Crash Bandicoot 4 Analysis Part 4 - Story

Note: This is part 4 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

Here we are at the final part of this extensive look at Crash Bandicoot 4. This time I'll be going over the parts of the story and character interactions that stood out to me the most, as well as what the game does with the established lore.

But before I do that, I should mention one small detail...

MASSIVE, UNMARKED SPOILER ALERT, WEEOOOWEEOO!

There will be spoilers for the entire game, including all the endings. If you haven't seen everything Crash 4 has to offer and want to experience it first-hand, avert your gaze, or you'll go SPOILER-CRAZY! Now, on with the article.

Tuning the Tone

True to its name, Crash Bandicoot 4 rewinds us to the point right after the third game, finally explaining how Cortex and N. Tropy escaped from the past. While many of us had long theorized they'd grown back to their former selves, their escape method had always been up in the air. It's honestly a bit surreal to see that being addressed after this long.

The introduction cutscene reflects the kind of story told in Crash 4. The humor is present from the get-go, but N. Tropy's actions are uncharacteristically ominous, with even the transition to the logo lacking the usual exaggerated animation from games past. This is their way of telling us that it's a Crash Bandicoot adventure, but not everything is going to be a joke. The series had started taking itself less and less seriously before the remakes, having become a self-parody by the end. Crash 4 not only makes a conscious effort to reel it back in, but it also has a few moments with a heavier tone than we've seen before, thanks exclusively to N. Tropy.

N. Tropy talks a big game, but he's usually not much more of a threat or less comedic than the other villains. This time, however, he's far, far more sinister and deluded than anyone we've seen until now. His plan to erase all the timelines and shape reality to his own liking is very different from your typical Crash plot, with much higher stakes to boot. If nothing else, it's a change of pace.

Speaking of doing different things, we now have a second N. Tropy from another universe, who doubles as the first female scientist in the series (finally). Like the male N. Tropy, I wasn't expecting to see such a no-nonsense villain in the game, much less a sadistic one like her. Surprisingly, they have this weird mutual attraction that's equal parts funny and repulsive. I wonder if that counts as N. Cest.

Changing the subject to something less nauseating, I feel like the female N. Tropy exists more for the sake of Tawna's character arc than anything else (but we'll get to that later), as her role is otherwise meaningless and distractingly short-lived. In fact, the N. Tropys don't really accomplish anything besides making the playable characters work together and take the long route. They only become a menace for a short period of time, and while I thought the build-up to the fight was exciting (especially the bit where you grind between dimensions), the pay-off was a little undercooked. Still, there are a few things that lead me to believe this is all part of a larger set-up to be explored in future games, so I'm not all that bothered by it.

Regardless, I consider the tone balance in this game to be just right. It's still mostly comedic and adventurous, but it also tries something unprecedented by presenting a few darker implications. Pushing that angle further could easily disrupt the franchise's identity, but I'm not worried; once the N. Tropys are dealt with, the game decides to have a much more lighthearted "episode" about the playable gang going out for snacks. This set-up is quite random, but it comes in to break the ice at the right moment, and it's probably the first time in the series where we have a whole bunch of people having fun instead of trying to destroy each other. To be honest, I kind of wish the gang got more opportunities to be together, as these misfits play off each other in very entertaining ways.

Familiar Faces

Besides their unique designs, Crash characters are known for their fun personalities, different goals, and interesting relationships. In Crash 4, this is shown right off the bat, with Cortex and N. Tropy still arguing after decades of forced isolation. Before this game, Cortex and N. Tropy were rarely in the same place at the same time, but their rivalry and disdain for each other remained a subtle development over the years (I love that this was actually reinforced in the N. Sane Trilogy, with N. Tropy rolling his eyes when mentioning Cortex). It feels very satisfying to finally see this come to a head in Crash 4.

