The nineties was the age of the cartoony 3D platformer, a genre which just so happens to be one of my favourites. And while it’s probably hard to argue against Nintendo being called the leader in the genre in terms of quality of games and general longevity – at one point, PlayStation’s mascot Crash Bandicoot was a worthy adversary. Still today, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped ranks as one of my all-time favourite games. And after really enjoying returning to the original trilogy thanks to the fantastic remakes, I was very excited to see a brand new title (a modern interpretation of a sequel to that collection) coming from Toys For Bob. Now, minutes after watching the credits roll on It’s About Time, I’m happy to report that the Crash we know and love is back! And while platformer-aficionados are going to be very happy with the game and all its content, you better be prepared for what I found to be the hardest (good) 3D platformer I can remember playing.
A shiny new Crash of paint
From the animated Toys for Bob opening credit, all the way through the game and right to the final cutscene it’s clear that It’s About Time was made by fans of Crash. The first level almost screams: “Hey remember Crash, that game you loved from your childhood?” and small features like the flying bonus level platforms and the fact that you can (frustratingly) never quite judge the edge of platforms when landing – are tiny details that permeate your playthrough with wafts of nostalgia that I (mostly) appreciated. Of course, the game definitely looks graphically ‘better’ than any of its predecessors (and has even seen a fun style step up from the N.Sane trilogy which I really liked) but more than that – the way Crash and Coco jump, spin and butt-slide across new and familiar colourful worlds still feels great.
The way Crash and Coco jump, spin and butt-slide across new and familiar colourful worlds still feels great.
It’s clear though that Toys For Bob tried to strike a balance between remaining loyal to what made the originals great and throwing in several of their own modern touches. It’s great to see for example the accessibility features – a colourblind toggle and adjustable subtitles in the options menu may seem like the obvious modern upgrades but from recent experience, they’re just not. So I really appreciate that kind of update. Also, right from the start, the game offers two playstyles – retro (limited lives and level restarts when you run out) and modern (same difficulty but rather an on-screen death count that taunts you and makes you feel bad enough that there’s no need for level restarts).
Within the game, the levels feel very much designed with a mixture of old and new. You’ll, of course, ride the cutest polar bear across the ice, but you’ll also paint the worlds in just one of the fantastic new inverted level styles and even get to see and experience the games from a different character’s perspective. Sure, the locations are not that different and while I thought I’d miss the abilities gained in Warped – the masks (which should be called backpacks) and the ridiculously creative level design allude to and enhance them in the best ways. And it may seem a little hyperbolic but I almost audibly gasped on one level where I was flipping the gravity as I was travelling through a big, geared machine. It was just so enjoyable and clever. The story doesn’t venture too far from the original tropes, and to be honest, I’m all for that especially because thanks to an awesome voice cast, some excellent sound design and witty writing I was giggling the whole way through – remembering why I loved the franchise so much and was happy to be on this new adventure with ‘friends’ I knew well.
Crash Boom Bang… with friends
‘Friendship’ is actually a repetitive theme in the game not only just in the story, but also in the gameplay and even gamed modes. Now without going into too much detail story-wise (it’s not at ‘deep’ but it’s fun to find out the reasons why as you play) but as alluded to above, not only can you switch between Coco and Crash at any time, but there are several levels that allow you to play the game as Tawna, Dingodile and Cortex. I had actually seen Tawna revealed just before playing the game and couldn’t wait for her levels. While she still moves very much like Coco and Crash, the addition of the grappling hook and the wall jump seemed like it was going to bring something really interesting to the table – I also loved her design and couldn’t wait for a standalone Tawna game. Unfortunately, she’s a bit of a disappointment.
Her grappling hook is only activated for swinging at certain times (L2 flashes around a blue icon) and in general, I found it very inaccurate and not that fun to use. The wall jump too – is more of a gimmick. The levels (even the ones specifically designed for her) don’t have much wall jumping and even when they do – she can only jump from a specifically marked point on that wall. It feels too much like a QuickTime event rather than a fun platforming mechanic. On the other hand, both Cortex and Dingodile levels feel awesome. They’re very different in terms of how they move and it’s a nice break from the Crash and Coco show. In fact, I could definitely get behind a Dingodile game – plus some of the writing around his swampy diner is the funniest in the game.
