts and minds of younger players. I would know, I was that kid who begged his parents to buy him a second hand copy of the original in the early 2000s. Just because a piece of entertainment is suitable for all ages doesn’t mean it has to be poised towards the lowest common denominator.
While I found myself enjoying Rift Apart more than any other Ratchet & Clank game since Tools of Destruction, I was still disappointed by several of the changes to the core gameplay, and how it’s resulted in a game that feels less fulfilling to play than titles in the same franchise that released nearly 20 years prior. I’m thankful that Insomniac Games has decided to keep this franchise alive, especially since Ratchet’s rival platformers – Jak and Sly – seem to have been abandoned indefinitely, but I’m still left wanting more.