Crash Bandicoot 4 Analysis Part 3 - Presentation

Note: This is part 3 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 | Part 4

And now for some words about the presentation in Crash 4. Well... "some" might be an understatement. Anyway, in an already opinionated analysis, discussing this topic would be impossible without being subjective, so I just want to remind you that there is no right or wrong here. What follows is my personal assessment of the game's art, music, and more, so be sure to read on if that's what you're here for. Oh, and please note that there will be some minor spoilers ahead, since I will be showing and talking about some of the environments and character cameos, as well as something minor from one of the unlockable endings (though that last one is at least meaningless without context).

Marsupial Makeover

The first thing I want to talk about is the art direction, starting with how I feel about the character designs. It's immediately noticeable that these changed considerably compared to previous games, particularly the N. Sane Trilogy, which was going for a more realistic and (for lack of a better term) "safer" approach. Realism is one of the last things that come to mind when I think of Crash, so I welcome the new style with open arms.

Crash 4 is generally shape-driven in terms of visuals, and this is very apparent with its characters. If you take a look at our goofy protagonist, you'll see that his appearance is primarily made of triangles and jagged edges that accentuate his daredevil personality, but he still has large and expressive eyes to make the audience connect to him. I won't spend too much time talking about all that because I've already done it before, but long story short, I'm immensely happy with every element incorporated in this new look, thanks not only to the more angular look, but also the delightfully expressive face and body language. The bigger ears, I feel, make him look like a cute rodent (I know Crash is a marsupial, but when has he ever looked like one?), and you'll notice they move depending on his mood, which is a nice touch shared with the other animal characters. Additionally, the softer colors look more pleasing to the eye, and I always prefer when his muzzle and stomach fur blend together, since he kind of looks shaved otherwise.

Not only that, but his design incorporates a lot of elements from previous designs and mixes them up together amazingly well, including the more comfortable-looking surfer shorts from the N. Sane Trilogy, the cute fangs from Crash of the Titans, and even that game's paw print shoe soles, of all things. Speaking of which, it's not that Crash is usually seen barefoot, but somehow, the fact that he has animal paws instead of human feet just makes more sense to me and falls in line with the cartoons he was inspired by (imagine if Taz had weird human feet, and no, no need to thank me for that mental image). All in all, I couldn't be happier with this design, and I would love for it to remain consistent from here on.

Coco is another one I really like. They've been playing up her adorable side a bit more ever since the N. Sane Trilogy, and her new look cranks that up significantly. After the series started to make her seem more like a young adult, the previous design took a step back in the right direction. In Crash 4, that goes even further to make it very apparent she's both a child and younger than Crash. Her proportions have been altered accordingly, and her wider head makes her look more like a cartoon animal, and thus, more related to her brother. Speaking of whom, Crash's new design lends itself greatly to some of the cuter moments too, and he's quite adorable in his own way, but if I could only choose one to pinch their cheeks, Coco would win that category. This is another character that has never looked better in my eyes. Bonus points for replacing her laptop with a more practical tablet.

Hailing from an alternate universe, the Tawna we see in this game is pretty much an entirely different character from the one we're used to, so they had the perfect excuse to redesign her completely. As such, there's little to no point in comparing her to the usual Tawna, though I will say the punk adventurer look suits her personality, and I quite like her interactions with the others.

The scientists look great as well, not that they've changed much compared to the bandicoots. The only thing that still irks me a bit is Cortex's in-game grin when you leave him idle. It just looks a little too weird to me, but it does have the benefit of making him look funny, if that was the intention. It's like he's always cooking up a diabolical scheme or remembering an ongoing price drop for his favorite shampoo.

The last returning character I want to address is Dingodile, who seems to take heavy inspiration from his Twinsanity design ('heavy' being the operative word). The more rotund physique fits a former villain who retired to open his own diner, and I'm really fond of how expressive he is in this game, as one would expect from someone who's caught up in a mess beyond his interest or comprehension. Now that he's a playable character, it also makes sense that he's not chugging around a large gas tank on his back, since that would make him even bulkier and strange to look at from behind. I can safely say this is by far my favorite design he's ever had.

I could spend more time talking about the new characters as well, and how each Quantum Mask's design is appropriate and significant in various ways, but there's stilll much to say about how this game looks, so let's cut this short for now. Maybe some other time!

