Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review: An N.Ticing Challenge

Growing up I have always been a fan of the mascot platformers, this, for me, began with Sonic the Hedgehog. However, this fandom really came into being throughout the PS1 era, with the likes of Spyro, Rayman and of course, Crash Bandicoot. The goodwill put in place by Naughty Dog was enough to keep me purchasing future titles in the Crash Bandicoot series, up to about Crash Twinsanity, it was at this point that enough was enough, I couldn’t take it anymore. Back when I was younger I even thought Wrath of Cortex was good, with only Crash Boom Bang making me start to question what was going on with the series. At this point, there were other, more consistent series which demanded my attention, Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, etc. The days of the Bandicoot were over.

Imagine my excitement when both Crash and Spyro got their own remake trilogies, alongside Crash Team Racing (which is better than Mario Kart). We were finally getting the resurgence that kids in my demographic have been waiting for.

Now, Crash is back, with the sequel to Warped that we all originally hoped for. The main question is, with years of development in the platforming genre through the likes of Celeste, Super Meat Boy and Super Mario Odyssey – is this old marsupial even still relevant?  Will Crash 4 just rely on nostalgia to keep fans happy? Can a traditional platformer be worth £50? Let’s answer all of these right now. 

Time to get Canonical

The story picks up right where Crash Bandicoot Warped left off, with the villains all trapped in their pocket dimension. From here they are able to escape using the power of Uka Uka, who is surprisingly absent for the rest of the game – unleashed upon the world to cause some interdimensional shenanigans.

Crash then has to set out on adventure to gather the four ‘quantum masks’ and send the bad guys packing. It isn’t exactly Inception, but it is pretty fun and the dialogue is sometimes a bit funny. That’s about all I can say for the story. I will give it credit for not resting on the laurels of nostalgia however. Outside of the first section of the game which basically gets this out of the system, there are very few references that aren’t well thought-out. There is a reference to the Bandicoot being chosen over a wombat for example, something well documented by Naughty Dog, with Crash almost being titled ‘Willy Wombat’.

Bright and Playful, Hiding Teeth

The first thing you’ll notice from the screenshots throughout this review is that the old darker palette of the original trilogy is gone, instead, Toys for Bob has opted for a brighter, more plastic-y aesthetic. This is understandable as it looks extremely similar in style to the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, and I suspect the all but confirmed Spyro 4 will also be painted in this style. The colours all pop, in motion it is bright and bustling with personality whilst never being to busy for the player to be unsure of what is going on. It nails that balance. Clarity is essential in a title like this to ensure that the platforming challenges feel fair – a criticism of the N Sane trilogy, clearly taken to heart with the development of this new title.

The menus all look fairly bare bones however, there isn’t too much personality here. All of the buttons and options you would like are present and correct, they just look quite lifeless, a stark contrast to the rest of the title. The production value is also felt in the cutscenes, which are fairly scarce, but when they show up, it is nice. I never felt like there was much cohesion or build up to some of the new masks or bosses – they would just sometimes show up, I don’t know if there was cut content or something. This isn’t why you are playing these games though, so this criticism holds very little weight compared to the rest of what I am going to discuss.

How Does it Feel to Jump? Pretty Good.

When you boot up the game for the first time, after signing all of the weird Activision legal documents that you will need your attorney to review, you are presented with a choice – Modern or classic? This basically means that you are opting in to whether or not you want ‘lives’ to be a thing. You’re going to want to go ahead and click ‘modern’ on that because this game is hard as heck. Trust me.

Crash 4 chooses to operate on a ‘world map’ structure found in the first game, or the Donkey Kong Country series rather than the ‘warp rooms’ found in the sequels. This is curious as it allows for the story to take a more prominent role and provides a more cohesive world, but it does restrict player choice. If you are struggling with a particular level, tough luck, “git gud”. I always liked the warp rooms and they are something that was quintessentially Crash Bandicoot to me, as daft as it sounds, it did set it apart from other games in the genre.

One of the first, and greatest additions to Crash 4 is the use of ‘enhanced shadows’. This essentially places a big, bold ring, underneath your Bandicoot so you always know where you are in relation to what is beneath you. This is absolutely genius and it makes me wonder why this hasn’t been a ‘best practice’ since 1997. I love this because it allows for the trickier sections to still feel fair, there is no long any guess work going into these leaps of faith, making it far less frustrating when you do fail. Which you will, lots. It just never feels bad and that is one of my highest praises for this game, it rarely stops being fun (if you play it like a normal human, if you’re a completionist, it might break you).

Another decision which I really appreciate is that you begin the game as a fully powered up Crash. You don’t need to reach certain bosses or anything to unlock staples such as the double jump or body slam. This lets the challenges become more interesting right from the very start, any new abilities and characters are just gravy on top of this already succulent roast. The double jump also feels brilliant, especially when compared to the N Sane Trilogy. Crash is able to utilise this second jump at any point in his jump arc and it just feels so much more fluid than in the remakes. This again, makes you feel in control, reducing frustration and providing more challenge within the fun.

Variety is the spice of life

So, I mentioned before about new characters and abilities. Let’s start with the abilities. I’m sure if you have seen any promotional media for this game you are aware of the ‘quantum masks’, these provide some pretty neat abilities such as slowing down time or flipping gravity. All of these can be combined to make some gruelling gauntlets in the last few levels. None of these abilities are particularly innovative, but they are executed so well here and in such frequency that they keep it fresh and interesting without ever outstaying their welcome. I was also a fan of the dynamic soundtrack that accompanied each of their abilities and their unique versions of the iconic mask “hoobrigidah” chant is a nice touch.

