Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time mostly lives up to its goal of recapturing what made the original Crash trilogy so beloved, but some of that magic gets lost in a misguided approach to difficulty.
Crash Bandicoot has been through a lot. Once an iconic mascot for PlayStation and a source of many fond childhood memories for a whole lot of folk (myself included), a change of rights ownership and series of different developers saw Crash go down an… interesting path from the PS2 days onward. Weird redesigns and increasingly mediocre games saw Crash fade from the public consciousness, and the less said about his “tribal” tattoo days, the better. But after the success of Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy, a full remake of the beloved original trilogy, the appetite for classic Crash became clear.
Which brings us to Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. With Toys for Bob at the helm, this is a bold attempt to return to the Crash of the ’90s, to remember what made this such a popular franchise in the first place, and to build on that while staying true to its roots. It mostly succeeds—in its tone, its style, its approach to level design, its sense of humour, Crash 4 gets the feeling of a classic Crash game spot on.
Crash Bandicoot 4 picks up right where Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped left off—conspicuously, and humorously, pretending every other game since never happened. Crash and Coco are back to living a carefree life in the Wumpa Islands, and Dr Neo Cortex, Uka Uka, and N. Tropy. But a dimensionally-sealed villain never stays sealed away for long, and Cortex and co soon find a way to break out… tearing the fabric of space-time in the process. So begins another time-travelling adventure for Crash and Coco.
This is the Crash Bandicoot you know and love. The most obvious thing from the outset is that the characters are back to their old selves, misguided emo phases a thing of the past. Crash looks like an updated, higher-fidelity version of Crash from the ’90s, as does Coco, Cortex, N. Trophy, and everyone else. They live in the same charmingly colourful, zany world, with ancient ruins aplenty and bizarre, deadly creatures always ready to remind you that this is a place loosely (very, very loosely) based on Australia. The classic cartoony Crash humour is back and dialled up to 11, never missing an opportunity to poke fun at the series’ troubled history or to just throw in a series of Mad Max-inspired levels because why the hell not?
Levels feel like classic Crash levels, with the same creative approach to puzzle design and obstacles to overcome, the same tempting but ill-advised crates hovering dangerously over chasms, the same blend of forward, backwards, and sideways platforming. Polar bear rides, dinosaur chases, and particularly brain-bending side-scroller bonus levels are all present and accounted for. Gems, time trials, and hidden coloured gems are all here to tempt you to replay each level again and again in search of that elusive 105% completion.
But Crash Bandicoot 4 is also a game with plenty of new ideas. The whole story revolves around Crash’s journey to find four powerful masks that can help repair the dimensional rifts that keep popping up, and these masks all come with their own special powers: the ability to slow time, a high-energy super-spin that lets Crash glide around (sort of), the ability to phase shift objects in and out of existence, and a whole gravity-flip thing. With these, Crash Bandicoot 4 opens itself to all sorts of new puzzles—think slowing time to allow you to safely land on and jump off a Nitro crate, or quick-fire phase shifting to create a safe path as you slide along a rail at high speed.
Crash Bandicoot 4 also introduces some new playable characters with vastly different move sets, to help bring a bit of variety into play. Rather than just being optional characters that you can play whenever you please, they each have their own specific levels with unique challenges designed especially for them. An alternate-dimension Tawna comes with a grappling hook and the ability to rebound off specially-marked walls. Dingodile is slow and destructive, with a vacuum that’s handy for sucking up TNT crates and launching them at foes. Cortex—yes, Cortex is playable—can’t jump to save his life, but he can turn enemies into platforms and bounce pads, and propel himself forward over a substantial distance with a jetpack.
Old optional challenges like time trials and smashing every crate in a level are joined by new ones, like completing each level without dying or getting all gems in one go. There’s an array of humorous costumes for both Crash and Coco that you can unlock by collecting gems. There’s a series of unlockable levels, framed as Cortex’s recordings of test sessions when he first created Crash Bandicoot in the ’90s, that are like the mid-stage bonus levels but with the heat turned all the way up. The best are the “N. Verted” levels that unlock after clearing a stage’s normal mode; these vertically mirror the standard levels, which is whatever, but also come with some weird and wonderful visual filters—a series of levels set in a futuristic floating city becomes a BioShock-esque underwater metropolis, another group gets a pixelated retro filter complete with an arcade score element, another group is rendered entirely in black and white, with a splash of colour erupting from Crash every time you spin.
In all this, Crash Bandicoot 4 lives up to its purpose brilliantly. It takes everything that people loved about the original games, keeps the soul of that intact, but also finds ways to build upon it. It feels like a new Crash Bandicoot game, but the sort of new Crash Bandicoot game you might have expected in the Naughty Dog days.
However, there’s one thing that holds all this back: the difficulty. The original Crash games could be challenging, and sometimes even a little unfair—the first one especially—but they weren’t the obscene, famously unforgiving challenge that the likes of Donkey Kong Country and Ninja Gaiden were. Even the most difficult of challenges could be overcome with a little bit of practice, and they were games that rarely gave cause to throw your controller out the window. At least, that’s how I remember them.
By contrast, Crash Bandicoot 4 is absolutely brutal, to the point of being downright frustrating to play. It often feels like it’s just difficult for the sake of being difficult, instead of presenting a challenge designed to be satisfying and giving you the tools to overcome it. It feels like it’s chasing some misplaced perception of Crash Bandicoot was, once upon a time, this infamously hard series, and misses out on a lot of what made the original games as much fun as they were.
It’s not unusual to encounter hazards in a Crash 4 level that you can only really deal with by getting hit, dying, and making sure to preemptively avoid that thing next time. Some levels demand a level of precision platforming that our marsupial friends aren’t really equipped for, instead forcing you to rely on simply building up muscle memory for a sequence of jumps through brute force.
That’s compounded by lengthy levels and sparse checkpoint placement, making constant retrying a tedious affair in its own right. In the original Crash games, seeing a life crate in a risky location was always a tempting proposition because the risk matched the potential reward. By the halfway point in Crash 4, I’d pretty much given up on any treasures that weren’t sprawled directly on the beaten path, because the laborious consequences of failure just made them not worth the effort. Crash 4 does bring back the extra checkpoint system from N. Sane Trilogy, where dying enough times in one part of a level causes an extra checkpoint to spawn somewhere, but in those extra checkpoints feel sparse in the later levels.
This all makes just completing Crash Bandicoot 4 a frustrating affair, let alone trying to collect all the gems and other such collectibles. I’ve 100% (or 105%) completed all the original games numerous times over the years because, challenging as that can be in some parts, those games made the process of playing, replaying, and mastering each level satisfying. Crash Bandicoot 4 is the first Crash game I’ve had no interest in perfecting, because it just doesn’t seem worth the effort and frustration.
And that’s a real shame, because in every other respect, Crash Bandicoot 4 gets it right. It’s a beautiful throwback to Crash Bandicoot‘s roots, one that knows what made the original trilogy so beloved and goes above and beyond to capture that magic once again, while also building upon it with all sorts of new ideas. When it lets it’s strong points shine, Crash Bandicoot 4 is an absolutely delightful game. But it also goes overboard in trying to make this game difficult, and does so in ways that are frustrating and tedious in their difficulty, to a fault—and that undermines a lot of the magic that the rest of the game works so hard to build.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is developed byToys for Bob and published by Activision. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and Xbox One.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.