|System: PS4, Xbox One|
|Dev: Toys for Bob|
|Release: October 2, 2020|
|Players: 1-4 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Comic Mischief, Language, Alcohol Reference, Cartoon Violence|
by Benjamin Maltbie
When I was much younger, my friends and I couldn’t afford very many multiplayer games. Instead, we’d play single player games together. The problem was that there was no really good, peaceful way of enforcing the rules which essentially amounted to “if you die or beat a level, it’s my turn.” My friend group consistently threw a wrench into what was meant to be a well-oiled machine when they’d say “the game cheated” as a way to invalidate their losses. It was consistently nonsense. Now that Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is out, I have to imagine what it would have been like owning this game as a kid. On one hand, it facilitates the exact kind of play we were engaging in through a new mode called “Pass N. Play.” On the other hand, there were times in reviewing it where I felt as though the game was, indeed, cheating.
Mechanically, Crash 4 is instantly recognizable and anybody who has played the original can likely take to the controls without an ounce of instruction. Crash, and his identically-controlled sister, Coco, primarily use the same three actions. They need to jump, they need to use their spin attack, and they need to move. They can also use a body slam, but it honestly doesn’t come up all that often. Using these abilities more or less feels like it always has, although some quality of life changes have been introduced to improve upon the core gameplay. A personal favorite is the yellow circle on the ground that track’s a jumping character’s location. It makes the platforming far more precise.
Upon starting, you are offered a choice between retro mode and modern mode. In modern mode, players can restart at their last checkpoint when they die. A tally in the upper right corner of the screen increases with each death just to keep them humble. A death in retro mode usually results in the player returning to the last checkpoint, too, except the numer in the upper right doesn’t represent deaths. Instead, it represents lives left and if it ticks down to zero, the player will have to start from the beginning of the stage. My hunch is that the game is designed with modern mode in mind. Retro mode might not be suited for first playthrough.
What it comes down to is conveyance. There’s a degree to which succeeding at Crash feels like memorizing a script. You can sometimes read ahead if you know the language, and you can sometimes make some pretty educated guesses, but there seems to be no obvious way to clear a stage on a first attempt without dying at least once.
A slow, methodical approach could work. That way, you can pay attention to all the details, which is important since some hazards can seem rather innocuous. While it might have been inexperience that caused this, I was killed twice in my first hour of playing because I mistook the backdrop of a 2D platforming section to be scenic and nothing more. An eruption of flame from a small hole on the other side of a walkway screamed at me to pay attention to every little detail. Five minutes later, a different, unannounced pipe burnt Crash to a crisp. Part of me is embarrassed to admit that.
At that point I thought, “okay, slow and alert from here on out.” As luck would have it, that approach isn’t ideal, either. As you might expect from a platformer, Crash spends a lot of time jumping to and from platforms. Some of these are firm places to stop and plan your next move. Others, not so much. These ones often have some visual element to indicate that something is happening, but it’s something you have to look out for. And the visual elements don’t clearly denote ideas like “this platform is about to betray you,” or “one more second and you plummet to your death.” After I watched Crash get eaten by a lilypad, I approached all platforms with a sense of distrust. But sometimes you need to trust them. Eventually, you learn which ones are okay.
Frustration is mostly short lived as the game is built from segments. Short bursts between checkpoints incentive a trial and error style of playing, but that style doesn’t always translate to a fulfilling feeling of improvement. “Surprise, you died, but now you know,” can be exciting from time to time, sure, but mileage will vary.
If merely beating a stage isn’t enough, players can choose to pursue its collectibles. It’s nice to see this element of the old games return, but its implementation isn’t as intuitive. Again, it comes down to conveyance. A player needs to absolutely scour the levels, sometimes looking in illogical places, if they want to beat a stage with 100% completion. A friend of mine lamented the complete guesswork that was occasionally required. There is no shame in skipping the collectibles altogether. The only downside to that is you might miss out on some sincerely cool skins for Crash and Coco. Also, some sections of the game can feel pretty empty if you’re not drawn to bashing all the crates along the way.
Some hazards do become familiar the more you play. There are a ton of stages in Crash 4 and a lot of them repeat ideas from the ones that came before them. Fewer stages might have facilitated levels that had more clarity and distinction. It definitely would have helped the game’s pacing.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time does manage to present some thrilling and necessary challenges outside of its main stages. Collectibles called Flashback Tapes unlock secret levels set before the original trilogy, where Crash is undergoing tests and experiments while Dr. Neo Cortex, one of the series’ many antagonists, watches. These stages differ from standard levels because they demand creative approaches. Boss Fights are strongpoints for the game, too, because they quickly communicate their novel expectations, and then progressively build on that foundation as the fight goes on. Occasionally, players might encounter stages where they get to control different characters. These characters will have moves beyond what Crash and Coco can access, and their stages account for that.
All this said, the annoying elements are always accompanied by the things that make fans love Crash Bandicoot games. The gorgeous art honors the old games but still exceeds today’s standards. The music enlivens the environments, and the game’s characters and story can motivate players to overcome difficult stages.
The simple plot is accurately summed up by Coco who explains the predicament as a “bunch of evil scientists attempting inter dimensional domination.” that simplicity is okay because the moments throughout the narrative can easily induce a smile.
This line from Coco is followed with another that lampshades the game’s McGuffin quest. Coco and Crash must gather items called quantum masks. These masks add to the game through sections where characters harness the mask’s power. One mask can phase objects in and out of existence during sections based around proper timing. Another turns Crash or Coco into a constantly spinning whirlwind that can deflect certain objects and glide long distances.
Overall, the people at Toys for Bob have done a wonderful job with the property, and that’s not really surprising. Their past games like Skylanders have tapped into the same lighthearted fun that Crash is known for. They demonstrated an ability to make likable characters in those titles and now they’ve taken a franchise full of likable characters and made them even more likable. The thing is, it’s easier to talk about what is wrong in the game because there’s more to unpack with those claims. It shouldn’t be readily written off as a bad game, though, because it really isn’t. It’s a good game which is why reviewing has been sort of a confusing experience. It may be marred in some baffling design decisions, but at its core is solid and the issues could be ironed out if the developers continue to make Crash games. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a solid platformer and a continuation of a series whose vibe and design still hasn’t been recreated in other titles. It’s a relief to see Crash’s legacy continue over 20 years later in a way that feels true to form.