Insert shameless pun here.
Sony's Playstation Network has been home to a wildly diverse number of stellar original titles (PixelJunk anything, Everyday Shooter, flOw), which, while absorbing in their own right, could never match the visual luster of their higher budgeted bluray cousins. Warhawk and Siren covered ground with shades of console flare, but Ratchet and Clank Future: Quest for Booty is the first true extension of an established series to arrive on PSN. Billed as more of an epilogue to last fall's Tools of Destruction than a standalone title, QfB boasts Insomniac's usual drop dead gorgeous visuals, high production value, and classic Ratchet and Clank gameplay. While I had no doubt the game would look amazing, I wasn't sure if usual formula would work as well in an abridged adventure. More specifically, with so much content that seemingly needed to surface, I didn't know if QfB could get out of its own way.
Ratchet and Clank, a franchise which I've joyfully played through in its entirety, has always relied on a stable of series hallmarks that I consider essential to its value. Outrageous and upgradeable weapons, crazy skill points, endless waves of bad guys, environmental puzzles, enormous bosses, a hilarious narrative, hidden bolts, and a slew of planets to explore defined the traditional Ratchet experience. I knew not all of these would carry over into a condensed adventure, but I couldn't imagine how much they could cut away without losing the classic Ratchet feel.
QfB picks up right where ToD left off; Clank has been summoned/kidnapped by the mysterious Zoni robots, leaving Ratchet behind to fend for himself. Along with Talwyn, Ratchet is out to locate Captain Darkwater, an alleged expert of Zoni culture, and figure out what the hell happened to Clank. Meanwhile, Rusty Pete, the hapless second mate of ToD's secondary villain, Captain Slag, somehow resurrects his former master by attaching his head to a stick. While it's obviously not as thorough of an affair as a traditional Ratchet title, there is enough humor and narrative to hold your interest along the way. Just don't expect anything but the end to resonate in the series mythos.
The gameplay is surrounded with traditional Ratchet familiarity, plus or (mostly) minus a few concessions. Ratchet's cache of insane weapons has been streamlined down the bare essentials; the standard blaster and bomb glove are joined by the predator launcher, plasma whip, nano swarmers, tornado gun, and alpha disruptor. It's a bit disappointed to see a lack of anything new in a series that traditionally 1ups itself in this department every time out, but the meager selection of weapons was more than enough to safely progress through the game.
Of more interest this time around is Ratchet's trusty Omniwrench. While still hopelessly underpowered in melee combat, it's usefulness has finally expanded beyond turning screws to move doors. With a new tethering ability, it can be used to lock on to and activate certain objects in the field, such as platforms and catapults, and manipulate them to progress through the levels. Additionally, Ratchet can use his wrench to pick up glowing Heliogrubs and use their luminescence as a torch. It also acts as a deterrent to the Pitch Black/Gears of War "Flying Carnivores that Hate Light," enemy, which is standard videogame fare at this point, but entirely new to the Ratchet series.
While I was happy to see the wrench make a comeback in the gameplay department, the execution wasn't quite up to snuff. "Connecting" to an object seemed arbitrary and unrelated to position, and I found using the right analogue stick to manipulate objects to be a little cumbersome. It's a minor complaint (and rarely has any effect on the gameplay save one or two sections), but it was a little disheartening to find QfB's greatest revision of the Ratchet formula to be so vague and unpolished.
Bottomless Pits > Guns
Speaking of which, I was delighted to find QfB had more of a focus on puzzle solving and platforming than balls to the wall shooting. While the other entries in the series were by no means inept in either department, a more traditional platforming focus, most evident in Hoolefar Island and Darkwater Cove, was welcomed with open arms. Ratchet's always been at the top of his game in the run and gun segments, so it was surprising to see Insomniac making strides toward balancing out their game with a focus on classic platforming. Ratchet still has kind of a floaty feel and doesn't move with the precision or momentum of Mario, but he can still cover his intended ground without much hassle. Anyway, to top it all off, the rail sliding segments return with a renewed intensity. Grinding down rails is a device that only Ratchet has really nailed (it was frustrating in Psychonauts and Sonic, despite inventing it, has been a massive failure in that department), so it's nice to see those return with some added vitality.
Not that I expected any less, but Q4B is an amazing looking game. "Pixar like visuals and animation" was thrown around incessantly with ToD last year, and QfB should retain those slightly overblown comparisons. Hoolefar Island, with its cerulean water, lush tropical vegetation, and burgeoning metallic obelisks, does well to showcase Insomniac's blissful art direction, but the technical wizardry is more evident in the darker cave levels. While not as aesthetically pleasing, the light sourcing down there is amazing, breaking the uniformity of the games more gloomy environments. The frame rate started to take a hit in the last two levels, which I don't recall ever happening with ToD, but wasn't detrimental to the gameplay.
Search for Swag
There had to be a trade off somewhere, right? While it arrives at a similar price point, QfB doesn't have the kinetic hook or hours of score based replayability of PSN titles like PixelJunk Eden or Super Stardust HD. And not to take anything away from QfB, it’s fun while it lasts, but its hook is the production value and its reason for playing lies within its established gameplay. Four or five levels, depending on how you look at it, takes anywhere for between three and four hours to complete. It certainly doesn't hurt that QfB is about the most well paced Ratchet game to date (including an amazing final level/boss battle), but it's definitely a streamlined experience.
Ironically enough, Insomniac’s usual blessing of supplemental content is precisely what makes QfB feel emptier than its predecessors. Absent are skill points, hidden bolts, and the NewGame+ like challenge mode that came standard with all of Ratchet's previous outings. Excess had to be cut, for sure, but only when they were taken away did I recognize these features as something not complimentary, but essential to the identity of a Ratchet game. Hidden incentives are a reason to play and explore outside of the intended path - a chance to experiment and see what sticks and what doesn't, and their absence leaves little motivation to stroll through QfB more than once.