If you had told me a few months ago that Rayman Origins would be one of the best titles of the year, I would have called you crazy. After all, this is the same Rayman that not too long ago was upstaged by a hoard of tweaked out bunnies, right? But here we are and in fact Rayman Origins marks a triumphant return for this beloved platforming franchise, bringing it back to its 2D side-scrolling roots. Obviously a labor of love for those involved, Rayman Origins excels at providing a uniquely challenging but approachable game that any fan of platformers can (and should) enjoy.
Rayman and company have a comprehensive range of skills at their disposal but most of these are unavailable at the start. You start out with the most essential platforming skill of jumping and gradually (through saving the Nymphs) acquire the abilities to sprint, hover, attack, run up walls, and dive while swimming. Each of these powers is put to excellent use throughout the course of the game. Unlike some games that make the most of newfound abilities immediately after granting them to the player, Rayman Origins builds off each skill by continually presenting unique situations to employ them in later levels.
With such a wide array of essential skills it was absolutely essential that the controls be properly executed, and thankfully they are. The analog stick is used for movement, R2 (RT) for sprint, X (A) to jump and hover, Square (X) or Circle (B) for attack, and select turns you into a bubble during multiplayer. The timing needed to get through some of the levels is so demanding that there simply is no room to fumble with the controls. Thankfully, the controls are tight and quickly become second nature, though that doesn't mean you won’t want to hurl your controller due to the game’s difficulty.
The difficulty of Rayman Origins deserves discussion because it's part of what makes the game so satisfying. You will die, a lot. Yet it cannot be said that the difficulty is punishing or uneven. Like that one teacher you respected in high school because they challenged you to do your best, you will appreciate Rayman’s retro approach that rewards impeccable timing and versatility. Usually one hit will kill you but there are hearts you can pick up that will allow for one extra hit before you inflate into a shameful balloon of utter defeat. The penalty for death is not too steep, with no lives system in place your only punishment is to be sent back to the last door you entered. However, the more you die the more you will reassess your approach to that particular section. You will ask yourself if that skullcoin is really worth taking an enemy missile to the face for, because you can’t quite nail that wall jump. Though there were times where I approached frustration while playing I couldn't fault the game itself. Overall, it felt refreshing to play a kid-friendly game with legitimate challenge. Completing Rayman Origins feels like a genuine accomplishment, as all games should.
As is common in platformers you spend a lot of your time scouring levels for various kinds of collectibles. The primary collectible in Rayman Origins is Lums - beings of pure energy with unbelievably sunny dispositions. They hover in the air, often signifying where you are supposed to go, while lending merry chorus to the game’s upbeat original score. Sometimes they are placed tantalizingly out of the way, in proximity to environmental hazards, enticing you to go after them at your own risk. The game provides great incentives for going after them whenever possible because the overall number of Lums determines which player comes out on top in multiplayer and can increase your rewards for completing a level.
The other thing you will be on the lookout for is cages full of Electoons. They have been imprisoned by the nefarious hunters that constantly try to put an end to your adventure. There is at least one cage of Electoons to set free at the end of each level, but most levels have two others hidden away cleverly. If you find all of the Electoons and collect enough Lums you can collect all of the medallions available in the game in a single playthrough. Most of the time that won’t be the case though, meaning a repeat romp through the levels is necessary to completely finish the game. Not that that is a bad thing. The levels of Rayman Origins are so expertly designed that you would likely want to play them again regardless of missed collectibles.
The game draws comparisons to many other great platformers such as Sonic and LocoRoco. Most perceptibly, the game borrows the co-op bubble mechanic from New Super Mario Bros. to great effect. Enemies and allies alike swell into a bubble after being hit. Popping a foe will net the player an extra Lum, while hitting a partner will bring them back to life. Despite these apparent influences, Rayman Origins never feels derivative. The game constantly introduces new and exciting ways to interact with levels that keeps you guessing. Rayman Origins amends a persistent problem I have with modern videogames, in that they constantly want to make you feel like you are doing something remarkable when all you are really doing is responding to a few contextualized button prompts. You unfailingly feel a part of Rayman’s best moments because they are so intelligently interwoven into the gameplay and level design.
