Despite the title, the setup doesn’t really deal with time but counterintuitively dimensions. Following on from the 100% ending of Crash Bandicoot Warped, Uka Uka manages to smash a hole in reality, freeing Cortex and N. Tropy from their primordial prison. They assemble the old evil gang and plan their all conquering plan du jour. Sensing the disturbance, Aku Aku guides Crash and Coco toward the quantum masks so that reality can be healed.
What’s impressive right off the bat is that Crash Bandicoot 4 manages to feel quietly next gen while still being recognisable as a follow up to that original trilogy from three console generations ago; with the first level being a retread of the very first level in the original game but with the scale and scope noticeably expanded. The textures are lusher, the jungle denser, the animations more fluid. And as the familiar level gives way to new, more expansive environments and challenges you feel both immediately at home and comfortably at the foot of something new.
Aside from the obvious ability to swap to Coco at any point, the gameplay is largely unchanged from the first two. The method of gaining new, permanent weapons and abilities from 3 is gone, replaced with a consistent base set of moves that is occasionally augmented with the quantum mask abilities. These are contextual abilities – like phasing parts of the environment in and out, slowing time or a toggleable more powerful spin – that you gain for portions of levels.
While their novelty is nice, in practice they can be a bit frustrating as, for the most part, each just makes what was never the most precise platforming in the world additionally fiddly; but each in their own uniquely irksome way. The phase and gravity abilities add an additional button and sense of direction to have to concentrate while attempting jumps. Or in the spin’s case, it can work as a glide of sorts. It really puts your tolerance for the slide-y way characters land on tiny platforms in these games to a test.
There really isn’t much more to say about the primary gameplay, they definitely opted for a if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it approach. For better or worse in some cases but a bit more on that later. You still romp through a handful of levels in a variety of themed worlds and then face a colourful boss. The Doof Warrior esque battle against N. Gin in the Mad Max-inspired world being a particularly colourful highlight. And in terms of next-gen-ness, the Mardi Gras level with its musical trappings worked into the hazards feels like a truly polished and fully 3D version of something out of the recent Rayman games.
The big change is in the additional “timelines” levels. These see you controlling other characters with their own unique playstyles; such as a modernised version of Tawna and her hook-shot or Dingodile and his gun – which I definitely remember being a flamethrower in previous games but which operates more like a limited version of the Half Life gravity gun in Crash Bandicoot 4. But the Cortex levels are probably the standout. Full disclosure: I’ve always – since my earliest days – been a big Cortex stan but even with that bias he’s the MVP of this game. He gets the best lines, his animation and vocal performance make him a joy to watch/hear whenever he shows up and he gets the most drastically altered gameplay. Basically he can turn enemies into platforms or bounce pads (the visual of which is just that tiny bit disturbing and not a little Rick and Morty esque) to make up for his lack of a double-jump. It’s an enjoyable shakeup.
There’s only a handful of these timelines and really each character only gets one full level to themselves with the rest being a mix of these new characters and Crash/Coco going through the second half of a level you’ve already played but with more hazards.
And this leads into Crash Bandicoot 4’s potentially biggest issue; the need to replay levels so very many times for the numerous, unending collectibles. Gone are the days of a level crystal, the time trial relics and a gem (maybe two on some levels). Now it’s six gems per level; one for all the boxes, one for finishing it in three lives or less, three for collecting certain percentages of the Wumpa fruit in a level and a random hidden one somewhere in the stage. Oh and then you unlock the inverted version of each level which is the same level but with different hazard box layouts, a weird filter, mirrored shift in the level orientation and each of those has additional six gems. And there’s flashback tapes which you have to collect in order to unlock a further twenty one short and murderously difficult levels.
If you were supernaturally gifted/lucky at the game you could get all six gems in a single run of a level – oh and there’s an additional collectible it doesn’t immediately tell you about for doing just that in every level – but with inverted stages and the time trials, you’d be looking at a very minimum of three times through every one of the (often surprisingly long) levels. But you won’t manage that because these games are infamous for cheap deaths, bad luck and literally invisible crates that lead to a high pitched scream at seeing you’ve missed a single box after spending over half an hour on a single damn level dying over and over again trying to finish a bonus round.
