It’s About Time has, by all means, new ideas that work wonderfully; what does not click, however, is how the game frequently mishandles its elevated difficulty, creating a quest that is a constant struggle between fun and annoyance
Twenty-two years. That is precisely what separates Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time from its numerical predecessor, Warped, which came out for the PlayStation back in 1998. And as it should be expected from an industry that moves forward quite quickly, the gaming universe has radically changed during that lengthy interval. Yet, among the few truths that have survived that passage of time, there is the fact that the Crash Bandicoot saga has remained unique. It may seem like a claim that is a bit too bold to attribute to a platforming franchise that stars a cartoonish mascot, but it is a statement that holds when the context that has surrounded the series since its inception is analyzed.
When he debuted in 1996, the wild marsupial was – perhaps unconsciously – swimming against the current. Back then, in the early days of 3-D visuals, platformers were using the added third dimension to radically change the genre. Those that were in the process of making the leap from a sidescrolling perspective, such as Mario and Sonic, started shunning the simplicity of travelling between two predetermined points in order to replace that format with larger explorable scenarios; meanwhile, a slew of competitors – like Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro – were joining in on the same kind of action in the hopes of capturing a slice of the market.
Crash, however, seemed immune to such fad. Sure, the bandicoot took advantage of the PlayStation’s tridimensional capabilities to a great degree, both in its polygonal models and scenarios, as well as in how it presented a mixture of challenges – sometimes tied together in the very same stage – that included purely sidecrolling acrobatics, sequences that had the character moving forward in slightly grander scenarios, and the famous action-packed chases that saw Crash running towards the screen while fleeing massive danger. Yet, despite those twists, the series was visibly old-school for the years in which its first three entries were published.
While Mario, Donkey Kong, Conker, Spyro, Banjo-Kazooie, and many others were out there being thrown into open spaces with a checklist of goals that could be accomplished freely, therefore virtually creating a new genre, Crash was making use of 3-D to simply nudge platforming a bit forward. Firmly within the sidescrolling traditions, Crash was not a series of exploration. It was a franchise of hallways filled with enemies, traps, and pits. It was an adventure consisting of stages with a clear starting point and a single goal. Consequently, it was the purest representation of what a traditional platformer could be by going 3-D without succumbing to grandeur.
As expected from the numbering of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, which strongly links it to the classic trilogy, the game does not for a single second evade any of those essential characteristics. And although the gaming industry it finds is very distinct from that which existed twenty-two years ago, the title remains one-of-a-kind. Somebody may say the straightforwardness the original trio preserved and presented, a rare commodity during the late 1990s, is in vogue as of 2021, since sidescrolling platformers are far more common than wide-open ones. And that would be true. Nevertheless, the blend of pure sidecrolling with portions of 3-D forward movement is still a trademark of the Crash franchise, and such uniqueness should already be enough for the arrival of It’s About Time to be a moment of celebration.
Picking up right where Warped left off, the game begins when Neo Cortex and Nefarious Tropy manage to escape from their prison in the past through a time rift opened by their cell mate, Uka-Uka. Realizing the wormhole allows access to multiple dimensions, the pair plots a plan to conquer all of them. Meanwhile, living peacefully alongside Crash, Aku-Aku – the good floating-mask twin brother of Uka-Uka – senses a disturbance in the fabric of spacetime and urges the hero to climb to the top of the island’s main peak to confirm his suspicions. Once they get there, the appearance of a legendary Quantum Mask confirms that someone is tampering with time and that an adventure is about to unfold.
If that summary sounds like convoluted mumbo jumbo to serve as an excuse for an adventure that spans multiple dimensions, that is because it is. However, even if the premise itself is far from noteworthy, one has to launch some compliments towards the plot development executed by It’s About Time. Platformers have never really lived or died by their scripts, and more dedicated attempts to expand stories, be them dialogues or custcenes, run the serious risk of being seen as unnecessary flair within the genre. Crash Bandicoot 4, though, does a great job at punctually throwing plot-related cinematics before and after some of the stages, not just giving a sense of progress to the tale, but also providing some good fan service via character interactions and even creating a few notable twists along the way that nicely impact gameplay itself.
