Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review

Crash Bandicoot’s recent resurgence has to be the best reboot in video game history (one could argue that title belongs to Sonic Mania, but that wonderful game was followed-up by the dreadful Sonic Forces mere months later, somewhat negating the goodwill Mania created). There have been a few great video game franchise revivals over the years – such as when Retro Studios picked up the Donkey Kong Country mantle – but they were revived continuations. As far as hitting a complete reset button goes, Crash Bandicoot went from a washed-up mascot to once again becoming a viable franchise as if we were back in its heyday.

The original “unofficial” mascot of the Playstation brand has had a slow burn of a build-up to his first brand-new game in over a decade. Back in his absent years, Playstation 4 commercials featured background cameos and references to the face of Sony’s early days in the gaming market. In 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End featured a segment where series’ hero Nathan Drake played a stage from the very first Crash Bandicoot on his Sony Playstation in a fun meta moment (the Uncharted series being created by Naughty Dog, the original creators of Crash Bandicoot…back when they actually made video games). This lead into 2017’s release of Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy, a compilation of Naughty Dog’s original trio of Crash Bandicoot titles recreated from the ground-up for the PS4. Though the games showed some aging in certain areas (namely some tricky perspectives, these were released in 3D gaming’s infancy after all), the N. Sane Trilogy proved that fun itself never ages, and showed that there was still an audience for the franchise. Then in 2019, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled (a remake of Naughty Dog’s final Crash game, one of the few kart racers that is held in a similar regard to Mario’s) was released, and pushed the boundaries for what to expect in a video game remake.

Now seemed like the appropriate time to finally pull the trigger on a brand-new Crash Bandicoot game. And that’s exactly what happened when Toys For Bob announced they were making Crash Bandicoot 4, fittingly subtitled It’s About Time, which released at the beginning of October 2020.

That “4” in the title is important, as it’s the game’s way of telling players outright that this is a continuation of the original trilogy, ignoring the games that were released post-PSOne/pre-N. Sane Trilogy.

I remember way back when I played Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex (the “first fourth” Crash Bandicoot title) it was obvious that the magic just wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t the worst platformer you could find at the time, but it was uneventful enough that from that point on, I had kind of forgotten how much I enjoyed Crash Bandicoot back in its heyday. Unlike something like Super Mario, which has proven timeless, it seemed Crash had his time in the sun, and it was over. The series was destined to be a fond memory of the past.

The N. Sane Trilogy was more than just a nostalgia-fueled remake (though it was that too), but a launching pad to start the series over, which continued with the Crash Team Racing remake. Now, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time successfully follows-up this relaunch in such a way that it makes you forget everything that happened to the series after the PSOne era. And in the end, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proves to be the best game in the series.

Ignoring the gimmicks of later entries, Crash Bandicoot 4 utilizes the same kind of platforming mechanics and stage design of the original trilogy (though the game was built from the ground-up, and doesn’t utilize any assets from the N. Sane Trilogy). It’s a 3D platformer, but it plays more like a 2D one. Crash Bandicoot (or his sister Coco, who is playable in any of Crash’s stages from the get-go) run, jump and spin across linear levels, with the camera usually following behind them (though there are also sections with a straight-up 2D perspective, as well as the series’ “chase” levels, which sees the player character running towards the screen). Along the way, they break crates (think Donkey Kong’s barrels) and collect Wumpa Fruits (akin to Mario’s coins or DK’s bananas).

While I have to admit there are times when the perspective can be a bit tricky, leading to some unfair deaths, for the most part, Crash Bandicoot 4 is an utter delight to play. Yes, those occasional trickier perspectives prove that Crash’s formula isn’t as timeless as that of Mario, but Crash Bandicoot 4 is proof that fun gameplay and strong level design make up for any shortcomings.

That isn’t to say that this is merely the same old Crash Bandicoot with new levels, as Crash Bandicoot 4 makes quite a few meaningful additions and adjustments to the proceedings. The most immediate during gameplay being that Crash/Coco’s shadow is made more prominent, with a targeting reticle around it, which may sound like a small detail, but it greatly benefits Crash Bandicoot’s unique perspectives of 3D platforming.

