It says a lot about Crash Bandicoot 4 that I'm now riddled with a seemingly incurable case of 90's nostalgia. This canonical sequel to Naughty Dog's original trilogy is nothing if not a romantic throwback to the platformers of that era, yet walks the line between homage and iteration with as much poise and confidence as our Bandicoot's own death-defying acrobatics. In other words, yes, this is the Crash game you've been waiting over two decades to play, but it's so much more than that too.
Release date: October 2, 2020
Platform: PS4, Xbox One
Publisher/Developer: Activision/Toys for Bob
Speaking of decades, you'd be wise to forget every Crash game to have come out since 1998, since Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time takes place directly after the events of Crash Bandicoot: Warped. There are some nice in-game nods to the character's uneven history of various spinoffs and reboots, but for the most part this story is a return to the age-old conflict between team Cortex and team Bandicoot, after the former breaks the very fabric of space-time itself, and needs to be thwarted once again.
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While there's a tad more dialogue than you might expect from a Crash game, with characters like Coco becoming more involved in her brother's misadventures (you can switch between playing as either of the siblings throughout the campaign), Crash Bandicoot 4's bright and breezy caper is easy to get caught up in. The jokes land, the Saturday Morning cartoon-style cutscenes are a delight, and the multiverse-hopping conceit proves a great platform for developer Toys for Bob to stretch its creative muscles.
The advantages of the multiverse also lends Crash 4 with a pleasing sense of visual variety. Transporting our heroes (and villains) throughout time and space, from junkyard dystopias to neofuturist megacities, I was always excited to learn where the 20-odd hour romp would be taking me next. It all looks delightful, too, drenched in colour, and brought to life by expressive animation, not to mention an earworm of a score that offers clever, contextual twists on Crash's classic theme.
Similarly, Crash's familiar blend of 3D and 2.5D platforming has been refined and diversified, largely thanks to the four new Quantum Masks awoken by Cortex's multiverse machinations. There's Lani Loli, for example, who can phase objects in and out of existence, or my personal favourite, Akano, who upgrades Crash's iconic spin ability into a dark matter-charged whirlwind capable of pirouetting you high into the air.
It's About Time's level design puts these new abilities to fantastic use, presenting precarious parkour gauntlets that demand expert fluency of Crash's new moveset, which now includes double jumping, rope swinging, and even wall running. Boss fights, chase sequences, and vehicle levels are also a great highlight, not least because of their production spectacle, and the fact it's always fun to see what Crash will be riding, fighting, or running from next.
In addition to Crash and Coco, players can jump into special Timeline Event levels as Cortex, Dingodile, or Tawna, revealing how each of the characters help or hinder our heroes on their journey through the multiverse. All three come with their own unique moveset, and thus offer both radically different challenges and play styles from Crash's own, be it using Cortex's iconic ray gun or Tawna's gravity-defying grapple hook.
That said, the Timeline Events often feel like they're over before they've properly begun, reaching their interaction with the Bandicoot's own adventures before forcing you to replay the second half of the level as Crash or Coco again. That structure is an odd choice, as I'd have much preferred spending the entire mission as one of the new characters, the joys of playing as whom extend well beyond mere visual novelty.
Oh, and for those wondering, Crash 4 absolutely meets the same, deceptively high difficulty threshold as its predecessors (you're going to die, a lot), but Toys for Bob has wisely introduced an equaliser to Crash's often unforgiving sense of challenge in the form of Modern Mode. This alternative playstyle setting removes the finite life system and Game Over states of the series' tradition, and restarts players at the last checkpoint whenever they die, with Extra Life crates now replaced by Golden Wumpa fruit.
The original system is still there in the form of Classic Mode, of course, and you can switch freely between the two at any point from the main menu, but I chose Modern Mode early on during the campaign, and haven't looked back since.
The safety net it offers worked as a natural encouragement for me to take more risks with hidden areas, focus on collecting every crate to unlock more Gems, and keep practicing any particularly tricky jump without having to worry about restarting the level entirely.
This may sound like heresy to Crash enthusiasts, but even those who will stick solely to the Classic system can at least appreciate the reason for Modern Mode's existence, which allows more people to enjoy everything that It's About Time has to offer at their own pace and proficiency.
As for me, Classic Mode sounds like a great option for my already planned re-run, especially now that I know the layout of each level, and have refined my mastery of Crash' skillset through the trial and error shenanigans that Modern Mode accommodates for.
Time well spent
In fact, the sheer breadth of content goes above and beyond what is expected from a mainline Crash game. On top of everything else, Toys for Bob has thrown in lore expanding Flashback Tape levels, replay modifiers known as N.Verse Modes, a vast wardrobe of costumes for Crash and Coco, pass-the-pad multiplayer modes, and a Time Trial system, in addition to other secrets which I won't spoil here. Taken together, there's over 100 levels of play on offer here, and goodness knows how many hours of replay value for completionists.
It's honestly quite hard to identify any major shortcomings for Crash 4, so efficient as it is at delivering on all the promises of a Bandicoot sequel. I will say that not everyone is going to be happy with Toys for Bob's decision to stick with the old-school kinaesthetics that also stirred a fair amount of contention in 2017's Crash N.Sane Trilogy, and there will be moments where Crash 4's laws of physics will rub you up the wrong way. Visual aids, such as a handy marker showing where Crash will land when airborne, have offset those frustrations greatly, but there were a few deaths that felt less like my mistake, and more a symptom of the series' infrequently unreliable collision detection.
Nitpicks aside, though, Crash 4 earns its title as a worthy sequel to Warped, one that preserves the series' timeless charms while bringing bold iteration where it's needed. Toys for Bob's clear love and understanding of what makes Crash tick manifests in every aspect of It's About Time's design, but to call it a love letter would be to unfairly gloss over the important strides it makes for the franchise itself. Instead, this is exactly the sequel I could imagine Naughty Dog wishing it had made 20 years ago, and one that can stand proudly alongside the best of the Bandicoot's back catalogue.