What a great time to be a fan of ray tracing! Whatever that is. I couldn’t tell you what ray tracing is if my life depended on it. Something to do with reflections and light? I figure it’s like lens flare: if I notice it, it’s not doing its job. But I’d have to know what it is to notice it. So, hurrah, ray tracing has finally come to Ratchet & Clank thanks to the power of the Playstation 5! And since I haven’t noticed it, it must be working!
Wait, hold on, what’s this setting in the options menu?
One of the advantages of an exclusive console game is that the designers can design for specific hardware. They know its limitations and possibilities. They know exactly what they can and can’t do. That’s how we got seminal hits like Goldeneye, Halo, and Ratchet & Clank: talented people who know exactly what hardware they’re working with so I don’t have to. I don’t even have to know what kind of graphics GPU is in a Playstation 5, which is great because I couldn’t care less. I have a PC for that. My Playstation and Switch are for when I want the minimum number of layers between me and the designer’s intended experience.
However, after some conspicuous choppiness in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, I looked more closely at the options menu. Hmm, a setting for “fidelity”. I could also choose “performance ray tracing” or just “performance”. At which point, the game ran smoothly. Of course, it also looked flatter. I don’t have the vocabulary or technical know-how to describe how different it looked, so “flatter” is all I’ve got. But throughout my time with Rift Apart, I kept second guessing whether I should have kept the option on “fidelity” or whether I should step up to “performance RT”, and did I really need to keep it on “performance”, given that I’d just paid over $500 for a system to run this particular game? So I’d change the setting and then suffer bouts of third-guessing. Followed by bouts of fourth-guessing. It was a nagging annoyance the entire time, a constant source of irritation, like tinnitus.
“Our hardware will support this feature, but you have to sacrifice frame-rate” is not a welcome addition to console gaming. And it’s not even in the top five reasons I hated Rift Apart. But I’m guessing it’s the new trend for console games. Now we get to futz with graphics settings. Now one of the main selling points of console games — designers designing to specific hardware — is gone.
Before you respond with, “But, Tom, choice is good!”, I’m going to disagree with your premise. Some choices are good. Other choices are merely cover for a designer not doing his job. Namely, tuning Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart to take full advantage of the Playstation 5, a system for which it was specifically designed. Yet it can either look good at 30 frames per second, or not look as good at 60 frames per second, or just forego ray tracing entirely at an even smoother 60 frames per second. The constant tension between looking good and running well soured what should have been bland comfort food.
Comfort food is the charitable way to put it. The more direct way to put it is this: there is nothing in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart that I haven’t already done in various Ratchet & Clanks, not to mention other action games in recent years. This is one of the least ambitious, most repetitive, least memorable videogames I have played from a AAA studio in a long time. The same weapons, the same enemies, the same levels, the same barely interactive traversal gimmicks, the same breaks in gameplay for puzzles, the same half-baked approach to collectibles and replayability, the same insipid writing, the same joylessly juvenile attempts at humor.
In terms of what’s new, there are two brief sequences on a flying lizard that don’t go anywhere. There’s a speeding beetle — called a speetle — that I sometimes ride instead of a hoverboard. But I also have jet boots where the hoverboard used to be. For the puzzle breaks, I got to play a not-very-good 3D version of Lemmings to solve dimensional instabilities. It was only while I was fussing with the graphics that I saw the option to “skip puzzle”, prominently placed in the options menu. This tells you all you need to know about Sony’s confidence in these sequences. Someone realized these bits of the game aren’t good, and they don’t fit with the rest of the game, and therefore people might not want to play them! In which case, why are they even in there? The other puzzles — also skippable — are for hacking. Hacking used to be whimsical minigames, but now I control a little crab robot that runs around shooting at stuff. I wonder whose idea it was to add running around shooting at stuff in a game already consisting of running around shooting at stuff?
Rift Apart has nothing unique or even new to offer. The same slurry of indistinguishable cartoon biomes, the same tired level design, the same progression scheme, and even the same weapons. Oh, sure, some of them have been re-themed. For instance, the last game had a disco ball I could chuck into combat. It would light up and force everyone to dance. Dancing does damage-over-time, of course. But in Rift Apart, I throw out a lawn sprinkler that turns everyone into topiary versions of themselves. Being a topiary does damage over time, of course. Well, it will when you upgrade it. Like dancing. One important difference is that dancing meant new animations for each of the enemies. But being a topiary version of something is just a reskinning. Which tells you all you need to know about Sony’s lack of creativity when it comes to weapons in Rift Apart. Ratchet & Clank used to be a showcase for clever weapon design, for cool guns, for interesting interactions between what you’re shooting and what you’re shooting at. Now it’s just a repository for half-hearted reskins and stale ideas.
