Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

After having become a Crash Bandicoot fan through the N. Sane Trilogy remaster, and having played Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, I was curious what direction Activision might take the IP after having remastered all four of the original Naughty Dog titles, since I was aware of the other games that came afterwards. This question was answered when Activision and developer Toys for Bob announced Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, presenting itself as a direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot: Warped that returns to the original style of gameplay while also low-key addressing the other titles with the premise of alternate dimensions. Due to the later micro-transaction implementation that occurred with Nitro-Fueled, which severely affected the overall experience in a negative way, my expectations were admittedly tempered for Crash Bandicoot 4 as a result, though I was still curious as to what direction the game would take itself. Upon getting to actually play it, it exceeded those expectations, however in what felt like an attempt to one-up the original trilogy, it did feel unnecessarily difficult at times.

Following the events of Crash Bandicoot: Warped, Dr. Neo Cortex, Dr. N. Tropy and Uka Uka remain trapped in another dimension, plotting their revenge. After spending a seemingly lengthy period of time there, Uka Uka finally opens a rift in space-time and collapses, allowing Cortex and N. Tropy to escape. Meanwhile, Crash and Coco are relaxing on the beach when Aku Aku warns them of the disturbance in space-time, requiring them to locate all four Quantum Masks in order to set things right.

The story presented in the game is very minimal, much like the original trilogy, however whatever is there is actually compelling to a degree. Of particular note is seeing what happens to minor antagonist Dingodile after the events of Warped, having given up evil and instead set his sights on owning a Bayou restaurant. Perhaps more notably, the game presents a playable version of Tawna, who had all but disappeared from the series following the original trilogy, albeit one from another dimension with some interesting character development of her own. The story in general also has a great sense of humor at times, including many scenes featuring Cortex.

One thing the game sets out to do is try and explain certain things about the original trilogy in comparison to the other post-Naughty Dog entries, which it seems to pull off well. The beginning of the game explains how Cortex, N. Tropy and Uka Uka got out of being banished at the end of Warped, even though Uka Uka remains absent. Additionally, a one-off bit of dialogue during alternate dimension Tawna’s introductory cutscene is meant to explain why the original Tawna all but disappeared after the original Crash Bandicoot, in that Crash and Coco lost contact with her over time. It should also be mentioned that, while this game is meant to officially continue off of the original trilogy, presumably due to N. Sane Trilogy acting as a sort of “reset button” for the franchise, the premise of dealing with a multiverse means that the other post-Naughty Dog timeline(s) aren’t necessarily invalidated.

Like Ghost of Tsushima, Crash Bandicoot 4 has a few gameplay options that I felt worth mentioning. Toggling subtitles on allows you to customize their size, font and shadow opacity, though I appreciated that you also get a preview of what the subtitles would look like onscreen, saving valuable time when trying to discern your preferences. For those that need it, the game also presents some colorblind options for a more enjoyable experience.

Before you start the game, you are presented with the choice between using Classic controls, which are based on the original games, and Modern, which presents an alternate playstyle similar to the original trilogy, with some changes. For my playthrough, I chose Modern in order to have an easier time getting through the game, and I’m glad that I did (more on that later). Among the changes made to Modern gameplay, you have an infinite amount of continues upon death, however every death adds to a running death count. Additionally, Wumpa Fruit you collect are attracted to you automatically, making it impossible to accidentally spin one away.

One particular quality-of-life change that I liked, that I would like to see in future Crash games, is that there is now a yellow circle indicator underneath the character, making it far easier to calculate where you are going to land a jump. Additionally, Bonus Stages can now be replayed over and over until you complete them and just visiting them once allows them to act as “soft” checkpoints in a level.

Aside from the above-mentioned gameplay alterations, Crash 4 brings in some new gameplay elements to mix things up. Among them, there are now fire crates that periodically spew fire, making you have to time when you are able to break it. There are also some rail grinding sections not unlike a Ratchet & Clank game, however this game puts a twist on things by allowing you to swing underneath the rails, a necessity to avoiding certain obstacles.

The biggest new additions to the gameplay are the plot-critical Quantum Masks. While they are only used in certain parts of a given level, each one provides Crash/Coco with a unique ability that provides some element of strategy on their own. The first, Lani-Loli, allows you to toggle objects phasing in and out of existence; the second, Akano, provides a more powerful, Beyblade-like spin and a longer jump while spinning; the third, Kupuna-Wa (whose name I keep forgetting for some reason), can momentarily slow down time; and the fourth, Ika-Ika, can shift the gravity of the player character. Mastering each of these abilities over the course of the game is also a must (Ika-Ika was the most challenging for me), as towards the end you are even required to be able to use multiple Masks in tandem with each other.

Kupuna-Wa can slow down time.

Gems have also been added as a collectible item, acquired by completing certain tasks in a level. Some are hidden within the levels themselves, though most are collected by breaking crates and collecting Wumpa Fruit, as well as managing to complete a level in as few deaths as possible (max. 3). The main motivator for completing these tasks and collecting Gems, aside from getting a special ending for 100% completion (or even 106% completion) is for unlocking skins for Crash and Coco, which customize their appearance in a purely cosmetic fashion. Some skins can also be obtained by completing other tasks, such as beating certain bosses under certain conditions or by simply finishing the campaign.

Some additional gameplay variety was added with the introduction of three new playable characters, each with their own unique abilities and playstyles. Dingodile, for instance, uses as vacuum gun that can be used to hover or to suck up crates and Wumpa Fruit, though any TNT crates and barrels he sucks up can be fired back at enemies or other targets. The alternate universe Tawna has her own playstyle involving a hookshot, which can be used as a grappling hook to get to certain areas or to otherwise grapple far away enemies and crates. Lastly, Dr. Neo Cortex has a laser gun that allows him to “blockify” enemies by turning them into platforms, with a second shot “gelatinizing” the enemy into a bounce platform and a third shot reverting them to normal, along with a dash to help clear larger gaps.