Interdimensional Sightseeing

The principles applied to the characters extend to the environments that Crash and company explore throughout their adventure. I honestly think this is the best-looking Crash Bandicoot game of all time, because not only is there a lot to look at, but everything is visually pleasing to the eye.

The screenshot above is a good example of the strong shape philosophy incorporated into the game's art direction. Notice how despite the artificial nature of all the elements, everything is deliberately imperfect. Grate bars aren't parallel or even straight, valves are angular instead of round, bolts come in various sizes, and metal plates are either curved or shaped like trapezoids. Plus, without overly detailed textures or realistic lighting, the elements just pop more. This all comes together to create a more unique environment that feels a lot less sterile, and thus, more interesting to look at. It's like a piece of concept art come to life, and I think that's an apt way to sum up the game's visuals as a whole.

The feeling of repeated level themes doesn't permeate as it often did in Crash 1 to 3, with levels looking distinct from one another even in the same world, and many of them featuring various set pieces and changes of scenery of their own. There are various examples of this, such as the level Booty Calls, which starts you off at a shipwreck beach and gradually moves you into a pirate village, before culminating in a dark cave with a huge treasure vault. Not every level changes to the same degree, but this organic progression goes a long way towards keeping your attention.

Some of my favorite details in Crash 4 can be found decorating the scenery. Of course, Crash's lounge is lovingly crafted with a lot of unique elements that you can interact with, but there are lots of other things that breathe life into the places you visit. You can spot animals roaming about or looking at Crash as he runs by, and there are a few easter eggs hidden here and there, such as being able to wear a ducky tube in Snow Way Out. I particularly like the baby dinosaurs in one of the Bonus Rounds, since it always gets me when I accidentally blow up Crash and they start laughing, while rocking back and forth in their egg shells. And have you noticed that crates and Wumpa fruits come in different shapes now? The little things count, and it's all very cool.

Heck, even the UI looks great. The menus look slick and are often quite humorous (try using the level select feature to go to the same level you're already in), and there's no way I couldn't talk about the Dimensional Map. I don't dislike Warp Rooms, but the maps in Crash 1 and N-Tranced always looked more interesting, so it pleases me to see how dynamic this game's map is. Each world is set up like a diorama, with unique animations during certain key events. I'm glad there's a level select feature that you can access from any point in the game, but I also appreciate how nice the map is.

When it comes to how the actual levels look, I have a few favorites. Off Beat fills a personal void for me, namely playing in a modern city level at night (I tend to enjoy this setting in other games and have wanted to see one in a Crash game for a long time). Moreover, the Mardi Gras motif is wonderful, with all the festivities and spectral entertainers adding tons of flair to Crash's surroundings, while also doubling as your obstacles. It's a shining example of theming done right.

The same can be said about Crash Landed (whose name is a fun nod to the canceled 2010 game). Its colors are very striking, and as bizarre as some of the planets from Nitro Kart are, I don't get as much of an alien vibe from them as I do here. You'll spot many odd species of fauna and flora, as you would expect from an otherworldly setting, and it has this strange aura to it that feels both inviting and hostile at the same time, with certain creatures being peaceful and others acting as camouflaged predators. I really like the small creatures often seen in the background — you'll see them sleeping, eating, turning invisible if you try to approach them, and staring at you as you ride the baby Shnurgle. For the most part, this feels like an ecosystem that could very well exist on a real planet out there.

To be honest, I could probably dedicate an entire article to everything I love about each setting, but I think you get the idea. To finish this topic, I want to commend the enemy variety. Crash's foes are diverse and peculiar, without an overreliance on minions like the Lab Assistants (kudos for adding female ones this time around, though). You could have those guys dressed up as pirates, sure, but it's much more fun to see anthropomorphic seahorses and octopi, even if that's a bit contradictory to the whole Evolvo-Ray plotline (unless you think of it as an alternate timeline, that is). To be honest, as much as I still like that there's a reason for human-like animals to exist in this world, I don't blame the artists for not wanting that constraint turned against them.

On a somewhat related note, there are plenty of character cameos all over the place. These small nods and references encompass characters from several other games, usually in poster form, but Fake Crash and Ripper Roo even make an appearance in person. Though I do find it strange that they seem to be in each other's place. Fakey has a float in his likeness in a level that features a lot of music to dance to (and, as you know, that's pretty much all he does), and Ripper Roo has always been heavily associated with water and explosives in most games he's in. Yet for some reason... Fake Crash is in Run it Bayou, while Ripper Roo is in Off Beat? I mean, Ripper Roo's theme even plays where you find Fake Crash, so this seems like a frustratingly obvious choice to me. But hey, in the end, I'm just happy to see them!

