When Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex was released back in 2001, it marked the first main entry in the franchise that wasn’t created by its original creators, Naughty Dog. As such, there was some trepidation amongst fans that it might not quite live up to the quality of the first three. Then, most fans were sad to see their fears realised. The Wrath of Cortex wasn’t bad, but it felt off.
Perhaps it was the 12 months that Traveller’s Tales were given to develop the game or perhaps something was just missing that prevented it from feeling intrinsically Crash. Either way, fans have been desperate for a return to form for this marsupial hero for nigh on two decades now. Thankfully, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is exactly that.
Picking Up Where You Left Off
Crash 4 quite literally continues the story from the end of the third game Warped. Fresh in the minds of those who completed (and I mean completed) the N-Sane Trilogy’s remake. The game ended with antagonists Neo, N.Tropy and Uka Uka being cast into a time vortex. Left trapped in a time prison as baby versions of themselves. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been hard at work at finding a way out and in doing so rip a hole in the fabric space and time. They have been leaving rifts to venture into different dimensions.
The only way for Crash, Coco and Aku Aku to save their world is to seek out the four elemental masks (more on them later). Much like previous Crash games, the story isn’t as important as the gameplay. But, unlike those previous entries, there is much more focus on the story this time round. There is a greater number of cutscenes and ‘twists and turns’ along the way. It isn’t something I expected to find. It is however something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
There’s nothing dramatic going on here, but the story is delightful, charming and entertaining throughout whilst being entirely true to the franchise.
Same Bandicoot, New Fur
Crash and Coco have never looked this good. The N-Sane trilogy looked fantastic, staying entirely faithful to the original’s style (largely because it had to appease fans and directly replicate levels) whilst still giving them a substantial visual upgrade. Crash 4 though, opts to create its own beautiful visual style that impresses and stuns. All whilst managing to remain perfectly Crash Bandicoot. It’s vibrant, rich in detail, immersive and a joy to behold, looking almost like a Pixar movie.
Crash’s moves look and feel more fluid than ever, allowing precise control even with the thumbstick (though for the trickiest moments I still found myself reaching for that trusty d-pad). Enemies are filled with more character than ever before.
Levels have a sense of scale that hasn’t been seen before in a Crash game, firmly planting you within the dimensions you’re playing in. Whether it’s the pirate themed Salty Wharf, dinosaur filled Eggipus Dimension or far in the future in The Sn@xx Dimension, each feels extraordinarily distinct and impeccably designed. If this is how Crash games look from now on, I’d be perfectly happy. It oozes personality in facial expressions, character movement and neat little hidden references.
Boss battles are similarly unique. A personal favourite being against a returning villain whose fight looks and plays much like a ‘Guitar Hero’ play sessions. You slide under and jump over the appropriately coloured projectiles, all whilst he plays a drum solo in the background. Even in this game’s most difficult, and downright frustrating, moments it manages to look utterly brilliant.
Tougher than Ever
The Crash franchise is undoubtedly known for its seriously challenging gameplay. Some levels were notoriously tough to beat with multiple attempts, even more so when you repeated them on a time trial. Crash 4 is unsurprisingly no exception, What is surprising is that I’d be willing to suggest that it’s the hardest in the franchise’s history.
The game offers two ‘difficulty’ modes Modern and Retro. The only difference is that the latter retains the classic lives system from the originals – die with 0 lives and you’ll be forced back to the beginning of the level. I very quickly reached the maximum number of lives, 99, via enough of the earlier levels. I soon found myself dying on single levels upwards of 40 times. The powers that the elemental masks provide, alongside other new game mechanics, are all introduced at a steady pace. Once you reach levels that throw it all at you at once, the difficulty ramps up significantly.
Crash 4 also sets you a seriously tough set of challenges on each level. In order to achieve ‘106%’ completion, one of the many achievements you’ll need to achieve is to break all boxes in a level without dying a single time. On many levels, that is no mean feat. You’ll also need to complete the arduous time trials. Get every gem on every level. Complete all levels in ‘N-Verted’ mode. Then finish every ‘flashback tape’.
As an avid Crash Bandicoot fan and completionist, I am extremely doubtful as to whether I’ll manage this feat myself. The levels of precision required to pull off certain sections is astounding. With meticulously designed levels created to seriously test your gaming prowess. And patience. And yet, none of this is a criticism of the game.
There are moments where the game is perhaps too unforgiving – Hit-boxes in polar bear riding segments. Neo Cortex’s rather awkward move set. For the most part, this is a game that simply requires perfection from its players. You are mostly always to blame when you fail. This game can still be played from beginning to end, ignoring these more tricky objectives, and be thoroughly enjoyed. Those who consider themselves a completionist might be breaking a controller or two before they reach that coveted Platinum trophy.
Crash Bandicoot games are simply meant to be difficult and whilst this is indeed as tough as it’s ever been, I’m here for it.
Music to my Ears
The quality of the gameplay and visuals is matched even by its sound design. Crash’s spin, crate smash, TNT countdowns, Nitro explosions and Neo’s evil laugh are all exactly as you remember them. Only this time they’re joined by a spectacular soundtrack.
Composed by Walter Mair, all of the familiar beats of the previous games proudly return but levels often have takes on that original theme that are inspired by the world around you. In aforementioned Salty Wharf’s pirate populated lands, a Crash Bandicoot meets jaunty pirates theme was wonderfully refreshing and unique to hear. Each dimension already looks unique, but Mair’s soundtrack makes it sound and feel unique too.
It’s an important addition that prevents an occasionally ‘retro’ feeling game feel too stuck in the past.
Alongside Crash and Coco (every level where you play as Crash, you can instead play as Coco), there are three additional playable characters. They are all returning from previous games – Tawna, Dingodile and Neo Cortex.
A small number of levels, including some that ‘fill in the blanks’ on some previous levels, require you to play as these so it’s great news that they are mostly enjoyable to play as. Tawna moves much like Crash and Coco, except she has a spinning kick rather than a spin and can wall jump in certain locations. Tawna also utilises a grapple hook to progress and break out of reach boxes. Her levels are actually thoroughly fun to play through. As are Dingodile’s. A returning villain turned diner entrepreneur, he uses a vacuum to suck up and throw TNT barrels and fly through the air.
Unfortunately, Neo lets down the pack somewhat. His gun turns enemies into solid or ‘jelly-like’ blocks that can be used to stand or jump on respectively. This adds an interesting and thoughtful challenge to his levels, but his ‘dash’ move can truly frustrate. At the end of his mid-air dash, Neo moves his legs and remains in the air momentarily. This makes timing his jumps on to moving obstacles extremely tough. Not necessarily the kind of tough you gain much satisfaction from overcoming though. It’s a small gripe in what is generally a fun addition to the game, but a gripe nonetheless.
It’s About Time
All in all then, it’s excellent news. Crash is back and perhaps better, and so much harder, than ever before. The difficulty will definitely put some people off. Especially those hell-bent on using the thumbstick throughout. If you do stick with it, Crash 4 offers some of the best, rewarding platforming we’ve seen in recent years.
It’s good to have him back.