The increasingly popular reboot-sequel is a hard needle to thread. You have to create a game that hews close enough to the original to make nostalgic fans happy, while modernizing and innovating enough to resonate with new players. Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time balances the two effortlessly. It impeccably preserves the vibrant look and feel of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, while integrating new ideas and platforming possibilities. And like the original Crash games, the hybrid of Crash's old and new ideas will test your platforming skills in interesting new ways.
Like its groan-inducing dad-joke of a subtitle says, Crash 4 is about time… travel. When the villains of Crash's past open an interdimensional portal, Crash and Coco have to collect a set of quantum masks in order to set things right. As with past Crash games, small exchanges in cutscenes between levels do a lot of narrative legwork. It's not much of a "story" per se, but Crash and his friends' charm fills in the gaps and makes you care enough to follow along.
Crash 4's time-traveling story takes you to all sorts of times and places, including dinosaur-infested jungles, futuristic cities full of flying cars, and sunken pirate ships. Every place you go feels lush, full of color and detail, with a painterly quality that's simply wonderful to run through. My favorite is the Mardi Gras world, where Crash and Spyro balloons float in the background as you hop over neon-colored flames and trumpet valves. Occasionally, you'll run through an area and the camera will pull back to let you take in the scenery. The environments never failed to impress me with their visual depth.
The best thing I can say about Crash 4 is that it mostly feels like classic Crash. In my mind, Crash's signature is in the way the camera moves to create different perspectives from area to area, giving each set of jumps a fresh feel. Sometimes you're moving left to right, while other times you're running away from the camera or bouncing straight up from box to box. Crash 4's long levels are chock-full of carefully plotted platforming sequences, which require quick reflexes and the ability to think on your feet. The dynamic design changes things up frequently, making every level feel winding and unpredictable, with every new set of platforms presenting a surprising, exciting new challenge.
It still feels classic, even as it introduces new mechanics. Once you find each of the quantum masks in the campaign, they will start to appear in levels, giving you access to reality-bending powers such as slowing down time and reversing gravity on the fly. Though none of the four powers the masks bestow are wildly original, they are all used to great effect. Slowing down time at the exact right moment to create a clear path of platforms requires just as much thought and reflexes as jumping and spinning, and sequences with each power come with their own lessons to learn and quirks to master.
In addition, each world includes optional levels that allow you to play as some of Crash's friends, including Tawna, Dingodile, and Dr. Neo Cortex. Each of the alternate characters have their own skill sets--Cortex, for example, cannot spin or double jump, but instead has a gun that turns enemies into platforms and an air dash. Levels built around these skill sets create even more room for variety; you'll see new situations and need to approach challenging platforming puzzles differently. The downside is that switching from any of these characters to Crash or Coco, or vice versa, can lead to some muscle memory mix-ups and accidental deaths. It's a momentary annoyance, but one that creates a slightly bitter aftertaste whenever you play one of these levels, especially during the campaign.
And mastery is crucial. From early on, Crash 4 insists on precision. Many platforming sequences demand you land multiple jumps in rapid succession with perfect accuracy and timing. Sometimes, the difficulty is invigorating--an action-packed puzzle for your mind and fingers. Occasionally, though, it feels as if the game expects more of you than it should. There are times when you'll land on the edge of a platform and fall to your death, only to wonder whether or not you should have been safe. Those frustrations are fleeting, though. More often, the next success is close enough at hand that you'll want to keep trying.
And merely finishing the campaign barely scratches the surface of the experience. Crash 4 is truly a perfectionist's delight. Each level offers up gemstones and a character skin depending on how many wumpa fruit you find, how many boxes you break, and how few times you die. Each level also boasts a time trial mode and an "N.Verted" mirror level, which not only makes you replay it mirrored, but also with a creative visual filter that may make it easier or harder. The N.Verted levels are especially interesting as they let you see Crash 4's vibrant levels in a completely different light.
Even more so than playing the N.Sane Trilogy, which literally remade the original Crash games from my youth, playing Crash 4 felt like getting back in touch with the series. It's an injection of new ideas into now-classic gameplay that surprises and delights, even as it feels like a homecoming. Truly, games like this are why we come running back to long-dormant franchises with open arms.