Another change occurs before you even start the game, with players able to choose between “Retro” and “Modern” play styles. Retro plays things true to Crash’s history, utilizing extra lives and game overs (which will send the player back to the beginning of the current level, no matter their progress), and also means collecting one-hundred Wumpa Fruits results in an additional life. Modern mode does away with lives, meaning you’ll always be revived at the most recent checkpoint no matter how many times you die. Wumpa Fruits still have a purpose however, as collecting 40, 60 and 80 percent of a stage’s Wumpa will reward the player with gems (more on that in a minute). If you select one play style but find yourself wishing you’d picked the other, you can switch between Retro and Modern mode at any time in between stages, so thankfully your file isn’t locked onto a set play style.

Between the two, I recommend starting out with the Modern mode, because Crash Bandicoot 4 certainly lives up to the series’ infamous difficulty. In fact, I dare say it’s the most difficult Crash Bandicoot title since the original (though thankfully, it’s much better designed than the first game). But if you just need that classic Crash challenge, the Retro mode is always there. It’s actually a very nice addition to have an option like this.

Another new element comes in the form of N. Verted mode, which is essentially mirror mode – with the stages flipped in reverse – with the fun added bonus of each world’s N. Verted levels boasting a different art style: One world is in black and white, with Crash and Coco’s spins adding color to the world, while another takes on the aesthetics of a comic book, to the point that sound effects appear as on-screen words like “Pow!” and “Bam!” in the tradition of 1960’s Batman. Sadly, because each art style is confined to their respective world, the N. Verted mode doesn’t quite match up to the similar “Tonic” features from 2019’s Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, but it’s still a fun twist that makes the traditional mirror mode a lot more worthwhile.

 

A more gameplay-focused addition comes in the form of the Quantum Masks, four spiritual voodoo masks who represent time and space, who serve as new power-ups during certain points in the game. One mask allows the player to phase certain objects in and out of existence (you could say these objects can be placed in categories A and B, with the B objects being ethereal when A is active, and vice versa). This alone feels like a wonderful addition to a platformer, and makes for some of the game’s most creative challenges. A second mask utilizes dark matter to give Crash and Coco a superpowered perpetual spin attack. This is admittedly a bit hard to learn, as it makes the controls feel oddly floaty and restrained at the same time, but it also adds some extra variety to the game. The third mask allows the player to slow down time for a few seconds, with Crash/Coco being the only thing that still moves at normal speed. This power leads to some especially interesting obstacles (and even allows Crash to touch the series’ dreaded Nitro crates without instantly exploding). Finally, the last mask changes gravity, allowing Crash and Coco to flip upside-down and walk on ceilings, for a little Super Mario Galaxy-esque level design.

“Slowing down time to jump across falling platforms of ice is the best kind of stressful.”

Each mask feels like a welcome addition (even if the second mask’s spinning ability feels like the developers ran out of time/space-themed ideas), and they really change up the gameplay in some truly inventive ways. Some might be disappointed at how situational the masks are (as soon as their section is done, the masks are removed automatically), but honestly, with the way the level structure works in Crash Bandicoot, I don’t really think they could have been implemented any other way.

My favorite new addition, however, are the stages that center around different characters. While Crash and Coco are the default playable characters in the main stages, three additional characters become playable in the forms of Crash’s archenemy Dr. Neo Cortex, Dingodile, the half-dingo half-crocodile mutant who served as a boss in Crash Bandicoot Warped, and an alternate universe version of Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend from he first game.

“I admit I’m not a fan of Tawna’s new hairstyle. The whole “bright colored hair spiked to one side” has been done to death in video games.”

Tawna plays closest to Crash and Coco, albeit with an additional “hook shot” weapon that allows her to grab and latch onto things at a distance. Cortex is fittingly the most different, coming equipped with a blaster that can transform enemies into platforms (one blast for a solid platform, two blasts for a bouncy, gelatinous platform, with a third blast reverting the enemy to its standard self, if things need readjusting). Though Cortex lacks the double jump of the bandicoots, he instead has rocket boots that allow him to dash forward in a short burst which, when combined with the enemies-to-platforms mechanic, really gives Cortex’s stages a strong puzzle element. My favorite has to be Dingodile, however. Already the series’ most outrageous character just by being what he is, Dingodile not only attacks with his tail, but also has a vacuum gun that sucks up crates by the dozens, can throw TNT crates at enemies and objects, and gives him a little hover/double jump combo (akin to Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).

