Three years ago, the beloved Insomniac Games released the reboot, film tie in of their equally beloved series Ratchet & Clank. As someone who grew up on the series and has played and loved almost every entry, my hype was through the roof for both the game and the movie. I’ll be discussing the movie at the end of the month but for now, I’ll be reviewing the game to see if it holds up as well as its predecessors for me. I’ll also be analysing why it’s the most divisive entry in the series.
In 2002, Ratchet & Clank blew their way onto the scene following Insomniac’s classic Spyro trilogy. They had a lot to live up to but, sure enough, expectations were met and, to many, exceeded. It was an immediate smash hit for numerous reasons, including providing a unique hybrid of platformers and third person shooters, and cutting edge writing with brilliant social commentary undertones. Despite this, the core controls haven’t held up well compared to the refinements made in the sequel and onwards, which is something Insomniac sought to rectify in the reboot. This is what they did best, as the controls were undoubtedly the best in the series and, as such, even something as simple as walking from point A to point B, even if you didn’t fight anyone or jump from one platform to the next, was extremely fun. Yesterday I talked about how Yooka-Laylee had the kind of controls that, should you put the player into an empty room and let them mess around with the controls, they’d still have fun because of how good the controls are. Ratchet & Clank accomplished the exact same thing.
While that’s good, it also needed to do something interesting with those controls, and the game also excelled at that. While the majority of the levels were taken right from the original, they did a good job touching them up as well as adding to them. The level design held up, and the areas they added don’t feel out of place. The best addition is the jetpack section on Gaspar. I absolutely loved the jetpack levels in Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus, so to see it not only return, but be expanded on AND added to a level as conceptually cool as Gaspar was a dream come true. Exploring the hidden depths of the level while battling squids in the sky is simply epic, and it’s exactly the kind of thing a reboot should have (the fleshed out, fun additions, not adding sky battles with hovering squids). Changes like the Kerwan train sequence being improved is also a perfect use of the reboot.
Despite this, the levels that don’t see changes as big are still a lot of fun. Revisiting childhood favourites like Novalis, but with new weapons and the quality of life strides made in the successors, is a joyous experience. The graphical enhancements are another contributor to that, and this aspect is also one they nail to perfection. Every world is jaw droppingly beautiful and the character models are superb – you can tell Insomniac were finally realising the full vision they had with the original, which, again, is the epitome of what a reboot should be. The addition of collectible cards honoring characters and other aspects of the entire series is also welcome, and something that I enjoyed looking over as a longtime fan. It’s not much, but it’s a nice way of chronicling the surprisingly expansive lore for both the devoted and lapsed or new fans.
Lastly, there’s the story and writing, and this is where the controversy comes into play. Earlier I noted the original was so successful in part because of its “cutting edge writing with brilliant social commentary undertones”, which is relevant because, well, the reboot lacks all of that. While I personally found most of the jokes amusing, there’s certainly something lacking with them. None of them had the edge that pushed it from “amusing” to “brilliant”, and any depth added to the game via the aforementioned social commentary is non existent and squandered. With that being a longtime criticism of the Future series, it’s surprising it’s still missing all these years after Tools of Destruction.
As for the writing of the story, it’s rough. While the original’s story was simplistic, the evolution of Ratchet and Clank’s relationship was done so well that it kept it interesting. In the reboot, neither character go through an arc except for a generic “wanting to be a hero” arc with Ratchet, which isn’t even a proper arc as Ratchet barely changes from it. The lack of an arc for the titular characters is the big offender though because, well, they’re the titular characters, yet they rarely interact the entire game and the few times they do, they already act like they’re best friends. While I understand a lot of it was saved for the movie, I just can’t fathom making an origin story about two characters meeting each other that has them hardly acknowledge each other the whole time.
Moreover, the other characters lose their nuance too. In the original, the way Drek was written kept him consistently intriguing. While he first comes across as bland, the various layers revealed about him across the course of the game make him interesting by the end and in hindsight. The same applies to Captain Qwark. Here, though, both Drek and Qwark feel very hollow and dumbed down and, while the latter has a good arc with Doctor Nefarious, he’s quite generic outside of those encounters and a few other scenes. Although the characters are all still entertaining, they lack the depth that keeps them enduring beyond the novelty of their persona, which is why the whole story falls flat.
This is exemplified by how few emotional scenes there are. In the original, the non stop barrage of humour was occasionally broken up by heavier scenes. Scenes like Clank meeting his mother and Ratchet offering to repair his damaged partner enrich the characters, while also adding to the humour due to the contrast created. Outside of the “all is lost moment” (Novalis’ destruction and Ratchet thus losing confidence) and Qwark changing his mind, there’s just nothing, which leads to the story feeling soulless. I only ever kept playing because the gameplay was so good – I was rarely dying to see what was going to happen next. Considering this is by the studio that released the narratively phenomenal Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time (and, after that, Spider-Man), it’s disappointing.
The controversy surrounding Ratchet & Clank PS4 is, in my opinion, understandable, and I agree with the consensus that the story and writing really didn’t work. However overall, I love this game. The way they took everything that worked over the course of the series, refined it and then mashed it together made for an incredible formula that perfects everything Insomniac has built up over their career (Spyro included). If they can take what they did here, add new things to keep it fresh and provide the story and penmanship quality exhibited in their latest, arachnid centric outing, they would have a company high. Although Ratchet & Clank PS4 isn’t perfect, it’s a showcase of why Insomniac are the acclaimed video game developers they are, and you owe it to yourself to play it even if it’s “just” for the mastered gameplay.
Rating: Plumber’s Crack/10
What are your thoughts on the reboot? Do you love it for the gameplay like me, or is the story and/or writing a gamebreaker for you? Hell, do you believe the story and writing is actually really good? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter via @JoshsJots.