Crash 4 starts off hard, becomes tough with a smattering of difficult, and finishes off with a flourish of damn-near Celeste-levels of tough, this time in a 3D world.
Plus if you happen to want to play this single-player experience with some real-world friends – Toys For Bob has really brought a little something special to the ‘pass the controller’ multiplayer some many of us played as kids. At any point in the game, you can actually go into the settings and initiate the Pass The Controller feature (for up to 4 players) and upon death/checkpoint or both, the game will actually tell you to pass the controller to the next person and keep score of who’s doing better. Outside the main story, there’s also a Bandicoot Battle mode that works much in the same way – and either in a time trial or in a crashing crates competition you can battle with friends locally. Of course, I would’ve loved a split-screen option for these last two but apparently, game devs just don’t do that anymore and while this is still essentially just a one-player experience it’s another really cool touch. And don’t worry if you’re alone, the game has an almost insatiable amount of single-player content: Each level has at least 6 gems to collect. Each level then also has an inverted version with more gems. Then there are the bonus, collectable-based levels and even those with other characters.
Crash Test Dummy
Now, its probably a good time to tackle the gameplay itself and explain why despite how much I clearly liked the game – a word of caution is definitely warranted. This game is difficult! Really difficult. I’ve always found Crash games to be on the tougher side of the 3D platforming genre, but the odd difficulty spikes were usually spread out, sprinkled between levels of relatively easier going. Crash 4, however, starts off hard, becomes tough with a smattering of difficult, finishing off with a flourish of damn-near Celeste levels of tough, this time in a 3D world. I love platformers and I died a lot!
The first level checkpoint always felt too far, meaning tough levels often began with a lot of frustrating repetition.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. I, like many others, appreciated (or will appreciate) the challenge. But I sometimes felt like a ‘Crash test dummy’ stuck in a repetitive time loop… sliding and jumping and dying… and sliding and spinning and jumping and dying… again and again and again as I watched the handy per level death counter tick ever upwards. Often it was a massacre. And I couldn’t often complain that the game felt unfair except perhaps for the occasional platform-edge misjudgement (which as mentioned is basically tradition now) and a new wall running mechanic that was either just beyond my gaming comprehension or is in need of a bug fix. In most cases when I heard Crash utter that all-too-familiar ‘yelp’- I felt like I had ‘just missed’ the goal. And when that balance happens it’s the type of replay I couldn’t wait to get back to. It’s addictive. And because of that feeling – its a terribly difficult game that I loved playing.
However, for the new player or those not especially fond of platformers, I suspect the experience will be different. The game is relentless and the constant high difficulty will be daunting. And if I’m honest, even I got infuriated at times. The first level checkpoint always felt too far, meaning tough levels often began with a lot of frustrating repetition. Pacing also felt a little off. I often felt like the story pulled you forward but couldn’t fight the urge to repeat levels for collecting everything. I know this is more appeals to a personal urge in me to collect everything, but the game also seems to struggle with this push and pull.
For example – some sections require you to move ridiculously quickly showing off some crazy button-pressing finger dexterity. But paths are sometimes hidden at that speed. Another example of this confusing dichotomy is that one gem in each level requires you to die 3 times or less. There is no way I think it’s physically possible to do this in one run on your first attempt. But the cosmetic skins for that level only unlock if you collect all six gems. So if you’re a completionist – you’ll have to go back again and play each level with whole new motivation. As a completionist, this sounds like fun, but the story seems to be pushing you forward and the odd cosmetic limitation means I basically played the whole game in one or two skins. And one of the fun side items is to match up areas with skins which I couldn’t really do and won’t be that keen to do on my completionist run.
It’s Crash but tougher
Toys for Bob have done a great job of mixing old and new and bringing back an iconic character into a modern world. The game looks and feels great, has a simply ridiculous amount of content and means fans will likely be very happy. However, the tough technical standard of play and a few other small issues means new players and those returning may still not find it the easiest game to jump or spin into. In short, Crash is back in style but tougher than ever.