There is an unfortunate caveat to these characters’ stages though. While their introductory stages are entirely their own, all of their subsequent levels are only theirs up until a point, at which case it switches over to Crash/Coco, turning into one of their prior stages with small tweaks.

You see, during the main stages, you’ll occasional come across an event that leaves Crash or Coco scratching their head (like an explosion taking out a group of enemies before you can even approach them). The Tawna, Cortex and Dingodile stages present the story from their point of view, and how their actions lead into the aforementioned “head-scratching” moments, which then segue into that previous stage from that moment, with a few changes to crate and enemy placement to mix things up.

While this is a fun twist at first, and equally fun to see how the other characters’ actions play into things, after a while you begin to really want the other characters to just have levels of their own. It’s a bit disappointing when a Dingodile level really starts to get going, only to abruptly end and switch over to something you already played as Crash. Maybe the game will get some DLC that can expand on the other characters, or perhaps we’ll eventually get a Crash Bandicoot 5 to do just that. But as of now, playing as the side characters in Crash Bandicoot 4 feels like a great new addition that’s only partly realized.

If, by now, you’re curious how all of this comes together – what with the bandicoots, alternate universe characters, evil scientists and dingo-crocodile hybrids – there actually is a story here. In fact, though it may not be a particularly story-heavy game, Crash Bandicoot 4 probably has the most elaborate plot in the series.

Though this is a direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot Warped, Crash Bandicoot 4 is appropriately set twenty-two years after its predecessor (if you’re wondering why none of the characters are older, it’s because it’s Crash Bandicoot – a series largely inspired by Loony Tunes and Animaniacs – I don’t think they’re aiming for realism here). Dr. Cortex, along with the evil voodoo spirit Uka-Uka and the time traveling villain Dr. Nefarious Tropy (N. Tropy), have been trapped in a pocket dimension between time and space for all these years. After countless attempts to escape (on Uka-Uka and N. Tropy’s part, they remark that Cortex has done nothing but whine for the entirety of their banishment), Uka-Uka finally manages to tear a hole in space and time. Though the effort costs Uka-Uka all his energy, sending him into a deep slumber (and writing him out of the picture rather unceremoniously, I have to admit), it allows Dr. Cortex and Dr. N. Tropy to escape, with the latter building a space station that can replicate the tear in space and time created by Uka-Uka to reach other dimensions in a plot to conquer the multiverse. Dr. Cortex, becoming something of N. Tropy’s assistant, in turn recruits his own former assistants Dr. N. Brio and Dr. N. Gin to build an army to help out with their plot.

N. Tropy’s tampering with time and space results in the Quantum Masks reappearing, an event which catches the attention of Aku-Aku (Uka-Uka’s benevolent older brother, and something like Crash’s Obi-Wan Kenobi). So Aku-Aku sets Crash out on an adventure to awaken and unite the Quantum Masks in order to put an end to N. Tropy’s plot and bring balance back to the multiverse.

It’s a simple plot, but one that I appreciate for changing up the series’ formula in a few ways, most notably by promoting N. Tropy to the role of primary antagonist. He was always my favorite Crash Bandicoot villain, and I always found it weird how he was introduced in Warped as one third of the main villain trifecta (along with Uka-Uka and the returning Cortex), but then was taken out midway through the game. And then when The Wrath of Cortex reduced his role to a stage obstacle, suffice to say it seemed like the character had missed potential. So it’s pretty cool to see the series continue after all these years and not simply bring back the Crash vs. Cortex formula (though that’s still here too), but effectively redeem N. Tropy and make him a better villain than ever.

Sure, the plot is nothing too fancy, and there’s a couple of elements that could use more fleshing out (particularly when it comes to N. Brio, who – given the rebooted nature of the game – was last seen turning over a new leaf in Crash Bandicoot 2. He even addresses Crash and Coco as his friends in this game, but is still working for Cortex, so I don’t know what that’s about). But it’s a fun little story that manages to find a way to hit a reset button on everything post-Warped while also paying tribute to the series’ entire history, even the less savory years.

