Crash Bandicoot 4 Analysis Part 2 - Content

Note: This is part 2 of an independent review made with no aid from or association with Activision or other parties. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Welcome to part 2 of my Crash Bandicoot 4 analysis! I previously covered the gameplay mechanics and controls, so now I'll be taking a look at the content and the way it's structured. Level design, collectibles, and game modes will all be covered here, so let's not waste any time.

The Many Deaths of Crash Bandicoot

Crash Bandicoot 4 sees a return to the linear and more constrained hallway-shaped levels. Linear level design is far from a bad thing, and my favorite games both in and out of the Crash series tend to feature it. There are certain advantages to making sure the player goes through one obstacle course after another, thanks to the potential for denser levels where every element serves a purpose. It's good to see Crash 4 embodies these principals, sporting some of my favorite Crash levels ever. There is always something to break, jump over, dodge, or defeat, and the new mechanics I've already covered result in a lot of variety, without ever straying from the core gameplay or making you wonder if you're still playing the same game. It's a delicate balance many platformers have struggled with.

From looking at pre-release footage, I always got the feeling this wasn't going to be an easy Crash game, but little did I know just how accurate that assumption was. While the N. Sane Trilogy tried to be a bit more appealing to the casual audience, Crash 4 jumps daringly into the deep end of the pool, going for much more difficult levels than these games are usually known for. This is very much intentional, with certain segments making Stormy Ascent (a level removed from the first game for being too tough) seem like child's play, incredibly enough. And honestly? I love (most of) it.

There's genuine thought and care put into this game's level design. As long as you take your time to assess the situation and observe what's in front of you, Crash's life span is entirely dependent on your reflexes and dexterity, something you'll get a lot of training with as you progress. I don't think difficulty spikes are really present; it's more that the game starts by luring you into a false sense of familiarity before it quickly pulls the rug out from under you. Things get tougher and tougher over the course of the story, culminating in a final level that's absurdly (but delightfully) difficult.

This is at its most prominent in the Flashback Tapes. These optional side-scrolling levels are absolutely devious, as expected from something Cortex created to prune candidates for his marsupial army. These are some of the most fun I've had with the game, thanks to learning new things, putting my logic and reflexes to use, and seeing just how versatile and interesting crate formations can be when designed by the right people. Bonus Rounds were just as well designed, but while the Flashback Tapes go on for longer and rely more on your reflexes, the Bonus Rounds are instead made up of short puzzles. I never thought I'd say this, but I had to restart Bonus Rounds many times, simply because I was either unable to finish it or couldn't break all the crates. In truth, all the optional side-scrolling, crate-ridden stuff in the game is really good, and it perfectly showcases the potential behind these cubic containers and Crash's new, cartoonier physics.

That's not to say I didn't run into a few things that could use a little more polish, though. The penultimate Flashback Tape has some odd synchronization issues. It relies heavily on timing things right with both flame crates and Nitros, and every time I died, both kinds of crates would act out of sync with each other, to the point where I had to keep dying until things worked correctly again (thankfully, this was right near the checkpoint, so it wasn't too bad).

There were a few other minor and very specific things that I feel could have been done better. Maybe this is more of a 'me' problem, but in the level Crash Landed, I often found myself jumping straight into a certain hole while riding the you-know-what, due to the weird camera angle that makes it look like there's no more ground ahead of you. From the same level, it's not exactly clear when using Ika-Ika will make you fall into the sky, since some spots will reward you for going up, while others (which look identical) will kill you. Off the top of my head, there's also an electric grasshopper in Toxic Tunnels that's standing on a platform, but it's obscured by the camera until you're very close to it, resulting in an uncharacteristically unfair death. But really, the fact that these occurrences are so rare and specific is the only reason I can even list them, and that's great.

Specific bits and bobs aside, I'd say Crash 4's level design is really, really good. Probably my favorite out of any game in the series. The way it's structured, however, could have been better, as I'm about to discuss.

Crate Expectations

One of the aspects that set Crash 4 apart from its predecessors is the length of its levels. Over the course of the main story, you'll be playing through some of the longest levels ever featured in a Crash game, some of which can take anywhere between five minutes to exponentially longer, depending on the kind of run you're doing and how many lives you can do it with. I'm in two minds about this. On one hand, each location now feels grand and exciting, with plenty of entertaining set pieces to spice things up, plus environments that change organically as you go through them. On the other hand, certain levels are long enough that the optional challenges become very frustrating.

To be perfectly clear, I didn't have a problem with the level length while I was playing through the story (though I do think Rush Hour should have been split into two levels, especially with such a clear cut-off point). I had already decided not to bother with optional challenges until after I had beaten the story, and it quickly became apparent that this is the way the game is meant to be played. I got every crate I came across, sure, but I was focused on enjoying each new level at my own pace and watching the story unfold. This is how I recommend playing Crash 4, because once you start going for 100%, the cookie starts to crumble.