The Part Where I Voice My Intense Dislike for the Crayon Filter

As I mentioned in part 2 of this analysis, I'm not a fan of N. Verted Mode, and this is sometimes due to the visuals. It's very hit-and-miss for me: I like the sonar in N. Sanity Island, the color splashing in Salty Wharf, and the underwater visuals from the Sn@xx Dimension, but everything else just seems like someone opened an image editor and applied one of the default filters. Not to say this is easy to pull off in a game, and I'm not saying there was low effort involved, but at the same time, I just don't see the point of some of the filters, and some look pretty bad to me.

Of particular note is the crayon filter in the dinosaur levels, pictured above. I think it looks horrendous, especially in motion. Not only that, but I actually couldn't look at it comfortably because of all the distorted outlines moving all over the screen... This is the filter that made me wish the accompanying visuals were just extras you could unlock and toggle at your leisure.

I know I shouldn't dwell too much on missed potential, but I'm a bit surprised by the lack of a PS1 filter. One of them gives the game a pixelated look, sure, but it's not really the same, since the resolution is even lower and the colors are intentionally limited. There are already classic skins for Crash and Coco, so I wish they'd gone the whole hog. I would trade the entirety of N. Verted Mode for an optional PS1 filter that more closely mimicked the original trilogy, with the same resolution, pixelated textures, and less detail all around, along with a recreated HUD for good measure. Now that would have been a cool extra. Oh well!

Stretch Bandicoot

I don't think anyone will disagree with me on this, but the animation in Crash 4 is absolutely superb. There are heaps of subtle nuances at play that make the cast noticeably lively and charming, both in and out of cutscenes. I mean, you can actually see the characters spit when they scream, and I almost can't believe they went through the trouble of creating and animating particles of saliva. Smear frames, squash-and-stretch, and wildly exaggerated faces are some prominent techniques that push the envelope on Crash Bandicoot animation; enough to once again make me wonder how amazing it would be to see an animated Crash spin-off or film of some sort.

Needless to say, body language is extremely important, and that's another aspect they nailed with flying colors. Crash, as you know, never really speaks, so his emotions need to be conveyed almost exclusively through his face and body. Fortunately, there's never any point in the game where you don't know exactly what he's thinking, which is a testament to the animation and the decisions behind it. But while Crash is this zany guy who is almost always moving or doing something funny, the other characters are similarly well-portrayed. Cortex stills chews the scenery whenever the camera is pointing at him, N. Tropy's condescending demeanor is on full display, and Dingodile's brutish behavior shines through when the going gets tough. What's just as neat is that every character has at least one chance to do something beyond their usual interpretations, no doubt thanks to the storyboards that I would love to see someday.

This carries over to the gameplay. Whenever you start a level, you get a fun little intro where your character reacts to the locale, and they also have multiple ways to celebrate getting to the end of a level. This is akin to the many idle animations you'll see throughout, whether it's Crash pulling a rubber duck out of his ear, Coco hugging her tablet, or Cortex taking a sip of tea before throwing away the cup. Crash and Coco even have a unique set of animations for when they're scared, and I love that! Of course, it wouldn't be a Crash game without unique death animations for different hazards, but these remain as numerous and hilarious as always, with the dark humor being noticeably emphasized this time around. Plus, the enemies themselves have unique animations for being defeated in different ways, so I often find myself jumping on their heads because it's more amusing that way.

It definitely helps that the graphical performance is so smooth. I play on a base PS4, and I was surprised to see that the only times the game dips below 30 frames per second are short moments in certain cutscenes. The frame rate is actually uncapped this time, but thankfully, there's no stuttering. On the more powerful consoles, Crash 4 runs at a full 60 frames per second during gameplay, looking even more impressive. Not only that, but there are tons of graphical options this time around, from the ability to switch off motion blur (YES!) to changing the look and size of the subtitles. The game even has plenty of color blind and accessibility options (including the welcome ability to remap buttons to your liking, which I forgot to mention when I talked about the controls). There's no such thing as having too many options, and it's commendable to see these concerns being addressed to such a degree, as more people will get to enjoy the game comfortably and to their liking.

