There’s a certain kind of chaotic energy that permeates older games, especially PlayStation 2-era action-adventure titles à la Psychonauts. You may know what I mean — you’re fighting a boss in an old adventure game, and your companion keeps giving you little tips, and the boss is throwing zingers at you (probably a select few on repeat), and there are explosions and bullets and your character goes “Ouch!” when they get hit. There’s a lot going on all the time in a bid to hold your attention and give urgency to otherwise simple gameplay. We didn’t have many cinematic set-pieces back then, so the next best thing was a platter of audiovisual spaghetti.
Maybe it’s because of this very specific feeling I get from my favorite old games that made me feel so warm while playing Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. You know that GIF from Ratatouille? The one where the jaded critic eats a dish so nostalgic that he’s instantly transported back to his mother’s dining table? Well, I’m not a jaded critic (yet), but that GIF looped in my brain more than once during my time with this game.
As I fire my weapon, enemies’ armor breaks apart, their models stretch and squish, and their companions even comment on what I’m using to kill their buddies. When they hit me, they exclaim and dance in joy. One even dabs. These tiny details are everywhere, and they breathe as much soul into the game as the unparalleled visuals.
Those “makes you feel like Spider-Man” quotes are probably going to pale in comparison to the already tired “playing a Pixar movie” anecdotes when these reviews hit. And honestly, it’s earned. From the first cutscene, the animation work and voice acting are so convincing and expressive you’d swear they rival (or surpass) almost any CG movie from five to ten years ago. More than that, though, these cutscenes deliver moments of tenderness, excitement, or humor and then promptly get out of the way, seamlessly giving way to gameplay without wasting your time.
Let’s talk about the titular “rift” thing real quick. Remember how wild Portal was when it came out? What if the Portal gunshot opened dimensions to other worlds? The PlayStation 5 SSD is already marketed as some kind of black magic device, but when I first ripped open a tear in reality that acted as a window into an entirely new environment I wanted to light some sage.
The multidimensionality is also used to great effect in set pieces, like the prologue where you’re quickly flung from one world to the next in an explosive preview of Rift Apart‘s locales. It’s enough that landscapes as rich as these were brought to life at all, but to see them tear by through the lens of a disintegrating multiverse has to be seen to be believed.
But what surprised me most was how the multiverse conceit would be used for storytelling. As a dimensional cataclysm looms thanks to Dr. Nefarious’ mishandling of Clank’s newly-built Dimensionator, we’re introduced to a whole new cast of alternate-reality characters that mirror their counterparts in clever and thoughtful ways. Rivet takes after Ratchet’s heroic attitude, but her lone-wolf lifestyle has left her a bit colder and less idealistic. Getting to see how these characters would interact and grow through the course of the game was just as exciting as blowing dudes up with an explosive drill-dog.
Insomniac didn’t just speed up and smooth out the classic Ratchet & Clank gameplay for Rift Apart, they managed to improve on it with new moves that feel obvious without being forced or cumbersome. A dash with invincibility frames allows you to dodge through enemy attacks rather than awkwardly somersaulting over them, and the new rift mechanic is like a grappling hook that brings the terrain to you rather than the other way around. Combine this with the stellar improvements to the hoverboots and you can start to see a lot of that Spider-Man DNA here.
My one minor complaint with combat is some of the encounter designs. Oftentimes the same three or four bruiser-style enemies will pop up, health bars and all, and these once exciting fights start to feel a bit rote. At least they feature different enemy accompaniments, but I think these larger foes would’ve felt a bit less rehashed if they weren’t made into such a spectacle after the first time you faced them.
Pacing is vitally important to action games, and Rift Apart slams on the accelerator — I think I was shooting at things in less than ten minutes. After a brief prologue, the game begins dropping you into each of its lush planets to explore. Long stretches of combat and exploration are broken up by fun and brief moments of varied gameplay. The segments with Clank got a lot of love this time around, featuring a pretty fun little Lemmings-style puzzle. Then there’s Glitch, your trusty virus-busting spider-bot that has her own tank-arcade shooter segments. I never rolled my eyes at being asked to essentially play another game for a few minutes. In other words, the “Mary-Jane Effect” is not present.
While the series isn’t an open-world collect-a-thon by any means, there are a fair number of side passages and hidden nooks and crannies with collectibles like golden bolts or upgrade materials. My favorite are the new pocket dimensions, in which you’ll spend your first moments spinning the camera around the dimensional entrance asking yourself, “How did they do that?” These reward unique armor pieces that give passive benefits but can be equipped and recolored at will. The fashion game in Rift Apart is strong, and I appreciated being able to tailor each Lombax’s look to their personality like an overly excitable dog mom.
Each planet is so full of vibrancy and movement that I would often just walk around taking it all in. One is more cyberpunk than Cyberpunk 2077. Another takes you into the depths of a frozen sea for an Alien encounter. And my favorite has you traversing junk-heaps and crumbling plateaus as you attempt to fix a giant robot ironically named “The Fixer.” What’s best about these varied planets is their tendency to swap between larger, open-world-style spaces to the more linear combat-focused environs of past games.
As beautiful as the vistas are, I think more Breath of the Wild-minded explorers might get bitten trying to traverse outside the sanctioned Exploration Zones. I spent an hour or so exploring the far reaches of a planet I later learned I was supposed to revisit another time, often stranding myself and having to reload. You’ll awkwardly slide down terrain that wasn’t meant for player engagement, and quickly realize that this is a very curated exploratory experience. This is great when it works, but when you aren’t behaving as intended, the illusion is very briefly broken.
There’s a lot of heart in Rift Apart. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite PlayStation console exclusive since Bloodborne, and I’ll be playing it a third time on release just to feel like a part of the zeitgeist (and find all those damn Craiggerbears). I’ve already spent over 25 hours playing, and even now with my golden weapons and decked-out armor, I want to play some more. Games weren’t always about chasing extrinsic dopamine hits, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that. Like a Twitter artist re-drawing an old doodle from a decade ago, Insomniac seems to be using Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart to show us what they’ve learned over the years to inspiring effect.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A code was provided for review by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a technical showcase, but it's also one of the finest 3D action platformers since Jak and Daxter. Insomniac consistently prove that the Ratchet & Clank series is a wellspring of potential, and they've delivered a complete experience that's as full of heart as it is surprises.