Due to how close It’s About Time is to its predecessors, these story-related twists are actually responsible for the largest changes the title brings to the established formula, and they come in two forms. The first is represented by the Quantum Masks that the hero has to collect in order to fix the spacetime chaos that has been created by the villains. Obtained at the end of some of the worlds, they are subsequently used in nearly all stages to open up new gameplay possibilities.
With a touch of the ZR button, Lani-Loli makes objects such as crates and platforms that appear as outlines materialize, hence generating plenty of platforming sequences where players have to match triggering the mask with jumping at the right time. Akano, meanwhile, allows Crash to go into an unstoppable version of his signature whirlwind attack that not only breaks through all sorts of barriers, but that also temporarily sends him flying high into the air, which makes for some thrilling segments of lengthy jumps. Kupuna-Wa momentarily slows down time, letting the character hop onto platforms that move too fast as well as avoid enemy attacks that would be nigh impossible to evade in the game’s regular speed. And, finally, Ika-Ika flips gravity and paves the way to some upside-down action.
The second twist is that Crash and his sister Coco are not completely alone in the adventure. Affected by the rifts, a retired Dingodile and a Tawna from another dimension are pulled into the antics of It’s About Time. Furthermore, down the line, Neo Cortex himself has no other choice but to help the heroes, making him join the good guys as well. As a consequence of these events, other than facing the regular stages where it is possible to play as either Crash or Coco, gamers will come across a few levels starred by this unlikely trio too.
Appropriately, each of these three additions brings new gameplay elements to the table, hence producing levels that while still solidly grounded in platforming traditions, stand nicely apart from those where Crash or Coco can be selected. Dingodile, besides being massive in size, carries a suction gun that replaces his standard flamethrower and is used to suck crates as well as give some much needed airtime to his jumps; as such, not only are his levels slower affairs, but they also have plenty of moments when the dingo-crocodile pulls TNT boxes with his weapon and shoots them at foes or obstacles. Tawna, appearing as an independent buccaneer, has a hookshot that lets her reach distant platforms, which leads to some wild acrobatics. And Cortex distances himself from the pack via a ray gun that turns bad guys into platforms and a quirky dash-jump that allows him to cover very wide gaps, therefore producing some tense platforming moments.
In an interesting turn, the levels featuring these characters are mostly not mandatory for the reaching of the final boss, functioning instead as pleasant side-dishes; and the reason for that is that they mainly work towards showing how the members of this trio, be it willingly or not, helped Crash and Coco during their quest. For instance, at one point the main heroes get surrounded by a horde of foes that seems insurmountable only to have them be blasted away by an explosion, which allows players to move forward in the stage. Later on, when one of Tawna’s courses is unlocked and appears on the world map, players who go through it will catch a glimpse of how the pirate was responsible for triggering the rescuing blast. It is a great concept. However, differently from the masks, which work well for the most part, a few problems related to it emerge.
The first is that, for some reason, the levels do not end after the intervention of the side-characters. Because of that, for example, following Tawna’s blasting the enemies away, the perspective shifts to Crash or Coco and gamers are forced to replay the segment between the explosion and the end of the regular level. Truth be told, a few alterations are always made, usually related to the placement of crates, but they are not enough to justify the unnecessary backtracking. The second is that although both Tawna and Dingodile control just fine, Cortex is somewhat problematic. His ray gun is a bit too hard to aim, which will occasionally force players to shoot half a dozen times to hit foes, crates, or switches that are standing nearby; additionally, the forward distance his dash-jump travels is awfully hard to judge, making it quite tough for one to accurately calculate where to start the move from in order to reach the numerous tight platforms the doctor will encounter. Aware of that last problem, developers made the move finish by having the character float in the air for a short while to allow for adjustments; still, the implementation does not seem ideal and that extra hovering time comes off as a quick fix.
