Right, let’s address the embarrassingly over-used clichés that will be appearing left, right and centre when describing Crash Bandicoot 4. Yes, this looks like you’re playing a CGI film; the new-style Crash Bandicoot is stunning, even on a decaying Xbox One launch day console. But no, let’s not say that Crash 4 is like a certain FromSoftware title. Don’t get me wrong though, it is certainly challenging. Perhaps more so than the N. Sane Trilogy, as veteran players are without their muscle memory this time.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is the first brand new title featuring the mutated marsupial in over a decade, and with a name like that, it immediately states its intentions. As a direct sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped – arguably the high point of the franchise – it retcons every game that came after. Apparently, retconning is the thing to do nowadays: James Cameron and Ridley Scott swear by it, so why can’t Activision do the same?
Crash 4 will also unashamedly tell you that this is the fourth game throughout the main story too.
The action starts after the events of Warped – because remember that this is a direct sequel – with series antagonist Dr. Neo Cortex once again working with N. Tropy as they use a rip in the fabric of space and time to escape from prison. This opens up the multiverse and they set out to conquer every single dimension.
Aku Aku, the mask that aids Crash Bandicoot and his sister Coco, feels a disturbance in the force and warns the siblings of trouble ahead. The trio visit another mask called Lani-Loli who is one of four Quantum Masks that together are able to control space and time themselves. Crash and Coco then travel through dimensions to collect all four masks and once again restore balance to the world.
The new masks represent one of the biggest new additions in Crash 4, appearing throughout the levels and providing new ways of playing: for example, one mask will slow down time for a brief period, or another can phase objects in and out of existence. These masks don’t make anything easier; on the contrary, they provide plenty of new ways to die.
Unfortunately, cheap deaths are present in Crash 4. Credit to the level design that everything in the game feels meticulously placed, and whilst a rogue TNT or Nitro box might not offer much of an obstacle on first pass, come at it another way and it feels purposefully put there to enrage players. This, however, was never a feeling I had when playing the original games; level design was still on point, but every death then was down to my inadequacy. Here, in Crash 4, things are cruelly hidden just off screen until the last moment, and it is then too late to correct yourself.
There are also new characters that present even more unique ways to perish in Crash 4. During your adventure you will encounter strange, unexplainable moments. These are actually from one of the additional characters providing assistance to Crash or Coco, usually unknowingly so. Amongst the supporting cast are an alternate timeline Tawna – gone is the sexed-up version from the original game – Dingodile, and even Crash’s arch nemesis, Neo Cortex, that are all now playable.
Each of these have a unique moveset and way of playing, with varying degrees of success. Tawna has a grapple hook to traverse large chasms, and Dingodile has a large vacuum cleaner to suck up wumpa fruit. These both play well enough. The same can’t be said for Cortex though, who has a gun that can change enemies into platforms to jump on, but that’s really it and he feels limited in comparison.
But the control over these characters and their place in the story does highlight just how much lore Crash Bandicoot has. There is a huge rogues gallery of enemies from over the years but we are presented to such a small subset of it in Crash 4; one boss fight even takes an almost identical mechanic from the same boss fight in the original Crash Bandicoot. Some may call it a throwback; I call it disappointing.
One area that was previously rarely discussed though was where Crash Bandicoot came from. It was common knowledge that he was created by Neo Cortex, but this is further explored in Crash 4 through Flashback Tapes. These are retrieved through reaching a videotape in the main level without dying beforehand; the further into the game you get, the further from the start the tapes become.
Managing to find a tape is the easy bit though. These Flashback levels feel like the bonus sections found in most levels, but the ones I was able to unlock featured a lot of jumping on crates, with not a whole lot else beneath your feet. These could be the pinnacle of the difficulty in Crash 4, but there are pinnacles of difficulty all over the place.
Along with Flashback and alternate Timelines, there are also N. Verted levels. These are almost identical to normal levels, with either a new colour palette or the level flipped in mirror mode. They do however come with their own unique set of collectibles which means that – whilst not offering much difference in gameplay – these will be required for the full 106% completion. That’s not a typo: veteran fans will know to fully complete a Crash Bandicoot game you will need to go above and beyond a mere 100%.
Once again, Crash Bandicoot comes with a ton of stuff to collect. Gone are the pink time crystals from previous iterations, and the clear gem count has been significantly increased. Each level now has six clear gems to unlock: three based on the amount of wumpa fruit collected, one for smashing every crate, one for completing each level in less than three deaths (which will easily be the trickiest to unlock) and then there is one hidden somewhere in each level. There are 456 clear gems in total, split down the middle for Normal and N. Verted levels. Add to this: four coloured gems, 38 of each sapphire, gold and platinum time relics for the time trials, 38 N. Sanely Perfect Relics for flawless runs and 21 platinum Flashback Relics, and you have a lot of game.
As well as all this are a couple of multiplayer modes that bring a new dynamic than those offered in Crash Team Racing or Crash Bash. Checkpoint Race has players taking it in turns to dash through levels, similar to Time Trial mode but scoring points depending on who completes the section between checkpoints in the fastest time. Crate Combo is the same premise, but rather than speed players must aim to smash as many crates as possible to keep their combo going.
That should please those who were concerned about the price of Crash 4 when it was announced, especially considering that the N. Sane Trilogy was around half the price when first released. In comparison, Crash 4 feels more in common with the original Crash Bandicoot – the weakest of the original trilogy – than it does with the second or third. This is immediately obvious with the World map, but also with the level designs too. Sections such as the races or riding carefree on the back of a wild animal, or even being chased down by a bigger wild animal, are few and far between in Crash 4, and these were what made Cortex Strikes Back and Warped such seminal 3D platformers back in the day. If you enjoyed those games when you were younger, or even as part of the N. Sane Trilogy, you’ll enjoy Crash 4 no doubt. But it doesn’t do anything to introduce a new generation.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it purposely avoids trying to welcome in new players, such is the fan service on offer. The opening level presents a tough introduction, and the difficulty curve only pauses for the – relatively easy in comparison – boss fights. By the final level, my death count was 132 on that level alone before I bested the final section, and I certainly have no intentions of returning to it any time soon: N. Verted or not.
But there is another reason why Crash 4 feels this way. Profanity. It came as a bit of a shock when I first heard some naughty language, but it continued to happen. Each time a little jarring too. Don’t go in expecting adult animation levels of swearing but there are a few choice words, all from Dingodile. It feels unnecessary, like it is only added to appease the gamers that had grown up with the original trilogy and were now more accustomed to hearing that sort of language.
The irony is not lost on me that with a name like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time on the Xbox One the game feels like it is still stuck in the past. There are some modern improvements; the removal of lives if playing with modern options, a built-in pass and play mode (which feels fresh, but it was how we played as youngsters anyways) and the ability to control the camera to some extent are all worthwhile additions. However, it feels like Crash 4 is stuck somewhere down the middle in terms of Crash games; way off the lofty heights of Crash platforming at its peak in Warped, but well above some of the stuff that followed the original trilogy. Does it try to introduce too much? Maybe. But then in a weird paradox it doesn’t do much more to bring the franchise to modern consoles. Much like the plot of Crash 4, it is unsure which time period it is in.