Many of the platforming game icons of the 90s went through a rough patch throughout the 2000s. Banjo Kazooie, Sonic the Hedgehog, Gex, Spyro the Dragon, Croc and Bubsy are just a few that tried to capture the throne of Mario and failed.
Yet, perhaps none reached such incredible heights before falling off the map like Crash Bandicoot.
The original titles developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation 1 sold extremely well and positioned Crash as the brand’s mascot. However, Naughty Dog lost the rights to the series in 2000 as it went multiplatform to a rapidly shifting cast of developers. It led to a saga of rushed out titles full of bugs and cut content, as well as strange redesigns of characters and gameplay styles.
Due to the lack of consistency and vision, sales declined and future games were critically panned until the series disappeared in 2008 after Crash: Mind Over Mutant.
It wasn’t until 2017 when Activision revived the franchise with the N-Sane Trilogy (a complete remake of the original Naughty Dog games) and a remake of Crash Team Racing in 2019. These collections reintroduced the bandicoot to fans new and old as well as proving its profitability.
Enter June 2020, the news of the first fully original Crash game dropped with tantalizing information regarding new playable characters, abilities and modes. The game released Oct. 2, 2020 and it’s about time to see if it lives up to the hype.
Time After Time
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is the true sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot: Warped, picking up after that games’ events. Series villains Dr. Neo Cortex, Dr. N. Tropey and evil ancient mask Uka Uka escape from interdimensional imprisonment and create a machine to disrupt the space-time continuum.
With this rift caused, it throws the world into disarray, forcing Crash and his sister Coco to go on a dimension-hopping adventure to stop Cortex and his minions with the help of four Quantum Masks.
Along the way, the duo crosses paths with Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend from the first game, making her first appearance since that title, and Dingodile, a longtime villain turned retiree that gets thrown into the chaos. You play as these characters as well, which is a lot of fun and adds some much needed variety to the gameplay.
The story is straightforward and doesn’t overstay its welcome, as the main driving force is the moment to moment gameplay.
I do wish we had more interactions between the Quantum Masks and our heroes, as Lani Loni, the first mask you meet, almost exclusively does all the talking and expository dialogue.
However, the dimension-crossing setting allows for a nice variety of levels to play through. It includes platforming staples, such as a prehistoric lava level, a futuristic metropolis and an ice world, as well as an industrial zone, post-apocalyptic wasteland, a bustling Mardi Gras cityscape and an alien planet.
Each world has about three to five levels which allows each theme to remain fresh and keep the pace quick.
Modernizing the Bandicoot
The gameplay is the natural progression from the old school Naughty Dog games. Players platform through hallway-like levels in a 3D space avoiding enemies, specific stage hazards and trying to break every box along the way.
Most levels have an overarching set of traps or gimmicks that become more intense as it goes on before reaching a final crescendo. Some areas feature Crash or Coco running away from an obstacle chasing them, or the bandicoots riding through hazardous terrain on an animal companion.
The formula still works after two decades, especially with some new elements being thrown in by developer Toys For Bob. This includes rail-riding, wall-running segments and the ability to warp reality with four new masks, each with their own powers.
This includes warping objects in and out of reality, using a supercharged spin move that allows Crash to glide, slowing down time for a few seconds and changing gravity to access new areas.
All of these additions are used sparingly, as the meat and potatoes of the game remain the traditional platforming. Crash’s move set is the same as Warped, with a jump, spin attack, slide and body slam.
Compared to earlier games, the moves are snappy and responsive to use. Crash’s jump has just the right amount of weight and bounce to it to ensure you can make mid-air adjustments.
The new playable characters (Tawna, Dingodile and Cortex) offer some nice variety, as Tawna has a hookshot that can break far away boxes, stun enemies and traverse throughout the level. Dingodile sports a spin attack as well as a vacuum that can suck up crates and enemies.
Cortex’s levels are the most unique as he shoots foes with his ray gun to turn them into platforms to jump on. It’s very much like a puzzle game and I really enjoyed trying to figure out the right solutions to them.
Each of these characters have their own level to introduce how they play and are later reintroduced in “context levels.” These explain how Crash and Coco get past certain obstacles in a few select previously completed levels.
However, I have a huge problem with how these are implemented. You get to play a short, fun brand new portion of the stage as Tawna, Dingodile or Cortex, and once you finish it, you have to complete the level from that point on as Crash or Coco with the only difference being the placement of crates. At that point, it just feels like padding. I’d much rather play keep the level short and sweet rather than replay a large chunk of a stage I’ve already beaten.
