In the run-up to the launch of the PlayStation 5, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart was placed front and center as a game that would embody the promise and potential of the new console hardware and its high-speed SSD storage. Early gameplay footage focused on the titular heroes flying through portal-like holes torn in the sky to be transported seamlessly to completely new environments. Those sequences packed in new scenery and enemies loaded nearly instantaneously from storage.
Playing through Rift Apart more than nine months after that first reveal, the overwhelming “wow factor” of those through-the-rift transitions still holds up. But after the novelty wears off, the rifts start to feel like a flashy gimmick that’s not really necessary to sell an otherwise solid entry in this time-tested run-and-gun franchise.
Rivet and Clank?
(Note: This section contains some significant spoilers for characters and locations that are revealed partway through the game. Skip ahead to the next section if you want to go into the story fresh.)
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart [PS5]
It has been a long time since Ratchet & Clank’s 2016, movie-adjacent PS4 release and even longer since 2013’s Into the Nexus on the PS3 (which was more firmly planted in the series’ long-running lore). So, Rift Apart starts with a parade for the long-dormant heroes—as in, you run and jump over parade floats, watched by massive crowds. This doubles as a series overview for newcomers and fans alike. The parade ends with Clank giving Ratchet a repaired Dimensionator gun in the hopes he can use it to track down other members of the missing Lombax species.
When the slapstick Dr. Nefarious and his crew of grunts re-break the gun in an attempt to steal it, that sets off a roller coaster ride through a series of dimensional rifts. Eventually, Nefarious and our heroes get sucked into a dimension where an alternate-Nefarious has uncharacteristically succeeded in becoming the unquestioned emperor of the entire cosmos.
This new dimension introduces Rivet, an alternate-dimension female version of Ratchet who is a key part of the underground resistance against the all-powerful Emperor Nefarious. That might sound like the start to a particularly trite fan-fiction story, but Rivet actually develops into an interesting character in her own right. She displays growth and vulnerability as her character plays off of a partially disabled Clank.
The game jumps between Rivet and Ratchet as the two Lombaxes battle through a number of contrivances to meet up with each other, occasionally expounding on their own inner turmoil along the way. The story really picks up, though, with the introduction of Kit, the alternate-universe counterpart to Clank.
While Clank has found purpose and confidence over years of teaming up with Ratchet, Kit is a bundle of anxiety, born out of an inner struggle with her original destructive purpose. Kit is convinced she isn’t deserving of love and will only end up hurting whoever she partners with, a fact that comes through heart-breakingly well in every vocal intonation and motion-captured gesture.
The combined effort by the other characters to draw Kit out of this protective shell and learn to trust others is surprisingly touching for a game that’s otherwise bathed in sci-fi campiness. And that campiness in turn helps keep the proceedings from feeling too maudlin, even as the quip-filled writing can feel juvenile and dated at times. Rift Apart is a good example of how strong character moments and solid vocal performances can propel some overall by-the-numbers plotting and writing.
Healing the rift
From just a few minutes in, Rift Apart takes pains to highlight the visual punch of its titular rifts. The opening setpiece parade is a frenetic visual treat, throwing the player around like a pinball and drawing them in with the promise of a non-stop thrill ride.
Again, as the game progresses, the rifts start to feel like more of a limited gimmick than the high-octane revolution promised by this intro. The player never gets direct control of the Dimensionator gun in a way that would let them warp between locations like in A Link to the Past or Portal (or even Rick and Morty). Instead, rifts appear sporadically throughout the environments in carefully controlled positions, severely limiting their gameplay impact.
Most rifts appear as yellow, round portals. They quickly warp players between locations in a single environment rather than between different dimensional universes. In other words, it’s a visually appealing slingshot to the other half of the battlefield you’re in, and that’s useful to do things like flank your foes. The visual impact to using these rifts never gets old. Grabbing one and pulling it with a grappling hook is like pulling a chunk of the entire planet toward you with a speed and vigor that stays thrilling.
Mechanically, however, that visual pizzazz obscures what these portals are: in essence, a grappling-hook anchor. At a certain point, seeing a yellow portal glowing in the distance is basically a signal that you can tap the L1 button to get out of a jam quickly. Coming 14 years after Portal showed how dimensional transportation can be integrated into the way a game works, it’s just not that exciting.
Purple rifts, which connect to separate dimensions, are used even more sparingly. These most often appear as a convenient way to let new waves of enemies warp into a battle to swarm our heroes. Occasionally this is used for a clever “clash between worlds” style mixup, like warping a giant dinosaur into a highly futuristic setting or introducing a skeletal enemy from some ill-defined bone dimension. More often than not, though, it’s the same bog-standard Nefarious robots warping in through every single portal.
In general, this dimension-switching concept is never used to its full potential. Besides transporting enemies into your general area, these portals most often take you to a small, self-contained pocket-dimension where you perform quick platforming challenges for a permanent power-up. Walking through those portals and seeing the entire atmosphere change instantly around you is a cute visual effect, but it’s not all that different from, say, discovering the same platforming test in a hidden cave.
The rifts’ most compelling use comes in a small handful of planets where you can quickly hop between dimensions by smacking crystals. In these situations, the dimensional changes help you solve simple puzzles and get around certain obstacles, a concept I would have loved to see extended to the entire game. For the most part, the rifts feel like more of a snazzy tech demo than an exciting new gameplay feature.