Eventually an insidious thought crept in. Starting every level with a sigh, looking at the checklist of busywork and knowing you won’t really be able to ‘enjoy’ the level until likely your second or third playthrough when you aren’t attempting to break the literal hundreds of boxes per level and fill the Wumpa fruit bar to it’s collectible-relevant degree… this isn’t a million miles away from a Lego game.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Lego game. Those initial Star Wars ones are especially quite delightful as they try to tell you the plot using comically unsubtle props, slapstick and grunts. That said, if you play enough of those games the repetitiveness of the core gameplay does grind you down and sadly Crash Bandicoot 4 risks doing something similar to its players. The key difference is of course that Lego games don’t really have a fail state. Crash Bandicoot 4 very much does. A controller-snapping, new-swear-word-inventing level of difficulty at points. So a Lego game by way of FromSoftware then.
Suggested Reading: Why are Cuphead and Crash the New Dark Souls?
Aside from this more existential disagreement I may have with Crash Bandicoot 4, there are a few more strictly technical issues. What’s most disappointing about these issues is that they’ve not only been with the franchise from it’s very inception but were also frequently pointed toward in criticisms of the N. Sane Trilogy. While an argument could have been made for preserving them there for the sake of posterity, it feels like an active failure here.
Failures like the age old issue of perspective not quite being what it needs to be, leading to vagueness about how near or far enemies or platforms are when moving forward. Or when in more side-scrolling mode, a lack of the game locking you to the centre of the plane so that you can’t fall off toward or away from the screen. A slight concession is made in this area in the form of an indicator that shows where you’re going to land. It at least shows they were aware of the issues but in practice it doesn’t help as much as it could. Nonetheless it’s a welcome addition, however small. And mercifully they seem to have nearly fully eradicated the issue in the N. Sane Trilogy of Crash’s “smooth” hitbox causing him to slide off ledges.
Then there’s the difficulty. These games are of course known for it. As to the old debate of whether these are games of skill or simply luck, well, that debate remains unresolved by Crash Bandicoot 4 (but if pushed I’d lean toward luck). Even with the lives system abandoned – you can still turn it back on if you really hate yourself that much – this game is HARD. The bonus areas in levels quickly ramp up to absurd trick-shot levels of skill being required to navigate them, let alone collect all the boxes they house. And toward the end simply surviving a stage becomes a legitimate challenge. The most apt point of comparison for how this one compares to the original three is that this is an equivalent jump in difficulty to that infamous second Mario game they never released outside Japan because they thought Westerners would find it too difficult.
On the plus (?) side said difficulty did eventually free me from my urge to collect as it became sufficiently grueling to merely complete a level that it was glaringly obvious that the additional layers of challenge the collectibles posed was not one I’d conquer in this lifetime or with these mortal reflexes. And patience. The PS4 would end up out the window before I reached the game’s taunting 106% completion.
The unlockable skins are a pleasant addition and since you’ve two bandicoots to unlock for, you’ll not be short of a to-do list. At time of writing Crash Bandicoot 4 remains free from monetization and all the skins are unlockable in game though given the amount of gems per level, it’s easy to see where a premium currency would/may yet have gone. That said I wish Crash Bandicoot 4 merely stacked the gems you’d earned as a currency and you could have bought skins at your choosing rather than locking individual skins to getting a majority of the gems on any given level but in the grand scheme its a minor quibble.
I want to be very clear, this game is nowhere near bad. It’s mostly quite polished and charming and adds more variety to the traditional gameplay than could have been hoped for or expected. The level design is solid, the most is made of the advancements in graphics and detailing and the music is still a treat. It builds on the core structure of the original games in a smart way while staying recognisably within their comfort zone. And Cortex is great and should get his own game. It’s just… the difficulty can truly border on the outrageous and the collectibles on the obnoxious.
So while it’s nominally a game about time, Crash Bandicoot 4 sometimes feels like an exercise in wasting it.