Activision’s IP-licensed games, with brands like Transformers and Marvel, never really reached the top shelf. It seemed like, through circumstance or great timing, a plan to look back and try to resuscitate Activision’s own properties immediately followed. Crash Bandicoot was the canary in the coalmine here, and the N. Sane Trilogy was such a ludicrous hit you’d think everyone’s favorite fuzzy jorts boy never left the limelight. Just a few years later we’ve finally hit the first original game in this venture, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. It’s almost scary how well this game nails it, and that makes the few issues I do have with it really stand out.
If you read my preview based on Crash Bandicoot 4’s demo (or take a second to click that link, natch), I’ve spent the majority of my time with this game in awe at how Crash Bandicoot it is. It’s not only like all those mediocre sequel attempts never existed; it’s like the old Crash Bandicoot trilogy just happened in recent history. It’s like Naughty Dog tossed a metaphorical football across a 20-year gap and Toys for Bob was ready to catch it and run. From the way Crash 4 looks, sounds, feels to play (mostly), and operates on a structural level, it feels like a regular part of the family despite its new home.
Of course, there are plenty of differences, both additions and changes. For example, if you’re a Crash Bandicoot oldhead you’ll notice the slide jump is gone, replaced with a sort of high jump that’s more about catching another inch of air than distance. However, your slide can go off the edge of a platform ala Donkey Kong Country, so it’s sort of an alternate take on the idea. There’s other stuff too just based on the way the models and animation are more complicated now, but it’s remarkable how much Crash 4 feels, in your head, just like the originals. Even if it doesn’t in reality.
The biggest gimmick in Crash 4 is that a whole gang of those sentient mask weirdos are around, and specific sections of levels use their powers to add some complexity to platforming. There are several abilities, but none of them alter the core mechanics in a way that feels corny. Usually you’re making similar sorts of maneuvers as before, but there’s some added element that lets the devs stretch the rules a little, or add something fun like super long distance jumps. These sections also don’t take up entire levels, so they’re really just in there as one ingredient in Toys for Bob’s bag of tricks. It feels more natural that way.
What doesn’t feel natural is the completionist side of things. Toys for Bob has mimicked the general Crash style here, asking players to collect a ton of wumpa fruit, find hidden collectibles and bonus areas, and of course break all the boxes. Tied to these challenges are the Skins, different looks you can get for Coco and Crash if you can nail all six gem requirements in a level. You don’t have to do it all in one run, which is nice because one of them requires three or fewer deaths. The rest aren’t that bad either, really, but getting all the crates is an absolutely miserable experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m down with hidden collectibles in platformers as much as the next player. In Crash 4, it’s a combination of factors that makes this painful. First, the stages are long. At least in terms of a Crash Bandicoot game, you can spend several minutes going through stages especially as the game continues. And the devs seem to have scaled up the volume, with the numbers sometimes going up to over 300 crates in one level. Second, while Crash 4 looks amazing in terms of its visuals and fidelity (especially on the Xbox One X, where the frame rate stays smooth), there is sometimes so much going on in a level it’s hard to even see crates (or other obstacles) supposed to be in plain sight.
This last one gets its own paragraph break. Perhaps the factor making it the worst here, and it pains me to say it, but the level designers just got way too cute for their own good here. There are several crates that aren’t just hidden off the beaten path; they’re hidden entirely, literally out of view. Seriously; in some instances even when I found a crate I never actually saw it. There was another instance in which some crates are hidden inside objects in the environment, one of them being blocked off if you didn’t break the other one first. Clever, perhaps, but totally at odds with the pace and flow of this game.
