Review of Ratchet and Clank (PS4)
Growing up, my brother and I would get either the latest Jak and Daxter game or - you guessed it - Ratchet and Clank. I can’t even begin to express how much fun we had with these games. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with some of the PS3 installments in the franchise, but I told myself I would absolutely see what they did with their 2016 game on PS4. And what can I say? I was not disappointed. In this review, I’ll focus on the three things that reminded me why R&C games are so great. Flow, engaging upgrades, and strong aesthetic choices.
Like any good 3D platformer, Ratchet and Clank immerses the player without the player really noticing they’re being...immersed… From the first scene of actual gameplay, I felt at home. Granted, a lot of this is the natural connection between the controller inputs and the game. However, I felt immediately engaged. How did the designers do this? Well, I think a lot of it is level design. Insomniac is no stranger to what good design is. The initial scene where Ratchet leaves the hangar puts you in a lush environment. Firstly, the player is allowed to explore and get their bearings, if necessary. That’s something the game brought back from its predecessors. In addition to an allowance for exploration, players are guided at the same time to the string of objectives they will face. This initial scene is a perfect example, because it’s where players are trained (without realizing it, necessarily). By following the path, players find their first weapon, and are presented with enemies and objects that are easily interacted with and attacked. And boom! That’s pretty much it! Rinse and repeat. Throughout the game, players are subtly guided through the levels through environmental and visual cues. If new gadgets are introduced, the same process is used. A simple demonstration, followed by more complicated opportunities for interaction. Because Insomniac’s designers use this process so well, players are immersed and don’t realize that they’re comfortably playing the game. Flow. It’s that important. This game helped me realize again how important level design is in terms of flow, and I can’t wait to replay it to analyze this further.
Ratchet and Clank games would not be successful if they didn’t have rockin’ upgrades for weapons. And this game doesn’t slack off in that department. Using a unique visualization system, the game allows players to buff their weapons as they wish. Except the buffing is accompanied by an option/incentive to qualify for mystery upgrades within the upgrade map. As players get enough currency to upgrade weapons, they can potentially encircle unknown upgrades in the layout. When an upgrade is successfully surrounded, that weapon acquires the upgrade. This system works well, and differs from weapon to weapon. Some weapon upgrade tables require much more to surround a special upgrade. Others are easily gained. Although the idea of upgrading seems cliche in the games industry, it’s actually really important for Ratchet and Clank’s DNA. By giving players the chance to upgrade their weapons, the game offers players a chance to take ownership of Ratchet and his arsenal. That’s important because the story is otherwise linear. The variation offered through weapon-leveling is vital for the game, and also drastically increases the replay value.
No Ratchet game has lacked in interesting aesthetic choices. That’s something this game has held on to. From the initial games in the franchise, I was blown away by the interesting use of color, the world-building, and the sense of humor. Insomniac was smart on this one, because they stayed true to the Ratchet roots. Humor plays a huge role in the aesthetic of the game - not just the dialog. If you look closely at each environment and enemy, players may notice that the world is alive through humor. Plants are curved in Suess-like ways, colors pop out in exaggerated levels, and enemy animations dance to the established humor of the world. This goes back to flow, because an effective aesthetic direction can make or break a player’s involvement in the game mentally. It’s extremely difficult to make sure all art assets maintain consistency throughout a project such as this, and Insomniac nails it. Although there is a wide spread of worlds and environments in the game, they all appear to have originated from the same creative pot. That’s how a studio should do it. Doing otherwise shows sloppiness and lack of attention to detail. This game really takes advantage of the age of HD, the capabilities of the PS4, and the many audio possibilities offered by current technology. The aesthetic is what sold the game for me, and I hope others can learn from this.
PlayStation titles have always held a special place in my heart, and this game reawakened that appreciation. After hearing Insomniac CEO Ted Price speak at GDC about the journey of the studio, I gained even more respect for the studio and the franchise. Although the studio “...absolutely love[s] creating new IP,” I greatly appreciate their hard work on Ratchet and Clank. I look forward to seeing what they do in the future, both with this franchise, their current VR projects, and the new IP in the future. Well done, Insomniac. I salute you.