In Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, the universe is being smashed to pieces, but is that so terrible? True, the person responsible for the smashing is named Dr. Nefarious, and happens to be a robot armed with a cranium of green glass, a wild cackle, and a squad of goons who appear to have descended from pteranodons. But consider the upsides. Transport has been upgraded throughout the galaxy; whenever you spot a purple-pink crack hanging in the air, hop in! You may not be sure where you’ll end up, but that’s half the fun. Plus, the PlayStation 5 gets a good chance to show off, buffering entire worlds in a blink. And besides, were it not for the fraying dimensional fabric we would not have Rivet. She is the same species as our hero, Ratchet, though her fuzz is of a white-blue hue, and her tail has a blow-dried bushiness to it. There is one moment, held in split-screen closeup, where the pair first glimpse each other and remark, in unison: “Whoa, another Lombax.” Quite.
If you happen to find the multiplying of Lombaxes hardly a whoa-worthy matter—indeed, if you find the name “Ratchet & Clank” redolent of little more than the multiplying of platformers at the beginning of the millennium—you may smirk to yourself during the opening minutes of Rift Apart. “We haven’t done anything heroic in… years,” Ratchet says, on the eve of a parade thrown in his glory. “What if everyone thinks we’re washed up?” Followed by a deeper realisation: “What if we are washed up?” It’s a good question: Is all that we require of the platformer, that jumped-up genre, that it present itself with fresh fireworks—to parade in old glories, in other words—or do we need it to do something heroic?
The leading light in this regard, of course, is Super Mario, whose pleasures lie in the careful calibration of mechanics and movement (stick the plumber in a bare and pipeless room, and you could still have fun) and in the refusal to allow ideas to go unwrung or stale, through repetition. How does Ratchet do, in this regard? Well, the developer, Insomniac Games—who last year delivered us Spider-Man: Miles Morales in time for Christmas—has jammed plenty of ideas into Rift Apart, and Ratchet’s quest is zested with a kind joie des agités.
We begin in Megalopolis, a city of teeming steel and stainless blue skies—like something cooked up by George Lucas for the Star Wars prequels, in which no inch of the screen was permitted to go unbuzzed by C.G.I. traffic. After Nefarious supplies the parade with a heavy dose of rain, courtesy of something called the Dimensionator, Clank is separated from Ratchet and winds up lending a helping hand to Rivet—who lost hers years ago and now sports a nifty mechanical replacement. We soon go planet-hopping. Highlights include Torren IV, a mining world of dust and rust, through which we grind on looping rails; and Blizar Prime, a drifting belt of lunar-pale rock. My favourite, however, has to be Sargasso, which bears a swampy trace of the Triassic and allows Rivet to ride on the back of a Speetle: a velocitous snail-like creature that steams along while she grips its eyestalks as if they were handlebars.
I know how she feels. The plot, taking its cue from the Speetle, surges ahead and peers in different directions. We play as Ratchet and Rivet in turn, each doggedly sniffing out a trail of MacGuffins and diversions. (At one point, in order to reassemble a broken crystal, a specialist, on a far-flung rock, must be sought out—and you can’t help but think, Come on! Just buy some Krazy Glue and stick to the story!) Ratchet is joined by a yellow cross-dimension Clankalike, called Kit, who asks, “Are you… winging this?” To which he replies, “I’m not! I’m intuiting it!” And it seems as though the writers, Lauren Mee and Sam Maggs (the latter of whom has written for comics, including Captain Marvel, and thus is well versed in the swerves of a week-to-week tale), were making a half-smirking confession. None of which is particularly damning, mind you. I would never prescribe Ratchet & Clank to anyone sick of adventures that suffer from an acute lack of narrative cohesion; long before the arrival of the Dimensionator, these games have always felt fragmentary, and rarely are we riveted by their plots.
So, what does draw us in? To my mind, there are a number of reasons that Rift Apart should be played. The first is called the Topiary Sprinkler, one of an array of hair-brained weapons, which transforms your enemies into hedges, leaving you to prune back the foeliage with a swing of your wrench. Then we have the Glove of Doom, which releases shoals of piranha-like minibots that swarm and chew their foes into scrap. Insomniac, more than any other developer (with the possible exception of Rocksteady), has a near-sleepless obsession with gadgets, from the dun battlefields of Resistance, which were zapped into colour by the crackle of futuristic tech, to Spider-Man, whose elasticated playgrounds required no brightening but scuttled nonetheless with beeping thinglets. In both games their purpose, beyond mere coolness, was clear: the fall of man, much like his arachnoid rise, can be held off or helped along by ingenious toys.
In Rift Apart, the gizmos that Insomniac has cranked out are there not just to hold off universal catastrophe but to help along the ingenious toy of the PlayStation 5. Hence the hum in the controller, as you fire off a few bolts of the Lightning Rod, which arcs and sparks from one body to the next, holding each in a jolting dance. Or the Blackhole Storm, a minigun that produces the quaking sensation, in the hands, of an uptipped can of beer at full chug. For Astro’s Playroom, Team Asobi tied those tremors to its theme, and poked at the feelings fused to the plastic in our hands and on our shelves; the haptics purred away, and you wound up moved by the feedback of old memories. It remains the most heartfelt use of the hardware. Insomniac is more than happy to remain palmfelt, but, in vesting each weapon with the click and whir of a plaything, it gives you a way into the texture of its landscape, and before long you’re swept up. You’re intuiting it.
Not that there aren’t attempts at the heart. One sub-plot reaches back to the cause of Rivet’s missing arm; another probes the woes of Kit, who seems programmed for loneliness, unable to establish a connection to others. The problem is, the pathos feels as if it were installed in a day-one patch, crammed into the lulls between the crump and flash of the action. It isn’t like Insomniac can’t do drama. One of the best scenes in Spider-Man: Miles Morales comes when Miles and his friend Phin—two super-people, whose secrets itch behind masks of normality—sit down for coffee. There is a delicious slow-drip tension, as the conversation grinds on; one character pours out their hidden identity, while the other is pressed into keeping quiet. Rift Apart, I think, suffers from the same itch.
Compared to the old games (whose titles, in American territories, were gloriously loaded with juvenile innuendo: Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal, and the PlayStation Portable outing, Size Matters), the humour is now that of light repartee, stripped of the snark-edged smallness that once ruled the day. The series has donned the mask of a Marvel blockbuster, and there is leftover webbing, as it were, throughout. Check out Rivet, as she lands in one of the optional combat arenas, squatting in a lateral lunge, fingertips pressed to the floor; she could be auditioning to fill in for Peter Parker the next time he nips off to Europe. Furthermore, both lombaxes have taken to clattering along walls, during platforming segments. And both wield the Rift Tether: a glowing-orange thread, fixed to your glove, that fires into lingering portals like a lasso and yanks their reality towards us.
Quite how the Ratchet & Clank die-hards will react to the Marvellousness of Rift Apart I don’t know. They may well be soothed by the similarities and irked by the differences. Witness Ratchet revving up his Hoverboots, as though they were rollerblades, and scalding through the scenery like Tony Stark, and you might lament the lessening of traditional, grounded platforming. Then again, relief may wash over you as Clank hops down from his position of disapproving backpack and solves a string of physics-based puzzles. Even if you have your doubts, it’s difficult not to smile at the graphical and cinematic fireworks on display; Sony ordered a parade for the PS5, and Insomniac has served it to us. The arsenal has been upped, and size, it turns out, does matter.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Available on: PlayStation 5
Release Date: June 11, 2021
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