“Every roll of the dice matters, but not every roll counts,” claims Seemore, the die-restoring pipnician who Even befriends. But this isn’t true of Lost in Random’s gameplay, as the worst penalty for a bad roll is around 10 seconds of the player’s time. Indeed, if you don’t earn enough pips to summon a card, all you have to do is wait to draw a fresh card and re-roll Dicey until you’ve achieved the desired effect. Lost in Random’s narrative about a world where self-determination is suppressed is compelling, but the randomness that characterizes the game’s combat risks pushing those of us who actually have free will to play something else instead.
True Colors already feels closer to an interactive movie than a game, especially in the final chapter. Here, we’re plunged into a series of overly expository flashbacks in which our decisions have already been made for us. There are fewer choices to make and interactions to discover as we’re led toward a narrative twist that’s as convenient as it is messy. You can see the seams in the editing as the game’s engine chooses which of two responses you’re going to get from each member of the town council, depending on how you interacted with them in earlier chapters. Were you ever actually empathetic toward these people, or simply tallying up points to get them on your side? A stronger game might have better concealed this behind-the-scenes scorekeeping, but Alex’s power makes the game’s true colors all too visible.
As for the game’s bosses, they’re most efficiently fought one on one, keeping the other characters out of harm’s way. It’s telling, then, that the game’s final area, the labyrinthine Aldalar Tomb, pointedly separates the three heroes. All that build-up to unite the family, and in the end, Greak: Memories of Azur finds it best to keep them apart.
The Ascent’s savviest move is making the arcology its main character. Trains run on their own schedules, NPCs carry on conversations whether you stop to listen to them or not, and there’s no exposition for concepts like “Escher loops” and “the First Law.” You’re not a hero, only a replaceable employee. The commune of off-the-grid coders aren’t relying on you, and there’s nothing you can do to help a traumatized recent arrival who woke to find that his family of 70 years was merely a cryosleep-induced dream. And so you look, listen, and empathize with the concerns of this vibrant, lived-in arcology. It’s a terrible place to live, and a terrifyingly believable premonition of where we might end up, but a wonderful one to get lost in.
That charming, throwaway exchange is just one of the many ways in which the game’s strong writing and character development help to mitigate the campaign’s tedious final hours. It feels like the video game equivalent of a shaggy-dog joke, and while its narrative is fascinating enough to compel you to backtrack not once, but twice, through areas and boss fights that you’ve long since mastered, it’s hard not to wish that Cris Tales had used a little time magic on itself and sped things along so we could have gotten to the good stuff sooner.
Despite its title’s declaration of intent, though, Rift Apart isn’t willing to stand on its own. That’s most evident in the game’s Anomaly puzzles, where you must interact with physical representations of all of Clank’s and Kit’s dimensional possibilities. This is predetermination in action. There’s only one acceptable route for you to guide these representations, like lemmings, down, and that’s the one that has them marching in lockstep along the same path that has defined every Ratchet & Clank to date. In the end, Rift Apart is a superficially entertaining but deeply unfulfilling adventure—one that, like the latest Star Wars trilogy, mistakes a shiny new coat of paint as reason enough to exist.
The more you learn about Selene across the game’s gripping campaign, the easier it is to relate to or, at least, agree with her observation that “I deserve to be here.” That line is also more than a little apt, as it perfectly sums up just how simultaneously rewarding and punishing it is to live in the world of Returnal. Each time you make a perfect jump and air-dash to avoid a cluster of bullets, you earn your way forward, and each time you awkwardly fall off a cliff or gawk as an explosive squid flies at you, you earn the right to try it all over again. The terse thrill of all that fragility makes this a timeless adventure well worth returning to.