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In the run-up to the launch of the PlayStation 5, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart was placed front and center as a game that would embody the promise and potential of the new console hardware and its high-speed SSD storage. Early gameplay footage focused on the titular heroes flying through portal-like holes torn in the sky to be transported seamlessly to completely new environments. Those sequences packed in new scenery and enemies loaded nearly instantaneously from storage.
Playing through Rift Apart more than nine months after that first reveal, the overwhelming “wow factor” of those through-the-rift transitions still holds up. But after the novelty wears off, the rifts start to feel like a flashy gimmick that’s not really necessary to sell an otherwise solid entry in this time-tested run-and-gun franchise.
Rivet and Clank?
(Note: This section contains some significant spoilers for characters and locations that are revealed partway through the game. Skip ahead to the next section if you want to go into the story fresh.)
It has been a long time since Ratchet & Clank’s 2016, movie-adjacent PS4 release and even longer since 2013’s Into the Nexus on the PS3 (which was more firmly planted in the series’ long-running lore). So, Rift Apart starts with a parade for the long-dormant heroes—as in, you run and jump over parade floats, watched by massive crowds. This doubles as a series overview for newcomers and fans alike. The parade ends with Clank giving Ratchet a repaired Dimensionator gun in the hopes he can use it to track down other members of the missing Lombax species.
When the slapstick Dr. Nefarious and his crew of grunts re-break the gun in an attempt to steal it, that sets off a roller coaster ride through a series of dimensional rifts. Eventually, Nefarious and our heroes get sucked into a dimension where an alternate-Nefarious has uncharacteristically succeeded in becoming the unquestioned emperor of the entire cosmos.
This new dimension introduces Rivet, an alternate-dimension female version of Ratchet who is a key part of the underground resistance against the all-powerful Emperor Nefarious. That might sound like the start to a particularly trite fan-fiction story, but Rivet actually develops into an interesting character in her own right. She displays growth and vulnerability as her character plays off of a partially disabled Clank.
The game jumps between Rivet and Ratchet as the two Lombaxes battle through a number of contrivances to meet up with each other, occasionally expounding on their own inner turmoil along the way. The story really picks up, though, with the introduction of Kit, the alternate-universe counterpart to Clank.
While Clank has found purpose and confidence over years of teaming up with Ratchet, Kit is a bundle of anxiety, born out of an inner struggle with her original destructive purpose. Kit is convinced she isn’t deserving of love and will only end up hurting whoever she partners with, a fact that comes through heart-breakingly well in every vocal intonation and motion-captured gesture.
The combined effort by the other characters to draw Kit out of this protective shell and learn to trust others is surprisingly touching for a game that’s otherwise bathed in sci-fi campiness. And that campiness in turn helps keep the proceedings from feeling too maudlin, even as the quip-filled writing can feel juvenile and dated at times. Rift Apart is a good example of how strong character moments and solid vocal performances can propel some overall by-the-numbers plotting and writing.
Healing the rift
From just a few minutes in, Rift Apart takes pains to highlight the visual punch of its titular rifts. The opening setpiece parade is a frenetic visual treat, throwing the player around like a pinball and drawing them in with the promise of a non-stop thrill ride.
Again, as the game progresses, the rifts start to feel like more of a limited gimmick than the high-octane revolution promised by this intro. The player never gets direct control of the Dimensionator gun in a way that would let them warp between locations like in A Link to the Past or Portal (or even Rick and Morty). Instead, rifts appear sporadically throughout the environments in carefully controlled positions, severely limiting their gameplay impact.
Most rifts appear as yellow, round portals. They quickly warp players between locations in a single environment rather than between different dimensional universes. In other words, it’s a visually appealing slingshot to the other half of the battlefield you’re in, and that’s useful to do things like flank your foes. The visual impact to using these rifts never gets old. Grabbing one and pulling it with a grappling hook is like pulling a chunk of the entire planet toward you with a speed and vigor that stays thrilling.
Mechanically, however, that visual pizzazz obscures what these portals are: in essence, a grappling-hook anchor. At a certain point, seeing a yellow portal glowing in the distance is basically a signal that you can tap the L1 button to get out of a jam quickly. Coming 14 years after Portal showed how dimensional transportation can be integrated into the way a game works, it’s just not that exciting.
Purple rifts, which connect to separate dimensions, are used even more sparingly. These most often appear as a convenient way to let new waves of enemies warp into a battle to swarm our heroes. Occasionally this is used for a clever “clash between worlds” style mixup, like warping a giant dinosaur into a highly futuristic setting or introducing a skeletal enemy from some ill-defined bone dimension. More often than not, though, it’s the same bog-standard Nefarious robots warping in through every single portal.
In general, this dimension-switching concept is never used to its full potential. Besides transporting enemies into your general area, these portals most often take you to a small, self-contained pocket-dimension where you perform quick platforming challenges for a permanent power-up. Walking through those portals and seeing the entire atmosphere change instantly around you is a cute visual effect, but it’s not all that different from, say, discovering the same platforming test in a hidden cave.