Rayman Origins features near perfect pacing. Every level from the first to the last feels momentous no matter how many skills you have available at a particular time. There is no filler here. The game complements particularly gruelling levels with ones where all you have to do is collect neatly organized Lums while bouncing and swinging elegantly to the end of the level with minimal interference from enemies. The only arguable drawbacks to this exciting tempo are the levels where you ride on the back of a giant mosquito. That’s right, I said giant mosquito. Here the game shifts gears from sidescrolling platformer to sidescrolling shooter, and a fairly decent one to boot. You can shoot projectiles at oncoming enemies or suck them up like a vacuum cleaner to shoot out later. Some of these levels are pretty inventive as they have you bounce shots off various surfaces to defeat enemies or challenge you to carve out your own path while contending with a fast-moving camera.
The main adventure in Rayman Origins is split into two parts. The first halve will have you traverse the five unique worlds on your quest to save the Nymphs, at which point, armed will all of your abilities, you return to said worlds to play through newly unlocked levels and square off against more comprehensive bosses. The boss battles on the surface are rather formulaic - land three hits to win - affairs but the developers were able to make each one feel like an event. Firstly, landing three hits on any of these bosses is a feat easier said than done. The dynamics for each boss fight change between each hit, meaning the same tactic won’t work twice. The bosses are wonderfully varied and include a monster with a massive cranium, a real angry bird, and the lining of a creature’s stomach besieged by spicy foods. That being said, the final boss, if you can even call it that, is a bit of a letdown.
There are 246 Electoon Medallions to collect in total and on my first playthrough of the story (which took north of 8 hours) I only had 147 of those. If that weren’t enough reason to keep playing there are also 10 Skull Teeth to collect by catching 10 runaway treasure chests. Collecting all of the Skull Teeth will in turn unlock more levels in the Land of the Livid to play. Additionally, most levels have a time challenge, where if you can complete the level within a certain time limit you receive another Electoon or Speed Trophy. The game is so unlike anything else currently available that it holds up really well through multiple playthroughs, like the best 2D platformers from gaming’s heyday. And of course it is a great playground for messing around with friends in multiplayer, though the absence of online is a disappointment.
Maybe it’s me, but I don’t remember Rayman ever being this awesome to look at. The presentation soars thanks to some of the most beautiful art direction you’ll find in a game this or any other year. The game features beautifully hand-drawn art, impeccably smooth animation, and a comically infused sense of action. It feels like you're playing a cartoon. It helps that the game runs in crisp 1080p HD, but even in standard definition the game is an absolute joy to look at. The colors are so lush in a world that's been lovingly and inventively crafted. Few games could have a world inhabited by talking forks with lemon wedges on top of them, swarming bats, and peppers bathing in chili feel so cohesive and convincing. Rayman and his friends don’t really make any sense but the game makes the most of their wild appearances with wonderfully exaggerated animations that have them dancing, fighting, and even dying with swagger.
Most of all, Rayman Origins has attitude. An infectious attitude for which there is no vaccination. The music is masterfully composed and touches upon multiple genres while maintaining a consistently jovial theme. The players add to the music with each chime that accompanies the Lums collected. Snatch a Lum King and all nearby Lums will be worth twice their value and momentarily break out into an even sprightlier song and dance. The musical score has a wonderful range that allows it to be soothing when you're slowly swimming in an underwater level, then become the frenzied sound of the American Southwest through a chase sequence in the desert. The rest of the sound design is executed with equal aplomb. Rayman’s punches and kicks produce a satisfyingly crisp sound effect upon making contact, as do all of his interactions with the world around him. Best of all the dialogue is completely recorded in Pig Latin, to great comedic effect.
Rayman Origins happens to be one of the funniest games I have played in a while and this stems from its great sense of physical comedy. The characters are so goofy and have their own end-of-level dance that culminates in a spectacular disco number before the end of the story. In multiplayer, smacking around friends never gets old, especially if you land a wind up punch that smashes someone against the wall.
In the past few years a number of quality multiplayer-centered 2D platformers have released on consoles and Rayman Origins might be the best of the bunch. It makes appreciative references to past Rayman titles, while propelling the series boldly into modern videogame relevance. Thanks to its magnificent presentation and level design, Rayman Origins is one of the most surprisingly brilliant games I have come across in a long time. If you catch me on a good day I could probably talk about all the assorted wonderful feelings playing it conjured up within me for hours on end. But, for now, I think all I will say is this: It’s great to have you back, Rayman!