The first problem with how levels are structured (and one you'll probably run into even if you're not trying to get everything) is the checkpoint scarcity. You can/should play with unlimited lives, but there's no reason checkpoints need to be as far apart from each other as they are in this game. Having to repeat a long segment because you died doesn't make things harder; just more frustrating. It's not fun when you keep dying in the same place and have to repeat a long section for another go at it.

Yes, the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment from the original trilogy is still here, but it's no longer as effective: there are lots of one-hit kills in the game (even if you have Aku Aku with you), and it takes too many deaths for extra checkpoints to spawn. In some areas, extra checkpoints don't spawn at all, and others, like the color gem path in Toxic Tunnels, don't have any to begin with. This is the kind of artificial longevity you'd see in a game made thirty years ago, and while "get good" is certainly the solution, there's nothing wrong with making the learning process flow better. After all, the game already acknowledges competent runs and rewards you for them, so that extra incentive is still there for when you're finally good enough to take it.

The checkpoint issue is further aggravated when you're trying to break all the crates. Let's say you've spent a good chunk of your time trying to break every last crate in an area. Suddenly, you die before you could reach the next checkpoint because it's just too far away, so now you have to break all those crates again. I've never been a fan of repeating lengthy segments in the same run, so crate-hunting was something I often found frustrating in this game.

Adding to that, I frequently got to the end of a level thinking I had found all the crates, only for the tally to reveal I had missed one. Or two. Or several. Some of the crates in Crash 4 are very well hidden, but while exploring and finding secrets is totally my jam, the fact that levels are so long now can make missing crates an annoyance, since tradition demands that you break them all in one go.

It's not the fact that some crates are hidden that bothers me. After all, hidden gems are very fun to find, because finding them is all you need to do. Crates are different — once you finally uncover the ones you were missing, you also have to make sure you get the rest of them again, including the ones in Bonus Rounds, optional paths, and so on. Personally, I would have preferred to have more hidden gems in place of the obscure crates.

Better yet, future installments could have a crate tally for each checkpoint, so you'd know exactly how many crates you should have by that point. Maybe they could repurpose the gem shards from N-Tranced: break all the crates up to a checkpoint for a shard, and collect all the shards in the level to form a clear gem. Something like that would preserve the challenge whilst letting you know if you messed up ahead of time, rather than having to go all the way to the end of the level to see that your efforts were in vain.

Update (October 14): I've been thinking a lot about the hidden crates, and I've come to the conclusion that while the checkpoint tally would be a way to fix the problem, there's a reason I never considered it until now. The reason being that some crates really do have some pretty mean placement, I must admit. Many of them are completely obscured by the scenery or totally off-screen, to the point where moving the camera doesn't reveal them at all. Even Crash 1 had some hints (Fumbling in the Dark notwithstanding), but in Crash 4, you'll often find crates by pure chance or after you've exhausted your options. That's where it stops being fun, since the game is no longer rewarding you for paying attention — it's rewarding you for being paranoid.

It's not all bad, though. You might remember when I talked about loving the color gems in Crash 2, and how no other game tried to replicate the sense of "thinking outside the crate". I'm happy to say that after all these years, the color gems are finally interesting again. Pay close attention to the environment and you might find clues on the walls about how to get them. I won't spoil their locations, but one of them is actually acquired the same way as in Crash 2. In truth, my experience with that game meant I was able to find three of them without any trouble, but the green gem was a fun one that really had me looking. Shame that the purple gem is conspicuously absent this time, but I'll take what I can get.

Starting to Flip

Par for the course, Crash 4 features multiple endings: one for beating the story, one for achieving 100% completion, and for the first time ever, one for getting absolutely everything, including the optional reward tiers (you'd think 100% meant exactly that, but Crash was never good at math). What counts towards 100% is not really clear in the game, and I've heard conflicting anecdotes on this, but I think you only need to get all the gems (and perhaps a set of relics?) Unfortunately, this involves going through padding. Lots and lots of padding.

Each normal run through a level features six gems to collect: three for picking up a boatload of Wumpa fruits, one for breaking all the crates, one for finishing the level with less than three deaths, and another one that's simply hidden in the level itself. I've talked about my problems with the crates gem, but I think the other ones are fine. There's just one little thing that bugs me about all this: N. Verted Mode.

