After Naughty Dog parted ways with Crash Bandicoot, it's fair to say the quality of subsequent games has been inconsistent. However, Activision finally did right by the mascot marsupial with the N. Sane Trilogy, a remake of the first three titles in the series. It was a massive success, bringing the character back into the mainstream and banking on all that pent up nostalgia. With Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, the franchise is now back in full swing and as strong as it's ever been.
This brand new entry is a fantastic mix of old and new that recaptures the uniquely challenging gameplay of the classics and throws in all kinds of new features. A direct follow-up to Crash Bandicoot Warped, it sees villains Neo Cortex and N. Tropy escape their prison and, of course, plot to take over the universe. As you begin the adventure, it's not long before new ideas are mixed in with series staples.
In order to stop the bad guys, Crash and Coco must track down the four Quantum Masks, with each granting special abilities as they appear throughout the game. The first of these is introduced in the second level, giving you the power to phase certain objects in and out of reality. As you progress, you'll gain other abilities like gliding through the air with a dark matter-powered spin, slowing down time, and reversing gravity. These are doled out at a steady pace, and despite a large number of levels, new concepts and challenges are thrown at you constantly.
Much of the gameplay will be familiar to fans, though. Crash and Coco have an identical moveset — spinning, ground pounding, and sliding all return, and the majority of levels will test your platforming prowess. When the masks show up for certain sections, the difficulty can ramp up as you have that extra complication to think about. Fortunately, everything feels great, with responsive controls across the board. In later stages, even hardened Crash players will be pushed, especially if you're looking to achieve everything.
Part way through the game, it gets a little bigger, too. Timelines are unlocked as you go through the main story, and these stages allow you to play as a trio of different characters. Tawna uses her grappling hook and wall jumping skills for some unique platforming challenges. Dingodile has a vacuum weapon that can send TNT flying at enemies and obstacles. Finally, Neo Cortex himself joins the fray with an air dash and a gun that transforms enemies into platforms. All three of these additional allies control very differently, and are fun in their own right. There are some issues with aiming each of their projectiles, but every playable character adds something unique.
The Timeline stages themselves are a little strange, though. They show a different character's perspective on a stage you've already played. It's an interesting idea, but half way through a Timeline level, you'll switch back to Crash and play the latter half of the level you've been through before. The layout of boxes changes, but it feels strange to play a new angle on a level and then have to get through a section you're already familiar with.
As you progress, you'll also find Flashback Tapes. These unlock a whole other set of optional stages set before the start of the very first game, and they'll really push your skills to the limit. Then there are the N. Verted levels, which flip every stage horizontally, add a crazy visual filter, and essentially double the number of levels to complete and collectibles to, well, collect. Frankly, the amount of stuff to do in Crash 4 is absurd; fully completing this will take dozens of hours, and not just because it's insanely hard.
The difficulty doesn't always come from tricky jumps or tight time limits, however. On occasion, we ran into a handful of issues that scuppered our chances at success. Boxes that only appear for a certain amount of time wouldn't show up at all, for example, and another instance saw the game not registering the wumpa fruit we were collecting. These were rare, but there do appear to be one or two stray bugs at the time of writing.
These won't ruin your time with Crash 4, and to be honest, you may be totally distracted by just how good the game looks. It has a wonderful cartoonish aesthetic with fantastic character design, vibrant colours, and expressive animation. Throw in all the Easter eggs you could ask for and this is a visual treat, whether you're a huge fan of the series or not. It all sounds good as well, with a blend of familiar and fresh effects accompanied by some decent music.
There's almost too much to talk about with Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, but rest assured that this is a return to form for the series. It might be tough, even a little mean at times, but this is the proper sequel fans have been asking for. With so much to see and do, this is a stylish, confident 3D platformer that brings Crash back at his best.