On the downside, despite the inter dimensional nature of the plot, the actual levels seem more focused on the time travel aspect (a concept which Warped already tackled). There is a Mad Max-style world early on, and then a later world which I won’t spoil also plays off the different dimension theme, but most seem built around different places in different time periods. There’s a pirate world, ancient China world, and a dinosaur world. All cool themes, sure, but they don’t really come across as different dimensions. Hell, even the snow world (one of my favorites in the game) is referred to as “The 11th Dimension.” Again, snow and ice are always a great theme, but what’s “11th Dimension” about it?

There is another aspect to the game that sees things continue even after the main plot is resolved which I have mixed feelings about. This “epilogue” section can feel like an alternate idea Toys for Bob had pitched for the story of the game, and ended up tacking it on in addition to the main story just because they still wanted to use it in some capacity. On the other hand, it’s not like this is a serious game where such a story addition would come across as pointless bloat. When your franchise is as innately silly as Crash Bandicoot, you can kind of get away with these things.

I suppose these are all quibbles. I can’t imagine the story and themes are the main reasons someone would play a Crash Bandicoot game. The game succeeds where it really counts, gameplay. Crash Bandicoot 4 really does feel like the true continuation to Crash Bandicoot Warped I had nearly forgotten I’d waited twenty-two years for. It’s the classic Crash Bandicoot gameplay made fresh and new.

If you’re a completionist, Crash Bandicoot 4 also happened to be one of the deepest games I’ve played in that regard in quite some time. If you just want to complete the story, you can do that, but if you really want to get everything out of the game, you’ll stick with it long, long after the story is done.

The time trials from Warped reappear. After completing a stage, you can replay it and grab a clock at the start to begin that stage’s time trial. Breaking certain crates will award you precious seconds of time, and you can earn different relics (sapphire, gold and platinum) depending on how fast you complete a level.

In addition, every stage houses six gems. Three of which, as mentioned earlier, are earned by the amount of Wumpa Fruit you collect. A fourth gem is earned in the series’ traditional way of breaking every single crate in the level, while another is simply found hidden somewhere within the stage. The final gem is the hardest, and requires the player to only die three or less times on a stage to claim it (don’t worry, you can always start a stage over if need be). And yes, the N. Verted versions of the stages have six gems of their own (including the hidden gem in the level being in a different spot than its standard version).

The gems are used to unlock new character skins for Crash and Coco, which are a fun cosmetic change, but admittedly they may not be the strongest incentive for those who aren’t already completionists to replay the stages. And like the N. Verted visual styles, each character skin is locked onto a specific stage (get X amount of that level’s gem to unlock that skin) which can make collecting some of the skins a bit tedious. Unlocking the costumes by using the gems as currency may have been a more desirable way to go for some players.

If this weren’t enough already, some stages even house an item called a Flashback Tape, a floating VHS that you can only collect if you haven’t died up to that point. Each Flashback Tape unlocks its own bonus stage (accessible on the world map), which takes the player back to the days when Cortex was experimenting on Crash. The Flashback levels are particularly tough gauntlets that task the player with breaking every crate, which becomes much trickier than it sounds.

We’re still not done, believe it or not. Because if you’re a really hardcore Crash Bandicoot fan, there’s one last challenge the game has in store: N. Sanely Perfect Relics. As you may have guessed from their name, these are awarded for performing a perfect run on a level, meaning performing everything required to claim all of a level’s gems without dying. In a game that’s already pretty darned difficult, this is quite the steep challenge.

Of course, all these things are only there if you want to tackle them. They give Crash Bandicoot 4 a stronger sense of replay value than I’ve seen in some years. I often find myself dedicating an entire play session just to claiming a new gem or two.

“The game even includes a polar bear-riding stage a la Crash Bandicoot 2. This makes me so happy.”

This is all on top of an already great platformer filled with variety in gameplay, complemented by catchy music and the series’ oddly-satisfying sound effects. The occasional cheap death due to difficult perspectives and the unrealized potential of the additional playable characters are the game’s bigger drawbacks (because more Dingodile can only ever be a good thing), but they still don’t prevent Crash Bandicoot 4 from being one of the best platformers of recent years.

The N. Sane Trilogy may have brought Crash Bandicoot back. But Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time makes it feel like the series never left.

Crash’s comeback has certainly been the best in gaming I can remember. Now if only something similar could happen to Halo, Final Fantasy, Paper Mario and Sonic… again.

 

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