I do not like N. Verted Mode. This is something you unlock relatively early, and it gives you the option to replay mirrored versions of levels you've beaten... but you have to get all the gems again. The hidden gem does get placed in a new location (even if there's no reason it shouldn't also be in the regular version), but the remaining five stay functionally the same. It's true that N. Verted Mode adds some minor twists besides simply flipping the world (changing the speed of the gameplay, making you use a sonar to navigate through darkness, melting your eyes with atrocious filters...) but they're not significant enough to make you feel like you're actually doing something different. Crash 4 is a lengthy game without this sort of padding, but it tries to have its cake and eat it too — achieving 100% completion means getting all the gems twice, and if I wanted to do that, I... would just do that.

(For some reason, you also can't get color gems in N. Verted Mode, which I found out the hard way while attempting to kill two birds with one stone, but this was probably an oversight that's easy for you to remember.)

As far as padding goes, I wish I could say this was the only problem, but another one lies in the alternate timeline levels. Playing as Tawna, Dingodile, and Cortex are all things I enjoy quite a lot, though I really wish their levels ended with their segments. Instead, the game switches you over to Crash/Coco once you reach the end of their areas and forces you to replay old segments, albeit with different crate formations that ultimately don't feel that significant. Seeing what the other characters are doing while Crash is running through the levels is a pretty novel and amusing concept for the series, but I've already seen the Crash bits before, and replaying them adds nothing to the experience. What makes things even worse is that the alternate timeline levels have their own N. Verted Mode. This means that in order to get 100%, there are certain areas you have to play at least four times (and unfortunately, Polar is in one of them).

There are a few smaller things that don't really help matters. On the bright side, I like that I can warp to any level from the pause menu without having to navigate to it or exit back to the map. Conversely, choosing to restart the level I'm already in causes it to load again, and I'm not sure why. At first, I thought levels might be loaded piece by piece and the game had to load the starting point again, but that's absolutely not the case. No matter how far you get from the starting point, losing a life will instantly place you back if you haven't broken any checkpoints (for example, during Time Trials). So I'm not really sure what that's about.

I also wish getting deaths didn't count towards locking you out of a Flashback Tape or gem until you reached the first checkpoint, since you're still proving you can do a perfect run from the start of the level (the first game got that right). Unfortunately, if you die before the first checkpoint, you might as well just restart, and every time you do, that's a loading screen for ya.

Replaying Crash levels is not something I have a problem with, so long as I do it on my own terms. I really love this game for a large number of reasons, but its road to 100% completion is unnecessarily repetitive and stretched out. As it stands, this could very well be my favorite Crash game to beat, but one of my least favorites to complete. Optional or not, these challenges are a part of the game, and a new ending is unlocked by beating them, so it's not as though they're exempt from criticism.

N. Sanely Perfect

For your troubles, every level has a neat Crash or Coco skin waiting for you if you get a certain number of gems. Skins have been a staple in the franchise since Crash Tag Team Racing, and Crash 4 has a hefty selection of them, including the biker outfit from Warped (with Coco getting her own version of it) and a polygonal look reminiscent of the PS1 games. I'm surprised by some of the skin (and level) names they got away with this time, but I won't spoil the jokes.

As I mentioned before, getting "everything" in the game (i.e. 106%) will net you another, less important secret ending, and to achieve that, you'll have to contend with relics in addition to gems. The word 'relics' no longer strictly refers to Time Trials — it's basically an umbrella term for all the optional rewards that aren't gems. This includes "N. Sanely Perfect" runs and Flashback Tape medals, in addition to the usual Time Trials.

Getting an N. Sanely Perfect relic means playing a level Crash 1 style: break all the crates without dying, and it's yours. Needless to say, this is one of the toughest things to perform given the level length, so you should make sure you at least know where all the crates are before attempting such a run. Thankfully, you don't have to do it a second time in N. Verted Mode, and in fact, you'll get it regardless of which mode you choose.

Time Trials are the same as usual, but with the neat option of racing against ghosts, much like in Crash Team Racing. If you can keep up with the ghost, this has the benefit of showing you the optimal route for the next relic, and it lets you know how good you're doing in real time. I'm still of the opinion that Time Trials should have checkpoints (with the timer always running even if you die), if only to study the layout and practice the trickier segments without always having to retry from the start, but ghosts are the next best thing. Regardless, you should wait until you've beaten the story before you think of doing these, because you unlock something at the end of the game that becomes very helpful, and there's no hint that it exists.

These additional challenges are incredibly difficult by nature and geared towards the hardcore crowd. They're not ideal for levels this long and complex, but you're not missing out if you don't do them (the 106% ending is nothing to write home about). However, I do recommend at least checking out the Flashback Tapes for their inventive and unique layouts, not to mention tidbits involving the creation of Crash and Coco, and what they were both doing before the first and second games, respectively.

Next Up: The Presentation

That wraps things up for this part of the analysis. With the gameplay and playable content out of the way, I will be talking about the presentation next time. In other words, the art direction, graphics, music, and more. I hope you've enjoyed things so far, and see you in part 3!

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