Consider how some of these weapons supposedly support the new Playstation 5 controller. They have different effects based on whether you pull the trigger half way or all the way. Yet so many of these functions could have instead been slaved to the left trigger. The blaster pistol shoots slowly but more accurately if I pull the trigger half way. But if I pull the trigger down all the way, the blaster pistol shoots more quickly but less accurately. That could have been mapped to two different controls. Say, left trigger and right trigger. In fact, that’s how many of the weapons work. Most of the “pull the trigger half way” effects call up a throwing arc. Which is also what the left trigger does. There’s no reason the left trigger couldn’t be used for different firing modes. No reason other than Sony wanting you to think Rift Apart would only work on a brand new Playstation 5.
Even the central conceit is tired. Rifts are nothing more than fixed grappling hook points. And before anyone points out that some rifts spawn enemies, how is spawning enemies out of mid-air any different than a hundred other games? It’s especially insulting how Sony has touted rifts as somehow showcasing the unique power of the Playstation 5 to instantly move me around between levels. Yet I’m riding the same slow elevators, and sitting through the same spaceship loading screens, and plodding through the same scripted traversal conversations, and riding out the same pointless rail grind sequences. Claiming that rifts somehow improve the experience or leverage the unique power of Sony’s new hardware is blatant gaslighting. Marketing at its most shameless. Presenting a heavily scripted grappling hook as a selling point for a $500 hardware boondoggle. That tells you all you need to know about Ratchet & Clank developer Insomniac finally becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony.
I suppose some people play Ratchet & Clank for the story, which makes sense if you’ve only ever played A Crack in Time. Otherwise, the writing in these games has been sophomoric and derivative for a long time. It’s watery glue dribbled into the cracks between desultory levels. It’s forced and unfunny jokes, lacking any charm or personality. Rift Apart probably thinks it’s being clever by introducing a lady Clank and a lady Ratchet, but like the difference between the disco ball and the lawn sprinkler, it’s just a low-effort reskinning. It doesn’t help that most of the story is the same three or four voice actors doing the same tedious schtick for the umpteenth time. To explain the weapons, the Dr. Nefarious voice actor just screams into the mic, like a cross between Tiny Tina and Bobcat Goldthwait. The difference being that Tiny Tina and, to a lesser degree, Bobcat Goldthwait are actually funny. There is not a single worthwhile joke in this limp excuse for a comedy. The unintentional recurring joke is that it takes four button presses to skip a cutscene, and cutscenes often play in back-to-back sequences of three or four at a time, each of which must be skipped separately. The joke’s on me for not wanting to sit through these painfully unfunny cinematics, especially for the obligatory second playthrough (talk about re-using assets!).
It’s not even a very polished game. There’s far too much falling off or even through the level design. I got stuck on the level geometry several times. I had a number of weird sound bugs that had me digging around in the audio settings. I’ve never had to dig around in audio settings on a console game! Yet I spent more time in the options menu of Rift Apart than I’ve spent in the options menus of all the previous games combined. You’d think Sony would know their own hardware better than this.
And to top it all off, it’s a short game (“This food is lousy…and such small portions!”). The whole thing is linear, with occasional choices of which order to do the next two missions, with only minimal exploration, and very few side quests. The optional pocket dimension puzzles are all junky asset recycling. Sony’s new trophy system expects you to pay a monthly fee if you want to get hints for how to finish the trophies, which might be one of the crassest uses of a monthly fee this side of Nintendo’s online tomfoolery. I guess I would have objected more strenuously if I thought I couldn’t find online whatever information is locked behind the monthly fee, or if I cared about trophies. Rift Apart also includes a constant nag to upgrade to some premium version which has deluxe skins and the promise of unique content. Maybe that’s where the rest of the game went. Behind the markup for the premium version.
There was a kind of magic in the early Ratchet & Clank games, and then a competence in the later lesser games. The frenetic onscreen chaos of wacky cartoon monsters, smashed crates, imaginative gunplay, and a swarm of bouncing coins was a true joy as we all discovered it twenty years ago. These days, it’s all on offer in a hundred different games. But without the magic or at least the competence, it’s just a flurry of sloppy colors and shapes, a whirlwind of ineffectual nostalgia, absent any innovation, creativity, confidence, or finesse. It took many years, but now that it’s being used to prop up a piece of hardware, Ratchet & Clank finally feels like the soulless corporate property it’s become.