Similarly, we get to see what N. Gin and N. Brio are like when they're in the same room, something that's never happened before (excluding a few seconds in Twinsanity where they don't interact with each other). Although they both want to fight Crash and Coco, their reasons and methods could not be less alike, one wanting to obliterate them with his mechanical (and musical) prowess, and the other simply wishing to test his potions in an effort to overthrow Cortex. They don't seem to like each other very much, possibly as a result of having been Cortex's right hand men at different points in time. Or maybe it's just because their social skills and coordination are deplorable.

N. Brio is a very interesting case by himself. Crash 2 made his alignment open to interpretation, but we did know he was very single-minded about getting his revenge at Cortex, even if that meant cooperating with others. In Crash 4, we learn that he considers Crash and Coco to be friends (his only friends, for that matter), though this seems to be one-sided for the most part, since his idea of friendship does not exclude lethal tests to further his personal goals. Thus, if at first it seems a little odd that N. Brio is in cahoots with Cortex, the player is quickly given an explanation that makes total sense for the character. The one thing that bothers me is how quickly Cortex seems to have forgiven him, because even though he's not aware of N. Brio still scheming behind his back, he does know the guy was actively thwarting his plans in Crash 2.

Speaking of alignment, Dingodile is one of the more surprising characters in the game. You could argue that N. Brio hasn't really changed his perspective since the first game, but Dingodile has specifically given up his villainous ways to reform as the proud owner of a diner. This is the first time something like this has happened in this series, as even though his personality remains unchanged, he's no longer working for a villain or trying to burn people to a crisp for personal gain. He just wants to run his own business through legitimate means (quality notwithstanding), and it's not until someone ruins that for him that he sets out for revenge, which is dealt with in the span of a single level.

Dingodile's presence in the story is largely inconsequential, but it's an interesting showcase of a reformed villain. He's most certainly not a hero, but he's no longer a bad guy either, and the game makes that clear. I guess it's not the first time we've seen him working alongside Crash and Coco (not that anyone remembers Crash Bash for its story), but he's very quick to say he's not going to fight them and even lends a helping hand when needed. He's the kind of guy who prefers to be left alone, but he's not above joining the good side or beating up those who stand in his way. A classic example of an anti-hero, and one I personally enjoyed.

Bandicoot Besties

If there's one character many of us have wondered about time and time again, it's Tawna. For a very long time, we've never known what kind of person she actually is, where she disappeared off to, and whether Coco even got a chance to meet her at all. The N. Sane Trilogy and CTR: Nitro-Fueled gave her some bits of personality, but many questions remain. Crash 4 doesn't answer all of them, but it does finally acknowledge her absence, which is a start. I'm glad that only took over twenty years.

Obviously, the Tawna we see in Crash 4 is not the Tawna we've known for years, but rather, an alternate version of the character from a different dimension. Some might see this as the developers playing it safe, but to say nothing else would be to ignore the big picture. There were several advantages to bringing an alternate Tawna into the story, and I guess you could assume those opportunities were just too good to pass. Yes, it conveniently offers an excuse to not deal with romantic implications between her and Crash, and it gives further leeway to what the original Tawna is doing out there, but there's more to it than that.

This Tawna acts as a big sister to Crash and Coco, doing what she can behind the scenes to keep them safe from harm. She doesn't like to get other people involved in her missions, and once she realizes the N. Tropy from her universe has returned, she even decides to take matters in her own hands and leave the gang behind. We soon learn that her universe's Crash and Coco were killed by the female N. Tropy, and she couldn't bear to go through that again. This time, however, she's the one who almost gets killed, but once Crash and Coco save her, she decides to give teamwork another try.

Even from the start, Crash and Coco care as much about her as she cares about them. The first time Tawna leaves them behind, they both get puppy-dog eyes as they see their friend run off once again. We may not know what happened with the original Tawna, but she was evidently quite important to them once you start to read between the lines. By the end of the game, the three bandicoots become much closer, and Tawna seems to be in no hurry to go back home. The fact that we don't see her leave makes me think we haven't seen the last of her (and judging by her popularity as a character, I won't be surprised if she becomes a mainstay).

