Review by SneakTheSnake

"Run of the mill isn't bad, per se"

Crash Bandicoot, since its inception, has tried in vain to reach the level of popularity of the potbellied plumber and household name, Mario. In its humble beginnings, Crash Bandicoot, a game release by Naughty Dog about fifteen years ago, sought to capture to the appeal of Mario's 2D adventures by adding the elusive-at-the-time third dimension, featuring levels with Crash running toward or away from the screen as opposed to from left to right. Save for some perspective issues and uneven difficulty, the game succeeded in - sort of - creating a mascot for the Playstation and paving way for Crash 2 and 3, the latter of which being one of the most well-made games on the console.

Then Naughty Dog left for brighter pastures, eventually developing the Jak & Daxter games and then abandoning them too. Uncharted came along, and Naughty Dog has remained a juggernaut in gaming developing, staying fresh and original with great new ideas and technologically groundbreaking titles. Crash hopped from developer to developer for a while, trying to save face in the platforming, racing and party genres. I feel the games on the GBA come the closest to capturing the original feel of Crash, but other developers have tried to add their own flavor to the games, with Radical completely overhauling the Crash Bandicoot universe from the ground up. These changes have been hit or miss, and the latest in the series as of this writing, Crash: Mind over Mutant, is certainly no exception.

What a gamer will probably notice first off about the package is the stylistic overhaul. In an effort to remain "edgy" or some other tricky word like that, the developers went back to the drawing board, starting with Crash of the Titans, and gave the characters and their surrounding a different look. Gone was Crash's determination or grit; in his stead was a bumbling idiot, covered in tribal tattoos and muttering incomprehensibly. Cortex became much more of a comic relief character, spouting meta references left and right. Coco, Crash's sister, no longer seemed to possess the intelligence and quiet attitude of previous titles, speaking instead with the language of an all-too-typical teen. In other words, waugh. Waugh indeed.

Perhaps against my better judgment, I decided to give the new Crash and his ilk the benefit of the doubt, and I'm surprised in certain aspects and disappointed in others. At the end of the day, the game utilizes a few interesting mechanics, but Crash has taken such a backseat to the rest of the action in this title that he is nothing but a generic figurehead; anyone could take the place of Crash. If that doesn't bother you, you may be in for a treat.

The story goes as follows: Cortex, back once again after the umpteenth humiliation, creates a new electronic device that puts characters in a hypnotic state, becoming obsessed with every possible feature these phones have to offer, which leaves them too distracted to prevent Cortex from transmorphing into a cringe-worthy mutant to bring on his own kind of wanton destruction. On the surface, it's a rather unusual and somewhat unique story but, in the end, it's up to Crash to save the day. On a deeper level, however, the story is a sharp take on consumerism and the burgeoning aspects of the Internet, social networking and online gaming. The way the story is conveyed is creative and the presentation overall screams quality. It really does, and I'll tell you why later.

The most important game mechanic to keep in mind in this latest iteration is the use of "jacking" mutants. Just like in Crash of the Titans, Crash can beat larger enemies to a pulp and then ride them when they're too stunned to move. Crash can then use the mutant's abilities to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles in the environment or beat up bigger mutants.

I found myself wanting to play more with the mutants than to simply run around the environment as Crash. The mutants don't have much personality, per se, and their emotions are expressed exclusively through grunts and growls, but they were so much more... fun! Playing as Crash turned out to be a bore; Crash's modes of defense are serviceable, but not refined, and the mutants have some abilities that are really interesting to play with. One mutant can manipulate time, for example, another can roll up into a ball and rev around Super Monkey Ball-style and yet another can shoot out ice breath, making ice bridges over large bodies of water. To add insult to injury, there is a lot of backtracking on foot, teleporters between different sections of the island only come into play in the last hour of the seven-hour game and Crash doesn't move too quickly. A new feature, digging, is also quite cumbersome.

At its core, the game is a simple platforming game with combat / RPG elements (as one can level up moves and earn new ones by collecting experience points). This is supplemented by a combo system, in which an experience point multiplier increases as Crash or the mutant lands successive punches without getting hurt, and this adds a bit of depth to the combat. There is no customization in how one levels up, however, and there is no way of knowing at which point value the mutant will level up a move or earn a new one. To add longevity, though, there are both mini-missions to complete when the campaign as over as well as achievements to earn throughout the course of completing the game, but these assist very little in the long run.

The graphics are a double-edged sword. The game engine seems to be ripped straight from Crash of the Titans (as the games were released very closely to one another) and, while the engine does its job, I'm simply not a fan of it. There has not been a Crash game yet to use cel shading (at least not to my knowledge), and I feel the series would be perfectly fit with that art style. Instead, we are treated to deformed, insipid-looking new versions of old characters. Aku Aku is especially disgusting, changing from a morose and wise-looking figure to a baboon-like mess. It's displeasing.

On the other side of this fabled double-edged sword are the cutscenes. I simply cannot get enough of them. Out of the eighteen or so cutscenes throughout the title, different art styles are applied to every two. Two are designed as a slick "anime", two are designed to look like a puppet show while others are more clearly inspired by the Bugs Bunny cartoons of old or South Park. These are very well produced and add a great presentational flavor over the tradition of using the game's graphics engine or sloppy FMV to create cutscenes, and they are all viewable from Crash's bungalow at any point.

The music is bland and inoffensive; no tunes truly stand out. I miss the aural company of Spiralmouth, whose accapella music fit well into Crash Twinsanity and Tag Team Racing. This, however, is just about as generic as one can get. The voice acting, though, is superb (something I've found to be true with most Crash games), and Jess Harnell, John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) and several others are there to deliver strong - and hilarious - performances. These make the cutscenes a particular delight.

The fixed-camera platforming here - topped by somewhat-interesting mutant combat - combine to create a harmless, if not entirely original platformer. If you're the slightest bit interested in finding out what Crash and his buddies have been up to in the past years, pick this one up for a bargain. If not, I would strongly implore you nonetheless to view the cutscenes on Youtube for laughs.

Does this hold a candle up to the original Crash games? Not necessarily. Does it stand up well on its own as a gaming product? Just about. I think I'd recommend it just the same.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/30/10

Game Release: Crash: Mind Over Mutant (US, 10/07/08)

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