Almost 15 years ago, my parents bought a PlayStation 2. Along with the console, there was this demo CD containing several extracts from upcoming PS2 titles, including two stages from Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank. I knew the developer’s name from the Spyro franchise which they developed back in the PS1 era, and which was one of the games of my childhood along with Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot. I remember falling in love with Ratchet & Clank. I remember asking my parents to buy me the actual game. And I remember playing its sequel, and then the sequel after, and the sequel after that. I literally grew up with Ratchet & Clank, and this franchise holds a very special place in my gamer’s heart. And then, about two weeks ago, Ratchet the Lombax and Clank the robot made their PlayStation 4 debut, in a critically-acclaimed remake of the first episode. More than a remake, Ratchet & Clank (2016) is “a game based on a movie based on a game” – the game is released alongside the Ratchet & Clank film adaptation, already in theaters in France. The idea behind this game is thus to remake the original Ratchet & Clank with today’s hardware and for today’s gamers, while also reinterpreting Ratchet and Clank’s origin story based on the movie adaptation’s scenario. Kind of an ambitious programme. And that’s unfortunately this game’s biggest flaw.
Where’s the story?
I want to start with what I think is wrong about this newest iteration of Ratchet & Clank – and that’s the fact that it depends way too much on the feature film that was produced alongside it. The game’s cutscenes consist almost exclusively of extracts from the movie, except that they were cut in order not to give too much of the film away and/or to leave space for the game sequences. This is a technique that was often seen in games based on films – the kind of games I remember playing a lot when I was a kid (I know I played Finding Nemo a lot on PS2) but that isn’t as common today as it used to be. Nowadays, the tendency would be to produce games that set within the universe of the film, instead of direct adaptations of the story, with extracts of the film itself to fill the gaps between the levels. And that just feels weird today, especially in Ratchet & Clank, a franchise that has always provided great cutscenes with lots of humoristic references and goofy characters. The first episode, which the movie (and this new game) is based upon, was all about the birth of a friendship. On the one hand, there was Ratchet, the selfish and impulsive mechanic who wanted to explore the universe, and on the other hand there was Clank, the smart yet naive robot who would never let them deviate from their mission, much to Ratchet’s exasperation. They meet at the beginning of the game, and they soon start to disagree with each other – the story was based on the differences between their characters, and how they progressively had to learn from each other in order to not only save the universe, but also become friends. The latter entries in the series even tried to push the narration a bit further, with a bigger emphasis on the friendship between the two protagonists – A Crack in Time was all about choices Ratchet and Clank had to make, that could sacrifice their relationship in the process.
Unfortunately, all of this had to be sacrificed in this remake, because of the hybrid nature of the game’s scenario, that tries to mix the game’s original plot with the movie adaptation’s twists. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, but based on what I’ve seen in the game, it doesn’t seem to be very good. The way the relationship between Ratchet and Clank is established is nowhere as good or interesting as in the original game – they seem to get along perfectly well to begin with, they never disagree with each other, they don’t even interact that much with each other. In fact, for someone who’s never played a Ratchet & Clank game before, the relationship between both characters must feel really dull. That’s clearly not the likeable duo I’ve learned to love back when I was a child. Same goes for the game’s antagonists. In the original game, there was only one villain, Chairman Drek, whose home planet was so polluted that he wanted to create a whole new planet with huge chunks from other planets (which he destroyed in the process). Only he was the one responsible for the pollution of his home world in the first place, and he only did that for money. In the remake (and the movie), a second villain was added – Dr. Nefarious, who was originally featured in the third Ratchet & Clank game. While Nefarious is a very funny character, and might have constituted a welcome addition to the film and game’s plot, it turns out that he is completely transparent throughout most of the story. Drek almost seems to be the only villain – except his motivations are never explained, which might be frustrating for people who haven’t played the first game – until finally Nefarious reminds us of his existence just in time for the final boss fight. Pretty much everything in the game feels that way: you go on several planets without really knowing why, you fight enemies without knowing their motivations, people you don’t care about unexplainably become your allies. Clearly, in terms of story, the game depends on the film – you have to see the film to fill the blanks in the story, and that’s frustrating. Fortunately, there are still some goofy characters, some nice dialogues, and some funny jokes, but that is still a huge disappointment considering the franchise’s history in terms of narration.
It’s all about fun!
While the story was a huge disappointment for me, I have loved pretty much everything else about Ratchet & Clank on PS4. The series has always been fun to play, and this episode is no exception to the rule. It’s actually the opposite: the gameplay is more polished than ever, with some welcome revisions of the original controls. The game is still the good-old Ratchet & Clank formula consisting of nonsensical gunfights with insanely enormous weapons (sometimes you just start shooting without even aiming), platforming sequences and short puzzles. Speaking of which, new puzzle sequences with Clank were added to the original game, and some of them really made me scratch my head before finding the solution.
