Crash Bandicoot sequel sticks to its polished but flawed platforming
By GIESON CACHO | The Mercury News | Published: October 30, 2020
When it comes to video game mascots, Mario will always be king while Sonic runs a close second. Master Chief is part of that constellation and, somewhere down the line, fans end up with Crash Bandicoot.
The one-time face of PlayStation has never reached that rarefied mascot strata, but his résumé is surprisingly expansive. He’s appeared on kart racers, party games and spinoffs. No longer a console-exclusive mascot, he has a following loyal enough that when Vicarious Visions remastered his first three titles as the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, it was a hit. Name recognition and nostalgia are powerful things.
It was successful enough that Activision published the first new Crash Bandicoot platformer in more than a decade. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time follows the events of the original trilogy, where major villains Uka Uka, Doctor Neo Cortex and N. Tropy are imprisoned. The most powerful of them, Uka Uka, tries to break free and in the process cracks the dimensional barrier.
It creates a rift in space-time that allows Cortex and N. Trophy to escape. They discover the multiverse and set out to conquer it. Aku Aku, Crash’s mentor, senses the disruption and that brings Crash; his sister, Coco; and others on a romp through alternate timelines. They’ll discover familiar faces from other worlds and come across locales new and old.
The premise allows the developer, Toys for Bob, to play around with the lore. Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend, gets a better backstory and more prominent role as the hero in an alternate universe where the bandicoots are dead. Elsewhere, Cortex temporarily teams up with Crash and Dingodile, a foe turned friend, joins the fray as he’s caught up in the transdimensional fighting.
Most of the time, players will control Crash or Coco through 43 main levels. The platforming has the strengths and the drawbacks of its predecessors. It’s not exactly free-form exploration like Super Mario 64, but instead, it’s more linear as players traverse levels through 10 worlds. Players have wiggle room to move around, but the game’s design can be frustrating as they learn the quirk of the jump mechanics.
Players will be jumping into the foreground or background, and those leaps are difficult to judge. Crash Bandicoot ups the ante in later stages layering in new obstacles such as a rail or new types of boxes. The biggest changes come from the Quantum Masks, masks that appear at certain intervals and grant you specific powers for a limited time. For example, one can bend gravity and another can slow down time. I especially loved the latter because it requires forethought and precision: During a snowy level, to find my way across a chasm I had to slow down time and climb atop falling ice slabs to get to the other side.
Crash Bandicoot 4 progresses in a way that lets players learn each power, but that mastery is tested further in the campaign as they must use each Quantum Mask consecutively. The difficulty, especially in Cortex Castle, is ridiculous at times. It feels impossible, but this sequel is built in such a way that players learn from their failures and allows them to succeed as long as they can execute.
Playing Crash Bandicoot on the Modern setting, in which players have infinite lives and generous checkpoints, is a must. For veterans and those who want a challenge, Retro brings back the old, brutal rules, in which players have limited lives and must restart from the beginning.
On Modern, I was able to explore more and experiment with how to solve the more challenging obstacles. I experimented with solutions for the complicated puzzles room that required precise timing or pinpoint platforming. Other times, I stumbled upon hidden paths and found collectible gems that unlock new skins for all the characters, giving them a different look.
Some of the best stages are the Flashback levels, which let players control Tawna, Cortex and Dingodile. The first half of these stages are original and put these secondary characters in the spotlight. They highlight their unique move sets and abilities, creating a nice change of pace from the normal bandicoot gameplay.
The Flashbacks show an alternate perspective of a level players have already played.
As one probably can tell, players shouldn’t go into Crash Bandicoot 4 expecting great storytelling. The story is secondary to the polished but flawed platforming. Measuring and executing jumps in the series has always been frustrating, and some parts of the levels are built on execution after trial and error. For nostalgia’s sake, Toys for Bob sticks with tried-and-true gameplay instead of going with something more experimental.
Despite that, Crash Bandicoot 4 has a way of sinking its claws into players, and the collectibles are the carrot that will push players to test their skills to destroy every crate or grab the Wumpa fruit. It’s a safe formula for a franchise that’s regaining its footing.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One