Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sketched Game: Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus

Get out your wrenches and inter-dimensional devices, we're reviewing Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus!

Galactic heroes Ratchet and Clank are escorting a dangerous prisoner, Vendra Prog, to space prison, when her gigantic ape of a twin brother, Neftin, comes to bust her out. When she threatens to open a portal to another dimension called "The Netherverse", it's up to Ratchet and Clank once again to save the universe from destruction!

Why am I reviewing this, instead of perhaps About Time, which I just saw? Well, one, because I'd rather draw robots, cat-aliens, and inter-dimensional behemoths instead of mostly-awkward rom-com actors; and two, because this is a rare time when I've actually bought and finished a game right around its release instead of two years after. But hey – About Time is pretty good! It has some awkward parts, but overall it’s cute, interesting and very moving, in a sad way. Honestly, it’s more of a father-son story than a romantic comedy, and makes you want to love life and stuff. So that's that on that, for now.

Full disclosure: I am a HUGE Ratchet & Clank fan. I've played through all of the games except for the ones on the PSP and All 4 One, which was just a huge slog. When I got my PS3, the Ratchet & Clank Collection (the first 3 games) is one of the first things I got, even though I'd played through them already multiple times. I loved Tools of Destruction and A Crack in Time, and I still think Up Your Arsenal is the best in the series. Also, THIS is forever my jam. So yeah, I would probably wear Ratchet & Clank PJ's if I could find any. 

I was always going to get Into the Nexus one way or another, but the fact that it was $30 right out of the gate made it too good to pass up. This is probably the first game I've bought within a week of its release date.

And I was not disappointed! 

I remember when the first Ratchet & Clank came out and Insomniac stated they were a company that always wanted to try new things. But once they found the magic formula for Ratchet & Clank, they improved and tweaked it, but rarely strayed from the winning formula. And the few times they did resulted in some of the most lackluster titles of the series. The last two titles tried to do this, with Full Frontal Assault having more of a tower defense vibe and All 4 One going the party game route. It's hard to spurn innovation but I'm glad that Into the Nexus goes back to that juicy sweet spot I know and love. 

When you look back at the original controls to Ratchet & Clank you can see how far they've come to really tighten up the experience. They're mostly the same controls as A Crack In Time, with the added bonus that L1 now controls strafing, the aiming reticle, and throwing your wrench while the circle button is your go-to for gadget use. I really liked how in A Crack In Time, the D-Pad was used to switch between gadgets, but here there aren't really enough gadgets to require that. It all comes down to providing an incredibly honed Ratchet & Clank experience, making it easy to handle and incredibly fun. 

Going through the game, I was kind of super excited to finally have a story not centered around Nefarious and Quark. Not that I don't love those characters, but Quark is as much of a scene-stealer in most of the games as his character portrays. I can't remember the last time that Quark wasn’t in a major role or a playable character, and while he does show up briefly, he barely has time enough to get a joke in. I'm quite okay with that. The story is more focused on the evil twins' history and how they came to be. It's not the most original (in fact, it felt reminiscent of American McGee's Alice in Wonderland at one point), but it's nice to get some villains that are sympathetic and complex rather than simple cartoonish bad guys. It's not a bad story as R&C stories go. 

If you're new to the series I'd really recommend either starting from the beginning (because the games are so dang good) or at least play through Tools of Destruction and A Crack in Time so you get a sense of who the characters are and what the story is thus far. Plus, they're probably pretty cheap by now! A couple of major characters die (I'd barely count it as a spoiler since it happens within the first half hour) and it won't have the same gravitas if you come in to it new as it would if you've been here the whole time. Though, honestly, it doesn't have that much gravitas to begin with, since it seems like they were just killed to spurn Ratchet into action. My beef? If it's Ratchet’s job to catch criminals, and the fate of the galaxy is at stake, did it really need to get personal? I don't think it did. And, no, it's not that character that died. No, not that one either. No, it's not – JUST STOP ASKING.

