Review: Rayman Origins

The thing about reviews is this: they are meant to contain a balanced view of a product’s positives and negatives. The thing about this review is that it doesn’t feature a single negative word about Rayman Origins. Not that I didn’t try; I wrote this review over three evenings and each night I searched my mind for any kind of flaw in the game. I got nothing. Well, for the first 30 minutes or so, I was a bit confused about how the medals worked and wished it would explain it. It was a pretty simple system, though, and I figured it out. That’s it. That’s my big complaint, my only source of scorn for this game. Beyond that, it’s pretty much the perfect game.

I tell you this now, to make it very clear from the outset what this review is. I don’t want you getting half way through and being upset because you think I have an agenda or am biased. Let it be known now, before we start, that those things are true and for good reason too.

Just so we all know what’s about to happen here, I am currently adjusting my jeans so that they won’t ruck up in an uncomfortable way when I get down on my knees and do what I’m about to do to Rayman Origins. It’s not going to be pleasant, but it will be well deserved.

Are we all sitting uncomfortably? Good. Then let’s begin.

You know how Wallace and Gromit isn’t really very funny? As in, it doesn’t really make you laugh. But it is funny in the sense that there is a sense of warmth and humour that is always present in the way it looks and the way the characters move and talk. I believe the officially recognised term is ‘delightful’. For my money, this is all due to the quality of the workmanship that goes into its creation, but it’s also inherent in the choice of stop-frame as a method of animation because every last moment is created by hand; every gesture designed down its smallest nuances. It gives the characters life.

The same applies across the board. It’s the reason why it’s so sad that Disney have given up on full-frame hand drawn animation in favour of CGI, why the intricate carvings and hand painted models of ‘80s sci-fi spaceships look so much more exciting than their contemporary counterparts, and why there’s no chance in hell that the new Jurassic Park film will feature dinosaurs as alive as the ones created by the exquisite uber-puppetry of the first film.

Rayman Origins is a wonderful piece of artistic creation. It has an endless supply of rich character movements, beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and incidental animations, and like those other examples of painstakingly hand-crafted artistry, it reaps an immense benefit from it – the world feels full, thriving and fantastic to be a part of. It manages to glide effortlessly past being saccharine, despite revelling in childish displays of loveliness, because it all feels justified by the depth of its approach. Maybe it’s only a personal preference but when it comes to traditional 2D platformers I like my sunny blue skies, rolling green hills and bunnies playing Frisbee in the background. Rayman Origins delivers this with incredible grace – it looks like how the concept of a platformer looks in your head when you think of the genre, and everything about that look is done just right.

Right, that’s the opening menu sorted. Let’s press Start to see what the actual game is like.

Carrying on with the theme of picking a concept and then doing it perfectly (if you’re going to have a theme, that is a good one), the platforming itself is world-class. The controls are responsive, the rules are consistent, the physics of movement exactly as you expect, and the levels all fit coherently with the moves available to the player. Other than a few modern-day conveniences and a bit of control sensitivity that feels superior to older games, for the most part the only thing in there which couldn’t have been done back in the genre’s early-nineties heyday are the sheer number of animations available to the characters. Beyond that it’s an entirely traditional approach in every respect, and whilst it would have been outstanding in quality by the standards of any era it would not have been shocking or unusual had it released back in 1992 (graphics aside, of course). I think this might be the only game I own for the Xbox 360 where they don’t bother wasting your time with the story in the game itself and just explain what happens in the manual. I’ve missed that.

As wonderful and as resonant as the immediate pleasures of the game’s art and controls are, the true measure of any platforming game is in the journey and the ways in which the player’s relationship with the levels themselves can evolve. When approached right, a decent platformer can be anything you want it to be, and this game excels as confidently in this respect as it does in those already discussed.

The idea of a journey from one side of a level to the other is one with a smaller meaning and a larger one. The smaller is obvious; you start the level, you run right. The larger one is a longer-term concept and it’s about you, the player, not your avatar. First time you do that level, you’re just enjoying the simple pleasures of platforming. It’s essentially casual gaming: easy but with enough concentration required to keep you engaged. Now you’re going to want more medals to unlock more levels. You play it again.

This time you want to find the hidden puzzle rooms, and aim for the high score. You explore every inch of that level, uncovering new routes, new secrets, figuring out its mysteries and generally allowing it to unfurl in front of you. It’s exploratory and satisfying.

You didn’t get the highest score target though, so you’ll need to try it again. This time, though, you’re clued up. You know this level now. You’ve got ideas about timing and the order in which to activate certain power-ups and rush through unlikely platforms to maximise the combo. You’ve now turned the game into a more intellectual experience, relying on your creativity, smarts and knowledge to craft a high-scoring run through.

Now it’s time for that last medal. Always left until last, the ultimate expression of platforming mastery: the speed run. You know this map now. Not like before, when you thought you knew it, now you know it in italics. It’s time to prove that. What once took you 13 minutes to get through needs to be done in one minute and forty-five seconds. It’s an intense blast of hardcore gaming, only possible now because you’re at the end of your journey to the other side of the level, and hugely satisfying to finally put down.

The platforming journey: Casual, Exploratory, Intellectual, Hardcore. Rayman Origins leaps from one to the next without so much as a slip. If I weren’t turned off by the hyperbole, I’d want to call it some things. Big things. Things no reviewer should ever call any game, lest they be branded a hack. Regardless, it remains one of finest games I’ve played in a very long time – a class product from any angle, defined by its resolute and seemingly effortless ability to demonstrate exceptional quality in everything it does.

Annnddd… swallow.