Given the top billing afforded to the Raving Rabbids in recent years, it would be easy to believe that Rayman had been all but forgotten by Ubisoft. This would be a particularly galling fate considering that he was used to introduce the moronic creatures. So it is with some surprise to find that Rayman has returned not only to the gaming world but also to his 2D roots. And all without a Rabbid in sight.
The largely throwaway story sees the world being invaded by the denizens of the ‘Land of the Livid Dead’ who imprison all of the Electoons and Nymphs, leaving it to our heroes to free everyone, defeat the forces of darkness and return peace to the world. Unoriginal it may be, but it is at least done with tongue firmly in cheek with the short intro movie making it completely clear that Rayman and his friends are utterly to blame for the predicament in the first place.
The very same point could also be made about the gameplay itself. Decidedly old school, it follows the well worn path of the platform game with all of the jumping on enemies, collecting pickups (Lums in this instance) and leaping to distant platforms that fans could ask for. Although offering little that is really new, the brilliant level design and infectious exuberance that shines through certainly make up for this. Indeed, only the most stony hearted of players could fail to be won over by the game’s charms.
It certainly helps that while perhaps unoriginal, the platforming is near perfect. With none of the leaps of faith or occasional unfairness that have plagued the genre since time immemorial, it’s a joy to play and a reminder that there is plenty of life still left in the 2D game. It also manages to feel more organic and less restrictive than such recent titles such as Donkey Kong Country Returns and New Super Mario Bros Wii. The game also gets the often tricky risk/reward mechanic absolutely right with bonus coins and Lums tantalisingly close to enemies and other dangers. It’s utterly possible to simply complete a level but the lure of those missing bonuses is often too much – particularly when each level ends with all of the Lums being totted up to reach certain targets. As meeting these quotas will also earn the player additional Electoons which in turn unlock extra levels and other bonuses, falling agonisingly short is often enough to prompt the player to hit the replay button and try again.
In fact, particularly in the later levels, it can feel as if there is almost a perfectionist’s line – a way of getting through the level in one constant motion which maximises the player’s rewards and allows them to grab bonuses before they become out of reach. This is particularly true of the against the clock replays. For revisiting a completed level will see you presented with a par time to beat and whilst fairly easy on the earlier levels, these soon become Tony Hawks style quests for the perfect line. Of course to accomplish this is going to require multiple attempts. Thankfully though, the levels are short enough for repeated attempts not to grate.
Ignoring these additional challenges though, the later levels themselves will also require multiple attempts just to complete. For although fair, the game soon becomes unapologetically and even gleefully difficult. Necessitating split second timing and astonishing feats of muscle memory, the casual gamer need not apply. Yet the intelligent level design sees these tricky sections punctuated by well placed restart points which are always just on the right side of acceptability. Never too common, they ensure that the game maintains that ‘one more go’ quality which means that although you will die a lot, you’re never frustrated enough to completely give up. As a tried and tested mechanic, albeit one that is all too easy to get wrong, it’s a far more elegant situation than the Super Guide which has made its way into so many Nintendo titles of late. Furthermore, the satisfaction of finally nailing that tricky section is quite simply unrivalled. This is most evident in the Tricky Treasure bonus levels. Completely optional, they encapsulate the core of Rayman Origins’ gameplay with the player trying to catch up with a fleeing treasure chest while the level crumbles around them. Absolutely exhilarating and increasingly difficult, they will require a lot of attempts to reach the end. Yet each run will bring the player ever closer to the goal and are seriously addictive.
Yet these are not the only deviations from the genre’s norms. Although the core platforming remains fairly standard, the variety within the levels themselves is staggering. Some are relaxed affairs giving the player as much time as they like to fully explore the level whilst others will see the player pursued by a voracious swarm, with a single mistake or pause in forward momentum ending in death. These changes can even occur within the levels themselves with the underwater sections in particular offering mellow, relaxed swims juxtaposed with moments of frantic madness.
Furthermore, in addition to the platforming, frequent shoot em up levels make an appearance as well as puzzle based secret rooms. The former of these sees Rayman astride a mosquito and while initially rather tame and admittedly derivative, later evolve into true bullet hell scenarios. The puzzle sections meanwhile are found hidden away throughout the levels and see the player having to kill a number of enemies before then smashing a cage and freeing the Electoons inside. While this is a great change of pace and some of them are genuine head scratchers (if only momentarily so), the complexity of these rooms is variable to see the least. Some will offer a taxing alternative to the main game whereas others will require almost no thought whatsoever. What’s more, in appearance they are very reminiscent of the Torture Screens from the C64’s Creatures but sadly don’t offer nearly as much imagination. Nevertheless, both these and the shoot em up levels are a nice change of pace and neither outstays their welcome.
Of course, one of the main draws for the game is going to be its visuals. Simply stunning, stills alone cannot do the game justice. Once in motion it resembles nothing so much as a hand drawn cartoon with both heroes and villains alike beautifully animated and oozing with character. A lot of time has clearly been lavished on the design and even the levels and backgrounds themselves are veritable works of art. They also serve to highlight how this is one area in which 2D games still remain unsurpassed by their three dimensional successors.
Yet although it’s the graphics which first impress, it’s the sound that will take root in your brain. Aurally amazing, the musical mash up of styles just shouldn’t work but somehow does. Each song perfectly captures the right vibe, be it the hillbilly chase music which accompanies the Tricky Treasure runs or the manic mariachi music which punctuates levels. As for the weird underwater singing – you’re going to be hearing that one in your head for a long time to come. And anyone who doesn’t find themselves grinning when the Lum King sing along starts is probably dead inside. Yet it’s not just the music. The audio clues which hint that secret rooms are nearby are fully integrated into the game and the appreciative chorus of sighs when secrets are uncovered makes it seem like you are being watched by an impressed crowd of onlookers.
Yet it’s not all good news. As the game progresses and becomes harder, levels rely more and more upon knowledge of the level than any ability to react. In fact, it is impossible to complete some of these levels on a first attempt not just because they are hard but because you have been killed by something that you could never have foreseen and had no time to respond to. As such, these levels can only be completed by repetition and whilst this is no bad thing on the Tricky Treasure levels, it becomes a slight annoyance once it has crept into the main game. Purists might argue that this is how platform games used to be but it’s difficult to be in favour of something which means that you are occasionally playing the game on auto pilot, waiting for the next new section in order to learn how to beat it on your subsequent attempt. Especially when this is the case in the boss battles. The third boss in particular is really going to have you gnashing your teeth. Yet at least it shies away from the hand holding that so many games these days rely upon and means that actually reaching the credits feels like an accomplishment.
As such, although derivative in places, it’s difficult not to be charmed by a platformer this polished. Only a few small niggles and a lack of genuine innovation hold it back. It is however, ridiculously good and highly recommended.