Usually it’s fun to hunt for collectibles, to learn the visual language of a game you’re playing so you can speak it fluently enough to discover hints and clues. But Crash 4 simply doesn’t have that language. There’s so much pizazz and excitement all over the place, and the crates almost seem like an afterthought unless they’re directly part of a stage’s action. So when it comes time to hunt down the crates, sometimes a couple hundred or more of them in one go, it feels like you’re playing a meta game against the person who placed them rather than deciphering the game’s sense of logic. Having to flail around and tilt the camera every which way in a futile attempt to find several dozen boxes only to miss one or two and have to play the whole level over just sucks, man. I mean, just look at this:
just a taste of the non-stop garbage in this game which makes collecting anything a miserable slog, almost every level has done something like this pic.twitter.com/2a1aIV8Xdl
— [B L A Z I N G] Matt Leslie (@Lesmocon) October 5, 2020
I don’t think this game is anywhere near “garbage” personally, nor do I think it’d be fair to boil this matter down to “crates are hard so this nerd is docking points.” It wouldn’t be so bad if the rewards weren’t so good! Most of Crash 4’s Skins are goofy, funny, or weird in a way that’s still funny, so on and so forth. They’re pretty substantial changes to the models too, ranging from Crash wearing a whole chicken suit to various costumes based on the bosses you face. They’re a lot of fun, and it would be great to be able to fit them in more organically as you get through the game. Instead you’re forced to do the Crash Bandicoot version of bombing every bush in the original Legend of Zelda, and you’re still going to fail in most cases. That, or you can resort to YouTube. My heart goes out to everyone trying to write text guides for these crates, because you better believe I ain’t about to do that to myself.
The crates should be a small issue, as getting 100% in a game really isn’t a big deal unless you decide it is. But Crash 4 is super loud about getting those gems, and has multiple UI elements dangling those skins in front of your face. It’s like the game knows it’s a pain in the ass, and wants to taunt you every step of the way. And when you look back at the older games, you see the huge difference in sensibilities for this kind of thing. It’s demoralizing to even think about trying in some levels.
But while getting to play with Skins is an annoying ordeal, playing as the different characters in Crash 4 is not. While Crash and Coco are your primary avatars, every now and then you’ll be able to take over another character such as Cortex or a punked-out Tawna from an alternate timeline. Each of these characters handles differently and has different abilities, which is another way Toys for Bob uses a gimmicky idea while staying within the Crash Bandicoot framework. Tawna is especially fun to play as, due to her wall-jumping, grappling hook, and cool jump kick. Another neat thing about the other characters is that sometimes a weird disruption will happen in a normal level, then later as a side character you’ll get to see them initiate that disruption. Then you swap back over to Crash/Coco and play a slightly different version of the level. It’s neat, but again, just a new way to present the classic gameplay.
This is a tough one to assign a number to. Most of my complaining here is about one specific issue, but it’s an issue that clouds over the entire Crash 4 experience. But I’m having fun with everything else! It’s so weird how in ways such as the new Modern mode (infinite lives) you’d think Crash 4 might be pretty low-pressure, then the hidden crates require omniscience and some boss fights expect perfect execution or kill you in one shot for small mistakes. Then when I’m just jumping around and getting blown up by TNT crates or checking out the next mask power, I’m having a lot of fun! Even the bonus stages and other side content, which are largely about box-breaking as a big puzzle to solve, are super satisfying to mess around with and figure out.
What I think it boils down to is this: Toys for Bob was on a mission to make a new Crash Bandicoot. What does that even mean? Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time goes to great lengths to mirror the look and feel of those original three games, with lots of extra visual flourish and new ideas. And for the most part, the team did a great job capturing the spirit. But while I think Toys for Bob succeeded in replicating the look and feel of Mr. Bandicoot, I don’t think it hit the mark on replicating the language or philosophies in the world around him. Levels are either way too long, have illogically placed collectibles, too visually noisy, or all of the above. And the game does everything it can to accidentally make those problems stand out over all the good stuff.
If you just let Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time wash over you, you’ll probably have a great time. But if you want to dig in more beneath the surface, or dress Crash up like a pirate, you’ll be leaving that great time behind.
- Looks and feels like an “authentic” Crash Bandicoot game straight outta the 90s
- Features like text and UI size, highlighting Crash’s shadow, and counting deaths instead of limiting lives all make for a smooth ride
- New abilities and other sections thrown in to mix up the core play are fun, distinct, and don’t disrupt that Crash Bandicoot framework
- Levels are surprisingly long, which becomes an issue when replaying for gems and things like Time Attack.
- The entire crate situation is deeply frustrating on multiple levels
- All the visual noise combined and the Crash Bandicoot color pallette sometimes mix together to make spotting important things difficult
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review