Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: "Rayman Origins"

Everybody Loves Rayman!
review for Rayman: Origins (Xbox 360), 1-4 player platformer, out now

Where can I start with Rayman Origins? A blanket statement of "it's fucking incredible in almost every possible way" seems fitting; but at the same time, it does it no justice whatsoever. Origins is a game that has had every single element polished and painstakingly crafted to the very core. It's a game of such unbridled quality and richness, that evokes the nostalgic joy of childhood classics while retaining the next-gen shine that only the best HD graphics can provide with such effortlessness and finesse that it barely feels like a videogame anymore. Rayman Origins is something else entirely; an astoundingly brilliant mesh of visual and sound design with joy-inducing, oftentimes hilarious gameplay that is ever-engrossing, ever-mesmerizing, and will likely remind you at some point why you play videogames at all in the first place.

It helps, then, that this is proper Rayman. Forget about the mildly distracting, completely creepy Rabbid bastards. This is a Rayman platformer through and through, and as such, returns the character from the depths of mediocrity and back into platforming super-stardom. The Rayman universe is fully intact, and is as gleefully perplexing as ever - one of the game's many, many charms. The world which Rayman and his cohorts inhabit is an understated fantasy land; one with its own lore and myths and locations - yet they're soft, almost fading away so much as that you don't notice they're there. It's brimming with adventurous spirit and brilliance, but it doesn't hammer you over the head - the "Glade of Dreams," as it's called, is a silent protagonist and a place very much worth visiting. It is humble and welcoming.

Perhaps polar opposite of the world, are the characters. Rayman and Globox return, both as audacious and nonsensical as ever, and they jump, run, swim, and punch their way through the game with reckless abandon. You can hear Monty Python's pompous sergeant-major just off-screen lamenting everything they do. A wild mix of slapstick and cartoon nonsense follows them at every turn, and it's irresistibly charming. The Teensies also join you if you happen to be playing the four-player co-op, and while the default skins for them are rather predictable and drab, as you progress you can unlock outfits which push their absurdity levels up to match that of Rayman and Globox - my personal favourite, an adorable getup in which the Teensie attempts to look as much like Globox as possible, complete with little googly eyes that sit above his head. It's just great.

Leading Rayman and his friends into the Glade of Dreams is like riding a bicycle. The controls will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a 2D platformer in their entire life, but most likely, the most recent platformer you'd have played like Origins is the equally perfect Super Meat Boy. Much like in SMB, the controls in Rayman Origins are digital only, with a press-to-sprint button on the right trigger which your index finger will soon be hooked over for the duration of play. Picking up and playing Rayman Origins is completely easy, which means that taking the game around to a friend's place for some co-op play is suitable and, probably, encouraged. No-one could possibly be left in the dark with this control setup. Even the smallest, most dense child could get it. Even my dad could get it. And he's my dad.

But to actual master it, is another story entirely. The game's initial platforming is gentle. You jump over pits, you run under falling rocks, and you take in the scenery, with your pals tagging along and laughing at your occasional misfortunes. There are a few intermediate "bonus" levels, but mostly you'll be comfortably jumping, sprinting, and punching your way through the Glade of Dreams, meeting its inhabitants, reveling in its splendor, and feeling like a badass. ...that's World 1. By the time you learn how to glide and dive, around World 4 (of 8), you will be fearing for Rayman's life in some of the most intense split-second platforming I've ever had the (dis)pleasure to experience. And by the very end... hold onto your co-op partner. The difficulty curve of this game is divine; it starts out really gentle, eases you in, but it grabs you by the balls towards the latter end of the game. Luckily, the game remains accessible to the layman throughout - the hardest of the hardest levels are merely optional, for achievements, extra costumes and other minor rewards. If you can play this game, you can finish it. Especially with friends.

I've mentioned friends a lot in this review, and that's because the game's co-op is friendship-affirming and will probably get you laid if said friend is one of such a disposition. (You can quote me on that, Ubisoft.) But don't think that it's a game that has forgotten about the forever alone types who play platformers on their own. Playing the levels by oneself is a much purer experience, and is much more balanced for proper level progression pacing and difficulty. It's certainly more fun and as close to a true "party game" as platformers will ever get when you bring a friend along for the ride, but singleplayer is a truer, harder experience. The game features, much like Super Meat Boy, a one-hit-and-you're-down mechanic which, once dead, sees you instantly teleported to the start of a section to try again; but in multiplayer, you "bubbilize," in a system very similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and your friends get a chance to rescue you from doom. So, multiplayer is easier, to those ends, and if you're a platforming tragic I can recommend playing it alone for a more grounded experience.

The game is a very special mix, all said and done, of child-friendly slapstick and humour, family-friend co-op, and hardcore gamer-friendly (?) tough-as-nails platforming. Rounding out the platforming are end-of-world treats; bullet-hell inspired horizontal shooter levels on the backs of Moskitos (originally enemies in the original Rayman), and unabashedly epic boss encounters. The shooting sections aren't so quick-paced that they can truly be mentioned in the same breath as Touhou, but they are incredibly enjoyable and spectacular roller-coaster rides that show off the worlds at their prettiest. The boss fights are fantastic, with giant enemies throwing chunks of the world at you and impromptu split-second platforming often taking place in the process. They're truly a hoot, and an excellent bookend to the varied Worlds within the Glade of Dreams.

Speaking of which, I take it back. The world in Rayman Origins isn't underplayed and understated at all. It's balls-out. The first world might be slightly soft - a forest/jungle level. Then the second world is a desert made of old musical instruments, mostly didgeridoos and really out-of-tune pianos that have been buried in the sand. By the third world, you're ice-skating through rivers of watermelon juice and ground-pounding soufflés. I guess what I meant to say was that the background art was understated and pretty and soft and played-down; the worlds themselves are as audacious and unique as the characters in them. But, it does lead onto perhaps Rayman Origins' most unique feature - its hand-drawn, hand-painted graphics.

The game is staggeringly beautiful, and knowing it was all actually painted, drawn, and coloured before being quite literally scanned into the game just makes it even better. The game is the best looking game of 2011, and you can see just how much work went into it by all involved. In fact, this is perhaps what makes this game so appealing - it's definitely a game made by people. You can see every drop of blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this such a special and engrossing title. The team behind it - headed by superstar French game designer Michel Ancel - did such a brilliant job on Origins, and that you can TELL it was them who made the game is what makes it so smile-inducing. It looks like hard work, the game, instead of looking like billions of dollars being burned down on screen like most 3D titles do. Just overall, Rayman Origins is a beautiful game that has a rustic, hand-made charm, only accentuated by the ingenious use of game mechanics, design, animation fidelity and sound.

No matter what system you buy it on, Rayman Origins is an absolutely stellar achievement and the finest platformer of this generation. You'd have to be a jaded, corrupt, probably stupid weirdo to not enjoy the hell out of this game. Acquire it, post-haste.

It's packed to the brim with humour, content, platforming fun and character - it's Rayman's biggest and best adventure yet, pure videogame brilliance, essential multiplayer, and the best AAA platformer of our generation. You're doing yourself a disservice by ignoring this game. It's utterly essential; a smile-inducing, hair-raising and hilarious journey through a memorable cartoon universe, tailor-made by artists who care about their craft. You'd have to be utterly thick to miss out on this one.

You may have noticed I scored this using stars. I'm using stars now. Stars are cool.