It’s tempting to call Ratchet & Clank a return to form for Insomniac Games’ venerated platformer, but in truth, it never really fell out of form. It’s just been awhile since our last proper blockbuster entry. 2009’s A Crack in Time was the series’ high point for me, bridging intimate character development with an epic story, small moments with colossal sights, and tons of meaty weapons with satisfying progression. PS4’s Ratchet & Clank, a reboot to tie in with the upcoming movie, hits most of these high notes en route to earning a place among the greats. But its ties to the movie also add unnecessary fluff to a classic story, and series staples feel out of place in an otherwise modern platformer.
As a reimagining of the 2002 original, Ratchet & Clank combines the last fourteen years of franchise history with lore from the film for an origin story with expanded gameplay and story. Indeed, half of the game’s cutscenes are taken directly from the upcoming movie. Ratchet, a furry Lombax and a talented engineer, meets Clank, a diminutive robot produced via defect. Traveling across the galaxy, the two learn to become heroes when the nefarious Chairman Drek begins destroying planets for pieces to create his utopian world.
Additional subplots and characters, introduced for the film, take the classic story in interesting directions. For starters, we get to know the Galactic Rangers, whom Ratchet aspires to join, by name, and they figure prominently in guiding Ratchet and Clank from planet to planet for different objectives. Similarly, this game’s portrayal of superhero/buffoon Captain Qwark is a more sympathetic one, deftly balancing his trademark clumsy bravado with a more nuanced explanation for his late-game actions. Ratchet and Clank even get the chance to spar with a villain the original games didn’t introduce until later.
Other touchstones are lost in translation. With so many characters vying for scraps of screen time between levels, there’s very little room for Ratchet and Clank’s relationship to develop. Their disagreements and clashing personalities have always made for great character moments–especially in the original game–but in this reboot, they rarely interact one-on-one. There are nods to a budding friendship in the film cutscenes, but herein lies another problem. There are missing links between what’s experienced in-game and what happens in the film footage. Knowing looks between Ratchet and Clank suggest a history that their limited in-game interaction doesn’t support. A boss fight ends and the cutscene picks up elsewhere. Ratchet and Clank know things about their mission–where they should be going, what they should be doing–that we, the players, don’t see them learn. The narrative feels disjointed as a result, and I frequently paused to ask simple questions like why we came to this planet or how two villains relate to each other.
The story veers left of center pretty often, but the game is still plenty recognizable. Gadgetron HQ hosts hoverboard races, there’s Galactic Ranger training to complete on Kerwan, and a black market dealer sells the RYNO in Blackwater City. You’ll use the Trespasser to hack doorways, wield the Hydro Displacer to solve water puzzles, and meet the Plumber on Novalis. But there are new planets to visit and modern touches that will be immediately noticeable to Ratchet vets. All around, mechanics and gameplay have been tightened with an eye toward efficiency.
Before, switching from floaty platforming to lateral strafing meant holding L2 to forcibly shift between two very different-feeling modes. With the majority of any Ratchet game spent strafing around enemies, Insomniac has seen fit to skip the pretense and make the default mode a sort of pseudo-strafe. Ratchet’s movement now feels very four-way, and there’s a big deadzone before he’ll start to move diagonally with the camera following. This new movement style embraces the series’ strengths as a shooter by emphasizing that you should always be facing what’s coming, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Indeed, pressing the Fire button (either Circle or R2) will immediately raise your equipped weapon and fire a shot forward while tightening movement to strict strafing. You’ll stay in this mode for a second or two even if not shooting, then transition seamlessly back to freer movement when combat ends. Ratchet’s movement initially felt sluggish to me (and this feeling never fully went away), but I can’t deny this pseudo-strafe is a great fit for the moment-to-moment demands of a Ratchet game.
Thankfully, a greater focus on action doesn’t diminish the precision of platforming. In fact, jumping and rocket-boosting feels more precise than ever. You can dodge and leap in any direction, at any time, despite the locked movement, and this precision is crucial in the game’s chaos. Whether due to visual splendor, bountiful streams of Bolts, or just amped-up difficulty, the action of Ratchet & Clank feels more frantic than its predecessors. It’s not uncommon to be surrounded on all sides and bombarded by projectiles and particle effects. Even seasoned vets should expect to take a fair bit of damage in most skirmishes. With fairly limited supplies of ammo, I couldn’t fall back on just a couple overpowered weapons to carry me through.
