After more than a decade since the last major Crash Bandicoot adventure, it is indeed “about time” for a sequel, and while Crash Bandicoot 4 successfully revives the spirit of the classic ‘90s trilogy, its best moments come from newly introduced gameplay mechanics.
It’s About Time smartly ignores all of the questionable sequels since 1998’s Crash Bandicoot: Warped. After being trapped in a timeless prison at the end of the previous game, Uka Uka, Dr. Neo Cortex, and Dr. N. Tropy accidentally rip a hole in the fabric of space and time while trying to escape. The mad doctors realize they can escape to other dimensions and they unsurprisingly decide to take over the multiverse. The story has a very fun Saturday morning cartoon vibe to it, though the writing is surprisingly smart, with regular callbacks to previous games and a couple of jokes definitely targeted at adult fans.
This setup leads to the appearance of the four powerful Quantum Masks, each of which grants Crash special powers on his quest to save all of reality. With these masks, Crash can phase objects in and out of existence, change gravity, slow down time, or turn his usual spin into an endless tornado with a longer jump and near-invincibility.
Also along for the ride are several new playable characters. Every Crash Bandicoot level can also be played as his sister Coco, who has an identical move set. A version of Crash’s girlfriend Tawna from another dimension plays similarly to the bandicoot siblings, but also uses a grappling gun to reach far off areas. Rounding out the roster is reformed villain Dingodile, who uses a vacuum gun to suck up and fire explosive barrels and crates, and the evil Dr. Neo Cortex himself, who uses a ray gun to turn enemies into platforms to help him get around levels.
The additional characters, and the extra levels that go along with them, are nice, but don’t add much to the experience. Dr. Neo Cortex is a surprisingly boring playable character, while Dingodile is the best of the three thanks to his more unique move set. But I’m not exactly pining for a spin-off at this point.
The Quantum Mask really remain the highlight here, though you can only use certain masks at specific points in each level to solve increasingly tricky platforming puzzles. While most levels usually just feature one Quantum Mask, you’ll have to quickly switch between them to tackle the game’s final and most difficult levels. Unlike some revivals of retro franchises that skimp on the difficulty, It’s About Time revels in its high difficulty, though that’s not always a good thing.
I welcome the challenge of a precise platformer, but too often Crash Bandicoot 4 relies on cheap trial-and-error gameplay. It’s one thing to mistime a jump. It’s another thing entirely to fall to your death because a newly introduced platform drops without warning or because you have no way of knowing ahead of time that there’s an acid-spitting enemy smackdab in your path. One of the biggest new additions here, crates that spit flames in all directions at regular intervals, seem designed just to increase the number of stupid deaths you’ll encounter. Sure, the older Crash Bandicoot games have always been known for their difficulty, but there’s a reason why platformers aren’t designed like this anymore: It’s simply not very fun.
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO
Developer: Toys for Bob
When you start Crash Bandicoot 4, you’ll have the option of choosing retro difficulty where you’ll have to restart each level after losing a certain number of lives, or modern difficulty, which just resets you to the last checkpoint, keeps tracks of your deaths in each level, and shows a marker where you’re going to land at the end of every jump. Don’t be a hero. Pick modern difficulty from the start. You’ll thank me later. I regularly hit 30-40 deaths my first time through each level, and it took me more than 170 tries to beat the maddeningly frustrating last level just before the final boss.
To be sure, there are still a lot of enjoyable sections in Crash Bandicoot 4. The iconic chase sequences where you run toward the camera are as fun as ever. A trip to another planet later in the game features a ride on an alien creature through one of the most beautiful and exotic locales ever seen in a platformer. Another level features a very cool romp through a flying car traffic jam that feels straight out of The Fifth Element. But my enjoyment of It’s About Time dropped dramatically when the difficulty ratcheted up.
Oddly enough, bosses don’t actually provide much of a difficulty spike and are among some of the best levels in the game, with a pseudo rock concert fight against N. Gin and a multi-stage battle against N. Tropy requiring the use of all four Quantum Masks among the highlights.
While the main story mode is a relatively brisk eight hours or so, It’s About Time features a ridiculous amount of extra content for completionists and/or masochists. You’ll have to hunt down every crate and gem in the game to unlock the more than two dozen skins for Crash and Coco. VHS tapes, which also have to be tracked down, offer flashback levels that are even more difficult than the main campaign. And once you’re done with all that, every level also has an “N. Inverted mode,” which flips the layout, switches enemy placement, and alters the already fantastic graphics in unexpected new ways.
It’s clear that developer Toys for Bob has a lot of love for Crash Bandicoot and wanted to make the best game in the series. In many ways, the team succeeded, with an absolutely massive platformer featuring some very cool new additions to the Crash formula, but the reliance on some of the series’ most dated design choices leads to an often frustrating experience.