Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time Review
The resurrection and redemption of Crash Bandicoot is one of the most surprising stories of this entire generation of games. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time makes the manic marsupial’s arc complete and does so in a way that hardcore fans and newcomers alike will be able to enjoy. Provided you still have a penchant for late 90s platformers, that is.
The biggest thing to know going into Crash 4 is that it plays, feels and even has the same wacky spirit of an original Crash Bandicoot game. Or, at least, the way you remember Crash Bandicoot games — an important distinction. See, like any good retro remake or latent sequel, it has to recreate the sensation of playing an old favourite whilst adding just enough to modernise, expand upon and improve the experience. The trick is to do it without it being glaringly obvious and Toys For Bob has nailed that. Having honed their craft working alongside Vicarious Visions on 2017’s hugely successful N. Sane Trilogy, the developer has used its collective wisdom Neo Cortex style to synthesise a modern yet retro, old but new, classic yet contemporary, Crash Bandicoot adventure.
Set directly after the events of Crash Bandicoot 3, it’s as if the last 22 years haven’t happened. Except they obviously have and there’s plenty of winks and nods to the fact that there have been four other Crash sequels between then and now. Seemingly wiped from the canon (but not quite), we meet our hero lazing on a beach before being awoken by Aku Aku to begin this dimension-hopping adventure.
From a gameplay perspective, Crash Bandicoot 4 does well to give off the impression that very little, if anything, has changed. However, there’s a number of tweaks, big and small, that update this vintage formula just enough to bring it close to modern standards without taking away the game’s nostalgic feel or its intense challenge.
The biggest introduction is that of the Quantum Masks. Part ability, part MacGuffin for Crash and co to chase after, the four Quantum Masks bestow Crash with the ability to phase objects in and out of existence, control dark matter for more power, slow down time and reverse gravity. They fundamentally change the way Crash 4 plays compared to previous games, mixing up the traditional gameplay to present something akin to that of the bandicoot’s more modern peers. It’s not like they make the game easier though. If anything, the masks just introduce more ways for Crash to meet an untimely end. Use them to your advantage however, and you’ll reap the rewards. Discovering how each ability can be used to access otherwise inaccessible areas is a great addition that adds to the game’s overall replayability.
Outside of this, It’s About Time appears to stick to the tried and tested Crash Bandicoot formula. Crash still moves just as fans of the series will remember and his core pursuits are largely the same: avoid certain death by jumping, spinning and running towards the camera. All whilst making sure to smash every box, and collect all the wumpa, of course. However, even the main marsupial himself has seen some small but much appreciated tweaks. Crash has a shadow now. Whilst this is mostly a graphical addition to match his much less blocky 2020 aesthetic, it definitely comes in handy as a guide for landing on platforms. Couple this with the brand new addition of a landing guide — a small circle that appears whilst Crash is airborne — and our hero’s trajectory is easier to judge than ever before. Purists might scoff, but a small and unobtrusive quality of life improvement like this goes a long way and certainly doesn’t take away the game’s challenge.
Balancing that challenge with fun platforming sequences is key to the success of a game like Crash Bandicoot 4 and, unfortunately, this is one of the few areas the game can be found wanting. Huge spikes in difficulty can make small sections huge undertakings, whilst wonky hit detection or a seemingly cheap hit from an enemy also pile on the frustration and make some levels a war of attrition opposed to the fast-paced, almost rhythmic, playthroughs they seem set up to be. All the bright colours and zany characters can’t hide how much this game wants to break everyone who plays it. I’m not talking about additional challenges here — like collecting all the wumpa or finishing a level with under 3 deaths — getting from A to B in some levels can be hellish. Quick thinking, precise movement and some serious luck are all involved in making it through sections of some of these levels.
However, by the time you curse the name Crash Bandicoot you’re already back in the game and making a second (or third, or fourth, or fiftieth) attempt at that one tricky section. These quick loads are but one of the features that help to make even the hardest slog that little more bearable. The game is also helpful enough to hand out an additional Aku Aku shield or even a checkpoint if you’re really stuck, which is great but isn’t always the solution to a problem. Again, purists may be beside themselves about this but it really does help. Despite these efforts, there were still times where I really soured on the game. A section in the last main level of the game springs to mind — I must have died 100 times in a row, maybe more, before I eventually beat it. Had I not been reviewing this game, that might have been it for me. Whilst sections like this were just one small part of the game, and the intention was undoubtedly to test the player, they just killed all fun and momentum and became more of a chore than a challenge.
Needless to say there were plenty of levels and worlds I spent a lot of time in, and discovering a new one and taking in each level (no matter how long it took) was probably my favourite part of the game. Straddling the line between new and inventive and wonderfully familiar, each world and the levels within them all feel well crafted and impeccably designed. From waking up on Crash’s couch on the beach in the game’s opening level (and spying the Spyro rubber ring easter egg), to dodging pirates in Salty Wharf to meticulously platforming over burning furnaces in the game’s closing chapter, each world and level offers a fresh take on the same formula but does more than enough to set itself apart from the level that came before. I can’t go without mentioning The Sn@xx Dimension, or the New Orleans-inspired Mosquito Marsh. The way these two levels, in particular, look and the way they’re constructed will stick with me for a long time. The amount of care and detail in all levels is astounding, breathing new life into this long-dormant world whilst maintaining that old-school Crash Bandicoot feel. I recommend stopping the chaos to take them in once in a while too.
If the game’s core set of levels isn’t enough for you, there’s also a plethora of side content to get lost in too. Branching timelines for other characters (like Tawna, Dingodile and even your nemesis Neo Cortex), Flashback stages, and playing mirrored versions of every level in N. Verted Mode are sure to keep even the most hardcore Crash fans satiated long after the approximately nine-hour-long campaign is finished. Add to that a fun but limited couch co-op mode and a raft of other replayability options and it’s easy to sink hours and hours into this game should you want to.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is an incredible package and an absolute love letter to Crash Bandicoot as a character and a franchise. It’s proof that despite years in the wilderness, no character is beyond a resurgence in the right hands. It’s clear Toys for Bob really cares, and that’s important. My frustrations around difficulty and other nitpicks aside, it’s wonderful to see Crash treated in the way his most hardcore fans have wanted for so long and for them to be awarded with a game of undeniable quality that pays homage to the past whilst giving Crash a future.
Managing to do to do what prequels, crystal skulls and direct-to-video releases could never quite do, Crash Bandicoot 4 brings back a beloved character and a franchise in a way that hardcore fans can enjoy whilst providing a great jumping on point for new fans at the same time. In striking a perfect balance between the old and the new, often to a frustrating yet satisfying degree. Bright, vibrant and full of life with a huge variety of worlds to explore and an unexpected wealth of content, It's About Time may be the best Crash Bandicoot game to date — a sentence I never expected to say past 1998.
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