Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time

Few things get my writing juices flowing like the reveal of a Crash Bandicoot game. Not just any game either — this is the first entirely new, entirely original installment in a decade, and what a bold direction it's taking! Crash Bandicoot FOUR? Pure madness, just the way I like it.

Before kicking things off, I want to thank JumpButton and Canadian Guy Eh for their invaluable contributions. I would not have been able to write this article if not for them, and I really recommend checking Canadian Guy Eh's interview with Toys For Bob's Paul Yan:

Check out the interview here!

Let's start our trip through the multiverse by taking a look at the official press notes:

Finally. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is the first original entry in the Crash franchise in more than 10 years and the long-awaited sequel to the original trilogy. Rewinding time back to the end of Crash Bandicoot: Warped, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time picks up after Neo Cortex, Dr. N. Tropy and Uka Uka were last stranded on a distant planet. After decades of fruitless attempts, the trio finally make their escape, ripping an Evil-Scientist-sized hole in the fabric of space-time in the process. Now all that stands between them and total dominion over the multiverse are two fuzzy marsupials from N. Sanity Island.

  • New Art Style – Toys for Bob is excited to introduce a fresh visual direction for Crash that maintains the zany spirit of the franchise while also breathing unique personality and charm into it. Fans can expect wacky new worlds, lush epic vistas and an absurd variety of enemies and hazards.
  • New Playable Characters – Fans can play as Crash or Coco on their journey to save the multiverse, and new playable characters, including the fiendish Neo Cortex, will emerge to provide an alternative perspective on our hero bandicoots’ quest to defeat their nefarious nemeses.
  • Larger-than-Life Boss Battles – Fans can expect formidable bosses and monumental battles like they’ve never seen before, as Crash and Coco use Quantum Masks to their advantage.
  • Advanced Platforming Tricks – Utilize the environment by wall running, rail grinding and rope swinging, discovering new ways to platform and progress through exciting challenges.
  • A Love Letter to Fans By Fans – Longtime Crash fans and lead developer Toys for Bob extends Crash lore in surprising ways, giving fans unseen sides of classic characters, new whimsical worlds and an exploration into the eternal struggle between bad science and a Bandicoot.

There is a lot of ground to cover, so I'll try to be as coherent as my excitement will allow and break down the discussion into three parts: story, visuals, and gameplay. As usual, and because this is the blog section of the site where my opinion runs rampant, I'll be throwing in my two cents every now and then and waiting to see what you agree and disagree with. Let's have an interesting and civilized conversation going after the post!

Into the Bandi-Verse

To see a true continuation of Warped is something that's going to catch a lot of people by surprise, as we all came to accept that we were never going to have an explanation for how Cortex, N. Tropy, and Uka Uka escaped the distant past. The series quickly moved on and left that loose thread dangling, while a whole myriad of adventures took place in the years that followed. So to have an actual Crash Bandicoot 4 that continues where the original trilogy left off is quite astounding, to say the least!

Crash 4 is a logical progression from Warped's premise, going one step beyond time-travel and reintroducing the concept of alternate dimensions to explore, thanks to the baddies tearing open a hole in the multiverse at the beginning of the game. Crash will need the help of the four Quantum Masks to fix things, but a lot is still being left to the imagination. If that press release is anything to go by, it's entirely possible that alternate versions of established characters will make an appearance, so I wouldn't be surprised to see newer faces making their way to the game, or even older ones rocking different looks and stories. Like, say, a pirate Tawna with blue hair, perhaps (wink, wink)?

The first Quantum Mask you'll meet is Lani-Loli (the one who speaks at the end of the trailer). He's a friend of Aku Aku's, and it's this connection that brings Crash and Coco up to speed on the fiendish plot at hand. During the trailer, you can see Lani-Loli as both he and Crash flee from a very menacing-looking spirit of sorts. Again, this is nothing but a theory, but it wouldn't be out of place for Cortex to use paranormal entities like those to gain the upper hand, with the Quantum Masks possibly acting as guardians to contain them. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I do know is that it's certainly refreshing to see new mask characters that not only seem to have fun personalities, but also aren't evil.

