After a year of waiting, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is finally here. Better still: it was worth the wait. Rift Apart is arguably the best PS5 game yet, combining tight gameplay and a moving story with top-notch production values.
However, if you’ve followed the Ratchet & Clank series before, none of that should come as a surprise; that’s just the way these games are. What makes Rift Apart special is how it finally capitalizes on the promise of the PS5, more than six months after the console debuted.
First, let’s lay down a little context. While Sony announced the PS5 back in April 2019, it wasn’t until March 2020 that system architect Mark Cerny gave an extensive breakdown of the console’s hardware during a livestream. He highlighted two major features that would set the PS5 apart from the PS4: an SSD with rapid load times, and 3D audio settings for more immersive sound. A few months later, we learned about the DualSense controller: a peripheral with extremely subtle haptic feedback, which could mimic sensations other than “some vibration” or “a lot of vibration.”
While Rift Apart is by no means the first PS5 game to take advantage of these features, it does feel like the first full-length PS5 game that absolutely could not have existed on an earlier PlayStation console. (I will grant that the Astro’s Playroom pack-in had a lot of similar features.) The PS5’s quick-loading SSD and subtle controller facilitate gameplay features that simply would not have been possible on the PS4.
Dimensional rifts and big explosions
Back when we got our first glimpse of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, I wrote that it was the only game that showed off what the PS5 was truly capable of. Other titles showed off pretty graphics or ambitious gameplay concepts, but only Rift Apart showed something that the PS4 could not have done. In that trailer, Ratchet and Clank dove through dimensional portals, only to come out in fully rendered levels seconds later.
This was not simple trailer trickery; this is a very real part of Rift Apart’s gameplay. To be fair, you can’t simply jump from level to level at-will. Most of the game’s portals transport you to distant platforms; some transport you to totally different stages, but only in a limited context, such as a racetrack or a boss arena. But there’s no denying that these level transitions load instantaneously, and that they play an important role in Rift Apart’s gameplay. While the core gameplay in Ratchet & Clank hasn’t changed much in the last 19 years, the dimensional rifts simply would not have worked this seamlessly on any previous PlayStation system.
Then there’s the DualSense integration. I’ve been a DualSense skeptic since day one, and Rift Apart is still very much the exception in a sea of distracting haptics. However, there’s no denying that the latest Ratchet & Clank makes very smart use of the PS5’s unusual controller. The vibrations are suitably varied, from big explosions when you fire a rocket launcher, to sudden bursts when your magnetic boots clamp onto a surface, to tiny clicks whenever you collect a bunch of Bolts (the game’s currency).
What’s more impressive, however, is how Insomniac took advantage of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers. In games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, I found the adaptive triggers irritating, as it seemed like their only purpose was to lock up halfway without any gameplay justification. In Rift Apart, though, the adaptive triggers offer useful functionality for almost every weapon.
For instance, if you equip the Shatterbomb and pull the trigger halfway down, the explosive will lock on to a nearby enemy. Then, you pull the trigger all the way down to throw the weapon. It’s much more precise than the way Ratchet threw bombs in previous games, which means the DualSense confers an actual gameplay advantage. The Executor shotgun lets you pull down the trigger halfway for a single barrel blast, or all the way to unload both barrels. From zooming in with a sniper rifle to rapid-firing with a blaster pistol, Rift Apart finally puts the adaptive triggers to good use.
There’s also the 3D audio, which sounds very good — though I don’t know if it’s worlds better than listening to Ratchet & Clank (2016) on the PS4 with a high-quality pair of headphones. Rift Apart has good directional audio and some subtle sound effects, but they don’t affect gameplay as much as the load times and the DualSense features. Perhaps the next big PS5 exclusive will also have some kind of significant audio innovation.
Other PS5 exclusives
It’s one thing to argue that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart takes full advantage of the PS5’s unique hardware. It’s another matter to claim that it does so better than any other game. However, at the moment, there are only a handful of true PS5 exclusives, and Rift Apart really does feel more comprehensive than they do.
To date, there are only five PS5 games that you can’t play on PS4: Astro’s Playroom, Demon’s Souls, Destruction AllStars, Returnal and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. At the risk of selling them short, Astro’s Playroom and Destruction AllStars are not quite substantial enough to showcase everything the PS5 can do. Astro’s Playroom is rather short and limited in scope, while Destruction AllStars isn’t the most ambitious game out there.
Then there’s Demon’s Souls. Up until Rift Apart came out, it was easily the best game on the PS5. And yet, Demon’s Souls is a very close remake of a PS3 game. While Demon’s Souls on PS5 is prettier, faster and more accessible than its PS3 predecessor, it would be inaccurate to say that this game could only exist on PS5.
That leaves Returnal. To its credit, Returnal also features fast load times and nuanced DualSense feedback, particularly when it comes to raindrops. That’s doubly impressive, when you consider that Returnal’s developer, Housemarque, is a fraction of the size of Insomniac.
Still, while Returnal features nearly instantaneous fast-travel between areas, there’s nothing really comparable to Rift Apart’s dimension-hopping. Returnal’s procedurally generated biomes comprise individual “rooms” of moderate size, compared to the expansive, sprawling planets in Rift Apart. While Returnal’s haptics are impressive, the adaptive triggers don’t enhance gameplay to nearly the same extent.
There’s also the fact that Returnal, for all of its accomplishments, is a very niche game. The fact that Sony can say “the PS5 is the only place to play the world’s first big-budget roguelike” is a feather in its cap. But when it comes to accessible crowd-pleasers, you generally can’t beat Ratchet & Clank — and you really can’t beat its latest iteration.
At present, it’s still much harder than it should be to find a PS5, and that will limit Rift Apart’s initial audience. But I hope that the system becomes widely available before the end of the year, if only so that players can see what happens when gameplay, story and hardware find the perfect midpoint. And if the PS5 continues to be elusive, then hopefully you picked up Ratchet & Clank on the PS4 when it was free.