I have to admit, I was not on the Crash Bandicoot bandwagon back in the day. I picked up my OG PlayStation towards the end of its life, meaning I had scooted by all of the flagship releases that defined the peak of its existence. However, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy helped to both humble me, and get me up to speed.
This meant that Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time felt like me finally fitting in with the Crash crowd; they were hungry for new content, and we were all on even footing as we eagerly awaited one of those new-fangled ‘reboot’ sequels (you know the ones, where they pretend other sequels didn’t really happen).
Crash and Coco seem pretty chipper considering the number of times I have accidentally murdered them
So how juicy is this Wumpa fruit? Thankfully, Crash 4 oozes at every seam with sequel-driven improvements. The remastered/remake trilogy felt entirely faithful to what you would expect from a modern-era Crash remake, but Crash 4 is the upgrade/update that it truly needed to really flex some 2020 marsupial muscle. The character designs have had some rough edges smoothed out, and the cartoonish expressions and animations are just so damn charming I can’t help but smile every time they are on screen. Even when I totally beef a level and choose to restart it, I can’t bring myself to skip the mini cutscene of Crash and Coco surveying the landscape and getting ready.
This encapsulates how finishing a level feels
And beef those levels I did. This game is no picnic – do not let the bright colours and Saturday-morning aesthetic fool you – Crash 4 is an almost pernicious beast, seeking to feed on your frustration and take you back to platforming school. My initial few hours with the title were a slow descent into madness – I expected a challenge, but even my N. Sane Trilogy primer left me at odds with what I was seeing. Surely I could not be THIS bad? The second bonus level alone left me fuming to the point where I gently put my controller down and stared out my window for a few minutes to ponder the meaning of life.
The feeling of pure elation as you master a section is paramount to what makes the game so rewarding to play.
It was at this moment I looked inward. Crash 4 is hard, but what kind of HARD is it? It’s easy to spit the word BULLSHIT through gritted teeth the forth, or even fortieth time you miss a Venus flytrap lilypad – but in reality I quickly understood I wasn’t playing the game correctly. The game is challenging, and the very nature of challenge is that you must rise to it. So I took a deep breath, chilled out, and…played better.
My deaths per level dipped from 30+ to closer to 12 – and my anger quotient dipped dramatically. I was finally back on track to enjoying what the game has to offer me – and that was quite a lot, really.
Time travel is a great gimmick for games because it allows the developers to do whatever they feel like in regards to characters, environments and even narrative. It does run the risk of feeling lazy however, when you get a trite carousel of time-based locales that offer nothing beyond aesthetic. In this instance the Toys for Bob crew have packed a truly phenomenal amount of character into every place you visit. Each is packed with a creative plethora of enemies and hazards to ‘enjoy’, with the theme of each world bleeding off the screen. When I stepped foot into the first experience, the Mad Max-esque vista of The Hazardous Wastes (2084), I was actually wondering how they’d manage to top it – I was fairly sure the game had already peaked with its radioactive Australian wasteland. But trekking across the dimensional map, every new locale was just as thrilling – and I was stoked to find the game will actually give you reasons to revisit old areas to experience them again.
Mechanically, the game plays like a Crash game – even the more modern segments feel right at home amongst its furry DNA. The addition of an indicator that displays under your character when jumping is an inspired choice for my gnarled, withered platforming hands. They even included an option for the sicko purists amongst us to even turn it off if they want a more challenging time. I was even delighted to see that the title shipped with an option for a ‘modern’ play mode, which eschews lives in favour of unlimited attempts at a level from the last checkpoint – a massive help for the discerning reviewer who is already past his deadline. But don’t despair! The ‘retro’ option is available for anyone who feels more at home with a game over screen.
Beyond these staple improvements, the true standout across Crash 4 is definitely how beautifully the new mask mechanics have been weaved in. My entire repertoire of existing Crash skills were elevated and challenged with all manner of gravity trickery, dimension swapping and …flying…tornado-ing (via dark matter?) to turn every section into a daring foray of creativity and imminent bandicoot death. Fantastically, each time a new mask is introduced the game treats you to a slow and steady ramp up in the applications of its mechanics – peaking as you eventually end up with an effective open-book exam on how it should be used. Simple floating jumps across a handful of platforms dial themselves way up to skipping massive portions of certain death as you madly spin to some far off crate, only to bounce off it and magically tornado yourself to a platform even further away than that. The feeling of pure elation as you master such a section is paramount to what makes the game so rewarding to play.
Welcome to Tawna town
You can even flex some creative gameplay muscle via the additional characters that crop up from time to time, giving both Crash and Coco a moment to catch their breath and perhaps give you a little variety. I really can’t rave enough about everything Tawna. Her redesign and playstyle both suit me in ways I was delighted to discover, and when it is shown that her levels are based around her secretly helping Crash and Coco via background intervention, I was sold in a big way. I left the entire experience asking one question – dedicated Tawna Bandicoot game when?
The level design is tight as a drum, and as you trek through these vistas you will be tested in all ways of the platforming arts. However, I must direct my ire at the perspective involved for a handful of jumps that try to incorporate the need for an angled leap between foreground and background. The game shifts quite obviously between long trekking sections that continue ever ‘upwards’ as you run on the ground – and at times will present the action in an almost side-scroll-y platform-y way. Then rarely, the call will come to shift from one to the other – and at times this can incorporate something I have coined as ‘the diagonal jump’. Effectively leaping across a strange and unfamiliar direction in this game is the only mechanic that I had trouble blaming myself for. Quite often I would perform a leap of faith in the direction I imagined the game needed me to go – only to find I have either fallen short entirely, or nearly overshot the desired landing zone. I can safely admit to many of my deaths being achieved in this manner, and it is one area of the game that I can’t quite agree with – though it could well be fixed with a tiny camera shuffle to better communicate distance.
Wait, do masks even HAVE butts?
Boss fights in particular are a massive highlight, with creative mechanics and a healthy dose of humour present in each. My particular favourite came early on, weaving in a set of duck and weave elements against a giant drumming robot – and felt a lot like I was stuck on a Guitar Hero fretboard, dodging incoming notes. It was a perfectly balanced challenge that provided a beautiful testing ground for what I had learned so far. Moments of victory are deftly woven into brilliant cutscenes that just have a stellar amount of work put into them – the voice work in particular is of a very high pedigree.
The game even touts an impressive selection of replay options, with twisted game modes that completely change existing levels’ appearance via flipping and filtering them to ramp up a new challenge. All this before you even take a look at the metrics on hand that describe how terribly you have performed at past levels, with the carrot dangle of completing them better to unlock gorgeous character skins. And there are a ton of these skins – however, I have managed to unlock a handful …for I am a Trash Bandicoot.
A boss that drums? Might be some …cymbalism here
The game is gorgeous, sounds fantastic and ends up being a truly masterful platformer. The biggest hurdle with Crash 4 is coming to terms with the fact that your frustrations are very likely born out of your own complacent playstyle.
It’s like waiting for delicious food to cool down. Sure, you can recklessly rush into it – but you’ll find your enjoyment being pretty hampered. But take your time – maybe blow a little – and the situation changes to a much more chill outcome.
Unless it’s a diagonal jump. They can just fuck off.
Reviewed on PS4 // Review code supplied by publisher