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21 in ’21: Crash Bandicoot 4 is Too Much, Too Late

After a long string of misfires, and an equally long break, followed by a nostalgia-fueled resurgence, Crash Bandicoot is back with what may be his best original game since the PS1 days (excluding the severely underrated Crash Twinsanity; I will die on this hill). Rather than relying on gimmicks like the more recent games in the series have, Crash 4 picks up directly where the third installment left off 20 years ago and makes use of the same type of platforming and level design that made Naughty Dog's original series such a hit. For most levels, you'll be moving forward, almost on a linear track, dodging enemies and obstacles, jumping over pits, and breaking crates to get Wumpa Fruit. New mask characters provide some interesting new mechanics such as slowing down time or reversing gravity in certain segments.

A multiverse-focused story provides the excuse for exploring a variety of locations and eras including a futuristic metropolis, feudal Japan, alien spaceships, and even Louisiana during Mardi Gras. Each level looks great and each world/era feels distinct from one another. In general, the game is gorgeous. Crash and his sister, Coco, whom you can play as instead of Crash at any time, have never looked better. Characters' designs have been updated to take advantage of the power afforded by modern hardware, but without compromising on the style of the older games. The graphics aren't the only thing that takes advantage of modern hardware and modern budgets though. Levels are much more expansive than they were previously, and the game as a whole is much, much bigger. This is both a blessing and a curse, in my opinion. There is a lot of content and replayability here; too much content, in fact, for adult me. My younger self would have absolutely loved playing the side levels and replaying levels for 100% completion, but these days it's hard for me to commit that much time to something that simply doesn't have the gameplay depth to support playing for 40 hours.

Playing a single level often took me over 30 minutes, particularly if I was trying to break all the boxes or even just stock up on lives (speaking of lives, you can switch between retro mode, which uses the classic lives system, and modern, which removes them entirely). It felt to me like each level would cram in multiple different types of gameplay and mechanics, whereas the older installments would separate these into their own levels that focus just on that. For example, in Crash 3 a level might be about getting chased by a large dinosaur; a later level might revisit this concept and give you a more challenging version of this. In Crash 4, you'll play what feels like an entire level of "normal" Crash platforming, then be chased by a dinosaur, do some side-scrolling, get chased again, then do more platforming, and then be chased by a dinosaur one final time. The longer levels make the adventure feel much more epic, but they also make me more hesitant to replay levels. It's incredibly frustrating to spend 30 minutes trying to break all the boxes, then getting to the end and realizing you've missed one.

Besides that, Crash 4 also suffers from what I call "The Sonic Problem". Crash's nemesis Cortex, former boss fight staple Dingodile, and parallel dimension version of ex-girlfriend Tawna are all playable with their own unique mechanics and levels. Most of these levels are optional side-stories, but some are required to complete the story. Tawna's and Dingodile's levels were fine overall, but I could go my whole life without playing the Cortex levels again. Imprecise shooting with platforming that doesn't really feel good was a real bummer in an otherwise solid game.

Personally, I'm a little torn on Crash 4. It's a game that if I were 10 years old, I would have absolutely loved. But I'm not, and there are other games to play and other experiences to have. Replaying 30 minutes of content only to not accomplish anything is a hard sell for me in 2021. The core gameplay here is great, and while the levels drag a bit due to their length, I think ultimately they are designed very well – excluding a late game hell-gauntlet that almost made me rage-quit. If I'm being honest, I think the Crash 4 that we got is probably the best version we could have hoped for. However, I'll always crave something that was a little smaller in scope and budget; something like a "Sonic Mania" or "Mega Man 9" for our favorite Bandicoot.

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