The past few years have been very interesting for Crash Bandicoot. Once the face of PlayStation and one of the most important franchises in gaming history, paving the way for PlayStation to become the meteoric success that it is, Crash’s history following Naughty Dog and Universal’s contract ending is…let’s just say, unbecoming of such an important series (at least if we pretend that Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t exist.) With a steady rollout of “meh” games for a full decade starting with 2000’s Crash Bash and ending with 2010’s Crash Bandicoot: Mind over Mutant, Crash Bandicoot just vanished off the face of the Earth. That is until the 2016 announcement of both Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Crash’s inclusion in Skylanders: Imaginators.
Let’s just say that when I reviewed Crash Bandicoot’s Thumpin’ Wumpa Island expansion for that particular game, I did not expect to be coming full circle four years later to review the bandicoot’s first brand new adventure in a decade with remakes of Crash Team Racing and the Spyro the Dragon trilogy already in rear view. But alas, here we are with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, developed by the same team as Skylanders: Imaginators and Spyro Reignited Trilogy at Toys for Bob. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, as the title suggests, positions itself as a direct sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, following a similar trend to film franchises, such as Halloween and Terminator, by retconning the past decade of mediocre Crash Bandicoot titles to offer a direct continuation of the design philosophies and gameplay style defined by Naughty Dog in the late 90s.
The outcome, however, is something so much more than a simple sequel to the original trilogy of PS1 platformers. Instead, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a celebration of Crash Bandicoot’s history, and instead of simply ignoring the less-than-excellent titles of the past two decades, Crash Bandicoot 4 shows them equal respect as it does the rest of the series. Essentially, what we have here isn’t just a love-letter to the Crash Bandicoot series but a triumphant actualization of everything a Crash Bandicoot game needs to be.
Picking up from the ending of 1998’s Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, It’s About Time begins with Dr. Neo Cortex and Dr. Nefarious Tropy accidentally opening a rift between dimensions. The two then devise a plan to conquer all dimensions, which Crash’s mask companion, Aku Aku, picks up on. After alerting Crash and Coco, the three meet an interdimensional mask called Lani-Lolli, who informs them that the Quantum Masks, responsible for keeping balance between dimensions, have been separated. This sends Crash and Coco on a quest to travel between dimensions and timelines to find them and stop the two evil scientists.
What follows are more than 40 pure platforming levels, each of which can be played with either Crash or Coco, both of whom share a move-set. Many fans will be happy to hear that It’s About Time is most comparable to Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back in that most of this adventure is pure 3D and 2D platforming with little-to-none of the mini-games and derivative gameplay styles that make arguing about Crash Bandicoot 3 being the best game in the trilogy common amongst fans to this very day. Better yet, Crash Bandicoot 4 is one of the most difficult 3D platformers to be released since the original trilogy. While its design definitely isn’t in line with the downright unfairness of the first game, Crash Bandicoot 4‘s level designs are brutal, with the game quickly throwing you some hard to judge jumps and level layouts.
Thankfully, some excellent quality of life adjustments have been made to make this title approachable to all types of players. From minor adjustments, such as a small highlighted shadow positioned underneath Crash to adjust your landings, to the more apparent introduction of “Retro” and “Modern” modes, these adjustments allow the player to choose between the tough as nails life system of the original game, which includes collecting 100 wumpa fruit to gain an extra life and receiving a game over upon losing them all, or ditching the life system altogether instead for more consistent checkpoints. The addition of the Quantum Masks also keeps things unique, with their abilities ranging from allowing the player to see hidden crates, perform a fierce spin attack that allows for extra air time when jumping across long gaps, shifting gravity and slowing time.
These additions alone would have made Crash Bandicoot 4 the perfect modern interpretation of Naughty Dog’s original gameplay style, but this was clearly only the blueprint from where Toys for Bob was hoping to take the game as Crash 4 also introduces 3 new playable characters in series villain Dr. Neo Cortex, recurring boss character Dingodile, and an alternate dimension take on Tawna Bandicoot, Crash’s girlfriend from the very first game. While level layouts remain the same between almost all characters, each sports their own unique quirks. The most similar to Crash and Coco’s play style is Tawna, with the only major change with her skillset being that she has a grappling hook that can be used to zip across levels, stun enemies and reach distant crates that are out of reach. Dingodile, now the owner of a diner, sports a vacuum device similar to Luigi’s in Luigi’s Mansion, which allows him to suck up enemies and crates and also hover across short distances in absence of a double jump. Finally, there’s Neo Cortex, who lacks a double jump altogether but makes up for it by making use of an incredibly fast dash attack and an energy gun that allows him to turn enemies into platforms by shooting them or bounce pads by shooting them once more.
These distinct gameplay styles keep away any feeling of monotony simply by changing up the player’s skillset; however, the game can become dull when drawn out over longer play sessions due to the linear structuring of each level quickly growing repetitive. On top of having a whopping 40 platforming levels, these levels are also longer than the levels found within the original trilogy. While I never once felt like a level outstayed its welcome, I did find myself playing the game for shorter sessions just because playing multiple levels on end quickly becomes a bigger commitment, even if the game does cap out at only 8-10 hours long. Don’t let this number worry you though, because if anything is for sure, Crash 4 is one of the most content-rich games of 2020. Aside from the over 40 main levels, the game also features over 20 flashback levels, which are incredibly challenging platforming trials similar to Celeste‘s B-Sides that act as prequels to the original PlayStation title. Each level also features an N. Verted mode, which changes up the art style for the level on top of flipping it horizontally. Every level in the game also includes a variety of gems, with the reward for 100% completion being a new skin for either Crash or Coco. Overall, this explains the bump in price from the N. Sane Trilogy‘s budget release to this.
While bringing the franchise up to date to 2020 in terms of gameplay, Crash Bandicoot 4 also offers an entirely new art style for the series going forward, brought to life by the incredible team at Toys for Bob who managed to do the same for Spyro only 2 years ago. With beautiful, slapstick cartoon-inspired animation in both cutscenes and gameplay, Crash Bandicoot 4 includes the exact same unique visual energy that made the original PlayStation games so memorable back in the late 90s alongside the animation of the era. To save myself the shame of comparing the visuals to a Pixar movie, I’ll instead compare them to the kinetic energy found in Sony Animation films such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania. Most exciting of all is that the game runs at a near perfect 60 frames-per-second on both PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, with some unfortunate dips on the base consoles. While the visuals do suffer from the unfortunate blurriness of Unreal Engine 4 games, even at higher resolutions on the 4K consoles, the art direction keeps the game afloat with some absolutely stunning creativity on display throughout the adventure.
With Crash Bandicoot 4, Toys for Bob has successfully made up for all of the lost time between now and Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, taking every aspect of the titles in-between that worked and weaving it with the studio’s own ingenious talent for creativity and excellence in level design to create what is ultimately the orange marsupial’s best adventure to date.
Developer: Toys for Bob
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2nd October 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time was supplied by the publisher.