Those who love the bandicoot's adventures and the colorful cast he's met over the years are probably wondering what this means for the games released after Warped. The final moment in the trailer shows that there's no cause for concern, as Lani-Loli makes a cheeky reference to the game's placement in the timeline, and how it doesn't coincide with the amount of games that are set after these events. In fact, Toys for Bob has teased the presence of elements and timelines from all over the series as a result of the skewed time-space continuum, and this is an interesting topic of its own.

The possibilities for what will come in the future are endless. Since Crash 4 isn't retconning anything out of existence, will this be a one-off interquel before we find out what happens after Mind Over Mutant, or will it be the start of an alternate timeline? In the latter case, will both timelines continue to co-exist? Perhaps we'll see a unique scenario where the original branch will see more spin-offs featuring characters and events from all over the franchise (akin to the series-wide celebration that is Nitro-Fueled), while numbered sequels will uphold this new direction and maybe reintroduce popular characters. So much can be done, and I'm sure things will play out according to the fan base's reception.

Panache Bandicoot

Redesigns are nothing new to the series, and the developers have never shied away from adapting this lovable cast of mutants and scientists to better suit their vision. That's just how the franchise has rolled for a very long time, and even in the face of the newer designs from that weird mobile game everyone's already forgotten about, Crash 4 is no exception to the norm. While the N. Sane Trilogy opted for realistic textures, exaggerated fur shaders, and an art direction as inconsistent as Cortex's hairline, Crash 4 instead comes off as strongly stylized and unified, with a fresh new look that looks consistent through and through. The smooth surfaces, bold shapes, and cartoony flair really give it an identity of its own, and it looks all the better for it. That and Crash finally has fur that doesn't look like a plush doll.

The titular hero seems to take cues from most of his past portrayals (even including the paw-prints on his shoe soles from the Radical Entertainment era), while sporting an undeniably original makeover at the same time. Thankfully, he's also very expressive. During chase scenes, Crash runs like they're handing out free tortilla chips, and the look on his face when that big ghoul shows up pretty much says it all for someone who's about to become a spectral dish. In every other situation, he seems to be having a lot of fun, as though he's built some confidence from past adventures. Whether that was the intention or not, he comes across as a bit more seasoned, yet still as zany as you'd expect. Personally, I hope that also means he doesn't do that gibberish he's had for a while, but I reckon that's just wishful thinking on my part (although I do love that he has different variations on "whoa" depending on how he dies). That said, I'm not sure what the intention was behind giving Crash (of all characters) a smart phone and a tendency to take selfies. If anything, that's been Coco's thing for a while.

And speaking of Coco, she's an interesting case too, as there are some clear influences from her Crash of the Titans and Mind Over Mutant designs, but with all the features you'd usually associate with her classic look. Keeping with the times, she's traded her chunky laptop for a more practical tablet, which one would assume makes those daring platforming segments easier on her wrist. I think this design is pinch-the-cheeks adorable and very appropriate for the character, making her seem more like an actual kid sister as opposed to the sassy sidekick she'd become. In my eyes, she and Crash have never looked better.

Like the bandicoots, Cortex is another character with a mix of elements going on, being noticeably close to the Radical Entertainment design in terms of height and body shape, but with the classic colors and hair style. Out of the main trio, he's the one I love the least. I don't think he looks bad by any stretch of the imagination, but his update is "safer" compared to Crash and Coco, and I think his eyes look a bit weird in some scenes.

Everyone's favorite rocket man N. Gin is back, this time with a mechanical arm that I'm sure must enhance his drumming skills (he has a life outside trying to destroy Crash, after all). It's hard to miss his performance in the trailer as he acts as the drummer for a music-themed boss, under the appropriate name of Rawkit Hëd. Introducing new elements and facets is as reinvigorating for the characters as it is for the gameplay, and it's fun to see things like N. Gin's penchant for loud music (a trait he first showed in Crash of the Titans) going hand-in-hand with his love for giant mechs. This sort of thing ultimately makes these weirdos more interesting, fun, and relatable, and it's part of the reason why the Crash cast continues to be so popular.

