Ratchet & Clank: Nexus | Review
Is it not poetic that Insomniac, having released Resistance: Fall of Man as a launch title for the PlayStation 3, gives the console one of its last hurrahs with Ratchet & Clank: Nexus, mere days before the launch of the PlayStation 4? It is the studio’s tenth game for the console and this long familiarity brings with it a certain confidence in their ability to create a solid and enjoyable experience while continuing to experiment with the established Ratchet & Clank formula, even if in a far less extreme way than has been seen in the All 4 One and QForce entries of late. With those two games failing to match up to the sales and critical reception of earlier titles, the team at Insomniac has returned to the traditional set-up of action-platformer for this epilogue to the Future arc, and although it does offer some interesting new ideas, it is impossible to deny that, at this point, the dynamic duo is showing their age.
This is most evident in those aspects of the game that are a part of the series’ established formula, most particularly the hunting mini-game. Chasing down the gargantuan beasts in exchange for certain rewards is a fine way to pad out the game, but it quickly grows tiresome in this iteration, and can even be a frustration if you choose to unlock its final reward. Similarly, the series staple arena, although incorporating some brilliant challenges that force you to make use of the new platforming mechanics, seems to become a grind before too long. The sporadic boss battles have you facing off against enormous, interestingly designed enemies, but they unfailingly feel as though they have come from the early 2000’s where Ratchet & Clank was birthed, with their limited arenas and tell-tale attack patterns. In a series that has always prided itself on creativity and invention, the boss battles have always been one of the weakest parts, and it is sad to see that it has carried through to this latest iteration and it marks itself out as an area that is in dire need of a rethink if the series is to continue into the next generation.
General combat is solid and enjoyable, offering players an array of tactical options through the varied weapons that can be purchased. There are stand-ins for typical weapons, such as automatic pistols, shotguns and rocket launchers, but the real charm of combat comes from the use of more inventive fare, such as the decoy-styled Nightmare Box, combat assistant Mr. Zurkon and black hole inducing Vortex Grenade, among others. Each of these weapons is a novelty and a joy to use in its intended way, and the upgrades that they offer only serve to make them more spectacular. There are two ways to improve the weapons, the first through use and the second via spending of the game’s secondary currency, Raritanium. This dichotomy feels unnecessary and, depressingly, like a step backwards from the customisation system of A Crack in Time, in which your weapons had their build designs customised.
As your arsenal becomes more powerful, the game seems to lose some of its lustre, particularly towards the tail end where the enemies swarm thickly and there is less time to soak up the atmosphere between encounters. The screen begins to fill with special effects, which can make it difficult to pick out particulars of the action and lead to one feeling as though the game is completely out of control. These traits lead to some rather spectacular visions but the sheer intensity of it takes you out of the experience and leaves you feeling like a spectator rather than an active participant.
Fortunately, this issue never extends as far as the platforming which is, from start to finish, simply sublime. You start off with access to Ratchet’s standard running, jumping and gliding abilities and your traversal mechanics begin to expand quickly. Zero-G segments that appear early in the game introduce you to a new kind of platforming that is reminiscent of similar scenarios in the original Dead Space. You don’t really have control in these sections, however, as it ultimately comes down to targeting a preordained point and leaping towards it with no freedom in choosing where to go. In spite of this, it does provide a unique thrill to leap from one platform to another while being pursued, especially when combined with the way that the perspective shifts abruptly to keep track of the character.
The traversal mechanics that are introduced as the game progresses are similarly involving and well-tuned, with levels and platforming elements included to prove an understanding that such ideas cannot be incorporated without due cause. And it must be noted that when those additional mechanics are allowed to shine their brightest, upon the swamps of Planet Thram, you get a sense of just how majestic and joyful gaming can be when the line between freedom and limitation is drawn to its finest. Leaping and soaring with reckless abandon, largely fearless of the consequences of a slip-up, is simply euphoria inducing. If there is a single drawback to all of this, it is that there are very few areas where the platforming is a challenge. The rooms dedicated to the idea are brilliant, but too short and too few, while collecting the Gold Bolts and R.Y.N.O. Plans, another part of that established formula, is never near as taxing as it has been in previous iterations.