As for Crash and Coco, their interactions with each other remain wholesome and prominent, especially now that Coco is as important to the story as her brother. This is something I've always enjoyed, because the two of them are very close despite how different they are. One of my favorite examples in this game is pretty easy to miss, but it involves a running gag where Crash always messes up his landing after coming out of a Quantum Rift. Near the end of the game, Crash finally manages to get it right, and he gleefully turns to Coco as if to say: "Look! I did it!" You can tell from her face that she's not the slightest bit impressed, but she still cheers him for it, and I love that!

The Cortex Conundrum

One of the things Crash 4 does best is re-contextualizing things we've known for years. Cortex is one of my favorite examples, because there have always been plenty of reasons to like him as a villain, but Crash 4 additionally makes him sympathetic in certain ways.

Years of having his plans thwarted by Crash (and several decades of imprisonment with less than pleasant company) seem to have taken their toll on the ol' doc, as he is now unable to take things as seriously as he used to. In fact, he's much more interested in the thrill of the ride rather than the destination, and as soon as Crash and Coco put a stop to his plan once more, he breaks down at the prospect of spending the rest of his life in this endless cycle. It's then that he decides to make good on his old promise to retire, and in fact, the only thing that stops him from doing so is N. Tropy's new plan to destroy reality. Conveniently, working with Crash instead of against him turns out to be the change of perspective Cortex needs, so he decides to join forces with the bandicoots. This immediately prompts Crash to hug him, and we don't know it at this point, but there might be a deeper meaning to this cute little moment besides showing how forgiving Crash is.

Cortex becoming allies with Crash was the crux of Twinsanity, so the concept is not exactly new. However, Crash 4 does it differently enough that it doesn't feel like a retread. For one thing, Cortex legitimately puts some effort in becoming a better person, and while it's hard to say he succeeds, he does at least try. He looks genuinely sad when Coco refers to him as a bad guy, which (besides being kind of funny) indicates a very skewed perception of how others see him. If this were any other post-Warped game, he probably would have had the opposite reaction, and even though I'm crazy about the kind of cartoon villains who choose "being evil" as a day job, I will say that Cortex is more interesting when he has tangible goals.

But we all know the whole thing isn't going to last long, since morality has never played a role in Cortex's actions. As soon as the opportunity arises, he decides to go back to the past and cut the root of all his problems, attempting to prevent Crash from ever having escaped his domain. I never imagined the game was heading in this direction, but visiting the events that took place just before the first game was a far more interesting ending than stopping at N. Tropy's defeat, and arguably one of the only things that justify the time travel aspect first introduced in Warped (at least from a storytelling perspective).

What Cortex will never realize is that trying to prevent Crash's escape is exactly what led to it. It was through his actions that Crash accidentally knocked out a component of the Cortex Vortex, making it reject his past self in the process. So not only do we get a stable time loop out of all this, but we also finally have an explanation for why Crash was rejected in the first place! I can't think of a more perfect ending than tying into Crash's genesis and answering the one question we always forget about. And as for Cortex, he finally got his wish of retiring to a nice big beach... sort of.

Where It All Started

Cortex and Crash's relationship is greatly explored in the Flashback Tapes. These are more than brutally challenging levels, as they shed light into previously ambiguous matters, such as why Cortex specifically wanted Crash to be his general over any other animal. It turns out that Crash was the first subject skillful enough to clear Cortex's elaborate (and deadly) test courses, proving not only his agility but also wit in the face of danger.

More surprising is the fact that before Crash made his escape, Cortex grew fonder of him with each experiment he cleared, even admitting that he was starting to think of Crash as a son (perhaps this partly explains why Crash never seems to harbor ill feelings towards him, but who can really say?) Moreover, after his first defeat at Crash's hands, Cortex became heartbroken at how things turned out, something we never knew before. The craziest thing about all these revelations is that they somehow make a lot of sense, even when you take the other games in consideration. With just a few random remarks here and there, the Flashback Tapes add an entire layer of depth to Cortex that we had never seen before.

