The early magic of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time never fades away, but it does get overshadowed by some ridiculously difficult late-game challenges that fall into a tedious rut of unfair trial-and-error. It's no secret the Crash Bandicoot brand has seen its ups and downs over the decades, but the plucky orange marsupial has been on the upswing of late, with the N. Sane Trilogy remastered collection and Crash Team Racing remake both earning significant acclaim from critics and fans alike. Now, developer Toys for Bob is aiming to finally bring the brand forward into the future with Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time.

As the title suggests, Crash 4 ignores everything after 1998's Crash Bandicoot: Warped and picks up right where that timeless classic left off, with Crash and Coco squaring off once again against the evil Doctor Neo Cortex and his nefarious allies. Though ostensibly a foll0w-up to the N. Sane Trilogy, this new game shares no codebase with Vicarious Visions' effort and instead walks its own path, built from the ground-up to be an entirely new experience for platforming fans.

With a vibrant color palette and gorgeous animations, Crash 4 is visually engaging. While polygon counts may not be as high as more photorealistic games, the art style is entertaining and the worlds are a joy to behold. In particular, the water in the pirate-themed stages is tantalizingly clear and blue, while a pair of Mardi Gras-themed levels set in a fantasy version of New Orleans are striking in their imagination, with a bouncy dynamic soundtrack that evolves as the level progresses.

Simply put, Crash Bandicoot 4 packs a ton of game into the box. Minus the handful of dedicated boss levels, each of the 40 or so stages contains six Gems to collect, as well as an additional bonus for getting them all in one go. The time trial feature introduced in Crash 3 returns, allowing players to race through the levels, breaking special time crates to shave precious seconds off their run. On top of that, every level can be played in "N. Verted Mode," which flips the world, adds unique filters that impact visuals and gameplay, and features six N. Verted Gems. Collecting enough Gems on any level unlocks a skin for either Crash or Coco. For 21 of the levels, there are videocassette tapes that must be reached in one life to unlock special challenge levels set in 1996, during Crash and Coco's early training to become Cortex's elite minion. All told, there are over 100 levels in Crash Bandicoot 4.

The early worlds in Crash 4 aren't too tough, but they still have their moments, with puzzle-like Bonus rounds and tons of tricky jumps to navigate. Fortunately, the core gameplay feels true to the original PlayStation classics, though with some changes, like a completely retooled slide-jump that will take franchise veterans some time to get used to.

The big new addition to Crash 4 is the inclusion of four "Quantum Masks" that bestow various powers to Crash and Coco, from slowing down time to inverting gravity. These masks shake up the levels beyond the traditional running and jumping, and are used in increasingly creative ways as the adventure wears on. The new playable characters also mix things up, with franchise veterans Tawna, Dingodile, and Dr. Cortex himself being fully playable in their own tailor-made levels. For the most part, they work great, save for Tawna's finicky hookshot not always hitting its intended target and Cortex's levels often demanding more precise jumping than his limited moveset allows. The addition of vehicle segments also sees mixed results, with some, like the jet bike from Crash 2, controlling much better than others.

As the game progresses, Crash 4 begins pushing back really hard, to the point where late-game challenges can be frustrating, and not for the best reasons. Classic Crash Bandicoot platforming challenges can be tackled one step at a time, with time to rest and breathe before planning one's next move. With Crash 4, too many level segments don't offer such reprieve. These long gauntlets require periods of trial and error in order to discover what to do next, with no breaks to stop and think about the next move. It's not reliant on skill so much as memorization, and these particularly challenging levels are more ultimately more akin to something out of Super Meat Boy than Crash Bandicoot. With that in mind, players should spend their initial playthrough just focusing on reaching the end of the level in one piece.

Unfortunately, the difficulty is not always intentional. The original Crash Bandicoot had some minor issues with poor 3D depth perception and accidentally jumping into a bottomless pit because it was too close or far away. These troubles were mostly ironed out in Naughty Dog's initial sequel, but they've returned with a frustrating vengeance in Crash 4. The behind-the-back portions of levels are chock full of jumps that are harder than they look due to difficulty in judging the location of the player character in relation to their surroundings. This issue is at its worst in the Ratchet & Clank-inspired rail grinding portions of levels. Fortunately, reloading after a death is nigh-instantaneous, somewhat mitigating the penalty for failure. The new yellow shadow outline also helps players who have trouble landing tough jumps, but it doesn't fix the problem as much as it apologizes for it.

Over the years, titles like The Wrath of Cortex, Twinsanity, and Crash of the Titans tried to carry the legacy of Crash Bandicoot to the next generation, but each of these titles failed for one reason or another. With Crash 4, though it's not a perfect experience, Toys for Bob has successfully made the case for why Crash Bandicoot is more than just a nostalgia trip. There's still room for old-school fast-paced precision platforming along linear pathways, where the emphasis is less on exploring than on surviving a gauntlet of challenges. For better or worse, Crash 4 might be too challenging for its own good, but the end result is nonetheless worth the wait and a fitting tribute to one of the most legendary platforming mascots of the 1990s.

Crash Bandicoot 4 is out now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.