There comes a time in your life when you no longer love every piece of media you consume. As a child, you don’t mind whatever slop gets thrown on in front of you. As you get older, though, your palette develops, and what may have been fine as a kid, no longer works for you. One of the first times I realized this for myself was playing Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, the Traveller’s Tales-developed sequel released in 2001. Despite loving the original trilogy, this lackluster entry soured me on the franchise, and it wasn’t until the release of the N’Sane Trilogy in 2017 that I fell back in love with the series. Activision apparently sensed that I was not alone in this regard, which explains why they commissioned developer Toys for Bob to craft Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, which effectively erases everything about the series from the post-Naughty Dog era.
After rebuilding the original trilogy from the ground-up, Toys for Bob was easily the best choice to helm a new entry in the series. They have a grasp of the gameplay quirks that made the original trio as beloved as they are. However, instead of being beholden to the designs of the Naughty Dog entries, they are now free to experiment with their own ideas. This means not only bringing in additional characters to play as, but also the Quantum Masks, which put a whole new spin on the series’ platforming.
The traditional Crash Bandicoot gameplay is still alive and well for the majority of the campaign. Crash and Coco are still known for their crate smashing, enemy stomping, and spin dashing ways. The core gameplay of these two feels as good here as it did in the N’Sane Trilogy, which is the best you could want from this sequel. However, these iconic moves are only part of the classic formula. The other part of it is the level design itself. If that falls short of the mark, then no matter how good the characters feel, the game will always feel a little off. Thankfully, Toys For Bob nailed this with equal excellence.
The key to why levels are as good as they are is that they perfectly straddle the line between difficult and enjoyable. I’m not going to lie, Crash Bandicoot 4 chewed me up and spat me out at numerous times, with the second half of the campaign featuring some of the most challenging levels in the history of the franchise. Despite the frustration these stages evoked, I never wanted to stop trying to push forward. The satisfaction I got from finally clearing a troublesome section is part of what drove me to continue, but it’s also due to how thrilling these levels can be. The demand for perfectly precise platforming gives the title a thrilling, but enjoyable, vibe.
The presence of the four new Quantum Masks adds plenty of variety to the traditional platforming. Each mask has its own unique ability, and each one changes how you would typically approach more traditional platforming sections. The first one you come across is Lani-Loli, which lets you phase certain objects in and out of existence when in use. As stated, the platforming by itself is already plenty challenging on its own. Now, you’ll have to make sure you phase in the right object to hop on? Oof. The other masks, which do things such as slow time and alter gravity, similarly force you to rethink how you approach a section. The only mask I really didn’t care for was ‘Akano, which is the second one you obtain. When activated, you turn into a whirling dervish of chaos that can jump further and smash reinforced crates. The problem is that while doing these things, you become a lot tougher to control. For a game built around accurate platforming, having something that throws your movements off course is a little too annoying at times.
Just for good measure, Crash Bandicoot 4 also switches things up at a regular pace, swapping out traditional “feet on the ground” platforming sections — most of these will be familiar to fans of the series, specifically the vehicle segments. One level has you riding a jetski through turbulent waters, while another has you hopping on a beast to gallop across an alien world. Other new mechanics include rail grinding, wall running, and rope swinging. I’m all for switching things up on a constant basis — variety is the spice of life after all. However, these portions tend to shine a light on the game’s most annoying aspect — its camera system. Oftentimes, it feels like Toys for Bob is purposely giving you cruddy camera angles to obscure hazards, and considering that you’ll die with just one hit, the combination can be deadly.
In spite of how frustrating It’s About Time can get, besides just being enjoyable to play, the personality of each level helps ease the pain. Toys for Bob has done an excellent job of filling each world with fun details and lush visual design. Whether it is something you spot in the distance or an animation quirk for one of the enemies, you can’t but help to feel that the world is alive. Perhaps the best thing about it is that I think it looks like a very well animated cartoon. The series has always had the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon, and it’s nice to see that the visuals can finally match that.
When you’re not hopping around as the main duo, you’ll be exploring side stories with three additional playable characters. Tawna, Crash’s former girlfriend, gets a fresh alternate dimension make-over, former baddie Dingodile pops out of retirement upon getting stuck in all of this mayhem, and main villain Neo Cortex makes a late-game face turn. Each of these characters has their own unique skills that make them feel sufficiently different from the two main heroes. Tawna has a grappling hook that can get her to new heights and stun enemies. Dingodile wields a firearm that lets him glide a short distance and suck up boxes. Neo Cortex has the most unique weapon of all: a laser gun that can transform enemies into platforms.
I’m glad that these side stories exist, though I’m also glad that they don’t make up the vast majority of the campaign. I don’t mind the Tawna sections, as they are the most similar to the classic gameplay. However, both Dingodile and N. Cortex take some time to get used to. They lack the agility of the Bandicoots, which makes their platforming both slower and more frustrating. Again, I think these additions are nice to have, and I hope if there’s a sequel, Toys for Bob expands it. However, if they do, I’m hoping these mechanics get a second pass to better match the style of gameplay that best suits the franchise.
It should come as no surprise that Crash Bandicoot 4 doesn’t wrap up once you finish the main campaign. After you survive the core set of levels, there’s still plenty of bonus objectives to complete. Each level has gems for you to collect that are mostly obtained by completing optional objectives, which range from completing a level with less than three deaths to smashing every box. And once you do that for the regular levels, you get to do it again in the new N. Verted Mode. Essentially a mirror mode with twisted visuals, these need to be completed in order to fully unlock everything the game has to offer. Finally, Flashback Tapes can be found tucked away in certain levels. They help explain the relationship between Coco and Crash and Neo Cortex, while also providing a brutal challenge.
The wait for a new Crash Bandicoot title has been long and winding, but I can safely say it was worth it. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time slots right in alongside the original trilogy in terms of quality. The platforming is perfectly precise and will challenge even the most seasoned fans of the genre. Where it really shines, though, are the additional flourishments — from the gorgeous visual design to revamped character profiles, Toys for Bob was able to fully flesh out Crash’s fantastical world. There are still kinks that need to be hammered out — specifically the occasional camera issue — but it’s safe to say the series is now safely back on track. Between this and the N’Sane Trilogy, I’m excited to see where the franchise can go from here.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Activision.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time is just as well crafted as the original beloved trilogy. It'll challenge even the most seasoned of gamers, but thanks to precise platforming and top-notch visual design, the pain is always worth it.