In the long list of game franchises I have nostalgia for, there is none more odd for me than Rayman. The first Rayman game, an at-first charming sidescrolling platformer that quickly revealed itself to be hellishly difficult to beat, was my first console game ever. Since that far-off Christmas Day when I first played it, I’ve retained a fondness for the limbless big-nosed oddball but I couldn’t really say why. It doesn’t happen often but every now and again I simply get a hankering to play a Rayman game, a peculiar craving for one particular slice of French goofiness, and this time I turned to Rayman Legends to fulfill that fix.
Rayman Legends (PC, WiiU, Switch, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Aug 2013 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
The story in Rayman Legends is decidedly threadbare. Apparently it’s about an evil force of nightmares, lead or possibly assisted by (I’ve no idea which) the Dark Teensies, who have invaded the dreams of the Bubble Dreamer, a massive hookah-smoking, ginger-bearded frog thing that spends its days in slumber. Rayman, long-time ally Globox, and a veritable horde of princesses of various worlds are woken from apparently a century spent sleeping, and dispatched to rescue the world’s Teensies and save everyone from the nightmares.
I’ll be entirely honest: I actually went online and looked up the plot. Very little of that is in any way communicated to the player in-game. It begins with a short cutscene of darkness spreading across the lands and Rayman and co. being woken in a glade and that’s more or less your lot before the player is plonked down in the hub and given some worlds to visit. It’s unashamedly retro-inspired in its attitude towards narrative; much like games of old, it’s far more concerned with letting the player sink into the gameplay than it is with establishing plots or characters. The Bubble Dreamer is just there, without explanation of who he is. Rayman doesn’t undergo an arc or journey, he’s simply the hero and saves the Teensies because that’s what heroes do. It’s a tactic that I suspect will resonate most strongly with those who yearn for the attitude of games from the ‘80s and ‘90s, though it’s presented with enough charm and the series’ characteristic joyfulness that it will no doubt equally appeal to younger players.
I hold strong views on narratives in video-games. Primarily, I’m of the opinion that enjoyable or interesting plots, characters, and/or writing can truly save a game; some games can have reasonably dull or unexceptional gameplay but with good enough writing can absolutely be elevated. However, it does work the other way around as well, and it’s fortunate for Rayman Legends that this is the case because frankly the writing is nonexistent. Characters do have some personality at least, but it’s certainly not a bastion of remarkable narrative construction. Thankfully, the core gameplay loop is definitely satisfying.
Rayman Legends is a 2D platformer, with each level demanding the player run, jump, glide, and occasionally jump on or smack an enemy into submission as you work to overcome its various obstacles. That’s basically it; you get no bonus abilities or powers. It’s just you versus an array of levels that test your dexterity, and sporadically, your patience.
Each level features a set of Teensies to find. The diminutive, big-nosed, blue denizens of Rayman’s universe have been captured by the forces of the nightmares, and scattered across the land. Finding and freeing them is the main focus of Rayman Legends, with progress directly tied to the number of Teensies you liberate. Though there are 700 to seek out in the game, mercifully the final boss is accessible at around a third of that, and the secret final bonus world requires a little over half of them to reach. Personally, even though the game goes out of its way to let you beat it without finding them all, 700 Teensies is still a touch excessive amount. Clearly it’s intended for the completionists, but surely even the most dedicated completionist might balk at the sheer time investment necessary to hit 100%.
Alongside the Teensies (I mean, 700? Fuck me!) Rayman also collects Lums. The luminous bug-like critters are series mainstays, and are typically collected for points. In this, Rayman Legends is no exception. Though points are a relic of arcade games, and normally about as relevant to modern gaming as lives systems, in this game at least they do have a purpose; accruing thousands of points allows the player to unlock new costumes for the playable characters. Again, it’s a draw mainly for completionists; while it was lovely being able earn new skins in-game, it isn’t something I’d put in the time for 100% completion for.
If there is something I happily kept returning to Rayman Legends for though, it’s the presentation. The entire game has a striking cartoony aesthetic that informs everything from the background art, right through to the charming and goofy animations. Every world has a distinct identity, which is gorgeous to see, with a range stretching from flowery and vibrant early forest stages, the surprisingly effectively stifling underwater stealth levels, to the adorable stages based on a fusion of desserts, luchadors, and Dia de Muertos . Perhaps the most impressive element of it is the level design. Some stages have a smart grasp of how to use verticality in a 2D setting that primarily features levels that run left-to-right; others force the player to rely on sprinting which, while sometimes extremely frustrating (particularly in later stages), at their best evoke that kind of palm-sweating tension that comes from escaping from an unstoppable chasing threat by the skin of your teeth.
The real star of the show is undoubtedly the music levels. At the end of each world you are presented with a short level set to music, with enemies, jumps, slides, and attacks all perfectly placed to naturally fall on beat and in-line with whatever piece of music is being played. Often it’s a cutely reworked cover, such as my personal favourite, this brilliant version of Eye of the Tiger.
If there’s one movement I’m decidedly lukewarm on in the modern gaming industry, it’s the revival of retro-styled games. I certainly wouldn’t call it a bad thing by any stretch, but as with most trends in gaming it seems like there are plenty of developers out there who take the piss or miss the point. Ubisoft however, have not. With Rayman Legends they have successfully recreated the feel of those long-lost platformers. Rayman Legends is visually lovely, aurally a delight, simple at its core, and yet manages to be challenging and fun, if periodically somewhat unfair and irritating. These moments of annoyance pass by relatively quickly though, with the tight level design, splendid presentation, and sheer unbridled elation that the game is underpinned by, never failing to win me back.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.