The rifts’ most compelling use comes in a small handful of planets where you can quickly hop between dimensions by smacking crystals. In these situations, the dimensional changes help you solve simple puzzles and get around certain obstacles, a concept I would have loved to see extended to the entire game. For the most part, the rifts feel like more of a snazzy tech demo than an exciting new gameplay feature.
Rifts aside, the gameplay progression in Rift Apart feels like a familiar, cozy blanket to anyone who’s played previous Ratchet & Clank games. This is still the same third-person run-and-gun gameplay at heart, sticking with the series’ emphasis on jumping and dodging rather than hiding behind cover.
The biggest difference worth mentioning is how much better things look on the PS5. In fact, it’s a bit odd to see the cartoonish, PS2-era designs of Ratchet and Clank against the gleaming, realistic lighting effects of the PS5. It creates a visual clash that’s almost akin to the mix of live action and animated characters in a movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Just like that movie, though, you begin to take it for granted after a while.
The PS5’s real-time ray-tracing capabilities are still novel enough to wow here—if anything, they’re more impressive in contrast to how the series used to look on earlier PlayStation hardware. Every so often you’ll be struck by the particular way light bounces off a metal surface, or a reflection of a character in a window, or the way a handheld flashlight casts quickly shifting shadows across the wall.
The lighting effects can also make scenes seem extremely busy, especially when dozens of enemies crowd into view. Though brightly colored enemy fire is easy to pick out, it can be difficult to parse a scene quickly and focus on the right bits when things get particularly hectic.
As with previous Ratchet & Clank games, the vast array of slowly unlocked weapons is the highlight. Your future arsenal serves as a good impetus to collect as many hidden bolts as possible to maximize your options. Ammunition is limited enough that you can’t simply rely on a single favorite, either—the game practically forces you to switch between weapons during firefights and tailor them to the specific situation. That might mean using a rocket launcher for a far-off flying enemy, then swapping to a pea shooter for hordes of tiny ankle-biters, then breaking out a shotgun for tough enemies that get too close—all in quick succession.
Using the weapons in conjunction is important, too. You might want to stun a group of enemies with an electric gun, then pull out some grenades to hurl an explosive that damages them all at once. Or, you can use a Glove of Doom to unleash sentries that protect you from the piddling ground units as you focus your shots on the massive bullet sponge in the center of the arena. A simple experience and upgrade-crystal system makes it easy to improve the weapons you use the most with more speed, power, and ammunition in some very satisfying ways as well
Through it all, the core gameplay loop of dodging incoming fire while hurling your own array of ammunition back at the hordes remains compelling. While the enemy variety leaves something to be desired, the game does a good job of throwing them together in different combinations that require a constant juggling act. And while different planets and dimensions introduce a lot of visual variety, the basic, highly flat layouts of most of the battle arenas leave something to be desired.
Though there are a lot of hidden collectibles, most planets present a largely linear path from point A to point B. One planet teases a more open world offering a freer hand in exploration, but it doesn’t quite go far enough to deliver on that promise. Another emulates a horror movie chase to some extent, but the effect doesn’t land with much impact. The same goes for planets with brief racing interludes or aerial combat on the back of a flying dragon (though one planet that takes Ratchet through a dilapidated, pirate-based theme park perfectly toes the line between cheesy and grating humor).
Then there are the interludes that break up the running and shooting with extended sections that feel like they came from entirely different games. Some of these see you guiding Clank through a sort of phantom zone using orbs that can give super speed, high jumps, or increased weights to get past obstacles. In others, you control a small, crab-like robot that scuttles along walls and ceilings, shooting viruses in a computer program.
Both of these options felt like too-frequent chores compared to the satisfying core shooting, which I always yearned to get back to during any moments of diversion. It’s a prominent example of Rift Apart’s penchant for experimenting with different gameplay ideas that never really develop into anything that’s worth taking attention away from what made this series popular in the first place.
Despite that, Rift Apart is a welcome and well-polished return to the Ratchet & Clank formula that has served Insomniac well for nearly two decades now. As long as you go in expecting that—and not yearning for some thrilling gameplay revolution driven by new hardware and technology—you’ll come out feeling satisfied.
- Well-performed story mixes affecting character moments and slapstick sci-fi campiness
- Run-and-gun gameplay is as satisfying as it’s ever been
- Impressive array of weaponry that you’re practically forced to use inventively
- Ray-tracing and rift-warping add an impressive visual wow factor
- The titular rifts don’t have a major impact on gameplay
- Too-frequent experiments in gameplay design that distract from the core shooting
- By-the-numbers plot and sometimes too-cute-by-half writing
- Trying to find a PS5 to play it on at most major retailers
Verdict: Buy it.
Sam Machkovech contributed to this report.