If those were the sole problems with It’s About Time, then fans of the saga could comfortably rest in the knowledge that the classic format of the franchise is back with style, because sure, the shortcomings that are seen in the levels featuring Cortex make them occasionally anger-inducing and having to replay a few segments is indeed pointless, but these matters are not significant enough to affect the whole experience. Sadly, though, these issues are really just the tip of the iceberg, because – ultimately – It’s About Time sports so many design problems that whatever greatness is gained by masks and new playable characters happens to be dulled thanks to a myriad of questionable decisions.
Frustration is the key feeling here. Firstly because It’s About Time has numerous elements that constitute greatness: its visuals are beautiful; its cutscenes are entertaining; its music is groovy; its cartoonish humor is sharp; its boss battles are fun challenges; the thematic variety of its worlds and levels is wonderful; the design of its enemies is simultaneously ridiculous and brilliant; and the game mixes the old with the new stylishly. On one hand, when it is drinking from the original trilogy, it reproduces their action-packed greatness smoothly, whether it is when Crash is running towards the screen whilst avoiding obstacles and fleeing a hungry tyrannosaurus or when he is riding a vehicle or animal through a chaotic sequence of traps. On the other hand, when it is pulling its own stunts, it unearths fresh sequences of platforming goodness when the masks come into play, like when the hero has to slow the flow of time right as a bunch of stalactite-like platforms fall down a waterfall. Yet, all of those qualities do not amount to a consistently joyful experience.
The main reasons behind that frustrating contradiction are a bunch of misguided design choices that nearly dynamite the whole package. Some of the issues seen in It’s About Time are inherited straight from its predecessors. Numerous stages, for example, present forward-facing jumps that are problematic due to depth-perception matters; an issue that was quite frequent in the first Crash Bandicoot game. As such, it is not uncommon for one to fall to their death because the camera angle was more interested in showing an interesting perspective on the gorgeous scenarios than it was on giving players a good glimpse of how distant the platform they had to reach was. It has to be noted that the game tries to circumvent that shortcoming by turning the characters’ shadow into a very visible green circle, but the bottom line is that all such implementation does is force gamers to calculate jumps in midair, which is far from ideal in a quest that has so many incredibly tight platforms.
Another old trouble comes in the form of the odd hitboxes, as the game will sometimes register the characters have been hit by an enemy or explosion in rather questionable situations. Like the depth-perception problem, this is a fault to which most gamers will adapt along the way; meaning they will be less affected by it as the quest goes by. However, not only is it almost unavoidable that these problems will punctually rear their ugly heads to generate massive frustration, but their combination can lead to nightmarish scenarios when heroes are moving forward through a hallway and the judgment of whether or not an enemy or trap is too close to the character for comfort becomes very foggy, inevitably leading to hits and deaths caused by poor design.
It’s About Time further augments the explosive nature of these familiar issues by coming up with a few problems to call its own. And if there is one term to encompass all of them, the adjective sadistic just about fits the bill. Efforts like Celeste, Cuphead, Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and Hollow Knight have all relatively recently proved that brutal difficulty can be fun enough to reach the mainstream, and It’s About Time seems to attempt to hop on that tendency; a move that is somewhat natural due to how the first two entries in the trilogy featured plenty of particularly tough moments. However, the game turns up the difficulty to a deafening degree without implementing the countermeasures needed to sidestep frustration, and the result is a quest whose challenges are more painful than alluring; and whose completion ends up bringing relief instead of a sense of achievement.
The adventure starts tough from the get go, with the two introductory levels already exhibiting precise jumps that would likely be found in the final stages of other platformers. While that decision means It’s About Time, unlike most games, has no uninteresting warming up phase, it also causes the difficulty curve to be a bit all over the place. Although more experienced players may not see that trait as a flaw, that irregularity is accompanied by a bunch of choices that will likely turn it into an issue in the eyes of many.
