'Rayman Legends' is Ubisoft's gorgeously animated platformer featuring the neckless rascal, out August 30 for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita and PC.
"Rayman, Globox, and the Teensies are off wandering through an enchanted forest when they discover a mysterious tent filled with a series of captivating paintings. As they look more closely, they notice each painting seems to tell the story of a mythical world. While focusing on a painting that shows a medieval land, they are suddenly sucked into the painting, entering the world, and the adventure begins. The gang must run, jump and fight their way through each world to save the day and discover the secrets of every legendary painting."
- Beautifully rendered 2.5D high-definition graphics
- Dozens of levels, including special 'musical' stages
- Special Wii U integration, with touchscreen and Gamepad-turning elements
- 5-player co-op play
- Online challenges and leaderboards
For a gaming kid happily raised on endless Sonic and Mario platformers, the original Rayman was an infuriating challenge to my reinforced Sega-Nintendo blinkers back in the mid-nineties. Who was this neckless, floppy-eared clown-shoe dweeb squelching and flopping all over Mario's sturdy 2D pipes and Sonic's twisty loops? How dare he hob-nob with this rarified platform company, like Dynamite Headdy and Cool Spot before him, and so inexpertly try to take the throne?
Did he not know, as I - a street-smart kid from the leafy streets of Surrey knew so innately - that if you come at the king, you best not miss?
Alas, in gaming, as in Surrey itself, prejudice of all kinds runs deep.
Which is why I avoided all subsequent Rayman titles for literally decades, right up to 2011's acclaimed Rayman Origins and the recent - also highly praised - iOS endless runner/platform hybrid. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I remained sceptical, refusing to recognise the evidence before my eyes, right up until the point where I placed the Rayman Legends disc in my Wii U, turned it on, and realised that Ubisoft has made probably the best platform game I've ever played.
Most immediately, Rayman Legends is visually stunning. Not stunning in the loose gaming parlance sense of, 'wow, the lens flare on that space ship is stunning'. Stunning as in, 'calling everyone you know to ask how this Disney movie has come to life' stunning. Every one of the dozens of levels is resplendent with colour, different parallax elements, living backgrounds and pulsating artwork, painted with exuberance but also taste and restraint.
And the visual brilliance isn't just superficial. It's deeply embedded in the game's design and architecture. Michel Ancel and his team at Ubisoft's Montpellier studio haven't just thrown everything at the 2D wall and waited to see what flopped down, exhausted. They've exercised real judgement and selection, and combined their best artistic work with truly inspirational level design.
At its core, this is a very basic game. Your buttons are few - move, sprint, jump, attack. In each level you move usually from left to right, looking for an exit and little blue-skinned Teensies to save along the way, scoring points and searching out new racing lines. There are variant levels - time-based challenges, boss-fights, pursuits. There are also new control concepts, the best ones involving using the Wii U's Gamepad. In some levels you control 'Murfy', a secondary floating character charged with opening gates, snapping ropes and defeating enemies while the main platform action happens around it. Still, you will have probably seen all of the mechanics used before elsewhere.
But in combination all these elements - visual style, quality of animation, level design and control scheme innovation - make literal magic together. The game is bursting with life. There are sub-games and online challenges, a football mini-game and scratch-cards to win extra 'Heroes'. Even loading screens are turned into a playable dash for extra hearts. And every level is utterly replay-able, because the design of each is so good you'll not want to miss a single hidden spider, foreground tree or fireworks explosion, no matter how long it takes to get through it all.
A slight downside is that the game really is quite a challenge. Like the best platformers it confounds even expert players, and you'll fail often on most of the latter levels.
That said, it also remembers to give you an equivalent burst of exhilaration whenever you do something with flair, fluidity or skill. Which, by the way, pretty much sums up this game.
Legends is not a Wii U exclusive anymore, but Rayman still feels like he's definitively taking on Mario with this release. He really is coming at the king. And the trouble for Mario is that Rayman hasn't missed. Has the bullet hit the target yet? Not quite. It's still in the air, as it were. The plumber still has one more release this year with which to deflect its path. But it's hard to see how he'll manage it. Rayman Legends is a tremendous achievement, as impressive as any 3D shooter or open-world crime simulation. And it's one of the very best games of the year.