Michel Ancel would probably not appreciate it you referring to Rayman as the “French Mario.” Ancel’s limbless goofball has never shared much of the limelight that catapulted his more popular and utilitarian counterpart to stardom, occupying a space that has become increasingly under-appreciated in the HD era. In Rayman: Origins, Ancel brings Rayman full circle back to the series' roots in 2D platforming without a vapid rabbids crossover. Luckily for us, the team at Ubisoft Montpellier has delivered an unexpected gem.
The name “Origins” is far more literal than you might assume. Rayman: Origins does not in fact address story specifics regarding the “origins” of Rayman himself; instead, the title refers to the structure of the game as a return to its humble beginnings as a side-scroller. There is little to no narrative to be had in Origins apart from the featherweight context of Rayman and his chum’s snoring waking the evil grannies of the underworld, thus resulting in all sorts of nasty goings-on in the Glade of Dreams.
In this regard, Rayman handles exceptionally. The controls take a good deal of getting used to if you’ve played more precise fare in recent years, feeling rather heavy at first, but you soon realize that the controls have been tailor made for Rayman being played at remarkably high speeds. Though Origins isn’t as razor-sharp as a Super Meat Boy or intuitive as a Mario, every movement feels organic and “right” considering how the game is built around inertia and momentum. When you’re in motion the controls feel tight, allowing you enough room to fumble a bit and recover without penalty.
As a result, Origins is a complete blast to play from start to finish. By the halfway mark, you’ll be manipulating Rayman and company seamlessly with only the occasional lapse in the acuity of the controls. The abilities that you garner along the way are situation-based, so controller gymnastics are never required to succeed. Everything in Origins’ core gameplay boils down to timing, precision, and a grab bag of tuned reflexes.
This image is normal within the context of Rayman's universe.
The quality of the level design matches the accuracy of the controls in the way that everything just feels honed and crafted exactly the way the developers wanted. It’s apparent that the levels are designed around the core platforming, and as a result, your traversal of these imaginatively designed worlds is fluid and consistently entertaining. The sense of surprise and discovery that you feel as you encounter new enemies, gameplay elements and challenges is maintained throughout, meaning that Rayman Origins manages to stay fresh in the moment to moment action.
The variety of Origin’s twelve or so worlds cannot be understated. Everything from mad dashes across burning harbors to using your glide ability to thread the needle through aerial obstacles of a spiky persuasion is on display, and you rarely feel like you’ve experienced each level’s elements before. The game even has an eerily atmospheric underwater section that actually manages to be good, and just when you feel you’ve had enough of jumping, diving, and floating, the game shoves you on the back of a mosquito for some enjoyable and lighthearted 2D shooting. Above all else, Origins never gives you a chance to be bored, always providing locales that impress and make you hungry for more.
Part of this feeling of delightful surprise and unpredictability is the absolutely flawless graphical presentation. The UbiArt Framework engine allows for some of the most stunning levels ever seen in a video game, let alone a 2D platformer at a consistent 60 frames per second. The gorgeous array of colors, artistic stylings, and meticulous detail is staggering, and the animation lives up its phenomenal backdrop. The dynamic animations look more like pre-rendered 2D animation than a game running in real-time, and the stages are littered with striking, subtle details that must have taken hundreds of man-hours to create. Rayman: Origins must be played on an eye-searing, high-definition screen to take in all the sights.
Rayman: Origins embraces absurd humor.
The artistic direction is also full of variety and charm with an emphasis on whimsy. Worlds generally have consistent themes throughout, and as the story progresses, the levels themselves will transition seamlessly from fridge-themed levels where you vault from watermelon to hanging cocktail umbrellas to a Mexican-themed kitchen full of fire-breathing chefs. The imagination used to lovingly craft these worlds is astounding, and the fact that the developers manage to make each world simultaneously feel appropriate in the context of the Rayman-verse is a source of constant wonder and satisfaction.