Songs to Break Crates to

That was way more than I thought I'd have to say about the visuals, so let's jump into the audio department! And what better place to start at than the music?

The first thing I want to mention is how relieved I was that this game didn't recycle Warped's theme for the fiftieth time. Don't get me wrong; it's a good theme, but I've never understood the reasoning behind the constant remixes, and it took away a bit of each game's identity. This time, we get a totally new main theme that fits the decidedly less bombastic intro, but one that I find just as catchy. And speaking of themes...

I'm a huge fan of character leitmotifs, and the ones in the Crash series managed to stay consistent for a good while, at least during the PS1 era. This is why I'm very happy to see those same themes back and interwoven with the rest of the score. With Crash's leitmotif now firmly established as the opening theme from the first game, you'll hear that melody all throughout the game in various ways, usually as part of different tracks (akin to Crash 1's bridge levels). The same goes for Cortex and the other boss characters. Strangely, Dingodile's usual leitmotif is completely absent, having been replaced with a totally different acoustic tune. It's certainly more fitting for his personality in this game, but I still would have liked to hear the old theme present in some fashion.

Nevertheless, it's not only surprising to hear so many old themes worked into the new compositions, but also how well they work. I think my favorite example has to be the level Stay Frosty. It starts out with its own melody and the sounds of dripping water, along with the usual sleigh bells that are commonly associated with ice levels (I think the bells are an overused trope, but that's beside the point). Once you reach the halfway point, it throws in Cortex's theme from Warped to reflect his influence in the area, and somehow, that ends up going into Crash 2's snow theme, and it works surprisingly well! The compositions in this game are all brand new, but sprinkling some of the old themes in them at certain points was pretty ingenious. On a semi-related note, the Flashback Tapes literally use tracks from the PS1 games as background music. Some of it is unfitting, but given the number of Flashback Tapes and the challenges that come with them, it beats listening to a single dedicated theme over and over.

In truth, the music in this game is just as dynamic as the environments, constantly changing to suit the current mood and pace. Going back to my earlier example, Booty Calls starts off with an adventurous, somewhat uneasy mix when you're in the shipwreck area (throwing in Crash's leitmotif for good measure), going into high gear once you're sliding down the ropes, reeling it back with a soft marimba piece in the pirate village, and plunging into a harsher tone once you're in the caves. This kind of stuff is everywhere, resulting in of the most dynamic soundtracks I've heard in a platformer.

What impresses me even more is that the music doesn't fade or abruptly change from one track to another, like most games do it. There are transitions for everything, whether it's reaching a new area, losing a life and going back to an earlier piece, or finishing a level. I can only imagine how challenging this was to get right, but every transition is always on cue, making it feel like you're playing through an actual cartoon. And that jingle that plays whenever you open a checkpoint always matches the tempo and key of the background track, which is a really nice touch.

There are also variations and different layers of instruments for most tracks. Each Quantum Mask adds a different touch (such as certain instruments playing backwards when Ika-Ika reverts gravity), and the N. Verted modes have their own spin on things. I quite like the beachy steel drums when N. Verted Mode submerges the level underwater, and the chiptune mixes for the pixelated filter sound pretty cool.

Of course, this would all be meaningless if the actual melodies weren't remarkable, but I honestly love this soundtrack. I feel like its dynamic nature means it'll take longer than usual for some tunes to get stuck in your head, but once they do, they're hard to get out. Personal favorites of mine include the parade score from Off Beat, the plunder-rific Salty Wharf, and the energetic infiltration vibes from the space station levels. Yet somehow, I keep going back to Toxic Tunnels. It's a more subdued theme that sounds very moody and atmospheric, going hand-in-hand with the level itself.

Incidentally, if you get the music cutting off in Crash Landed, it's not just you. There seems to be a bug where the riding theme doesn't loop back to the start (happening when you lose too many lives), so hopefully that gets fixed with a patch at some point.

Behind the Quantum Mask

The voice acting in Crash games has always stood out, thanks to the talent behind the stellar performances and delivery (and I imagine direction, of course). While Crash 4 is absolutely not an exception, there were some curious choices with the cast this time. Most characters are voiced by their usual actors, but some are entirely new. Even though replacing some of the actors at this point may raise a few eyebrows, I think it's cool to give other people a chance every now and then. After all, many fan favorite actors wouldn't be voicing these characters right now if the same thing hadn't happened a few years ago, and besides, the new actors are all really good!