But let's take a moment to talk about the environments. As with the characters, stylization is favored to make everything pop, giving the game a very cartoony aesthetic that just feels more appropriate than the rather sterile takes from the N. Sane Trilogy (especially in terms of lighting). Besides the welcoming comfort of the deadly jungle, they've shown quite an assortment of different settings already, including a snowy cavern, a pirate bay, Feudal Japan (complete with an eastern dragon), a colorful seabed, pre-historic volcano grounds, a futuristic metropolis, a European-looking night city, and... a Gasmoxian space station?! It would appear that way, if the rotund Oxide lookalikes are of any indication. Who knows, maybe the alien racer himself makes a cameo appearance at some point, and that's how he learns about Earth in the first place!

Oh, and I simply can't let this go unmentioned: 60 frames per second! Yes! It's unclear whether the smooth frame rate seen in the trailer and gameplay footage will apply to all consoles, but I expect it to at least be featured on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Not counting the PC version of the N. Sane Trilogy, this will be the first Crash Bandicoot game to target anything beyond 30fps since 2005. Probably another advantage from the game's lack of graphical intensity. I'm a big stickler for smooth frame rates, and as games above 30fps are a dying breed, this gets a hearty thumbs-up from me.

Plus, it lets the animators sneak in a few more frames of fun here and there. Tee hee.

Thinking Outside the Crate

Crash Bandicoot 4 doesn't just owe its name to where it fits in the timeline, as it's also a return to the classic gameplay that popularized the games in the late nineties. Although the bandicoot has traversed many different worlds over the years, his voyages are usually linear in nature, and I'm still of the opinion that this remains one of his greatest strengths. Crash's early games are accessible and fun to pick up at any time, with the straightforward level design preventing you from getting lost, while still hiding a lot of things for the more avid explorers and expert players. The real challenge in making such a Crash game is coming up with new ways to keep that philosophy engaging.

So what makes a new installment worthy of being a numbered sequel? Though much harder in execution, the answer seems simple on paper: build on top of the foundation. If people enjoy Crash's arcade-like hallway levels, the developers must ask themselves how they can keep those fresh. Crash 4's answer is the introduction of new abilities, puzzles, and modern sensibilities. Things that might not have been feasible in the original trilogy, in other words. To that end, Crash moves similarly to the PS1 games, but to overcome new obstacles, he must be smarter, more agile, and more capable. So in addition to everything he could do in the old games, he is now able to run on walls, swing from ropes, and (my favorite move so far) slide on vines and rails. This last one seems to be quite prominent, to the point where it's even seen on the game's box art. As usual, Crash ends up putting his own spin on what he does, so he can drop down from a rail and use it as a zip-line when the situation demands it, lest his face end up stuck on incoming obstacles. It's as simple as it is elegant.

Par for the course for a "classic" Crash game, the linear level design means there is always something to do at any given point, and from the looks of it, Crash 4 understands that well. The few levels that have been shown place crates, hazards, and platforms in such a way that you can chain together a sequence of actions to keep you on the move, whilst keeping you on your toes. Everything seems to be flowing quite well, and certain changes appear intentionally done to let experienced players stay on the move, such as Crash automatically attracting any fruits collected from crates. Like in the classic trilogy, each level will come with a familiar question-mark platform that takes you to a Bonus Round. With Crash's new abilities, these will probably be quite interesting.

The only super power (if you can still call it that) returning from Warped is the double jump, which I think speaks volumes for how game-breaking or situational most of the other powers were. As we've already seen, Quantum Masks are all the rage at the moment, with each of them lending Crash a (proverbial) helping hand. But of course, with great powers come great obstacles to overcome, and finding new ways to use them is half the fun. Sure, slowing down time to slip between fast-moving hazards seems like a no-brainer, but how about using that power to touch a Nitro crate and escape the explosion before it even goes off? When I heard the new mask Kupuna-Wa was going to make that possible, all I could think of was the potential for some really fun time-based puzzles.