The stages of It’s About Time are generally long, and that characteristic is troublesome in two ways: firstly because, from a design perspective, the multiple ideas the levels pack would probably be better explored in standalone courses; secondly because since dying is so frequent, stages feel even lengthier than they are, to the point many of them can qualify as draining. To make matters worse, checkpoints, though evenly spaced, do not take into account the prominence of brutal platforming challenges, meaning the portions between save points usually encompass multiple extremely tricky jumps that will probably have to be executed over and over again due to deaths; consequently, the game would be better served if checkpoints were more frequent. Finally, It’s About Time offers no room for error due to how, for some dumbfounding reason, crates containing Aku-Aku masks – which allow the heroes to take a hit without dying – are almost nonexistent, turning nearly all mistakes into instant deaths.
All of this is aggravated by level design that tends to go for very cheap kills. Many sequences, especially those that have characters being chased, using vehicles, mounting animals, or riding rails are nearly impossible to be cleared in one go, making them degenerate into trial and error. Furthermore, numerous crates and wumpa fruits, which are the game’s main optional collectibles, are put in absolutely deadly positions that usually require gamers to face the title’s depth-perception troubles or its tendency to kill without leaving any room for mistakes.
It has to be pointed out that It’s About Time contains some measures to reduce that frustration, but they are not exactly effective. For starters, the game can be played in either a Retro or a Modern mode; in the first, when running out of lives players are kicked back to the beginning of the level while in the second lives are eliminated and such punishment does not exist. Even if going for the easier Modern Mode, however, frustration is ultimately unavoidable since it is written into the game’s very bones.
In addition to that, when It’s About Time detects players are dying too much in a segment it will either create extra checkpoint crates or make the heroes re-spawn with an Aku-Aku mask. In both scenarios, though, the bonus is questionable. The added checkpoints are a relief, but they should have been there in the first place. The same applies to the Aku-Aku mask, because its appearance mostly reveals that boxes containing it should have been much more common than they are in order to create a sense of fairness. However, in the case of the masks, there is also a probably unintended touch of sadism in their existence, since it is bitterly ironic how they sometimes do not bring any relief at all because many deaths occur via falling into pits or being a victim to obstacles that kill in one hit anyway, like when Crash either is eaten by a dinosaur or hits a wall while riding a rail.
A sadly innocent victim of the overwhelming frustration contained in It’s About Time happens to be the game’s fantastic amount of extra content. All of its more than thirty stages contain a hidden gem, a time trial, a mirrored version with wacky psychedelic visuals, a challenge to clear the course without dying more than three times, not to mention the traditional crates and wumpa fruits; moreover, about twenty of them have what the game calls Flashback Tapes, a collectible that can only be picked up when it is found with no prior deaths having taken place and that unlocks smaller sidecrolling bonus levels that have Crash bouncing on crates to clear wide gaps.
It is quite a lot, but the truth is much of it will not be appealing to most on account of frustration and design issues. Mirrored stages are not so interesting when their normal versions can sometimes be painful to get through; and the same goes for Time Trials. The courses unlocked by the Flashback Tapes manage to correctly land the combination of challenge and fun, but getting to the collectible without dying is maddening. And both Wumpa Fruits and crates are so abundant (with more than a hundred of them in each level), so easy to miss due to mistakes, and at times so ridiculously hidden off the screen that even thinking of trying to grab all of them will be an action exclusive to avid fans with an inhuman level of tolerance towards frustration.
What is astonishing is that despite all of its anger-inducing shortcomings, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time cannot be ignored completely. As a testament to the clever ideas it holds and to the seemingly timeless originality of the franchise, there is still some fun to be had by traversing all of its stages. This is a game whose heart is pure and unaltered platforming goodness coming straight out of the sidescrolling era; yet, keeping true to the trilogy that preceded it, that classic approach to the genre is wisely augmented thanks to various possibilities opened up by the added third dimension.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time moves the franchise forward by gifting the marsupial hero with a quartet of gameplay-altering skills and by giving him the helping hand of three new playable characters that get their own stages. These are additions that, by all means, work wonderfully; what does not click, however, is how the game frequently mishandles its elevated difficulty, creating a quest that is a constant struggle between fun and annoyance. The winner of that conflict varies greatly, and the end result is a product that frustrates for what it is and for what it could have been.