I can see why they were able to get away with the 30$ price tag upfront because it's really only 5-7 hours of gameplay with an added challenge mode unlocked after you beat it. Plus, it comes with a free copy of Quest for Booty, so if you never played that, bonus 3 hours of gameplay! I was disappointed at first, but then I thought that it felt like kinda-sorta the perfect length. That might be my personal taste for wanting shorter game experiences because of the sheer amount of games that are currently and constantly coming out, but I played through Into the Nexus in a couple of nights and finished it before I had time to get worn down. Think of it as a regular Ratchet & Clank game with significantly less filler. Instead of five or six different gameplay gimmicks there's maybe two. Instead of a mechanic getting used seven or eight times until you hate it, it's used twice. Five planets to explore instead of fifteen. No space-travel mini-game, no back-tracking to other planets because you just found a new gadget. There is a gladiator arena and planet that lets you mine for flying dinosaur horns if you do enjoy the filler. 

While the experience may be shorter, there was no skimping in terms of quality game production. The visuals are just as stunning as ever, and the character designs for the monsters are some of the strangest and creepiest I've seen in a Ratchet & Clank game. Creaturebox has outdone themselves this time. That the series is so colorful both in it's color palette and its diverse cast of characters is one of my favorite things. Ratchet and Clank games are known for their crazy weapons, and while it's not as big an arsenal as Tools of Destruction, there's enough variety that you'll have plenty to play around with. In A Crack in Time, I was disappointed that they didn't have a transmogrifying weapon, which they've rectified here with the inclusion of a freeze gun that turns baddies into snowmen. And you can upgrade it to drop presents full of bolts and ammo when you smack them! It's a nice detail to see fun, wintery versions of each of the enemy designs instead of just generic snowmen. Other great weapons include the Nightmare Box, which scares and distracts enemies, and a Netherbeast you can release from your arm to chomp through enemies. And you can now upgrade your Mr. Zurkon until there's a whole Zurkon family!

I thoroughly enjoyed the upgrading weapons system of Tools of Destruction and I'm glad they've gone back to that here. The more you use a weapon, the more it levels up, and at maximum level three, it opens up a special ability. You can also upgrade your weapon with raritanium, improving its reload time, speed, blast radius, and a bunch of secret upgrades that are fun to discover and unlock until the weapon is hilariously overpowered. One of the greatest selling points of the R&C series is that it's incredibly cathartic to blow alien creatures and robots up into shiny bolts that you then collect to buy better weapons to blow up more alien creatures and robots. 

The few added mechanics here are great fun and done just enough to avoid frustration. You have a jetpack that lets you fly around, and magnetic boots that help you jump around in Zero-G space. I rather enjoyed the space boot segments and wish they had shown up in more than just the beginning and closing sections. Clank can now enter the Netherverse in 2D, sidescrolling puzzle adventures in which you can switch the gravity and make a Netherbeast chase you. They're creative and fun to go through and there are just enough of them that I only barely got tired of it by the end. 

I really enjoyed my time with Into the Nexus. It harkened back to those classic Ratchet & Clank games and more than once made a nice sending off point for the series. There's one level especially that fans of the franchise will get a kick out of. If you're a Ratchet & Clank fan, you should totally check it out! And for only $30, there's no reason not to! Wait, Black Friday is when? Next Friday? Oh, that's a good reason, I guess. But still, pick it up!

THE GOOD: Fun story, great gameplay, great character design and colorful visuals, great controls, blow up stuff, good price, sticks to the classic Ratchet & Clank formula, free Booty.

THE BAD: Shorter than most R&C games, dumb deaths.

THE VERDICT: $$$$ It's not the best R&C game, but it's a fantastic experience for what it is. The controls are the tightest they've ever been and it's a fun romp through an amazing universe.

GAMES LIKE IT: Ratchet & Clank series, Sly Cooper, Rayman, Metroid series

ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Ratchet blasting giant flying Netherbeasts on a jetpack with the help of nightmares and the family Zurkon.

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