As seen in the trailer, a different mask named Ika-Ika grants Crash the ability to shift gravity, letting Crash run on the ceiling to avoid long pits and cramming twice as many things to whack in the same length. With this ability available at the press of a button, this soon becomes a test of reflexes and wit, especially in the more complex 2D segments where you can see more of your surroundings. The remaining quantum powers are unknown at the moment, but while I'm loving the idea and the uses I've seen for these masks, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed with their largely situational nature, as the game seems to decide when each mask comes and goes. Hopefully this isn't always the case, since holding the player's hand like this limits the masks' potential and prevents opportunities such as taking them to earlier levels to unlock alternate paths.

Taking a cue from the N. Sane Trilogy, Coco will be playable in Crash's place at your leisure. It looks like there's no difference between the two siblings in terms of gameplay, but just having the choice is nice, and it warms up my heart to see the bandicoots' continued team efforts to foil Cortex's plans. Speaking of whom, the bearded scientist himself is a third playable character, with his gameplay involving an even greater focus on puzzles. Cortex can't double jump, but his jet-pack allows him to do a mid-air dash to cover greater distances, and by zapping certain enemies with his ray gun, he can stun them in place and use them as makeshift platforms. It's not just his play style that's interesting, though — while this isn't the first time we get to play as Cortex, it's the first time we play as the game's villain. What I mean by this is that Cortex's levels will offer an alternative perspective on key events, with him making an effort to stop Crash and Coco on their tracks. It's not often that we see him taking on a more active villainous role, and this time we get to enact it first-hand. How cool is that?

With a game that emphasizes the concept of time, it's no surprise to see the return of that classic love-or-hate-it mode, Time Trial. While it's still unknown if this will be improved in some way, Crash 4 is free from the original trilogy's restrictions, making it the perfect opportunity to improve this aspect (well... even if there were plenty of wasted opportunities for it in the past). The most frustrating thing about Time Trials has always been the requirement to beat each level in a single try, in addition to already going as fast as you can while missing as few time crates as possible. I'm of the opinion that keeping checkpoints in Time Trials would be a great compromise, as long as the timer kept running even if you died. Inexperienced players could still get sapphire relics and beat the game with minimum frustration, while the competitive folks would still get the challenge they crave. Please make it happen, Toys for Bob.

Two more things are left to talk about, and they're both tied to progression. Crash 4 will see a return to the linear map design of the very first game in the series, rather than give players the choice between a bunch of different levels. Toys for Bob's reasoning for this is that the story can be given more focus this way, and it does make sense if that's the direction they're going for. Additionally, they wanted to keep the difficulty curve rising steadily with each new level, and while that didn't work too well in the first game, they do have two decades of hindsight and a lot more experience than the original team in their favor.

And finally, we will have the option to choose between Modern and Retro mode. The former is the default setting, where you can die as many times as needed to beat a level, while Retro mode provides a more classic experience with limited lives and Game Overs. It's a good way to let everyone enjoy the game however they prefer and decide how closely Crash 4 adheres to its prequels' retry system. As an added compromise, you will only be able to obtain certain gems by beating a level without dying too many times, so no matter which mode you choose, you're still discouraged from being reckless.

It's About Time

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time will be released on October 2, 2020 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. There is still no word on an eventual Nintendo Switch or PC version, but nothing's been ruled out yet. As you may remember, it took the N. Sane Trilogy a year to show up on platforms besides the PS4, so it's entirely possible we'll see a similar scenario again. Fingers crossed.

In truth, this is the kind of Crash Bandicoot 4 my kid self wanted to see in 2001 — a game that retains everything you'd expect from the original trilogy while simultaneously taking the series to new heights. In other words, the classic gameplay interwoven with new abilities, a more intricate and less formulaic story, and of course, a better use for the hardware. After Warped, almost every sequel fell squarely on one of two categories: rehash or reinvention. Crash 4 looks rather like an evolution, and that's not something this franchise sees very often. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding, but this approach seems worthy of the number in the title, more than any other Crash games I can think of. Perhaps this is part of the reason such a confident move was never attempted before, at least outside Japan (I wonder what they'll call the game there, considering their version of The Wrath of Cortex was already called Crash Bandicoot 4). These are some big shoes to fill, but Toys for Bob looks dauntless in their crusade, and things are looking deliciously promising.




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