Perhaps the strange, uneasy climate we're currently in is affecting our sense of time, but it already feels like an age since Activision dropped the official Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time trailer on us in late June. A direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, Dr Cortex and Dr N. Tropy have broken out of their banishment to the past and are back to wreak havoc in space and time. Only our beloved Bandicoot twins stand in their way. Bombastic, colourful and slick, it showcased fast-paced platforming action, dynamic dimension-hopping and Crash & co looking better than ever. A hark back to the franchise's nostalgic roots and what made audiences fall in love with the fuzzy marsupial, even taking a cheeky swipe at The Wrath of Cortex and other series entries at the end. Instantly grabbing our attention, it made ardent Crash fans squee with delight and guaranteed “the Funk Soul Brother” would be a veritable earworm again until 2nd October. Or maybe that was just me.
Either way, we were on tenterhooks to see more in-game footage from the Toys For Bob addition to the Crash saga. A little while ago, some lucky outlets got their hands on a WIP demo from the current build and were kind enough to show us some gameplay videos. Then on 6th August, Sony held their ‘State of Play' event and showed us more gameplay goodness to further whet our appetites. So of course I decided to have a little look-see at all the footage so far.
The demo showcased 3 levels from the game and from the opening seconds of ‘Dino Dash', a suitably titled prehistoric romp, it already seems to live up to the trailer's hype. Toys For Bob's visual style of balancing intricacy and timeless simplicity, executed in the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, is used to great effect. Bright, bold colours and dynamic shading and lighting bring this dinosaur's playground to life. The canopies of vegetation are lush and vibrant, hosting nests of delicately cracked dino eggs. Insect barbs look sharp and poisonous. In fact, the attention to detail in all 3 levels is something to behold. Although the levels stick to the linear nature of their predecessors, players can move the camera to get a better scope of the level. Often you'll find your eye being drawn to intricate details a little way off, like tree vines and volcanoes on the horizon.
Crash and twin sister Coco, both fully playable and seamlessly interchangeable at any point, are also splendid in style and personality; both of their animations are fluid and brimming with character. Crash still effortlessly rocks those jean shorts and fingerless leather gloves. Just how we like him! Coco still lives for her super bouncy curls and perfectly lopsided dungarees, this time personalised with a pink love heart patch and sporting a snazzy pair of goggles atop her noggin. Lookin' good! State of Play also showcased new cosmetic outfits and skins that can be equipped in-game, all of which are earned through challenges or collecting gems. In Toys For Bob producer Lou Studdert's own words: “Just to be clear, there's no MTX (microtransactions) here!” Oh Lou, you know how to talk to a gamer!
The old-school platforming mechanics of the PS1 titles are back in force and Toys For Bob doesn't shy away from their sense of challenge and precision. And since the experience is intended to be a faithful successor to the original trilogy and specifically targeted at long time fans, nor should they. Certain leaps require pinpoint execution and reaction times to clear and subsequently may take several attempts to perfect. Just as they always did. Vicarious Visions merely highlighted just how rose-tinted our glasses really were on that front; I still have childhood flashbacks of the rising water sections of ‘Tomb Wader' from Warped. But fear not. To soothe a bit of the sting, new aspects have been introduced.
Firstly, both Bandicoots can double jump from the get-go *angelic chorus*. Secondly their shadows are outlined in yellow which serves as a clearer visual guide to where you're going to land and makes mid-air manoeuvres a little more accurate. And finally, say hello to ‘Modern Mode'. This mode gives you infinite tries to complete a level, bringing you back to the last checkpoint when you die and simply adding to the ‘Death Counter' instead. I can already hear the collective sigh of relief. The classic mode with limited lives is still available in ‘Retro Mode' for those looking for a complete nostalgic experience, but I suspect the balm of Modern Mode may be slightly too soothing for players to stick with it for very long. And concern for keeping their controllers in one piece.
While of course I can't comment on the actual fluidity of the control, from a purely visual standpoint, it appears to run very smoothly and the challenge comes from the game itself rather than other factors. Formidable but fair. As it suggests, Dino Dash culminates in an adrenaline-pumping dinosaur chase running towards the camera, requiring you to jump chasms and dodge nitro crates along the way. Motion blur was a recurring complaint against Spyro Reignited Trilogy upon release, causing nausea and headaches among players. Here thankfully it is minimal to non-existent; the environment remains in focus. Despite what the screenshot suggests. I just suck at screenshot timing. It's possibly aided by the linear level design and partially fixed camera angle, but it shows that Toys For Bob have learned from their mistakes and taken it on board when developing Crash 4.
