Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Even in the colorful sea that was ‘90s video game mascots, Crash Bandicoot always seemed to struggle to reach the heights of his more well-known peers.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The PlayStation original was a technically impressive and well-crafted platformer that set Naughty Dog on the path they’re on today. It was also a critical and commercial success, but following up the first three titles were a slew of sequels and spin-offs that seemed to make a diminishing impact on the public consciousness. By the late 2000s, it seemed Not Sonic®’s bright orange sun had set.
I don’t think anyone was ready for another Crash Bandicoot game almost 30 years after the original. I certainly wasn’t. I was even less ready to be so impressed by the inventiveness of this newest entry.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time isn’t just a solid return to form, it’s a creative and challenging game in its own right and a great example of how to bring a franchise back with style.
Though Crash 4 has certainly evolved from its 32-bit roots, the gameplay fundamentals are still mostly the same. You’ll run forward through colorful, linear levels, spinning to smash crates filled with wumpa fruit, all the while outwitting enemies and scrambling through bottomless pits and other similarly unlikely environmental hazards. Sometimes you’ll run toward the screen in reflex testing jumping puzzles, and occasionally you’ll navigate a side-scrolling segment.
The game transitions seamlessly between these playstyles, and though they are familiar to anyone who has played a platformer in the last few decades, there are a few new tricks that work to keep things fresh.
The most obvious is the inclusion of four masks that grant magical abilities to the bandicoot you’re controlling. There are four; one that phases obstacles in and out of existence, one that turns you into a whirling tornado with a mean double jump, and another that allows you to reverse gravity. My personal favorite grants you the ability to slow down time, which becomes increasingly useful as the complexity of the levels continue to increase.
And things do get complex...more on difficulty shortly.
These masks put a neat twist on the fundamental gameplay and are used to great effect throughout. Though there’s not much here we haven’t seen before in other games, these ability-granting masks allow the developers to craft some truly interesting, and deviously difficult, platforming challenges that help the game feel continually fresh.
Not So Timeless Characters
The story deserves little attention; apologies to the legion of Crash lore fans out there. It’s fine for what it is, with a few clever jokes that land and several that don’t, and it’s rarely obnoxious. The time travel twist results in some fun self-referential hijinks that longtime fans of the series will likely enjoy, but mostly it’s just a few cutscenes to stitch the levels together. That’s perfectly fine.
I’ll freely admit I’m not Crash’s primary demographic, but I found him by far the most irritating part of the game. I was relieved when I discovered the option to switch between Crash and his less-obnoxious sister Coco. They have the same abilities, so there’s no punishment for doing so.
One of the more interesting gameplay tweaks, other than the masks, is the inclusion of other playable characters. Though you’ll play as Crash or Coco the majority of the time, there are other series mainstays that show up in the main campaign and throughout the adventure in optional side missions.
Each of these characters has unique abilities that substantially change the way you traverse levels. Dingodile’s bizarre vacuum allows for sucking up and shooting objects, as well as a longer, more sustained hover jump. Tawna’s strength allows you to be more aggressive with enemies, and her hookshot mixes up traversal, while Neo Cortex’s raygun transforms enemies into a variety of platforms, resulting in some interesting platforming puzzles.
These segments never change the DNA of the gameplay, but like the masks, they contribute to the impression of always doing something a little different.
While Crash 4 isn’t breaking any boundaries in terms of visual realism or graphical experimentation, it does have some of the most visually compelling level designs I’ve encountered in some time. Each stage brims with loving attention to detail; from the unique death animations of each enemy to the creative implementation of environmental obstacles.
One of the best examples of this environmental storytelling is on a pirate ship level, where the spiked platforms consist of hungry prisoners brandishing pointy forks and knives through their jail cells.
It’s a small thing but demonstrates an eye for detail and thoughtfulness that is appreciated. Almost every level is full of touches like these. The enemy designs are consistently interesting as well, and even if their behavior is predictable, I always looked forward to seeing what quirky antagonists the next stages would bring.
Though many of these locales are familiar (gasp, an ice level!) others are truly unique. The alien world is rife with fascinating and truly spectacular background detail, and a set of stages that take place during an undead Mardi Gras parade stand out as particularly inventive.
Not as Easy as it Looks
It’s a good thing the stages are so pretty because you’ll likely be seeing them many, many times.
The original Crash games were never known for being easy, but this one is difficult even by those standards, and that difficulty is a bit at odds with the colorful sensibilities and the youthful sense of humor.
From surprisingly early on the game requires quick reactions and the ability to think on the fly as you move through increasingly complex obstacles. This could potentially be frustrating, but the fact you’ll be dying plenty is offset by the lack of load times between deaths.
Dying 20 times in a row to a particularly difficult jump is far less onerous if you immediately start back at the last checkpoint, and checkpoints here are fairly generous. You may be repeating the same sections, but you won’t be waiting around for a chance to do so, and that makes it far less irritating.
There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, especially if the game is mechanically competent. Luckily, Crash 4 is mostly fair. It has high standards for player execution, but the controls are responsive enough that it was rare that I died for something that wasn’t a mistake on my part. There’s also a hint of adaptive difficulty. There were definitely times where the game took pity on me and moved a checkpoint a bit closer than it was the last time I perished. I was grateful.
While there were occasional perspective issues involving the background and foreground depth, I almost always felt frustrated with myself, not the game. That was until the level before the final boss, where inventiveness gives way to sadism. I’d rather not say how many times I died in that final section. Too many. Way too many.
I played through the main campaign in standard mode, which allows for infinite retries when you reach a checkpoint. If you’re a true masochist you can attempt Retro Mode, where you have limited lives per level. If you lose them all, it’s back to the beginning.
“That’s how games used to be!” I hear the purists cry. While that’s true, expectations have changed since then. I appreciate the quality of life concessions, and the fact they left the option in there for those who want to undertake the challenge is an elegant way to keep everyone happy.
It’s About Replayability
While it’s a fairly straightforward and linear game, Crash 4 heavily encourages replay by design.
Each stage has a time trial mode that allows you to replay a level in an attempt to earn gems that unlock new skins and other bonuses. Gems are obtained by achieving goals like smashing every box in a level or going far off the beaten path into even more dangerous areas. I didn’t even attempt most of these after the first few levels, but the inclusion of the gems act almost like another layer of difficulty. The extra challenges are easily bypassed by those who are content with the not-inconsiderable default difficulty but are there for the truly dedicated.
There are also several side levels that explore the events through the eyes of other characters, an interesting throwback mode, and even a multiplayer mode that encourages local play with controller handoff.
There’s plenty here beyond just bouncing through the main campaign for those who want it.
A Surprisingly Good Time
While Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time never strives for much beyond a refinement of the tried-and-true Crash formula, it achieves this artfully, and that’s commendable. Revitalizing a franchise this old is a tall order and has been tried before far less successfully. Crash’s gameplay may be familiar, but it’s still fundamentally compelling even decades later.
The game may appear simple, but beneath that facade is a polished, well-made platformer that oozes creativity. The difficulty may be off-putting for some, but the concessions to modern sensibilities and creativity on display here make this a trip through time worth taking.