The weapon supply this time around doesn’t fall far from the series’ roots, which is a slight disappointment against the improved controls. As in the original game, Gadgetron vendors are scattered around each planet to offer an ever-growing list of creative guns, but the function of every weapon has been seen in Ratchet games before. That’s not to say there aren’t some creative surprised–the shotgun-blast Pixelizer turns enemies into retro figurines, and the turret-like Proton Drum emits radial blasts for damage-over-time to anyone within range. But I found myself buying old favorites for the entire game and immediately knowing their strengths and weaknesses, which robbed the journey of some discovery and experimentation.
A fulfilling weapon progression system helps freshen things up. As usual, merely using a weapon will cause it to level up and become more powerful, but you can also spend Raritanium (which randomly drops from enemies) on stat upgrades of your choice. This time out, each weapon has a unique upgrade tree with tiles that grant increased ammo, faster rate of fire, a bigger effect radius, et cetera. Mystery tiles on the upgrade board are even more tempting. Acquiring all of the adjacent tiles unlocks these upgrades, which expand the weapon’s function. All these available upgrade paths present interesting choices. I could opt to have 20% more Bolts dropped on enemy kills, or go for a series of other upgrades that unlock a mystery tile. Raritanium isn’t exactly hard to come by–it’s rare to arrive back at a Gadgetron vendor without at least a couple Raritanium to spend–but it’s just scarce enough to feel rewarded every time you collect one. By game’s end, I had purchased every upgrade for the three weapons I used most and a smattering of others for my back-up weapons.
Random loot drops also manifest as collectible cards featuring characters, locations, and weapons spanning the series’ history. By completing a set of three, you unlock a bonus passive trait, like increased Bolts or Raritanium from enemies. You can’t guarantee which cards will drop, but five duplicates can be traded for any card of your choice, so it’s easy to keep the ball rolling toward the next unlockable.
In a sense, the balance of new and familiar is a blessing for an old game that was quickly left behind by its successors. While the series’ platform-shooting formula and loot-driven gameplay loop hasn’t really changed much over the years, so much has been incrementally added that the original PS2 Ratchet & Clank feels pretty antiquated. This reboot is a chance to experience that story–Ratchet and Clank’s first meeting, Chairman Drek’s evil, the first bumblings of a traitorous Captain Qwark–with all the improvements Insomniac has made in the years since. It’s certainly an interesting feeling to return to a classic game, bursting with feelings of nostalgia, and not be let down by the harsh truth of a game’s age. Instead, playing PS4’s Ratchet & Clank feels like going back in time to play Insomniac’s second crack at it. The whole thing exudes an optimistic energy: ‘What game could we have made, knowing what we know today?’
A few familiar elements could have been left behind. The requisite Clank sections this time are simplistic puzzling affairs involving micro-bots. We’ve grown accustomed to these puzzle breaks over the years, and A Crack in Time’s mechanics were genuinely sophisticated, but this time the puzzles ape the Gadgebots and Microbots of past games. None of them are challenging enough to feel rewarding upon completion, but they’re just long enough to be annoying breaks from the addictive, satisfying combat. Similarly, the Trespasser gadget is meant to break up the shooting with thoughtful puzzling, but I never derived much satisfaction from cracking the code. Rings with fixed laser beams must be rotated to connect with receptors but not block the lasers from other rings. In theory, careful examination of all the rings should reveal the solution, but I never felt like I could piece the whole thing together with that alone. Educated attempts led to trial and error anyway, so completion never felt rewarding. These were unfortunate interruptions to the satisfying action.
Most of the game’s small problems are the same way: parts of the Ratchet formula, refined over the last decade, that are unfortunate interruptions to the incredibly fun action and leveling. The story is a bigger sticking point for me. Ratchet & Clank games have never been narrative heavy-hitters, true, but they often boast great character moments and warmth against epic sci-fi backdrops. Whether by choice or necessity, this reboot is beholden to the upcoming film and too often leaves plot holes for the movie to fill. But in the spaces between, the bombastic combat has never been nor looked better. Ratchet & Clank is a masterclass in technological wizardry. Detailed, expressive animation gives us a feeling for the characters. Vibrant lighting and a symphony of particle effects decorate chaotic combat. ‘Gorgeous’ is accurate, but sometimes an understatement. Occasionally, merely seeing this game in action is jaw-dropping.
Playing the game is even more satisfying. With few exceptions, the things that have kept Ratchet & Clank fresh and interesting over the years breathe exciting life into their origin story. Thanks to welcome additions atop familiar action, this longtime fan could fondly remember where we began while appreciating how far we’ve come. For a new generation of fans–a new era of Ratchet–it’s a great place to start.