Perhaps to make up for this, Insomniac has built puzzle-platforming elements into the core game, as well as building the Clank sections entirely around them. In the main game, it consists of using a new gadget, the Grav-Tether, to create gravity streams that you can ride. It starts off simply enough with point-to-point movement, but later requires you to create multiple streams simultaneously and work on a timer due to moving source points. It all works incredibly well at diversifying the game, but it the idea never seems to reach its full potential. The Clank sections have you moving through a 2D space, manipulating the direction of gravity’s pull to move Clank, platforms and the occasional box that must be manoeuvred into place before a new pathway will open. These aren’t particularly challenging, but they are excellently executed and a great way to alter the pace of the game. Upon completing the game, you can go back through them at will to fulfil certain goals in order to unlock Skill Points (which in turn provide you with concept art, cheats and visual filters), which is a nice touch.
The levels adhere to the ethic of the series, comprising largely of areas that are tenuously connected. There is a sufficient level of diversity in the design of each, but you never really get a sense of these places. Yes, there is a level based on a swamp, one based on an industrial estate and another on a city, but they only seem to be there as a playground, rather than a real place. Compared to previous titles, this is definitely a step back, but it is hard to determine why this is. A part of it is likely that you never get a chance to take in these places as a whole as you are funnelled along their corridors, but it likely also has to do with the fact that it feels as though we’ve already done this all before in the earlier game in the Future arc. If there is an exception to this general malaise, it lies in the Meero Orphanage which, although only a small place, feels entirely unique.
From a visual perspective, Nexus adheres almost too firmly to its predecessors. The cartoon sci-fi aesthetic returns with a vengeance, and it is this that most contributes to the feeling that we’ve already seen all of this before, as noted above. The environments are a bit darker than they have been heretofore, but aside from this things feel unchanged. The basic enemies feel recycled for the most part, though it must be said that Neftin and Vendra Prog are as brilliantly designed as any of the characters that have graced the series during its tenure. The special effects are as flashy as they come, though they can be overwhelming as I’ve already mentioned, and the game also does lag slightly at points of high action though never enough to negatively impact the experience. Nexus does, however, offer up some of the most sumptuous cinematics that the series has seen to date, especially early on.
The sound is good without being great. As per usual, the voice cast does an admirable job, though there are no real standouts. Weapons snap and crackle with delightful vigour, which makes it something of a disappointment when the effects fail, as they do on rare occasions. Similarly, the soundtrack gets the job done without standing out, though the fanfares that play while firing the Winteriser and R.Y.N.O. VII guns rarely fails to inspire a smile, simply because of the randomness of it. All things considered, it gets the job done.
And this, sadly, is all that can be said of the story too. Advertised as an epilogue to the Future arc, Nexus does a great job of highlighting the history of Ratchet & Clank, especially in its final level, though bringing back the Dimensionator, and making mention of Emperor Tachyon and Doctor Nefarious does not feel essential. The narrative beats feel played out as you travel from one planet to another for the same reasons that gamers have done so dozens of times, though it must be said that Neftin and Vendra, the primary antagonists of this adventure, are wonderful new characters, even if their development does feel somewhat haphazard. One of the main issues with this being termed an epilogue is that it should round things off, but it feels more like the beginning of a new chapter. A Crack in Time, for me, was emotionally evocative (yes, tears welled up in those closing moments) while Nexus lacks anything approaching the resonance that that game held. Comparatively, it feels neutered.
Perhaps that is how it should be. This is a stopgap title, more in the vein of Quest for Booty than the main titles, and this is reflected in its price-point, its length and the way that the weapons only go as high as level three, rather than the series standard five. Even so, it is surprisingly meaty and, so long as you enjoy the first playthrough, there is no reason not to go back through it in Challenge Mode (the game’s version of New Game Plus).
Coming at the end of a generation, Ratchet & Clank: Nexus has lost none of the charm or sense of fun that the series is renowned for. The platforming rates among the best work that Insomniac has ever done, even though it is let down by the feeling that most of the combat has failed to evolve all that much in the past decade. If there is a complaint to be had, it is that Nexus plays things too closely to the formula that has long been in place. Some fans may regard this is a good thing as it means that Insomniac is fully aware of what works, while others will be finding it all rather tired and worn out at this point. Either way, it marks the end of an era and leads one to hope that if Ratchet & Clank returns on the PS4, the series is able to update itself and bring something truly fresh to the table.
(Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 6/10
Gameplay/Design – 8.5/10
Visuals – 7/10
Sound – 6/10
Lasting Appeal – 7/10
Overall – 7.5/10
(Not an average)
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Ratings: E (ESRB), 7 (PEGI), PG (ACB)