Not all of the characters have prominent roles in the story, and as much as I'd love to individually comment on every actor's killer performance, doing so would be enough to warrant its own article. I really don't have anything to criticize over the deliveries in this game, regardless of reprisals, returning actors playing different characters, or entirely new voices. Instead, I'll just comment on a few general things that stood out to me.

I don't know if it's just me, but it's pretty hard to hear what N. Gin is saying sometimes, because the robotic effect seems to muffle his voice quite a bit, sadly. This was done much better in both the PS1 games and the remakes. Just something to consider.

Another thing I couldn't help but mention is that Crash's strange baby talk is a thing of the past, and I, for one, am immensely grateful for that decision. At best, it was completely pointless and added nothing to the character, while at worst, I found it distracting and annoying. I much prefer to imagine that Crash could speak if he wanted to, but usually doesn't.

The last thing I want to mention is that I enjoy the lines spoken during levels because the characters don't repeat themselves if you die. It happens when hitting the Restart Level option, but I usually just mute the voices at that point, because there are only so many times I can hear Cortex comparing his lips to overripe bananas. Too bad he doesn't get something you can break to interrupt him, like N. Gin's loudspeakers.

Next Up: The Story

I wasn't expecting to have so many things to say about Crash 4's presentation, but I'm all too happy to talk about how much I enjoy it. Thanks for sticking by and reading my ramblings, and I hope you'll come back for the final part of this analysis, where I'll discuss the story and lore. See you soon!


tabreezsiddique | October 18, 2020 - 08:09 AM
It kind of disappoints me that this game doesn't run at 60 FPS on base PS4. In my experiences with the game. The framerate is pretty inconsistent at times, few times in normal mode stages, it runs fine at 60, other times it runs at 30 or 40 perhaps, and in N.Gin's boss fight, it turned to *** for me. Weirdly the game runs perfectly fine at 60 when I'm on N.Verted mode stages which makes me wonder why that isn't the case all the time on base PS4(at least in my experiences). And as for what you said on Roo being in Off Beat but his theme is in Run It Bayou, that to me feels like a case of rushed development in some parts of the game, which is even more apparent with the 100% ending we get which I won't talk about yet in this post so I might save that for next post when we get to story and lore. As for the rest of this blog post(and the previous one which I don't think I brought up); you pretty much nailed down every point you've made here perfectly, so much of it I can easily agree with you on, especially the N.Verted mode, whilst it is visually appealing in some areas, other times it can look pretty ugly and take away from how gorgeous these stages can look, I also agree that they don't really add anything new to the experience replaying through the stages in these filters, just feels like lame padding to me. Though if there's one stage I honestly don't like the look of, it's Off Beat, like it's a nice Mardi Gras level and all but something about this theme in my eyes doesn't feel very Crash Bandicoot-ish, maybe it's just me but it felt like the kind of stage that I'd imagine in a Pixar film or a game based on a Pixar film ... and then there are the moving blocks with faces on them. Now I'm no expert on Mardi Gras but these look super out of place in the stage, like they don't belong there or have anything to do with the theme here(as I write this, I can't help but feel a bit bad voicing my thoughts on this particular stage after reading what you thought of it).

WesleyIriza | October 18, 2020 - 11:27 PM
To keep it short im not a fan of the art in this game (i do like the concept art of Coco n Dingo presented here), the in game models just look more out of skylanders ( i really dislike how they wanted to show that Crash has a neck, even though it didnt look good), the unnecessary changes in shapes (N. Gin, Coco, Cortex's head, Tiny's small head in his portrait Cortex's head, etc) and the focus on exaggerated facial (at times it felt that they wanted to check mark every character's facial expression) and body expressions just threw me off (noticable on Crash's exaggerated movements on his dance). Overall i just couldn't get into this game knowing that this is supposed to be a Crash 3 follow and yet we get unnecessary redesigns that no one was asking for (im ***uming TfB art team cant be denied of taking an IP style and changing to fit theirs). Visually this just feels like a Toys for Bob Crash spinoff game instead of a Crash 3 follow up. Not gonna even mention their take on Tawna until part 4 (spoiler: they just used the multiverse card to avoid more backlash on their redesigns) is posted, which im looking forward to because i also didnt like that lack luster story.

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