Insomniac Games’s Ratchet & Clank has only one analogue in the recursive synergy sewer that is video games adapted from films adapted from video games: the wholly unremarkable motion-captured Street Fighter: The Movie. But while it’s anyone’s guess as of the time of this writing whether the CG Ratchet & Clank film can capture the original game’s madcap insanity to a sufficient degree, it will regardless find itself having to surpass this new game, spurred by its creation, which is one of the series’s greatest achievements.
Once again, players will be introduced to Ratchet, a lowly mechanic with wide-eyed hopes of joining the Galactic Rangers, under the massive chin and jaundiced eye of spandex superhero Captain Qwark. Ratchet ends up achieving that goal with the help of Clank, a tiny, defective warbot who skips out on his scheduled removal when he discovers galactic bigwig Chairman Drek may be plotting to invade, destroy, and meld together several planets for his own real-estate ambitions. Once the duo is sworn into the Rangers, they’re sent on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy to restore peace.
Ratchet & Clank doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as its basic gameplay goes. It actually can’t, considering both it and the film it’s built around are meant to retell the story of the original game from 2002, meaning many of its mechanics are once again intended to entice newcomers instead of seasoned vets. What it does is benefit from the gift of hindsight. Not unlike the game’s villain, attempting to cherry-pick the best bits and bobs from various planets to make one perfect super planet, Insomniac has pulled inspiration from just about every game in the series, as well as their dalliance with wicked punk-rock chaos in Sunset Overdrive, to create an ultimate Ratchet & Clank game.
The opening hour or so is fairly basic, teaching us the ins and outs of platforming and basic running and gunning, both of which feel standard for the series. It’s when Ratchet is given the ability to jet off to new planets at his leisure that the game blossoms. The dominions that Ratchet and Clank visit have typical platformer diversity—forest, snow, fire, and water worlds, and so forth—and the enemies they face follow suit depending on the location, but the vibrancy of these places and the number of moving and environmental elements is unlike anything the platformer genre has seen.
Even with as much mayhem as the game brings to the table, it never forgets to make itself accessible and welcoming.
These worlds are inundated with all manner of animal and plant life, all going about their business in the game’s background, completely independent of the task at hand, yet it’s possible to get close enough and interact with all of it if you have the right powerup. Enemies could be trying to kill Ratchet or each other for 100 yards in any direction. Most of those same enemies will often gleefully and amusingly interact with each other—mostly to talk shop about guns or complain about their bosses—all while Ratchet himself runs, jumps, flips, flies, grinds rails, and collects hundreds of tiny bolts for currency without the game ever stuttering or stopping to deal with the workload. The worlds of this Ratchet & Clank are alive like nothing we’ve ever seen.
It’s for that reason that the relatively streamlined arsenal, compared to that of the other games in the series, doesn’t hurt. The weapons are mostly culled from the series’s history, and most are built for function rather than humor, though even the “boring” ones feel great to handle, with fewer cute-but-useless pieces of hardware in the mix. A few of the wild ones—a gun that fires disco balls which force enemies to dance, a laser that turns enemies into sheep, and an adorable robot named Mr. Zurkon who enjoys murder just a little too much—do make an appearance, but most of what Ratchet will collect keeps things simple, in the realm of laser-based pistols, rifles, and area-clearing bombs. But the best new weapon is a perfect marriage of both: a wide-spread shotgun called the Pixelator which turns enemies, when they’re hit, into low-res, 8-bit versions of themselves. It’s ridiculously useful, especially in later stages where crowd control becomes crucial, but the effect itself is a technical marvel, especially when you can shatter dead enemies into a thousand tiny pixels with your wrench after they’re dead.
Somehow, even with as much mayhem as Ratchet & Clank brings to the table, it never forgets to make itself accessible and welcoming to all players. It’s likely the greatest proof of how Insomniac has evolved over the years, given that so many of the previous games in the Ratchet & Clank series lean too hard in the direction of either soft kid-friendly collect-a-thon or just-short-of-hardcore shooter. A few moments of frustration aside, mostly from segments where Clank goes it alone to solve a few Portal-lite puzzles, the current title is perfectly balanced in favor of zany fun from beginning to end.
The story mildly suffers from Insomniac being required to build the game from Kevin Munroe and Jericca Cleland’s still-unreleased film, with clips from said film dropped haphazardly between stages, but it builds such a varied menagerie of characters, running jokes, and Easter eggs that you barely notice. It’s actually a bit of a relief knowing the film is out there, but not having it gum up the works, at least until closer to the end. Coincidentally, the game actually does include a self-aware framing device of an imprisoned Captain Qwark retelling his story to a fellow inmate who’s only seen “the holofilm based on the game.” It’s a cute meta joke on its own terms, but it’s also a statement of purpose, with Insomniac using the film not as a blueprint, but a jumping-off point. Ratchet & Clank’s a rare kind of licensed adaptation—one that’s not an extended advertisement for its source, but a technical and creative victory lap for the geniuses that inspired the original game.