Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time maintains the spirit and core identity of the trio of games it serves as a sequel to, but I don’t think that’s entirely a good thing. Its solid controls, wacky humor sprinkled throughout the story, and beautifully realized visuals make it instantly recognizable as Crash Bandicoot, but for the modern age. It’s more than welcome, but It’s About Time, a game that sees you zipping back and forth through time itself, can at times seem stuck in the past when it comes to how inaccessible it is for anyone but the hardcore, blemishing what is otherwise a remarkable package.
What Is It?
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is the long-time-coming sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot: Warped. The story follows the end of the previous game which saw Dr. Neo Cortex, N. Tropy, and Uka Uka imprisoned. While making their escape, they cause a multidimensional fracture in time, which they plan to use to seek world domination in every dimension possible. Naturally, it’s up to Crash and Coco to fix it, with a little help from Tawna, Dingodile, and even Dr. Cortex.
Just like other Crash games, you navigate your character through a variety of levels jam-packed with unique platforming challenges, exciting set-pieces, and an abundance of crates and collectibles for you to smash and collect. If you’ve ever played any of the first three Crash Bandicoot titles, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into, but that’s not to say the game is lacking in innovation.
Why Should I Care?
New to the Crash Bandicoot series are mechanics such as wall-running and rail-grinding, but none are as impactful as the inclusion of the Quantum Masks. These multidimensional masks grant Crash and Coco unique powers once collected, such as bringing time to a near-stoppage or reversing gravity. Each one is accompanied by a unique platforming challenge that feels gratifying once you conquer it. The masks certainly feel like a welcome addition that adds a little more flavor to the gameplay.
Rather than collectable power-ups akin to the fire-flower in Super Mario Bros, the masks exist as part of the levels themselves, and often serve to provide a break from the old-school platforming action. Thanks to this, even some of the longer levels rarely feel like they’re overstaying their welcome. Crash and Coco’s levels are mostly well-paced, which is fortunate, considering they take up the bulk of the game.
But Crash and Coco aren’t the only stars here. The game features a series of levels known as Timelines; they’re levels that cast you as one of three characters (Tawna, Dr. Cortex, or Dingodile) as you experience the events of the story through a different set of eyes. Of the three, Tawna (who sees a stellar re-design) is the breakout star. Her levels have a lot in common with Crash/Coco’s, but feature slight changes, such as the addition of a grappling hook and wall-jumping, both of which make for a challenge that feels familiar to the main style of platforming gameplay, yet still unique in its own right.
Dingodile’s missions incorporate a vacuum gun that’s used to grab boxes of TNT and hurl them towards enemies, Half-Life 2 style. It runs its course quickly, yet playing as Dingodile is still engaging thanks to how differently he controls compared to the rest of the cast. Rather than a simple double-jump, he can shortly hover in the air, allowing for a different style of platforming, as well as a little more breathing room when it comes to landing jumps.
I wish I could find a similar amount of redeeming quality in Dr. Cortex’s levels. The core concept behind them is pretty neat. Naturally, Cortex isn’t as mobile as the rest of the cast. Rather than rely on his physical ability, he’s left to his wits to navigate through his levels; he’s equipped with a gun that can transform enemies into platforms, serving the purpose of making those hard-to-clear gaps just a little easier.
But without any kind of lock-on or other targeting aid, trying to shoot enemies to create pathways, especially while they’re moving, can be a hassle. And while these levels are built around the idea of Cortex being less agile, it feels like he’s a little too movement-inept. He controls like he doesn’t have any business being in a platforming game, especially compared to how well everyone else in this game controls.
When I first started the game, I was taken aback at how well this game feels. Crash and crew feel as responsive as ever, and factoring in how this game runs at a consistent 60 frames-per-second on a PS4 Pro, it’s hard to deny the satisfaction I felt from simply watching these characters move around with such fluidity on my monitor thanks to my inputs. Just thinking about how great it feels to control Crash is enough to convince me to jump back into the game, but that motivation is quickly tempered once faced with the game’s crushing difficulty.
Crash Bandicoot 4, like others in the series, is a hard game; after dying nearly 80 times in one of the game’s final levels, I honestly think it might be one of the hardest games I’ve played this year. Sometimes the challenge is exhilarating; you may struggle with a puzzle for a few minutes, solve it through trial & error and feel like a genius after. But often it can be downright maddening. Completing a level calls for some precision inputs, timing, and awareness. Doubly so if you’re looking to collect the game’s various Flashback Tapes (secret levels), which require you to not die before finding them at a particular point in the level.
The game affords some minor accessibility options in the way of Modern Mode, which gives you infinite lives, and also dynamically spawns checkpoints more frequently. should you have a rough time in a level. Despite these efforts, it still misses the mark by failing to address the actual difficulty of the level itself. Crash Bandicoot 4’s difficulty is no doubt an effort to appeal to fans of the original, challenging trilogy, but there seems to be little offered in the way of accessibility for fans who might like the franchise for reasons beyond the challenge, or maybe aren’t capable of pulling off the precision maneuvers the game asks of them. Having beaten the game, I can’t help but ask why?
The conversation surrounding difficulty in games has changed a lot over the years. Games such as Celeste have demonstrated that games can simultaneously be designed around being challenging, while also allowing the player to reach victory on their own terms, with neither bearing any sort of negative consequence for the other. Amidst a revival of the Crash Bandicoot series, it’s sad to see Toys for Bob’s finished product not take more meaningful steps in accessibility, while over-catering to a hardcore audience.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is packed full of replay value; it’s a completionist’s dream come true. Each level features crates to break, various collectables, and time trials to tackle. If that’s not enough, you can also take on an “N. Verted” version of each level after completing it. These levels mirror the layout of the original level, and often feature a visual filter of sorts; one level may see the environments become blank canvases that are painted anytime Crash spins or breaks a box. Other times, the level itself may look like a painting or invert the colors. These feel like a great way to replay prior stages, while still getting a new experience out of it.
Otherwise, you can collect Flashback Tapes to unlock levels that see Crash or Coco being put to the test by Dr. Cortex while he was experimenting on them prior to the events of the first game. Fortunately, these tests aren’t nearly as dark as the context makes them out to be, consisting of challenges that task you with destroying every crate in the level to win. Provided you have the patience for them, as they are among the most challenging levels in the game, they’re pretty rewarding to complete.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a hardcore game built for a hardcore audience. If you’re in that camp, this might be the game for you. With 107 total levels, the amount of content in this game is vast. Factoring in how well the game looks and plays, along with its well-designed levels and unique gameplay innovations, I think it delivers an experience that feels fresh, yet faithful to the first three games in the series. That being said, it might be a little too faithful at times. The challenge it presents can be fun, but it’s also naturally exclusive. I can’t deny that I’m glad Crash is back, I just hope any future installments decide that it’s about time to make one of gaming’s big icons a little more accessible for everyone.