Rayman as a character reminds me of most platformer mascots from the ’90s, which I suppose is appropriate since Ubisoft introduced him in 1995. He’s full of personality and light on unique abilities: run, jump, punch, run-while-jumping, run-while-punching, etc. I’m oversimplifying, but to a degree you could put his abilities on another character and they’d still make sense — which is essentially what Ubisoft did, since Rayman Origins is a four-player 2D platformer where everyone plays someone who controls roughly like Rayman.
Origins’ brilliance is it keeps that simplicity on the surface, but ends up feeling incredibly varied thanks to its level design. As you play, it becomes increasingly obvious that the levels don’t waste your time by asking you to repeat actions. Sure, you jump on a lot of heads and punch a lot of guys, but the levels constantly provide new toys to play with, and then remodel them in multiple ways before you have time to lose interest.
It’s in the subtleties. The first time you touch a laser trip-wire, you have to move out of the way to avoid its attack. Later, you have to time your movements to avoid multiple trip-wire attacks. Even later, you realize you can trip it at the right time to attack another enemy.
The first time you run up a wall, you do it to grab a lever. Later, you do it to climb a giant hill. Later you do it to spin your feet on a treadmill to move a platform towards you. Later, you do it to chase enemies through levels.
The first time you come across a light in one of the game’s swimming sections, it sticks to you as you swim. Later, you have to follow a timed series of lights. Later, you have to shoot symbols to light them up. Later, you have to ricochet shots off walls to light up those symbols.
I could list about 20 of these. Individually, they’re not that exciting; but collectively, they keep your brain working within an incredibly simple interface. It reminds me a bit of Braid, in that there’s very little downtime before you find a new way to interact with something, or a new thing to interact with — though there aren’t any puzzles or places you’ll get stuck in Origins.
Notably, you play through the same levels whether playing solo or with co-op partners, which leads to a few issues. Much like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it’s part-cooperative part-competitive where players move through levels, stealing each others’ items, and bringing each other back to life when characters die. Origins is built around the idea that your team members will die a lot, at which point they balloon out and can float around trying to touch one of the alive players to rejoin the game. And considering you’re playing the same levels either way, they do a stunningly good job of feeling appropriate for different party sizes.
Seemingly as a result though, if you choose to play by yourself, you’ll have to play semi-cautiously since you won’t have any backup to revive you. And playing single-player also limits how quickly you unlock new levels, since they’re gated behind collectibles — hardly a new idea for the platforming genre, but it clashes with the whole levels-are-filled-with-variety concept when you have to replay them, and feels a bit like the developers just wanted to stretch what they had. The multiplayer downside is that the levels fit so well for solo play that they sometimes feel a bit cramped with four players, but then that’s also part of the appeal.
That’s about it for complaints. The game looks as good as the screens and videos suggest. People throw around words like “whimsical” and say it looks like a cartoon, and well, no, it doesn’t because the camera angles in a platformer like this make that impossible. But it looks as close as any game short of Dragon’s Lair. And the music — at least, when it isn’t playing one munchkin-sounding song that will undoubtedly annoy people on ring tones for years to come — does an amazing job of making these stages feel like worlds with personality, much more than I expected before playing.
Click the image above to check out all Rayman Origins screens.
I’m sure someone out there will complain that Origins is overpriced, since it’s a $60 retail title at launch compared to the $10-20 downloadable games that 2D platformers usually come in these days, but it’s easy to see higher production values here. We don’t get many big ambitious 2D platformers these days, and above all else, I’m happy to see Ubisoft didn’t waste the opportunity.