New characters are also found here, you can now play as Cortex, Tawna (Crash’s girlfriend from the first game) and Dingodile, a childhood favourite of mine. These characters all have their unique quirks which allows for the level designers at Toys for Bob to flex their muscles with different skillsets available. These offer up further variations on the platforming you have come to love. This means that there are no awkward flying or motorbike levels which control like arse, and instead it is all building on the already fun platforming core. It is another way in which Toys for Bob have taken feedback and built what is undoubtedly, the best the series has to offer.

These new characters also offer side missions which link back to the main levels of the game. This provides some nice comedic relief and allows you to see the story behind why certain rocks fall to block your path, or particular a boat you were planning to explore exploded before your eyes. This does lead to some repetition when completing these levels multiple times for the many collectibles though, which isn’t too bad on your regular playthrough, but like I mentioned, if you want to collect everything, it might be a bit of a nightmare.

A little sidenote, is it just me that feels like Dingodile’s checkpoints are just a little too far apart? Or do I need to get into pro gamer mode?

Levels Are Much Bigger Than the Originals, but Well Designed

The level design on display here is pretty nifty, I have to say. All of the locales found in the game are unique enough to have their own flavour. Although, with the premise being different dimensions, they certainly could’ve got a bit more whacky with it. There are so many possibilities here, what about a world where Cortex did take over the universe, how would that look? There are so many punchlines there. What about a world where wumpa fruit is a class A drug? What about the world where ‘Willy the Wombat’ was actually a thing? I don’t know, I just hope this is something which is revisited in the future. The levels are all replayable through various means as you hunt down different collectibles and complete different challenges. One level requires you to complete the entire stage without breaking a single box (in a call-back to Crash 2). However, the level is designed so well, you wouldn’t even think that was possible until it is hinted at after your first completion.

Bosses are also present here and they’re all an entertaining romp. Some people may consider the frequent checkpoints in each stage too generous, but I welcomed them. Some of the phases are brutal, and the length of these battles would be a total slog without their inclusion. The designs of the battles themselves are all notable, with Cortex’s in particular being the standout, I’m a sucker for a remixed music track from my youth. It is probably too soon to say, but nothing will beat out the boss selection in Crash Bandicoot Warped, and that isn’t a slight on what is on offer here, just an observation.

Collectibles All Over the Shop

Something that Crash 4 certainly doesn’t have a shortage of is challenges and collectibles. Every level has 12 gems available, these are awarded for completing various tasks such as breaking every crate in a level, finding a hidden gem or completing a stage without dying more than 3 times. On top of this, you have access to ‘flashback tapes’ (more on this later) that require reaching a certain point in a stage without dying at all. As with all Crash games, time trial relics are also present and correct. Needless to say, you’ll have to complete each level multiple times to get every trinket on offer here.

One thing Toys For Bob could improve, just for quality of life, would be the reviving system. As it stands, it is functional for regular playthroughs of the game, however, when getting those no death gems, it can be a bit of a pain. For example, when attempting to clear one of the bonus stages while getting all the boxes, this is likely to take you multiple attempts – There should be an option to respawn within the bonus stage, rather than just outside and having to jump on the platform and sit through the loading each time. Similarly, there are the flashback tapes and ‘no death’ gems, these, as you’d expect, require you to get through levels unscathed. However, if you die before the first checkpoint, your death counter still increases, despite if you completed your next run you would have made the entire course from start to finish – this means that every death requires going back to the level select screen and suffering through two loading screens. An option to turn checkpoint crates off or not count deaths before the first checkpoint would be a simple solution to this issue.

Getting the Crash for Your Buck

The benefit of the collectibles – other than bragging rights is new skins for Crash and Coco. These are all charming and cool in their own way, you have your classic Crash in his motorbike costume, a pirate outfit, robot suit, rave get-up, there is certainly something for everyone. Best of all, none of these cosmetics are included in a revolving storefront like that which was found in the Crash Team Racing remake. If someone has the bat outfit, they earned it, they’re a true gamer.

Once you’ve earned these flashback tapes, you will have access to the retro levels which document a series of experiments Cortex put Crash and Coco through before the events of the first game. They are filled with some legitimately funny dialogue, and of course, challenge. I loved these. They had more of a puzzle feeling than the traditional level and breaking every crate once again becomes an addictive challenge. These are made even more immersive with the inclusion of the “Classic Crash” skin.

But wait, there is more. Following some outsourcing to Beenox, there are also mirrored levels, each with their own unique art styles. These, whilst being the same levels played through before have unique quirks such as being black and white until you spin colour onto the scene, pop-art, or even pixelated. Each of these levels also have their own gems, essentially doubling the collectibles on offer. Sadly, there isn’t much mechanically different with these levels bar a few tweaks, this could lead some players to feel like this is padding out the length a little. I don’t feel this way though, it feels that good to play, I don’t mind playing through these levels even more, these minor tweaks are just a bonus. Ultimately, this is a little shallow. It isn’t as fleshed out as the remixed music levels in something like Rayman Legends.

Toys For Bob are able to wring so much value out of their level design by offering these challenges to players, because there is such an abundance, the choice is yours whether to pursue these too. For instance, there is no way in hell that I am going to break myself in half doing all of the time trials, that just would not be fun to me. All of the gems however, I’ll give that a good crack.

Does Crash “WOAH”!?

On the whole I am loving my time with Crash 4, it honestly feels like the series has continued all these years. By retaining the tough-as-nails roots of the franchise and sprinkling in some modern touches, you have something that is both rewarding and fun. A tough but fair platformer which never makes the deaths or challenge feel like the game’s fault – it is always on you. Whilst never being completely innovative, all of the elements here mesh together so well, there isn’t really much to complain about. This is the comeback we all wanted, and I can’t wait to see more!

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