Coco's tapes have some interesting tidbits of their own. For one thing, we finally know where she was during the first game and when she escaped Cortex's clutches. It's further revealed that not only was N. Gin the one to notice her fascination with technology, but he was also her mentor on the subject. Coco and N. Gin have always been indirect rivals to a point, making this revelation all the more interesting. This is the kind of stuff that goes a long way towards fleshing out these characters in ways we've never really seen before.

There's a lot of lore involved in these tapes in general, some of which works both in-universe and on a meta context. For example, it's common knowledge that Crash Bandicoot, the character, was originally designed as Willy the Wombat. Guess what type of animal Cortex experimented on before Crash, before coming to the conclusion that bandicoots were superior. As for all the crates we see, they were actually designed by Cortex as obstacles for Crash to overcome, before the latter decided to use them to his advantage. It's a very fun explanation (granted, it doesn't tell us why crates are everywhere in the multiverse, but unlike gems and the like, they're no more than gameplay elements that have never been acknowledged in the story proper).

You get more of this stuff outside the tapes, too. Take Nitros Oxide, for instance. A simple throwaway quip of his in Crash Team Racing essentially became the basis for an entire world in this game. When he claims that his opponents are "slower than a Bermugulan Slagvork" we now know exactly what kind of creature he's referring to, because we end up visiting their planet! That's a cut so deep that only the most avid of Crash fans will be able to appreciate. They could have very easily named the alien planet something other than Bermugula, but they did their homework, and it's the little things that count.

Besides the more obvious cameos like the posters on the walls, Crash 4 pays homage to some obscure stuff too, including the canceled game, Crash Landed. For starters, Dingodile has chosen a bayou as his home (the same environment you would have fought him in), and you can even spot a few "bandicutes" running around in the wasteland levels. To tell the truth, almost every major Crash game gets some overt nods at one point or another, which brings us to the last topic of this analysis.

A Door Between Dimensions

There are two secret endings in Crash 4: a sequel hook and an epilogue in the vein of Crash 1 and Crash Team Racing. Unlike those games, however, the epilogue is the first ending you'll unlock, though it feels just as random and nonsensical. The stills are very fun to look at and feature neat cameos from all over the franchise (including spin-offs), but apart from the ongoing mystery surrounding the N. Tropys' whereabouts, it's all tongue-in-cheek. If you ask me, this should have been the 106% unlockable.

Instead, the sequel hook you get from 106% completion is where the implications lie (maybe it should have simply been a post-credits stinger instead?) Now that Uka Uka has found his way back to Cortex, there's just no telling what's going to happen next. In truth, this game leaves us with many unanswered questions, most likely to be explored in Crash Bandicoot 5, assuming that's where the franchise is going next. For one thing, what's up with the egg laid by N. Brio after you defeat him? It feels too strange and prominent to be a joke, and you do see it next to Crash's couch in the ending. Then we have Kupuna-Wa's ominous statements about Crash and Coco's near future, and she makes it sound like it's something much bigger than the events in this game. Not to mention we still don't really know what happened to the N. Tropys either. It's a recipe for a sequel waiting to happen.

This opens up an interesting hypothesis, as the developers have already stated that all the events after Warped are still real, yet Toys for Bob clearly want to do their own thing. I don't think the post-Warped games will be disregarded, but looking at the story in Crash 4 makes me think this game and any further numeric sequels will be set in a separate timeline — one that exists in conjunction with the original one. With On the Run coming out soon and taking place after Mind Over Mutant, now is probably the best opportunity to establish a Crash Bandicoot multiverse, which I believe has been the intention behind the curtains for a while.