Tawna, or rather an alternate version of her,
is now a playable character.

Completing each of their introductory levels also unlocks respective Timelines levels, where they are primarily playable, which are designated Crash/Coco levels played from that character’s perspective. Once you reach the crossover point of the level, it then reverts back to Crash/Coco, where you replay the remainder of that level with an increased difficulty. On the subject of difficulty, Crash 4 generally has an increased difficulty curve by comparison to N. Sane Trilogy, with things getting especially difficult in the last two dimensions. In particular, the penultimate level of the game took me several hours (with breaks) to finally get past it, though once I did somehow manage to beat it, I felt an intense wave of euphoria throughout my body.

Aside from Story and Timelines levels, some extra replay value is presented in the form of N. Verted levels, which are unlocked by defeating N. Brio in a boss fight. N. Verted levels are mirrored versions of levels, except with some twists of their own. The main difference is that the collectable Wumpa Fruit are instead replaced with Bumpa Berries, which serve a similar function, however levels can also have their own gimmicks, such as reducing the visuals to a sonar-type setup where spinning reveals more of the stage, or rendering the level in black-and-white and having your actions add color to the environment. N. Verted levels additionally have their own Gems to collect under the same conditions as normal levels, even contributing to the unlock requirements for a majority of skins, though eventually you are meant to collect Gems across both the standard and N. Verted versions just to unlock some of the skins.

Further replay value exists in the form of Flashback levels, which are unlocked by obtaining Flashback Tapes within some levels. Flashback levels take place in the year 1996, the release year of the original Crash Bandicoot, during the time when Cortex was experimenting on Crash and Coco. These levels can be a bit difficult, however obtaining the Flashback Tapes is a challenge in themselves because you have to reach them after racking up zero deaths, and said Tapes are usually placed in such a way that only the most hardcore Crash Bandicoot players will ever be able to reach them in the intended manner. I did somehow manage to acquire two Tapes during my run, however I was only able to actually complete one of them before giving up on the other. One notable feature, for those who care, is that these levels also recycle the music as heard in the original releases of Crash 1-3, whereas N. Sane Trilogy opted to use rescored versions of said music.

One additional feature this game includes is Pass N. Play, which aims to recreate the experience of a group of family/friends turning a single-player game into a multiplayer game. With this feature, 2-4 players physically pass off the controller to each other upon death, checkpoints or both, with the game keeping tabs on how well each player did. As of this writing, this feature can be a bit difficult to take advantage of in the middle of a global pandemic, especially since there’s no way to pass the controller digitally, however it is interesting how this game turned this informal experience into a formal game mechanic.

The visuals are more heavily-stylized when compared to N. Sane Trilogy, thought they no less have an impressive level of detail that works within the style. The levels themselves have more of a sculpted look to them at times, with the shapes of returning characters pushed to allow for a greater range of expression and more fluid movements, without the stylization going too far as to be unrecognizable. One thing I noticed in particular is that while Crash still looks familiar, his design now looks somewhat closer to that of an actual bandicoot.

The art direction is very stylized and highly expressive.

Continuing off of recent entries, this game has some really impressive voice talent, a stand-out being Lex Lang as the voice of Dr. Neo Cortex, providing a good deal of comedic value to the game while still portraying a scientist with evil intentions. Of the new voice cast, Ursula Taherian takes the role of the alternate dimension Tawna, bringing a lot of personality and nuance to this reinterpretation of the character within her debut cutscene alone. While Richard Horvitz is better known for playing over-the-top villainous characters such as Zim (Invader Zim) or Kaos (Skylanders), his role as the Quantum Mask Lani-Loli, who has a more nervous personality, shows off how much range he actually has, which I would enjoy seeing put to good use in any of his future roles. The background music is also good, displaying a good variety of sounds for each dimension while still fitting more in line with the original Crash Bandicoot games.

Before I end this review, I will mention that, for whatever reason, I inexplicably had the galaxy-brained idea that it would be possible to unlock Spyro as a playable character by connecting a Skylanders portal and placing a Spyro figure on it. I attribute this to developer Toys for Bob having previously worked on Spyro Reignited Trilogy and four of the mainline Skylanders games, which are related to Spyro, as well as pre-release rumors of some sort of Spyro reference in the game. The Spyro reference in the actual game turned out to be a Spyro pool toy at the beginning of the first level, however I decided to try it anyway, using a Skylanders: Imaginators portal, a Series 1 Spyro figure and the Skylanders toys based on Crash Bandicoot and Dr. Neo Cortex. I can confirm that this does nothing, though I figured it was worth a shot anyway.

Also worth mentioning is that, once you complete the game, the end credits are preceded by a tribute to Mel Winkler, the original voice of Aku Aku from Crash Bandicoot: Warped (1998) to Crash Twinsanity (2004), who passed away peacefully in June 2020. I will admit I am not that familiar with Winkler’s tenure as Aku Aku (as of this writing), though I found the game’s tribute to him both touching and respectful.

May he rest in peace.

Despite some issues with the difficulty curve, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a solid Crash Bandicoot experience. The story does a good job of expanding on what happened at the end of the original trilogy while also seeking to establish an identity of its own separate from preceding sequels without stepping over them chronologically. The game presents some interesting ideas that I would like to see carried over and expanded upon in any future entries, plus it has a nice, visually-appealing art direction that will likely continue to get reinterpreted over time. Fans of Crash Bandicoot coming in from N. Sane Trilogy will likely enjoy how this game builds off of its mechanics, though existing fans will find plenty to get out of this package as well.

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