There was a time in my life where I would have called myself a fan of Crash Bandicoot. That time was just over 20 years ago, during the heyday of the original trilogy on PlayStation. I rented Wrath of Cortex, the first Crash game not developed by Naughty Dog, but was so put off by it I returned it to Blockbuster the very next day and swore off the series. My experience is not unique, it’s no secret that the post-Naughty Dog Crash Bandicoot games were largely sub-par. Toys for Bob certainly seems to agree, since they’ve chosen to throw Crash’s troubled history aside and assert that their game is the true sequel to Crash’s golden age. But does Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time live up to its name?
Visually, Crash Bandicoot has never looked better than in It’s About Time. Crash and the rest of the main cast look a bit more “cartoony” than the last time we saw them, but the personality present in their animation and expressions make it a perfect fit. The environments are positively gorgeous, ranging from vivid prehistoric forests all the way to gleaming futuristic cities. Enemies look perfectly at home in their respective stages and feature intelligent designs that allude to how players can defeat them. Even the level select screen is a joy to look at. Another noteworthy visual touch are the “N. Verted” versions of every stage, which add some manner of filter to existing levels, like black and white or looking like colored pencil.
Pretty levels don’t mean much without strong gameplay to back them up, fortunately Crash Bandicoot 4 excels in this area as well. Every major level type from the classic Crash Bandicoot games is present. 3D platforming, 2D platforming, chase sequences, and vehicle sequences are all part of the experience, and every single one is executed in a way that lives up to the classic PlayStation games. Where Crash 4 innovates is in the addition of three new playable characters and four new mask power-ups, each with their own unique moveset. Tawna can wall-jump and has a grappling hook, Dingodile has a powerful vacuum, and Cortex comes equipped with a blaster and a jetpack. Masks exist that phase objects in and out of reality, slow down time, flip gravity, and allow Crash to spin and hover in the air. Fortunately, each new character and mask feels interesting and unique while still being fun to use.
Somewhere between the late 90s and today Crash Bandicoot earned a reputation for being difficult, and Crash Bandicoot 4 is not shy about embracing that aspect of its legacy. Crash 4 is HARD. If you want to collect all the gems and boxes in a stage, be prepared for a lot of intense platforming challenges, tight timing windows, and searching every square inch of the screen for hidden crates. Bonus stages are complex to the point of being more like puzzles than platforming areas. There are special “flashback” stages that feature some of the most difficult platforming challenges I have experienced. Completionists are going to have their work cut out for them.
Difficulty like Crash 4’s can certainly be daunting, but there are some mechanics in place to mitigate the challenge just a bit. The game features, and even recommends, a “Modern” gameplay mode that allows players to die as many times as they need to without a game over (though your deaths are still tallied and visible). Dying during a boss fight doesn’t reset your progress. Dying repeatedly causes the game to slowly give the player some advantages, such as masks that can allow Crash to withstand an extra hit or even replacing certain crates with additional checkpoints. Reaching 100% completion is exceptionally difficult, but simply getting to the end of every stage and beating every boss is considerably more doable.
Sadly, Crash 4 does have some pretty noticeable shortcomings. The new playable characters, while interesting to play, are woefully underutilized. Tawna, Dingodile, and Cortex are restricted to their own specific stages, and more often than not those stages are really half-stages that end by placing you back in control of Crash and forcing you to replay part of a stage you’ve already cleared. Jumps can be difficult to judge without the use of an “enhanced shadows” toggle that places a colored ring underneath the player that can clash with some environments. The N. Verted versions of each stage, while visually interesting, do very little to mix up gameplay outside of mirroring the layout.
Even though Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time isn’t perfect, it is successful in its purpose: be a sequel to the original PlayStation trilogy. Crash 4 takes nearly everything about the classic titles and tries to build on it in some way, culminating in a gorgeous and enjoyable (though difficult) platforming experience. It doesn’t matter if you fell in love with Crash Bandicoot two years ago or twenty, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time feels like a natural evolution and worthy successor for the series.