Another new aspect is the introduction of the 4 ‘Quantum Masks'. Unlike Aku Aku who maintains his role of mentor and shield, these masks grant Crash and Coco time and matter-bending abilities for short periods, befitting of the time-twisting scenario. Inca-esque mask Lani-Loli grants the ability to phase objects such as crates and obstacles in and out of existence, showcased in a fun rail slide segment down a twisting vine in Dino Dash. The more Voodoo-inspired Kapuna-Wa, whose moon phases design I totally adore, allows our protagonists to briefly slow down time to avoid enemy attacks and tackle tricky jump sequences. The third mask Ika-Ika can invert your centre of gravity, enabling you to switch between walking on the floor and ceiling. The fourth mask still remains a mystery.
Unlike the gimmicky feel of the vehicles in Wrath of Cortex, the masks are integral to the gameplay and will be a consistent mechanic throughout. Any hope of passing through some of the more unforgiving sections of the game lies with becoming the master of the masks. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the wintry offering ‘Snow Way Out'.
Snow Way Out sets the scene of a fishing village populated with the undead and built into a glacier wall. As you do. Fast-flowing and fast-falling ice platforms will test your bond with Kapuna-Wa to its limit, as will the addition of new crates. Metal exclamation crates which reveal immaterial crates return, but a new version of them comes with a twist. When bounced upon, immaterial crates will appear, but only for a short time. Only a perfectly executed slowing of time will guarantee that you break them. There's also some crates that damn it just don't wanna be broken and will spout fire on all sides periodically. But here again the beautifully intricate environments will draw your eye here and there to ancient ship masts frozen behind the waterfalls or an almost perfectly preserved fishing boat sitting on a cradle of ice crystals in the sheer wall. Which subsequently explodes as you approach it.
Say hello to another new aspect: ‘Timeline Events'.
Crash and Coco aren't the only ones you can step into the shoes of in this time-twisting caper. Dr Cortex now has his own playable sections of the game, which form the aforementioned events, shown in a variation of Snow Way Out. Cortex has his own unique move set of a singular jump, his trusty ray gun and a comically entertaining head-bash-dash move. The head bash will propel you forward with brief gravity-defying capabilities, allowing you to reach far ledges and clear a path of nitros. The gun, when fired at enemies such as hovering birds, will turn them into solid platforms with a single shot and a bouncy mass of goo turned trampoline with a follow-up shot. A very clever mechanic, however a sentient slab of bouncy goo with eyes and a mouth may haunt your dreams for a while! Another notable feature here is the use of in-game subtitles (another complaint from Reignited Trilogy players). Though not present in the demo's cutscenes, this hints that they may at least be an option from the start. Another lesson learned and step in the right direction in terms of accessibility.
As you play through a section with Cortex, you'll come to a point where you witness certain events the Bandicoots witnessed earlier from his point of view. Remember that ice-cradled fishing boat that blew up? Here you'll see Cortex blowing up that vessel in an attempt to stop them, only accidentally setting it off too soon. This Pulp Fiction but family-friendly method of storytelling adds a whole new layer to the old formula and a further blend of the old and the new. The soundtrack too is stellar, harnessing the series' symphonic flair with certain tone-heavy variations for Cortex's sections and slowed down versions when Kapuna-Wa's powers come into play.
State of Play also revealed that fan favourite Dingodile is returning and playable. For the first time in a mainline Crash title, you can play as Dingodile! According to Studdert, he gave up his flamethrower and a life of crime to open a diner, which we see get promptly destroyed in the trailer. So, armed this time with a powerful suction cannon, he's back in action and no doubt on the warpath. The overview trailer sees him tail-whipping enemies into oblivion and using his cannon as an all-purpose tool; he can suck up crates, carry objects around and reverse the suction to hover over gaps or short distances. All of which look tons of fun! Bring it on, mate!
The final new aspect which State of Play announced was the introduction of “N-Verted Mode”, which Studdert describes as a “souped up, Bumpa Berry-fuelled take on a mirror mode”. Once a level is unlocked, players will be able to replay the level with a completely new perspective, new elements and new visual style. One level may require spinning paint all over the environment to show the path ahead, another may be completely decked out in neon and another level may have a sonar-like mechanic where spinning boxes will reveal the path, but only for a short time. Being a big fan of striking visuals, this cranks up the excitement factor for me and will add a great deal of replay value to the game beyond time trials and collecting gems.
Even from second hand observation, this looks set to be a winner. Toys For Bob knew what the fans wanted: the roots of the franchise brought back with a bang and wumped up with new exciting features. That's what they set out to do. And so far they seem to be making good on it. The spirit of those beloved titles is flowing through all of the demo and State of Play footage and it simply oozes fun, platforming goodness with a hefty helping of modern magic.
So far, this gets an ardent classic Crash Bandicoot and PS1 fan's approval. Big thumbs up.
How long till October again?
♫ Right about now
The funk soul brother
Check it out now… ♫