Even as someone who had limited experience and interest in the Crash Bandicoot series, I was incredibly excited when Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time was revealed. The polished aesthetics and gameplay as well as the confidence exuded by developer Toys for Bob made the game seem like a true labor of love. Thankfully that perception turned out to be true, as Crash 4 is a remarkably solid platformer that any fan of the genre should check out.
Being a 3-D platformer that focuses on linear, obstacle course-like design rather than open sandbox environments, Crash 4 has an immediate pick-up-and-play feel. The controls are smooth and responsive, and they let players make tiny micro-adjustments in air control to easily platform with precision. The levels are densely packed with challenges and secrets to uncover, which means excessive downtime is rarely an issue. The game has a razor-sharp focus on platforming as it keeps genre shifts and other extracurricular activities to a minimum. In stark contrast to the plethora of AAA titles with complex systems such as leveling mechanics, Crash 4 has a pure simplicity to it reminiscent of an old NES or SNES title.
What makes Crash 4’s gameplay especially interesting is how quickly the mechanics ramp up in challenge and complexity. In the third level, the game introduces the first mask power, which is the ability to shift between two sets of dimensional platforms. The average AAA platformer would normally ease the player into a major gameplay mechanic like this with a stage featuring the simplest challenges associated with that mechanic. However, this level already has players using the mask power in surprisingly intricate ways, such as a section where they must use the dimension shift to pass through a wall right before shifting again to land on a platform above an abyss. Taken on its own, this section is not terribly complex, but it’s a relatively demanding section for this point in the game, and the dimension shifting challenges only get more elaborate later on. Sections like this really highlight how strong the level design is; the game wastes little time teaching players before challenging them, which keeps the pacing fast and engaging.
The game’s difficulty is probably the major aspect that will either attract players or turn them away. Crash 4 is an incredibly challenging game; it regularly requires players to become fully familiar with the characters’ abilities, and the level designs frequently demand very precise maneuvers. I would not be surprised if many decide to pick up the game only to give up on it entirely because of its high difficulty level. However, that very challenge is a large part of the game’s appeal. The twitch reflexes demanded of you and the many do-or-die situations keep the brain active and lead to a sense of catharsis when conquered. With a couple of rare exceptions, every death feels like a result of player error rather than poor hazard placement or wonky collision. The levels also rarely focus on a single idea or mechanic, requiring the player to constantly adapt to new situations. This high challenge combined with the sheer length and quantity of levels mean that the core mechanics are realized to their full potential. No gameplay element feels underdeveloped, and by the time players finish the game, they will have grown significantly since they first started.
The game also benefits from a staggering amount of content. The base game features ten worlds, each with around two to six levels to complete. Every level also contains six gems that players can obtain through various means, such as dying three times or less or breaking all of the level’s crates. Collectible flashback tapes also grant players access to optional stages that are even tougher than the main game. It’s safe to say that the game has plenty of replay value, but much of the game’s extra content involves reused assets, which are incorporated with mixed results. Every stage has an “N. Verted” variant that mirrors the layout and experiments with a wide variety of absolutely gorgeous visual styles depending on the world. Although the experience of playing these remixed stages is mostly the same, these visual filters give levels wildly different moods that are all worth experiencing. I’m more conflicted on the Timeline stages; they grant more chances to play as the extra playable characters, but the second half of each of these stages features a level segment that players have already played before. These reused level segments do have story justifications and the crate layouts are changed to compensate, but they feel redundant nonetheless, especially considering how much incentive there is to replay stages already.
The game unfortunately suffers from some technical issues. It is meant to be uncapped at 60 frames per second; however, it was clearly optimized with a PS4 Pro in mind, as the game will rarely reach that target framerate when played on a base PS4. The game also features incredibly long load times, which can quickly become tiring, especially when restarting levels for 100% completion bonuses. The game also, ironically enough, crashed on me once during my initial playthrough. Experiences with this may vary, and a recent patch may have addressed this issue.
I would be remiss not to mention Crash 4’s fantastic art direction. In contrast to the N. Sane Trilogy’s realistic textures, Crash 4 features a more stylized look more befitting of the series’ cartoon inspirations. Levels like the Mardi Gras-inspired level really pop thanks to this new aesthetic, and it helps make each stage memorable in its own right. Animation is wonderfully snappy and Roger Rabbit-esque, and the enemy designs are incredibly inventive and zany.
All in all, Crash 4 is an incredible franchise revival that does more than just tug at nostalgic heartstrings. It takes the base Crash mechanics and pushes them farther than I would have thought possible. Those looking for a more laidback experience may want to look elsewhere, but those open to the game’s challenge will likely come away more than satisfied.
Score: 9 out of 10
Reviewed on PlayStation 4