The past couple years of Ratchet & Clank games have seen an admirable, but ultimately failed shot at experimentation. All 4 One saw the series become a cooperative-based experience, while last year’s Full Frontal Assault turned it into a tower-defense game. Neither managed to capture the magic of earlier Ratchet & Clank adventures, in part because of how little they resembled their predecessors, ironically. They weren’t so much Ratchet & Clank games as they were half-baked tower-defense and co-op games with the titular duo pasted in.
Into the Nexus marks a return to the old. No fancy frills or experimentation can be found here. This is as traditional a Ratchet & Clank game as they come, never once even thinking to stray from it or try to put a new spin on it. Only, like Quest for Booty before it, Into the Nexus is so short that it never quite hits its stride.
This outing sees the duo in pursuit of a witch by the name of Vendra, whom they were charged with escorting to prison before she unexpectedly (but unsurprisingly) escapes. She seeks to open the way to her home, the Netherverse, to wreak havoc on the galaxy by allowing the natives (known as “nethers”) to run amok. Why? Because she’s evil. No, really – that’s it. The entire intro sequence is spent establishing how awful she is, going to great lengths to play her up as some sort of menace to all life. In reality, she’s but a petulant, non-threatening brat, and a boring antagonist to boot. In large part due to the lack of wit in the writing.
There are plenty of jokes, sure, but few manage to elicit even a chuckle. None of it feels natural, let alone clever. They feel forced, as though there was some arbitrary quota for humor instituted, no doubt an effect of the game’s short length. As Into the Nexus has only five levels (though they’re quite spacious, to their credit), the story has to move quickly and succinctly. There’s no time to dwell on things or allow any room to breathe. Progression must be constant, and the game suffers for it. It’s one major event after another with no downtime in between, the pacing horribly unbalanced because of it.
Luckily, the game plays well. Into the Nexus brings back the old open levels of games past. Platforming once more takes center stage with the usual assortment of jumping puzzle hazards (floating platforms, chasms to swing and slingshot across, etc.) populating the vibrant scenery. The duo traverse the game’s five worlds with ease, Clank’s various heli-pack functions allowing Ratchet to vault over just about any obstacle. None of the platforming for Ratchet is particularly challenging, though the traversal itself remains enjoyable.
There’s a simple pleasure in leaping about effortlessly that Ratchet & Clank captures splendidly. Fluid movement and smooth mechanics keep even the most basic of platforming entertaining, gadgets like the Slingshot bringing a sense of style to the otherwise pedestrian action. Others, such as the Grav Tether, which conjures pink beams of energy that suspend Ratchet in the air and slowly propel him forward, create some light puzzle solving interludes that serve as a fine break between fights.
Clank’s sequences prove more difficult. Occasionally the two come across cracks that lead into the Netherverse, which Clank can enter. His job here is to reach the end of the stage to awaken a fish-like creature and lead it back to the entrance that will destroy the wall barring their way in their world. He traverses the nether by shifting the area’s gravity, allowing him to bypass the rocks, moats, and other such obstacles populating the area. The challenge shines most when the narrow tunnels of the nether become densely packed with the myriad hurdles he faces. Between shifting gravity at the drop of a hat, timing your jumps correctly, and evading the fish-thing, these segments become quite daunting. It’s a welcome challenge.
Combat still serves as one of the main draws, a wide arsenal of weaponry available with which to dispatch foes. Most them are taken from past games wholesale (as has been the case for the past several games) or retooled, only a few truly original weapons appearing here. The creativity isn’t quite on display this time, each essentially jazzed up versions of standard-grade firearms (pistols, shotguns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, etc.), their designs hardly unique. They’re all fun to use and carry plenty of punch, but they feel more rudimentary than ever before. Even the more ridiculous tools – such as one that turns enemies into snowmen – fail to entertain. Primarily because their sheer novelty doesn’t make up for their lack of practicality. Why bother transforming foes when you can lay waste to them with a single shotgun blast?
The handling of upgrades has changed, and not entirely for the better. As usual, Ratchet’s arsenal levels up with enough use. Each can be leveled up twice, the third and final stage causing the weapon to transform into radically more powerful forms. Now, on top of the standard benefits of leveling up, by spending raritanium at vendors, you can buy an assortment of additional enhancements. Ammo count, range, rate of fire, and a bunch of special abilities unique to each firearm can be obtained only through here. For the most part, this is fine since it allows you to continue strengthening your guns between levels. It keeps progression constant, as the materials drop from fallen foes regularly, especially after obtaining upgrades that increase their drop-rate. But this also weakens the impact of each level gained considerably.
Where before your weapons would receive significant boosts upon leveling up, they now feel like little more than cosmetic changes, the real enhancements coming from those bought with raritanium. It’s frustrating, since it slows the rate at which weaker weapons improve, destroying any incentive to use anything but the strongest, most consistently effective firearms available. In past games, using your arsenal creatively was what made the weapon variety worthwhile, as well as what kept the combat interesting throughout.
Even so, there’s still at least some fun to be had in battle. Blasting hordes of foes away while leaping about the scene trying desperately to avoid taking damage still manages to entertain. The sheer chaos that erupts on-screen during more large-scale encounters especially shine, demonstrating the game at its finest and most enthralling. Doubly so in the combat arena, wherein all sorts of environmental hazards conspire to slay you in conjunction with the usual scores of adversaries. I only wish there weren’t so few challenges to partake in. The occasional boss battle is similarly enjoyable, but on a smaller, simpler scale. They try to make them out to be grandiose encounters, but it all comes off as an unnecessary spectacle than an actual improvement to the nature of these battles.
On the whole, Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus delivers a more faithful experience than the past two games have. Falling back on the series’ strengths definitely makes for a better game, but Insomniac’s continued ineptitude for shorter games leaves its story and pacing in an unfortunate state. I don’t know if the series can ever be done justice in a condensed format, though Into the Nexus does nothing to inspire confidence. Still – it plays just well enough to make its mechanical shortcomings easier to endure. Into the Nexus doesn’t quite get the series back on its feet, but it’s definitely a start.