The game’s difficulty is well-balanced (I played in Difficult mode from the start), with enemies getting stronger as the game progresses, and gunfights getting somehow harder (the final boss fight was a real challenge). Then there are other great moments like spaceship battles, hoverboard races and grindrails sequences – there’s just enough variety for you never to get bored, and it’s all so fun and enjoying to play. Really, I couldn’t help smiling throughout most of the game. And that’s what platformers are all about, all in all. Fun, just pure fun. Video games, literally. And as always, Ratchet & Clank is a great example of the genre.
Just as gorgeous as Captain Qwark
Not every franchise can pride itself on having lasted more than two generations of consoles. Yet after an original trilogy (plus a spin-off title) on PlayStation 2, another 6 games on PlayStation 3 and even two titles on PlayStation Portable, Ratchet & Clank is now coming to PlayStation 4 and it looks greater than ever. Definitely, the guys at Insomniac Games know what they’re doing, as they provide stunning visuals and recreate the first game’s original planets with a lot more details. The studio has been criticised for not aiming 60 FPS for this Ratchet & Clank reimagination (although the original PS2 title did run at 60 FPS) – but honestly, even at 30 FPS, the framerate is so stable that it’s never an issue. And reducing the framerate certainly helped Insomniac coming up with even more gorgeous graphics. It is so smooth, so fluid, so full of colours. The lights, the details, the animations. Ratchet’s fur is more realistic than ever, the settings are filled with animated characters and objects, the gunfights result in massive explosions that fill the whole screen without a single drop in framerate. Many reviewers have often compared the Ratchet & Clank franchise to the closest thing there is from a Pixar animated movie, and it sure is the case for this PS4 episode. And there’s something really reassuring about this idea.
Photorealism has become the target for almost every developer out there – every game aims at providing the most realistic graphics ever made, which unfortunately results, more often than needed, in dull environments looking the same from one game to another. Don’t get me wrong: I like photorealism and I like the fact that the visual frontier between games and reality is getting thinner as technology advances – but it’s like there’s no more room for creative, colourful, cartoony environments in video games. And then there are games like this new Ratchet & Clank, or like Media Molecule’s absolutely wonderful Tearaway, or even Ubisoft Montpellier’s reimagination of Rayman in Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, and that’s very refreshing. That brings us back to another era of gaming, back when developers weren’t afraid of developing unrealistic and colorful games. And Ratchet & Clank is the proof that “cartoony art style” doesn’t mean “shitty graphics”. It’s actually the opposite, as this game might be the most gorgeous game I have played on PS4. It’s not all about performance and technology – it is above all about talent and artistic value. What Insomniac does with Ratchet & Clank is being creative, by building whole worlds, with their whole soul and personality – from scratch. Well, not actually from scratch.
… A remake is great, but we can’t wait to see new stuff!
That might be one of Ratchet and Clank‘s flaws. Although the gameplay is absolutely fun, and even if the graphics are astonishing, it is still “just a remake”. In terms of level-design, at least two thirds of the game are the exact replica of their PS2 counterpart. Ratchet’s weapons are almost entirely taken from former episodes of the franchise, with only two new weapons created especially for this episode. Well, at least the Pixeliser might be one of the funniest weapons of the whole series, and it’s certainly a technical achievement to be able to transform animated enemies into static statues of pixels in just a second – but still, we would have liked to see more new weapons. Same goes for planets: while some planets from the original game were simply removed from the remake (and that’s a shame, considering some of them were pretty great), no new planets were added. The game does feature reinvented levels and new gameplay sequences, which are just as fun as you might expect from a Ratchet & Clank game, and which proves that Insomniac Games still’s got it when it comes to making great platformers – but that just makes the absence of more new content more frustrating.
Since everything in this game is fun and great, we just can’t wait to see what more Insomniac can create in the future. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that this absence of new levels/weapons/content is reportedly due to a very tight development budget, which forced developers to rely heavily on elements taken from former episodes of the series. That’s why the scenario is mainly told through extracts from the movies (which costs less than creating whole new cutscenes from scratch), that’s why the characters’ animations aren’t as numerous as you might expect from a 2016 game, that’s why there are no new weapons, no new levels. And that’s mainly because Sony doesn’t seem to believe that much in platformers anymore, even though that’s what brougt them success in the first place (let’s not forget how many PlayStations were sold thanks to Crash Bandicoot and Spyro). It’s been a while since the Ratchet & Clank series has had to deal with constraints of budget, and it’s kind of a shame. That’s mainly due to the fact that many gamers today tend to consider that platformers are games for kids. And I’ve even seen reviewers calling this new Ratchet & Clank game a “great game for kids” – well, hello! I’m 20 and I’m still playing platformers! And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one out there. I really hope this new Ratchet & Clank game will meet the success it deserves in terms of sales figures, and I sincerely hope that Insomniac will receive more money from Sony in the future, to create a brand new Ratchet & Clank game (or any other great platformer, for that matter). There’s still a lot of gamers who love platformers, there’s still a lot of developers who are good at developing platformers, and I’d love to see more games of this genre. (P.S. : Sony, I think it’s time for you to bring back Crash Bandicoot. Everybody wants it. Just do it. Please.)
- Ratchet & Clank’s success could bring back Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Jak & Daxter by Ryan Brown for mirror.co.uk, 24 April 2016.