The music is similarly up to the visual’s standards; if you aren’t persuaded of the game’s charm and whimsical tone by Rayman’s world, then you will be by the exceptional score. Perfectly uniform with the visual tone, the music fits the game’s cheerful identity like a glove. Tongue-in-cheek renditions of latin beats, funk-laden rhythms, and moody tunes characterize their associated worlds and stages.Plus, Origins wins the Game of the Year award for best use of the kazoo.
Though it may not look or sound like it, Rayman Origins is most definitely a hardcore platformer. Regardless of its everyman charm and apparent approachability, the game offers some serious challenge should you choose to accept it. Origins does offer a steady difficulty curve, but after the third world or, you realize just how serious the gameplay gets. The “Tricky Treasure Chest” levels will tax even the most skilled gamers. For the rarest of collectibles contained within them, you must chase down these chests through a brutal gauntlet of traps, pitfalls, and obstacles that lend a new meaning to the phrase “trial and error,” but they’re also some of the most incredible moments Rayman: Origins offers. Similarly, the boss fights can and will force you to repeat steps multiple times, but they also are some of the best chunks of game you’ll play this year, even though you’re minimally prepared for what each encounter will throw at you by the level that precedes it.
Sometimes you just need to ease your frustrations.
Later on in the game, even the regular levels demand precision and exacting mastery of the gameplay to progress to the next stage. Though trial and error is practically synonymous with platforming, some levels only just manage to stay on the right side of infuriating due to how good you will have to be in order to succeed. It never becomes unfair due to the welcome heavy checkpointing, but it’s unforgiving of anything other than skillful control, quick reflexes, and intelligent judgment on the part of the player.
The satisfaction in conquering this unexpected level of challenge is refreshingly old-school; the most difficult of said challenges being almost entirely optional. However, if you want to get the most out of the game you will have to devote yourself to the less refreshingly old-school proposition of collecting stuff in order to progress. If you don’t have the time or patience to collect every last lum (the golden fireflies that equate to coins in Origins), then expect to traipse back to previously conquered worlds to gather enough lums to earn Electoons (which can also be found in hidden areas), which function as the tokens required to unlock new worlds.
In many ways, this feels like a step too far towards the “Origins” side to Rayman. The collecting itself is satisfying and addictive, as much of the game’s most difficult feats involve snatching a tasty lum coin from the jaws of death, but if you aren’t prepared to utilize all your abilities to gather the golden bugs, then you won’t get to experience all that Rayman has to show. Such game design comes within a hair’s breadth of feeling antiquated, although the leeway that Origins gives regarding the number of Electoons you need keeps said design from breaking the experience.
The collecting fatigue can be helped by engaging in the four-player local co-op that borrows much of its structure from New Super Mario Bros Wii. Four players can conquer all of the worlds together, and if one dies, then the survivors can tag their companion's bubble-ized form back in just like the aforementioned Mario title. It’s a good system that makes the slapping of your companions to their deaths doubly satisfying and the smack talk that ensures some of the best in recent couch co-op history. Sadly, there is no online co-op option, standing as a sorely missed opportunity and the greatest chink in Rayman Origins’ otherwise pristine armour. At least the game is such an antagonistic riot when played with friends that it fails to rankle for long when you consider the craft and quality of the package.
Working together benefits the whole party.
Regardless of its evident quality and boundless levels of charm, Rayman: Origins will always be a hard sell to a generation of gamers who have fallen out of love with the potential of 2D games. Although it unashamedly sticks to the tried and true formula that most platformers have abandoned in recent years, Rayman Origins is Michel Ancel’s most well-honed release in eons. There are aspects of the pre-HD era structure that will delight some and infuriate others, and the lack of online co-op is a downer all around, but this is still a superb title due to Ancel’s loving recreation of his '90s platformer in its original two-dimensional form.
The sheer creativity, the exceptional platforming gameplay, and the wonderful presentation will stick in the memory long after the competition has come and gone. Rayman: Origins is this year’s finest wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Number of Players: 1-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii