Saturday, February 27, 2021

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time (PS4, XB1) Review

I've gotten a handful of requests as to when SPC would cover this next game. One might say its subtitle fits this review as well as the actual game being covered! Finally, I can publish this, SPC's review of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. Enjoy.

Time is mostly on this Bandicoot's side.

Well, this is awkward. Here I am reviewing Crash Bandicoot's latest console release on my birthday, and it's pretty much old news by now (the game--not my birthday). After all, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series, PC, and Nintendo Switch versions of the game are releasing next month, and here's my review of the original PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions instead! There's a good reason for this, however, and it sort of leads me directly into my review.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time's subtitle has a clever double meaning. Not only do we finally have an all-new Crash game in the vein of Naughty Dog's trilogy, but the story revolves around time travel. Doctors N. Tropy and Neo Cortex have cooked up a plan to erase not only their mutual enemy Crash Bandicoot but also existence itself. Of course, our goofy but loveable hero Crash Bandicoot alongside Coco Bandicoot are more than ready to put a stop to the villains' plot. Along the way our heroes meet up with various masks that assist them in their adventure, as well as some allies from the unlikeliest of sources. The game has somewhat of a Saturday morning cartoon feel, save for some out of place swearing such as the use of "hell", "damn", and "bastards" which are present for some odd reason. Regardless, the humor hits way more than it misses, bringing with it a jolly fun atmosphere which unfortunately clashes with the actual nature of Crash 4's gameplay.

Immediately in Crash 4's starting level, the game drops all pretense that it will hide crates in fair locations.
You see, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a devilishly difficult game. It will have you cursing, calling things unfair, and just throwing your hands up in the air, questioning your life choices. But, you'll pretty much be having fun doing so as you push through the pain of multiple deaths, ruined runs, and frustrating moment after moment. 

For some players, Crash 4's difficulty might be too much.
For others, they might enjoy getting their butt kicked and then demand for some more!
Well, that is unless you're a completionist, which in the case of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, the developers seem to have taken the wrong cues from Naughty Dog's trilogy. For one, one of the more enjoyable aspects of playing a Crash Bandicoot game to completion is busting up all of the crates in a level. Unfortunately, this is more of a pain than it is enjoyable in Crash 4's case. So many crates are hidden in some really cruel locations that are way too easy to miss on a first play-through--and heck, even on subsequent play-throughs. Additionally, this is compounded by the fact that levels are just too darn long in general. This is great for normal play, but when you're aiming to crash through every crate in one play-through of a level and end up with several crates missing by the level's end (or worse, just one crate missing), it is a total motivation and mood killer.

This dino "mite" make Crash want to pick up the pace here!
If there's one word the developers of Crash Bandicoot 4 don't have in their vocabulary, it's "restraint". Between the copious amounts of crates hidden and scattered all over the way-too-long levels, and the requirements for obtaining the game's best ending, Toys for Bob did not pick up the best lessons from Naughty Dog's trilogy. Crash 4 seems more of a game for the most seasoned, most dedicated, most patient Crash player out there, which unfortunately isn't a wide net to cast. Some of the things the game asks you to do are just ridiculous, whether it's completing levels with three or less deaths, breaking all of the crates, finding the hidden gem (usually placed in an incredibly clever location), or worse, having to do all of this in one run, it's absolutely nuts. 

Early on in my time with Crash 4, I just said "forget it" and actively avoided searching for secrets in levels, which doesn't seem like the developer's intent here. And if it was, it seems misguided, as one would think you'd want players to enjoy as much of the content of your game as possible. Instead, I ignored it since it was so obnoxious. Even the act of playing levels normally is full of so many "gotcha" moments, such as nitro crates being just out of sight that cause you to die just from touching them, platforms that fall moments after standing on them, and other middle fingers from the level designers that either require prior knowledge that they're coming up or insanely fast reflexes. It's more about trial and error than being able to reasonably complete a level on your first try, which many of you may disagree, but I don't find that to be a good design. When you have to play a level multiple times just to have an idea of what tricks and traps await you, it's just tedious and annoying. 

Crash likes to live dangerously as he enjoys the daily grind.
That all notwithstanding, I did find plenty to enjoy with Crash Bandicoot 4 despite my issues with the trial and error level design, lengthy as heck levels, and "N. Sane" completion requirements. Levels themselves have plenty of clever ideas in them. I really adore the theming on display, from the starting temple levels, to the pirate world, to the dinosaur realm, to a futuristic city. It's all well done, and the obstacles are various and plenty to keep levels feeling fresh. One of my favorite levels in the game featured a New Orleans-style city as Crash ran and leaped through alleyways and on top of rooftops and musical instruments. It was a festive atmosphere that I really dug, and it was enjoyable to play. There were still some "ha, ha, ha, we got you, player" moments from the level designers, but that was expected unfortunately.

Oh, big whoop. You clowns can juggle, but have you beaten Crash 4 with 106% completion?
I didn't think so! (Well, me neither, since that's no easy task!)
Crash and alternatively Coco has all of their abilities from Crash 2 and on. There's a jump and subsequent double jump, a slide, the ability to slide into a jump to increase distance, and of course, the patented Bandicoot spin and ground pound smash attacks. 

Leaping in any kind of 3D space can be quite challenging, so Toys for Bob smartly added a yellow shadow underneath the player to help gauge depth for all the platforming involved in the game. This yellow shadow is completely optional and can be turned off. Further to make the game more manageable, players can choose between a classic or modern mode, which turns on or off the player's lives counter. In modern mode, you can "happily" die as many times as you want. You even gain extra hits and more checkpoints depending on how many times you die in between checkpoint crates. Meanwhile, classic mode features the same rules of Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot trilogy, where collecting Wumpa Fruit is basically mandatory to rack up enough lives to survive the entirety of the game. 

Crash and Coco (as well as the player themselves) are shortly introduced to the concept of masks in Crash Bandicoot 4, and this is a nice shakeup to the gameplay. Each mask found serves essentially as a power-up. One mask temporarily slows time to allow our heroes the chance to cross otherwise speedy platforms. Another mask causes gravity to switch, flipping our heroes upside down and right-side up at the press of a button. Then, there's the earliest mask which phases in and out specific platforms, obstacles, and crates. This requires switching between phases to make certain objects solid and others transparent. Masks aren't available to use at your leisure; they appear at specific points in levels and Crash/Coco lose their abilities at specific points as well in levels. By the end of the game, you'll be switching between masks quickly in one of the most difficult levels (if not THE most difficult level) in Crash series history.

Even old Bandicoots can learn new tricks with this wall-running ability.
Apart from Crash and Coco, Crash Bandicoot 4 features three other playable characters that show up every once and a while in the adventure. There's Tawna, who shows up from the future with a delightful new look, and has the ability to grapple enemies and pull herself across chasms. She can also jump along specially marked walls. Then, there's Dingodile, who uses a vacuum-like weapon to suck up and spit out crates of all varieties, save for those dreaded Nitro crates that will make this particular playable character "after while, crocodile" instead. Finally, there's Neo Cortex himself, who begrudgingly joins Crash's cause. His blaster can turn enemies into both solid platforms and platforms to bounce off of. He can also utilize a dash to propel himself across gaps with relative ease. Of the three other playable characters, I would say that Cortex feels the least polished in execution. Without a proper double jump for Cortex, you really lack the precision required for the game. 

And even familiar faces can get fresh new looks as seen here with Tawna!
Crash Bandicoot 4, even on the base PlayStation 4, which is the system I played the game on, runs remarkably well. It's a really beautiful game, too, showcasing a gorgeous cartoony visual style. Environments are jaw-dropping with the amount of details plastered all over, and the characters look greater than they have ever looked in the entirety of the series' history. Music-wise, things aren't the best, but if you ask me--which you didn't, but I'm giving you my opinion anyway--I don't believe the Crash series ever had a strong soundtrack in it. I would draw a complete blank if you asked me to hum any tune I heard in Crash 4, and I played the game for quite a good while.

Vibrant and full of color, thy name is Crash Bandicoot 4.
Despite an intense difficulty and level of challenge, constant trial and error gameplay with the game's lengthy levels, obnoxious crate placements, and questionable completion requirements, I ultimately enjoyed my time with Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. But, to be honest, the reason it took me so long to even review this game was that I definitely needed some breaks from it. Crash's latest--with its difficulty, with its myriad "gotcha" moments, and such--just wore on me way too much. Levels are just way lengthier than they should be, and no matter how great they look, how well designed some aspects of them are, and how interesting the obstacles present themselves, it just got exhausting to play through them for any prolonged stretch of time. While Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time was, for me, an enjoyable game with some great design here and there, its overall difficulty makes me question who this game is actually for other than diehard Crash fans and those with a severe masochistic side. Still, it's hard to ignore the quality on display here. 

[SPC Says: B-]

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