This is a promising concept, because if the characters in Crash 5 aren't shackled by the post-Warped games, nothing is a foregone conclusion anymore. Personally, I think the writing is on the wall, as Crash 4 may have a lot of neat references to characters and ideas that appeared in other games, but it goes out of its way to do very different things with its participants. It would be confusing if those developments led to The Wrath of Cortex and beyond, rather than existing in their own, separate branch.

N. Tropy is not the only example of this, but he is the most obvious one. If we assume The Wrath of Cortex occurs later in this timeline, his character becomes downright contradictory. Having developed much greater ambitions than ever displayed in the other games, it doesn't seem right for him to follow up on his newly-developed god complex by attending a humorous meeting about "spreading evil". Said meeting is even held by Uka Uka, one of the most vengeful characters in the series, and the one he left for dead in Crash 4. There's simply no way the evil mask would be fine with it, and if you take N-Tranced in consideration, the contrast becomes even greater, as Uka Uka specifically chooses N. Tropy as his right hand man in that game.

Speaking of which, Crash 4 would have been the perfect opportunity to establish how N. Tropy and N. Trance first met. This is a story that encompasses multiple dimensions, and we already know a few important things about N. Trance: he comes from the 5th Dimension, he's friends with N. Tropy, and it was N. Tropy who introduced him to Uka Uka (who could not have known about him because he was absent for almost the entirety of this game). If not for the promotional artwork spoiling so many things, I would have assumed N. Tropy was talking about the pink egg lad when mentioning a new partner, rather than his female self. With Crash 4 filling so many holes left by the other games, it's difficult to believe an opportunity this good was simply overlooked, once again leading me to believe the developers are just trying to make a separate timeline.

In fact, after the events of this game, it's hard to imagine N. Tropy would want anything to do with anyone else besides his alternate universe self (something he literally admits to). I see him going on a treasure hunt with N. Brio in Twinsanity and I wonder if we're even talking about the same guy who wanted to rule over time and reality itself. To make my position clear, I'm not criticizing either interpretation, but I reckon they don't mesh well, so I'm fine with keeping things separate.

The same can be said about Dingodile. He's pretty clearly given up his old ways in favor of pursuing his dreams, to the point where he doesn't see Crash and Coco as enemies anymore. To see him abandoning those dreams to try and destroy Crash again and helping the bad guys in Cortex Castle... It would be an odd reversion of his growth.

In the end, Crash 4 being set in a separate timeline means that all the stories we've heard before still matter, as will any new ones that happen in either timeline. Conversely, placing Crash 4 as an interquel not only makes this game completely pointless, but it also means we'll have to contend with even more inconsistencies than before. Many franchises have multiple universes that co-exist in harmony, and there's no reason Crash can't do the same. And as I mentioned earlier, if On the Run is of any indication, we're still getting new developments set after Mind Over Mutant, so it's not like the original timeline is going anywhere. This isn't a Crash Landed scenario, where everything was going to be rebooted like it didn't matter.

Additionally, the developers are fully aware of how popular a lot of the other characters are, and there's nothing preventing them from appearing in this (as of now hypothetically) separate timeline. The fact that characters from all over the franchise are featured in the epilogue is a sign that they're willing to use them. If they fit in the story the writers want to tell and their presence feels justified, I'm sure we'll see them regardless of where the series goes from here. I'd say the heaviest factor is whether they're popular enough with the fans and the developers themselves. We've already seen Oxide being reintroduced in this game simply because he's fun, so I don't think there's anything to worry about.

Wrapping Up

And so we've finally reached the end of this analysis, and I was even able to avoid making time-related jokes somehow! Whether you've been reading from the start or only just decided to pop in, thank you for taking a look at my inane ramblings, and I hope you enjoyed the ride. I'm confident that I was able to illustrate the points I feel strongly about, and Crash Bandicoot 4 is a game I have nothing but strong feelings towards. As a whole, I'm really pleased with most things this game does, and I can only hope Crash 5 improves on the few things it didn't get quite right. Only time will tell.

...

Oopsie-poopums!



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