Ratchet & Clank have been phoning it in harder than washed up talk show hosts on a regional radio station of late. Sony’s seasoned double-act seemed to stop trying after the franchise defining Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, with its more recent multiplayer-focused excursions stumbling harder than Captain Qwark in an IQ evaluation. With developer Insomniac Games turning its attention to greener pastures, though, Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus could represent the last opportunity for gaming’s greatest Lombax and his pint-sized accomplice to end their illustrious career on a high. But does this budget instalment deserve a Gold Bolt or a kick in the nuts?

If you’ve fallen out of the love with the series in recent years, then know that this very much represents a return to the blueprints that made PlayStation’s most popular pairing such an explosive success in the first place. The co-operative action of Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One and tower defence twist of Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault has been replaced by a solo jaunt across five planets, each bursting with collectibles, colourful scenery, and more Thugs-4-Hire groupies than you could ever want to kill. It’s the format that you’re already fond of, with a few new mechanics tossed in like a Groovatron for good measure.

That’s both a blessing and a curse. For as much ire as Insomniac Games’ recent experiments have drawn from fans, the studio was clearly attempting to widen the appeal of its third-person shooter hybrid. As more of a throwback, however, this entry will fail to attract anyone outside of those already converted, and that limits its allure a little. Nevertheless, those of you that do your weekly shop at GrummelNet and sleep in Dr. Nefarious branded pyjamas will adore the more traditional structure – even if this entry’s cheap and cheerful price-point means that it never comes close to matching the girth of Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction and its aforementioned fully-fledged successor.

The plot picks up shortly after the conclusion of the illustrious twosome’s clock blocking antics, and sees the intergalactic space heroes transporting high-profile prison wench Vendra Prog to her galactic resting place on the other side of the galaxy. As is customary for a cartoon plot, proceedings quickly turn sour, with the universe’s most daring duo forced to foil a plot involving creatures from the otherworld named Nethers. The dialogue is as sharp as ever, with the same blend of slapstick silliness and smart wordplay that you’ve come to expect from the series over the past ten or so years, even if it does occasionally stumble into the pitfall of shouting and screaming in place of genuine gags.

It’s fun, though, with classic characters popping up all over the place in order to play the fan-service card. You never really get to see enough of some of the stars, but a leisurely stroll through a museum on Meridian City towards the conclusion of the adventure at least gives you an opportunity to look back on adventures gone by. The narrative even finds a moment to ponder upon the Future timeline’s main thread – the fuzzy-haired hero’s desire to locate his Lombax ancestors – and (almost) ties a tight bow around the protagonist’s personal arc. There’s still room to return, however, should the developer decide that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

While the adventure offers a largely light-hearted foray through some new (and old) landscapes, though, there are definitely some darker moments throughout the campaign. One section sees you venturing through an abandoned children’s home, with the gloomy corridors casting some Dead Space-esque shadows against the drawing decorated walls. You’ll also slip through sewers and spend time fighting flying Gargathons on the foggy Planet Thram. These moments of murkiness make the colourful sections even more inviting, with some sequences serving as a reminder of the North American developer’s outstanding ability to render an animated skyline.

Weapons have always been fundamental to the Ratchet & Clank franchise, and that very much remains the case here. While familiar favourites such as the Warmonger and RYNO return, it’s some of the new options that will leave you flabbergasted by their inventiveness. For example, the Winteriser blasts out a few bars of Jingle Bells while you transform your croc-faced counterparts into snowmen, and subsequently smash up their dropped gifts for bonus bolts. Meanwhile, the Nightmare Box acts as a decoy, scaring your foes into submission as you target them with a focused stream of Nether Beast fire.

As always, you’ll upgrade these weapons as you progress. Simply using them earns XP, which enables the firearms to advance through three unique levels. Furthermore, you’ll collect Raritanium as you fight your way through the campaign, which can then be invested into further attributes such as increased rate of fire or additional ammo. Successfully fleshing out each weapon’s upgrade sheet will unlock mystery boosters, augmenting them with properties that make them even more potent in combat. It’s a tried and tested reward loop, but no less satisfying because of its familiarity, and it’s furthered here by the ability to unlock Omega weapons on a second playthrough.

It’s not just the arsenal that’s been overhauled, though, as the leading Lombax has a few new tricks up his Vortex Glove to boot. These mostly revolve around gravity, as the character’s able to use magnetic boots to leap from one coloured surface to another. Additionally, a later unlock allows you to shoot gravity streams, which really enhances the platforming when you’re forced to summon multiple different directional beams in order to navigate hazardous hallways. Elsewhere, the hoverboots make a welcome return, bringing some much-needed pace to the protagonist’s lethargic sprinting speed, while Clank’s jetpack allows you to observe environments from the sky – assuming that you have the fuel to do so.

That’s not the cybernetic side-kick’s sole use throughout the adventure, however, as he’s also able to enter rifts. These largely greyscale side-scrolling sections find you using the right analogue stick to switch gravity, allowing you to navigate tight corridors and awake Nether Beasts, which you must then guide back to the starting point. These are fun enough to replay – something that you’re able to do upon completing the campaign – but despite the inclusion of a couple of box-based puzzles, don’t ever really come close to matching the Braid-esque loop mechanics from Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time.

Nevertheless, all of the components are in place for a fully featured adventure. You’ll beat the story in around four to five hours, but during that time you’ll face several bosses, hop through a couple of stellar set-pieces, and test your combat chops in a dozen or so Destructapalooza trials. It definitely feels condensed compared to bigger budget entries, but outside of a laborious endgame hunt for horns, that gives the entire affair a laser focus that longer excursions often lack. You won’t feel burnt out by the time that you reach the credits, and that will leave you eager to uncover the few remaining collectibles and replay the adventure on Challenge mode, which ups your bolts intake.

Speaking of which, collecting the curious currency remains the video game equivalent of crack. Scooping up thousands of the bits-and-pieces as you smash open crates and shoot down enemies will implant a permanent smile on your fissog, and it’s that hectic presentation that the makes the game so fun to play. The frame rate does occasionally chug when you fill the screen with Zurkons, explosives, and anti-gravity bombs, but the uber-responsive controls and busy presentation will help you to forgive these missteps for the most part. Should the pervasive rumours regarding a PlayStation Vita port prove true, though, we once again remain eager to see how it holds up on the handheld, as this is an undeniably technologically taxing game.

Conclusion

Not to be left in the Netherverse, Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus represents a return to form for Insomniac Games’ most enduring double-act. While it’ll do little to catch the attention of series cynics, franchise fans should find themselves drawn to this like a particularly potent gravity beam. The budget price may still be a teensy steep for the rather slender running time, but the focused campaign and enjoyable action mean that this is certainly worth a punt if you’ve got the bolts to spare.