What is Crash Bandicoot? Not a bandicoot, evidently. A cursory Google search reveals them to be stout, mouselike marsupials, long of snout, large of ear, and hunched humbly earthwards. Of notable absence are: jeans, trainers, and fingerless gloves; a lolling tongue, humping hips, and a grin on the edge of aggression. Oh, and, as far as I can tell, they are not prone to attack by twisting their bodies into tornados of blurry fur. When Nathan Drake, firing up a PlayStation, noted, “That doesn’t look anything like a bandicoot,” as he did in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it seemed as though the developer, Naughty Dog, who had created Crash years before, were looking inwards, with a knowing mix of tease and interrogation. Here, face to face through the fuzz of a TV screen, were two happy, denim-clad fools, hungry for treasure and difficult to domesticate.
To gaze at Crash, in other words, may be to witness a feral reflection—a ravening orange id, caged only by the crags of those early 3-D landscapes. Now we have Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, from developer Toys for Bob, and we find that the rough jags of his old form have been replaced with plush detail. This will be no surprise for players of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy—a bundle of remakes comprising the first three games, from developer Vicarious Visions—in which Crash was shampooed to a strokably modern sheen. The art direction in the new game, by Amber Long and Josh Nadelberg, favours the supple and the synthetic: a clean cartoon, lacquered against the smuts of wildness. I miss the sparse polygons of old, rich with suggestion; back then, the two ice-white shards of Crash’s smile always appeared to flicker between teeth and foamy fangs, as if the genial were never more than a moment away from the rabid.
Anyway, Crash is back, and the first thing we might do is check the veracity of the title. That “4” is something of a misnomer; ruling out racers, spin-offs, compilations, party games, and mobile entries, this is still, by my count, the bandicoot’s eighth outing. Someone, seeking freshness from a series that had long ago waned, like overripe Wumpa fruit, has put their finger on where the stink started and wiped away the rest. Fair enough, but what about the subtitle? Faced with a declaration as longing and impatient as “It’s About Time,” I can’t help but think, Is it?
Granted, it’s a clever name, with a dusting of double entendre. The plot sees Dr. Nefarious Tropy, a blue-skinned loon, strapped into bronze body armour and encrusted with clocks, tearing a hole in the fabric of spacetime and romping through the multiverse—that easy reserve of franchise fuel, thirstily tapped by Marvel. To stop Tropy, Crash, who we find in a sandy snooze, at the beach, must gather the Quantum Masks: four floating deities, each impertinent to a particular law of physics. Lani-Loli can turn objects into rippling blue ghosts, and back again; Akano adds a dollop of dark matter to Crash’s signature spin, allowing him to hover and glide; Kupuna-Wa is able to stanch the flow of time; and Ika-Ika upends gravity, sending Crash hurtling to the heavens. Each mask appears when required, adding complexity—or, at least, upping the voltage of complication—to the platforming.
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This is sure to please those who like to play on the edge: in that wiry space where our brains try and muster the bandwidth to buffer the onscreen chaos, like Gromit frantically laying down the railway track in The Wrong Trousers. When you’re in that zone, there is a certain death-dodging thrill to be had. But all too often it ends in a fall. The levels—often fused together by grindable rails, runnable walls, mask-powered segments, and the odd vehicle section—are built for perfect, practiced runs, learnt the hard way, so why punish us with a slightly too-long load and a stretch of backtracking? Efforts have been made to mitigate the cruelty. Die enough times, and you’re given a checkpoint crate—placed where it probably should have been anyway. And your jump (a touch on the heavy side, as if tugged down by a bungee cord) is now aided by a yellow crosshair that points to Crash’s landing spot.
For the bandicoot-devout, there are nods, scattered like gems, to the series’ precious characters. Dingodile is now playable, for example, his flamethrower swapped for a vacuum cannon. (I think he may be plotting to jump ship and join Luigi, if there are any more haunted mansions that need hoovering.) As is Tawna, who makes a return, armed with a grappling hook and a blue-blonde shock of spiky hair. You’re also able to control Crash’s nemesis, Dr. Neo Cortex, who comes equipped with a ray gun capable of transmuting enemies into blocks. Add to all that an embarrassment of unlockable content—from skins to time trials, inverted levels to Flashback Tapes—which should keep the more frenzied fans busy for months. Personally, I feel like Dr. Cortex, who, after being bested yet again, despairs, “Must we keep going around and around like this? Tell me, Crash, is this all there is, forever?”
Back in 1996, when Crash Bandicoot was first released, it seemed to peel itself apart from the flat pixels of the era and inflate not just its dimensions but its ambition. The camera swirled around Crash like a Quantum Mask, peering forwards into the jungle, swinging from behind to a side-on view, and lurching ahead while looking back, as he ran towards us with a boulder rumbling in pursuit. You could sense Naughty Dog slavering over the cinematic possibilities of uncharted territory. Toys for Bob, on the other hand, has to contend with the now—an altogether wearier epoch, less wide-eyed—and its strategy is to strain for intricacy by heaping on the mechanics and the clutter, in the hope of stopping it all from rusting up. Whatever the antic designs of Dr. Tropy, there is a deeper story here, and it’s one that centres on a far sadder subject: it’s about time.
Developer: Toys for Bob
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One
Release date: October 2, 2020
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