If you’re after big action, then Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is the game for you. In fact, that’s all the game is, which actually makes it a little hard for me to write a review about it. Everything I focus on in reviews is backgrounded to non-existence. That’s not a criticism of the game, since Insomniac has delivered everything that it wanted to, to the finest degree I think I’ve ever played. But there’s no way to dodge this: that overwhelming focus on endless action set pieces, cut-scenes pulled from the biggest animated action movies, and the inability for the game to persist with any one gameplay experience for any length of time, leaves Rift Apart feeling very shallow.
Mind you, I went in knowing I wasn’t getting Shakespeare. When the creative director of the game is out there saying that the thematic basis of the thing is “what would a different dimension of Ratchet and Clank be like? And in particular, what would Ratchet’s life be like if he didn’t have a Clank?”, then no, the simple reality is that we’re getting not getting a game that operates on any meaningful level of insight, and anyone who has convinced themselves otherwise is going to be disappointed. What I didn’t expect, however, is just how little the developers were in saying anything, even on the one narrative level that the game operates on. Nothing happens in Rift Apart that isn’t there to funnel players into the next action sequence. Cut scenes are there out of a grudging sense of obligation and you can just tell that the project leads timed every second of them to make sure they weren’t any longer than the absolute minimum so that the scene makes sense. Even the big bad nemesis, Doctor Nefarious, is only doing his evil thing to facilitate more action; he steals and accidentally malfunctions a dimensional rift in the first (action-packed) cut scene, which results in the cosmos going haywire and people start teleporting between dimensions and through rifts. This only happened so that Insomniac could turn dimension jumps into a unique quirk within the combat system.
A hacking minigame which, in any other game would be a puzzler, is here another kind of action, and while there is a puzzle minigame, it exists solely to link the action bits together. The rare moment where you’re not in conflict and instead platforming around is only ever a few seconds long, and really just part of the funnel to make sure that the next action scene takes place in a different location with different quirks. Again: every single element in Rift Apart is exclusively tuned towards driving ever more and ever bigger action.
So it’s just as well that the action’s so good. Insomniac has always understood how to make second-to-second gameplay exciting, and how to design combat encounters so that they always have a different texture to them whether that’s by adding vertical elements, throwing new gimmicks around, or placing explosive boxes in just the right place that they’re both a risk and a strategic opportunity. They also give you a great arsenal of weapons to play around with that are drip fed at just the right rate so that you’ve consistently got new toys to play with through the bulk of the adventure. Insomniac has always done weapons really well. It also helps that all the settings and arenas are gorgeous, taking full advantage of the PlayStation 5’s capabilities to deliver stunning art, smooth motion, detailed environments and quirky enemies. I looked forward to facing down bosses in particular, which could be faulted for being bullet sponges, but could not be faulted for their excellent design as well as the creative way that you need to use those rifts and environmental elements to avoid their attacks and deliver your counters.
It’s a pity that the game jumps between its gameplay tricks too quickly (every time I was just starting to enjoy one minigame or set piece I was inevitably drawn into the next one), but otherwise Rift Apart is a near-perfect example of how to make action work in a video game. This is all backed by an admirable suite of accessibility tools and clever design that really understands how players interact with games. I’m an able-bodied person, but developers that go to this extent end up understanding their games better, and that inevitably makes for better, more engaging gameplay for everyone. There are plenty of ways you can up the challenge for yourself too, if that’s your desire.
For all of that, I found Rift Apart frustrating, and it’s mostly because I wanted to take more away from it. Why go to all the effort and put all those development resources into making such bold, beautiful settings if it’s only ever going to be window-dressing to the action? None of this needs to be RPG-level in depth, but some context makes the action more engaging, and Rift Apart is badly lacking for context. I was enjoying my time playing through it because of the energy, but I simply wasn’t deeply involved with it, and that’s generally my line between a game that I enjoyed enough, and something I think it particularly valuable.
What little narrative there is in Rift Apart is very modern blockbuster stuff. It’s very safe storytelling, with a carefully structured set of characters so they are all charismatic and appropriately relatable. Heroism is very straightforward and safe in blockbuster storytelling, after all. Additionally Insomniac’s writers have studied Marvel closely to understand how to deliver those comedy beats in blockbuster entertainment with maximum efficiency. It all comes together in a way that has been scientifically (or at least focus-grouped) proven to be successful in the mainstream. Finally, the new protagonist that has been introduced for this game, Rivet, is a textbook female protagonist in this age of modern heroism. She’s perfectly adequate, if by the book, and I’m sure she’ll be a popular addition among the Ratchet fan base.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb