It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Ratchet & Clank series. I have played every console game in the series at this point and written about a lot of them on this very blog. I originally started playing through the series because I wanted to get the full background before playing the PS4 reboot. It was mostly an excuse to go through a series that I primarily enjoy (looking at you All 4 One and Full Frontal Assault. Looking at you with a lot of side eye.) I accelerated my playthrough this year so that I could be caught up by the time Rift Apart launches in a couple months, and now I am.
Playing the Ratchet & Clank reboot so soon after playing so much of the rest of the series was jarring for a few reasons. The first is that although it is not faithful to the 2002 original in a lot of ways (it adds in more complicated upgrade systems from the Future series, as well as some other new mechanics, big level and boss changes, and refined controls) it does roughly follow the plot of that game, with some alterations, and many of the levels are pulled directly from that title, meaning they are much simpler and more straightforward than what you’d find in the PS3 game. I last played the original Ratchet & Clank in April 2018 so I had clear memories of various planets and areas, and coming back in glorious PS4-level detail (with the PS5 frame rate upgrade patch) was both exciting and nostalgic and a bit disappointing because of the familiarity and the simplicity of the levels. Did I really want to go through these environments yet again, just with updated controls and a fresh graphical gloss?
Yes. Yes I did.
While I started out a bit skeptical about the 2016 game those concerns quickly faded as I collected a few weapons, got a little further into the game, and found that old, familiar, groove.
Ratchet & Clank 2016 is a reboot of the series, tied in to the movie that came out at the same time and which was, itself, based on the original game in the series. It has the same basic set up, where Ratchet, an orphaned Lombax working at a garage but dreaming of being a hero, meets a defected and discarded cute little warbot named Clank who has escaped from destruction at the hands of the Blarg, who are scheming to destroy a bunch of inhabited worlds to build their own new planet as a replacement for the homeworld they ruined. The movie puts a new spin on some of these ideas; bringing in series main villain Dr. Nefarious to work alongside the game’s original villain Chairman Drek, and having Ratchet work much more closely with Captain Quark and the Galactic Rangers than he does in the original game, and this reboot incorporates those changes. The story in a Ratchet & Clank game doesn’t matter that much, but for what it’s worth I’d say that the reboot has much prettier cut scenes, of course, since it’s 13 years and 2 generations of hardware later and also incorporates bits from the CG movie, and more story, but lacks a lot of the tone and charm that the 2002 title brought. Everything looks better, and the performances are fine, but too much time is spent on supporting characters and the relationship between Ratchet & Clank gets short shrift. Even though they meet in the game they are instantly the best of friends (while in the original game they would snipe at one another) and there’s no real character development. Clank is your brave and encouraging buddy, not your snippy, neurotic, ally, and I miss the contrast.
The game’s layout has also been substantially condensed, either because of how expensive it is to produce these gorgeous, lush, 3D environments or to more closely match the movie’s plot, or most likely both. It’s disappointing that areas were cut, though a few planets were reworked or combined rather than cut altogether and in those cases the new designs are so much better than the old ones that I wish the game had just started fresh. A boss battle inside a huge factory where Ratchet uses his jetpack to fly around dodging attacks and picking up ammo is just delightful, and in fact all the boss battles are new and are much better than those from the original game. The condensation does mean that the game now clocks in at a lean 9 hours, and that’s with doing significant side content like all the optional objectives and completing the newly added open area on Gaspar, but the game cost $40 at launch and was recently given away literally for free with no PS+ subscription required, so it’s hard to fault it for being concise. It feels like a full Ratchet & Clank adventure, more so than something like Into the Nexus, it’s just on the short side.
For most of this year I’ve been playing games that I sort of liked but that had issues, or that I was interested in for whatever reason or that, to be frank, just plain sucked but I felt compelled to see the end of. There have been a lot of 6-7.5 our of 10 games for me, and at times I’ve wondered if I was a little burned out on video games after the amount I’ve been playing during the pandemic.
Ratchet & Clank quickly disabused me of that notion. This game sucked me in like a Vortex cannon and I finished it in a little over 24 hours, playing past midnight even though I was tired just because I wanted to do one more thing before I went to bed…about half a dozen times. Then I started playing again the next morning. It starts a little slow, but once the new upgrade mechanics unfurl, and you start getting the greatest hits arsenal from prior games and new weapons like the Pixelizer and upgrading those weapons..well…it’s the ultimate in video game empty calories. Ratchet & Clank feels good to control. The weapons and enemies are all fun and varied. You can make a tank dance with the Groovitron and then turn it into a sheep. You can point a fully upgraded Buzz Blades gun at a massive horde of enemies and just hold down the trigger until everything is dead, and then those dead enemies will shower you with massive piles of bolts, the game’s currency, like a row of slot machines rigged to always pay off. They’ve added collectable cards that drop at random and reference series lore, and refined and modernized the controls so that the game plays not just like a modern shooter but like a best in class modern shooter that actually wants you to enjoy yourself.
Video games are supposed to be fun to play. They’re supposed to be enjoyable. After wrestling with the stealth and controls in Assassin’s Creed IV, and dealing with difficulty spikes and glitches in Outriders Ratchet & Clank was a reminder that, oh yeah, these things can just be effortlessly enjoyable. They can be the equivalent of sitting on your couch and just eating a big bowl of potato chips or peanut butter M&Ms. Is it the healthiest or most productive thing you can do with your time? Obviously not. Is it easy and enjoyable and relaxing and pleasurable? Have you ever tasted a Peanut Butter M&M, bro?
Is the game perfect? No. I have a friend who started playing games again during the pandemic. He told me he tried this game but dropped it because it was too difficult on normal. I was surprised, because despite being a recent returnee to the hobby he was able to get through stuff like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, and the new God of War game. Ratchet & Clank is fundamentally a kids game. How hard can it be? After playing it I understand what happened. The game does actually start out pretty hard. You don’t have a lot of guns, and they run out of ammo quickly, and your health starts quite low so when early areas toss a bunch of enemies at you it’s easy to get chewed up quick. The game does have a built in solution for this (other than just letting you bump down the difficulty if you want) because you keep all your currency and experience after you die, so even if you’re stuck on a checkpoint for a few tries you’re leveling up your weapons and your character and getting upgrade materials and chances are you’ll soon find yourself with the tools you need to get past the challenge. Conversely the later stages weren’t built for this deep an upgrade system or some of the available weapons, so by the end of the game you’re just melting everything in front of you and it’s a little too easy. The final stage tries to remedy this by throwing in some instafail mandatory stealth sections, and while it’s done in a cute way…I don’t need that in my fun little shooter. Ratchet & Clank is at its best when you’re unloading on everything in the room, not when you’re waiting for an enemy to turn his back on you so you can jump over a couple gaps and put your disguise back on before he sees you and hits the “kill Lombax” button he’s standing next to. On the plus side there’s clearly been some rebalancing of the more frustrating areas of the game, so the sewer escape when you get the hydro displacer didn’t take me 15 times to get through like it did in 2002 and again in 2018, and the hoverboard races are actually quick little diversions instead of slippery, frustrating, messes. I think I died a couple times when commands I pressed on the grind rail levels failed to register and that annoyed me, but would it really be a Ratchet & Clank grind rail area without some level of frustration? The world may never know.
Despite my gripes with the game I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. The fundamental moment to moment gameplay is just so fun and fluid, it raises the question of why so many games layer on so many mechanics and so much ‘depth’ at the expense of intuitiveness and simplicity. Ratchet & Clank isn’t a game that wants to punish you for not building your character properly or for being a little too aggressive in moving cover to cover. It’s a game that wants you to feel powerful and play with the stuff you want to play with and watch some scenes from a mediocre animated movie until you roll credits at the end. There’s lots to do to extend the value if you want it, including hunting for secrets and the robust New Game Plus mode (called Challenge Mode) that the R&C games have already had where you can further upgrade your weapons and focus on building combos in a different style of play. It doesn’t have quite the value of something like the Crash or Spyro remakes, where you got 3 games for the price of 1, but even though those games are beautiful, Ratchet & Clank is even prettier, and with a totally reworked arsenal and a number of redesigned levels it’s also had a lot more done to it than those faithful reproductions.
I’ve spent some time on these forums recently talking about how I tend to skip a lot of side stuff in games if it’s not fun. I didn’t do everything in Ratchet & Clank but I did a lot because almost everything is fun to do in the game, and the few things that aren’t are easy and painless to get through. A lot of people downplay these kinds of games because they aren’t deep. They don’t have an epic story that will touch your soul or a near impossible challenge level that will push you to your limits. There aren’t 100 hours of content and live service updates. You can’t lose yourself in an encyclopedia of deep lore.
So what? It’s fun to play. It’s engaging. It’s not full of bad parts and half baked mechanics and bugs. It’s all polished to a sheen and it goes down so easy, like chocolate ice cream or French fries. Insomniac are masters of this kind of design. Sunset Overdrive was fun to play every minute even with its dump story because the weapons were fun and the traversal was fun and everything felt good and worked like it should. Their Spider-Man games are lauded because swinging through the world feels good and right and empowering, and everything else from the story to the level design is built to accommodate and highlight that. So many games these days are focused on making you earn the cool stuff by ‘gitting gud’ or grinding through a 70 hour open world. You have to eat your meat if you want your pudding. Ratchet & Clank doesn’t even make you eat your cake. It just gives you a big spoon full of icing and a broad smile before saying “enjoy.” Thanks, Insomniac. I did.