It’s been six months since the PlayStation 5 kicked off a new generation of console gaming, but it feels like “next-gen” gaming has only just arrived.
Sure, there have been some impressive looking games — the Demon’s Souls remake and Returnal both come to mind — but it wasn’t until I played through Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Sony’s latest PS5 exclusive, that I was really blown away. Full of frantic gunfights with incredible, wacky projectiles and mind-bending teleporting effects, every moment of Rift Apart is a sight to behold. At the same time, it hews closely to the Ratchet & Clank franchise’s well-tread combination of platforming and shooting. It’s a technical marvel, but far from revolutionary. Still, the glow-up is more than enough to make Ratchet & Clank’s old ideas feel new again. Rift Apart is a thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride and uses the PS5’s new power better than any game out there.
Rift Apart is, as the name implies, about portals. Yes, it has a story. The plot follows Ratchet and Clank as they get trapped in an alternate dimension and must team up with Ratchet’s alt-universe doppelgänger, Rivet, to get home — and save both dimensions from falling apart at the seams. That story is a well-told, lighthearted romp that cultivates some interesting new characters, like Rivet, but it’s not particularly deep or motivating. More than anything, it feels like a trojan horse for seeding every level with visually spectacular dimensional holes.
Ratchet and Rivet (whom you alternately control throughout the game) are constantly jumping and/or falling through rips in the fabric of the universe. Sometimes, the rips are part of a set-piece. In one early boss fight, Ratchet and his giant robotic opponent fall through a purple hole and get teleported from a neon-drenched cityscape to a random patch of jungle. Other times, it’s something you control: Instead of a grappling hook, most of the game’s shooting-gallery-style combat arenas feature transparent rifts, which look like shattered glass, which you can highlight and jump through from any point within a certain range. Larger, more explorable levels, have hidden “pocket dimensions” you can find, which house one-off platforming challenges.
A story about the multiverse, hidden doors, and a mechanic that allows you to teleport to a specific spot: These things aren’t inherently impressive game ideas in 2021. They’re special because of how they’re drawn and animated. When Ratchet and Clank “get lost” at the end of the game’s opening sequence, you control Ratchet as he hops from dimension to dimension, level to level. In what feels like an instant, you go from sliding down the side of a building, to riding a pterodactyl-like alien, to dodging traffic in a completely different futuristic city. Yes, it’s pre-planned, but it’s still incredible to watch the world shift and change so radically without missing a beat. And that Rift-jumping mechanic? It just looks bonkers. Rather than pull themselves toward the rift point, Ratchet/Rivet pulls the world to them. It’s a wild effect that restores a little bit of magic to a fairly mundane video game action.
It just looks bonkers.
You could say that about a lot of things in Rift Apart. Ratchet & Clank is a nearly 20-year-old franchise and a lot of its tried and true ideas hold fast here. The series works in a little exploration and some puzzle-platforming to break up what is ultimately a linear run-and-gun shooter. As Ratchet or Rivet, you scramble around arenas cycling through a large, creatively designed arsenal of sci-fi weapons that you buy over time, ranging from traditional blaster pistols and purple energy grenades to more inventive options like the Topiary Sprinkler, a grenade-turned-turret spraying liquid that turns enemies into easily destructible grassy hedges. You’re constantly surrounded by enemies shooting at you from every which way. Though many of the levels are large and technically open, with side quests and optional objectives, you’re mostly following a single path, frantically mowing down every space pirate and toothy alien critter you come across.
The formula fits, though. Rift Apart is built from the ground up to maximize spectacle. Ratchet & Clank’s particular blend of shooting and platforming, with just a smidge of exploration, creates all kinds of opportunities for the game’s majestic visuals to shine. You can wander around its levels, junkyard canyons, and neon-drenched cities populated by robots, and take in all the spectacular lighting and incredible detail in every inch of the city. In the game’s opening sequence, Ratchet and Clank bounce across giant parade floats of themselves. As you move float to float, you can look far off far into the distance and see the front of the parade. There’s confetti that seems to wave as it floats down all around you. In combat, Ratchet’s weapons fire off beams and balls of light that look like a laser light show. Or they turn your enemies into ice cubes. Or garden hedges. There’s just a little magic in how instantly things can transform, and how detailed those transformations are.
There’s just a little magic in how instantly things can transform, and how detailed those transformations are.
And that translates into an experience that should be rote and samey on paper, but feels magical in practice. When even little things, like how wooden crates shatter into splinters when you smash them, can wow you, everything just falls into place. That isn’t to say that Rift Apart wouldn’t be fun if it didn’t look the way it does — every fight is a scramble as you blast your way through all the ammo in your many, many guns fighting off hordes of enemies and there are plenty of interesting chases, boss fights, and other little one-off tasks that mix things up as you go. But it’s all tied together by how wonderful it looks.
You want to keep playing Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart for the same reason you want to keep rewatching your favorite action movie: because you can’t believe what you’re seeing. In time, that magic will fade, but right now it’s (hopefully) the harbinger of gaming’s incredible future.