Another new addition is seeing Crash’s shadow (shown by a yellow outline) once you take it to the air. In levels where things can get cluttered, it is super useful to get clarity on where you will land.
In these ways not only is the presentation, story and scope upgraded from the Naughty Dog games, but the gameplay has received an upgrade in the favor of the player. However, this doesn’t mean that the game is a cakewalk.
N. Sanely Hard
You’ll need to get familiar with these controls and perfect your timing because there are a lot of things being thrown at you at once. Being able to time a jump properly, switch on a mask power and avoid nearby hazards while breaking a precariously placed box is a feat in certain levels.
While levels in the original trilogy were tough due to sometimes finicky controls and obstacles you couldn’t see coming, the intricate level design in this game will force you to think through patterns and take your time.
It will be frustrating to die early and often, but it never feels cheap and the catharsis that sets in after facing a difficult section makes it worthwhile. The main issue comes if you want to earn all the collectibles in the game.
These are in the form of gems and relics. Like the previous titles, relics are earned by running time trials of previously completed levels. I play them just for fun, but if you’re going for a gold relic, it’s gonna be a tough time.
Gems are earned a bit differently than prior games. There are six in each level and are earned through different objectives. Some involve collecting a certain percentage of the wumpa fruit (the Crash series’ equivalent to Mario’s coins) in the level, breaking every box, making it through the level dying only three or fewer times and finding one hidden in the level itself.
While it can be a challenge just to get from the beginning to the end of the level, going on a less than three deaths, 100 percent box breaking run is torture, and unless you’re a true completionist, I don’t recommend it. I gave up on getting all the gems about halfway through the game.
If you collect the proper amount of gems in each level, you unlock a skin for Crash or Coco. It’s a nice incentive to collect everything, but it gets unreasonably hard at the endgame when levels become super hard and the number of gems needed to get a costume increases. Yet, I will take this over paying real-life money for cosmetic items any day of the week.
Another addition is a choice of difficulty settings. For those that want to keep the spirit of the original games retro mode starts you with four lives, and whenever you run out it’s back to the start of the level.
Modern mode gets rid of lives entirely and will also throw you back to a checkpoint when you die. Like previous games, checkpoints can be added at different points and Aku-Aku masks will be given to the player if they perish too many times on a particular part of the stage.
This was a perfect compromise that will satisfy those that love the drama of running out of lives and earning bragging rights, as well as those that don’t want the needlessly frustrating challenge.
A Shiny New Bandicoot
Toys For Bob should be commended for the presentation of this game. Environments are lush and colorful while maintaining the zany cartoon style of the series. Everything pops out of the screen and backgrounds are full of nice details and easter eggs for fans of the series.
The cast of characters have also been redesigned from the N. Sane Trilogy to fit the new style and everything translates well. Some fans don’t appreciate it, but I understand the developer’s intent to make the franchise theirs and I think it looks good. Additionally, character animations are super expressive and allow for some solid comedic moments.
The game runs super smooth for me at about 60 frames per second, with just a handful of drops. Though this is understandable due to how many things can go on at one time.
In terms of sound, the game employs a quality voice cast as most of the actors from the N. Sane Trilogy return and have a lot more to do with their characters. The highlight for me is Richard Horvitz (known for Invader Zim, Psychonauts and the Destroy All Humans series) who plays Lani Loli, the main mask guiding the Bandicoots on their journey.
The soundtrack rocks as well, featuring some returning tracks from prior games and new songs that feature the familiar upbeat drum and synth beats that feel right at home with the series.
None of them are absolute bangers (save “Off Beat”), but the instrumentation is diverse and each one fits in perfectly with the stage themes.
Boom or Bust: The Verdict
Crash has come back with a vengeance. I honestly expected this game to be a hot mess trying to balance too many ideas and tweaking things that didn’t need to be fixed.
Yet I’m excited to report the exact opposite, as Toys For Bob’s appreciation for the franchise is clear with the attention to detail, nice references and easter eggs and maintaining the goofy spirit of the original games.
It reaches a happy medium between maintaining the challenge and playstyle of previous games while modernizing the experience and adding enough new mechanics to keep the bandicoot feeling fresh.
If you loved the N. Sane Trilogy or are just a fan of platforming games in general, seek out Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Be prepared for a beautiful, rewarding, challenging opus.