I've been wrong about Ratchet & Clank. I always thought Sony's series was the Dreamworks to Nintendo's Pixar. Yeah, they can be cute, and they can be funny, but Ratchet & Clank games always felt like the result of extreme market-testing, with whatever soul they could have had replaced with lowest common denominator pandering. Just look at Ratchet: He has that face, that smug smirk that every Dreamworks character makes (at least according to that popular web comic from a few years ago.)
Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus isn't the first Ratchet & Clank that I've played, but it's the first to make me feel bad about writing these games off. Some of the dialogue and character designs might veer into that cloyingly sassy turf claimed by Dreamworks and so many smarmy kids' shows, but it doesn't happen as often as I had feared. Much of the game is legitimately funny. The variety of the game's action, and how smoothly it flows from third-person shoot-out to twisty platforming section, makes up for any of the story's creakier moments.
Crucially, this hero is one I can support. Despite making that face, Ratchet himself rarely cracks wise. He's good-natured without spouting one-liners, serious about his work without turning into a dour stoic. He's neither an obnoxious sit-com character nor a gruff Batman wannabe, which means the game avoids two obnoxious stock hero types that are too common these days in all forms of media. That might make him sound bland, but I'd rather have a dependable and amiable hero than one that's supposed to seem edgy or overly cool. That way lies Poochie.
Ratchet doesn't need too outsized of a personality, because the villains have more than enough to go around. Vendra Prog, the main villainess, is a murderous "space witch" bent on destroying the universe by opening a portal to the Netherverse from which she came. She talks like a catty mean girl trying to wear down the confidence of an entire dimension. She and her twin brother Neftin are a visually arresting duo, an alien Goth girl who looks like a "Monster High" drop-out and a massive tank more hulking than any Warhammer Space Marine. Their dialogue and voice-acting sometimes cross the line between cartoonish and campy, but they're admirable foils for Ratchet, with a backstory that verges on genuine pathos.
That story gradually unfolds as Ratchet and Clank travel from planet to planet to stop Vendra's plot. There are five planets in Into the Nexus, with some light Metroid-style back-and-forth keeping things from growing too linear. Each planet has its own distinct environment and architecture, from abandoned cities to dangerous swamps. One planet, the homeworld of Thugs-4-Less, is merely the base for arena-style combat missions that greatly reward Ratchet with bolts, raritanium and other perks. The same enemies generally pop up in every planet, primarily the reptilian goons of Thugs-4-Less or the purple-hued Nethers unleashed from Vendra's dark dimension.
New mechanics drip out throughout these planets, from the familiar (Ratchet's hoverboots, with which he can sprint and hurtle through the air) to the brand new (a jetpack that lets Ratchet tear through the sky). At times Into the Nexus turns into a mind-bending, gravity-defying platformer, with Ratchet using his gadgets to soar off ramps, swing over chasms and walk along the sides of spaceships and floating debris, Super Mario Galaxy-style.
Into the Nexus also introduces a two-dimensional mini-game that could easily be an acclaimed standalone puzzler. At certain moments Clank has to enter "the rift", the other dimension that perils his own. These are purple-and-black themed side-scrolling missions where the flow of gravity can be switched with a flick of the joystick. Clank and various obstacles will float up, down, right or left depending on the direction chosen. There are only a handful of these missions in Into the Nexus, but there's enough possibility in this idea to prop up an entire spin-off game.
At heart, Into the Nexus is a third-person shooter, though, and most interactions with the enemies come through a gun (or a wrench). The large arsenal returns, with both traditional firearms like shotguns and pistols, and weird sci-fi contraptions that turn victims into snowmen or grenades that create tiny black holes. There's little functional or aesthetic overlap between these weapons, with each one having a distinct appearance and impact upon the enemy. There's a progress meter for every weapon, and the more it's used the more that bar fills up. When that bar is full, the weapon levels up. Every gun can be leveled up twice, which increases their potency and sometimes unlocks new abilities (for instance, that shotgun knocks bad guys off their feet when it hits level 2).
Weapons can also be upgraded at certain kiosks with a mineral called raritanium, which can be acquired both from deposits hidden throughout levels and also from defeated enemies. These upgrades appear as a hexagonal map, with each hex increasing one particular statistic for that weapon. Raritanium upgrades can increase the ammo cap for a gun, or increase the damage it deals. The hex maps grow as the weapons level up, greatly expanding the opportunities for each weapon, while also deepening the need to find raritanium. At the end of my first play-through I had acquired ten different weapons, and had leveled all but two up to the third level. I had only fully maxed out the hex map for one of them, though. This upgrade system is deep, and it will take more than a single trip through the game to push every weapon to the limit.
To that end I immediately restarted Into the Nexus once I beat the final boss. The "Challenge Mode" is a decidedly harder New Game Plus option that started me off with all the weapons, bolts and raritanium I had acquired by the end of that first game. I'm not normally raring to play a game a second time, but the allure of powering up these guns was strong enough (and Into the Nexus' run-time short enough) to get me right back into it.
Into the Nexus almost feels like a farewell. The final sections are steeped in series history, with museum displays of previous events, and certain characters die in shocking fashion. I'm sure there will be more Ratchet & Clank to come, but if not, I don't feel bad about getting in on the top floor. There's a long way down, with a lot of games to play (or replay).
This review is based on a retail copy of Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus, provided by Insomniac.
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