Review: Rayman Origins

If I hadn’t already played it, I’d be tempted to let a kid take Rayman Origins for a spin. With its beautifully saccharine art direction, cartoon hero and deliciously chirpy music, it seems like a perfect fit. Having spent time with it, I’d sooner ask a child to shape marble with his bare hands. Origins requires levels of thinking and hand-eye coordination well beyond what anyone could expect from an average 9 year-old. Make no mistake, this is a game aimed squarely at the most seasoned among us.

As many of you probably already know from first-hand experience, Rayman Origins will be passed over by most, which is understandable. So, if you haven’t followed Rayman Origins closely, allow me the pleasure of informing you – this game is no less inspired, relevant, and downright fun than Super Mario World was during its heyday. However, unlike Mario, Origins is the antithesis of what sells in its era. It’s a light, cute and endearing 2D platformer, standing in sharp contrast to the violent, gritty, realistic games comprising the majority of any retailer’s shelves.

But don’t mistake this game for a dinosaur. In every way possible, Rayman Origins carries the torch of its ancestors into the modern era, reminding those of us in our 20s and 30s why we fell in love with series like Super Mario Brothers, Sonic, and Earthworm Jim. There are no lives, and no continues. The challenge in the game is gated. You can organically decide how easy or how difficult you’d like Origins to be by consciously collecting “Lums”, the game’s currency, which are redeemed for “Electoons” which are like stars in Super Mario Galaxy, in that the bare minimum of Electoons will progress the player through the game’s necessary stages. Extra Electoons are used for optional stages and unlock ancillary characters. Let me assure you, extra Electoons are not easy to collect.

Perhaps I should make this clearer: this game can reach stroke-inducing levels of difficulty. If you’re a fan of Demon’s/Dark Souls, you know what I’m talking about. Rayman Origins is tough, but fair. You’ll never be locked into a no-win situation created by the developers for no other reason than to torture you. I admit that I sometimes felt like I had to guess my way through some of the game’s problems, but those instances were few and far between. Generally, there’s always a clear way through a given obstacle, it just takes expert timing and generous helpings of patience to pull it off.

To that end, Rayman is granted special powers along the way, making the game more complicated by orders of magnitude. For instance, the ability to run up walls, or glide across the air. On their face, these are simple mechanics. However, when combined with some truly ingenious level design, as well as each other, Rayman’s various abilities play out like a symphony of movement as satisfying as anything I’ve ever played. One minute, Rayman is wall jumping across spikey pits, the next, he’s catching an updraft, allowing him to float to safety (collecting Lums in the process, naturally). It all flows together without a hitch.

It’s important to note that new abilities are introduced slowly in the early stages of the game, allowing a player to acclimate his or herself to the new mechanics. And in all honesty, I’ve never seen an integration of new abilities go this smoothly since Portal (anyone who has played that game knows that’s high praise). In later stages, Origins is not so gentle, as you’re expected to combine these elements fast and furiously in order to progress. This is by no means a bad thing, because that’s where much of the game’s challenge is derived, and I never felt like Origins was asking me to do something I hadn’t been adequately prepared to do.

Now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way, let me shift gears for a second to gush about this game’s music and art.

I normally play with headphones, as I share a house with someone who isn’t particularly fond of listening to the death wails and explosions that normally shoot out of my gaming room. Constantly wearing headphones may sound like a special kind of hell for some of you, but it has allowed me to pick up on the really subtle aural details in a lot of games. Rayman Origins has those details in spades. Climb up a snake made of woodwind instruments linked together, and Rayman’s movement is the literal running up of a musical scale, every step a tiny staccato tone. Other tunes play out as you glide through the air, sequentially collecting groups of Lums. The list goes on, and I don’t want to spoil all of the little environmental touches, but suffice it to say, Rayman Origins is heavily grounded in music, and every little detail is a pleasure to hear. It’s worth playing this game with headphones on, or a nice set of speakers, if you can manage it.

Additionally, background music in this game is every bit as catchy, weird, and memorable as any you’ll find. I loved the music in Gourmand Land. It switches from instrumentals you’d hear in a shopping market in the early 60s to a Frenchman’s cover of Mariachi music with vocals by Pavarotti if he were backed by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Rayman Origins’ music is memorable, catchy, moody – everything you’d want to hear out of a game like this, and whomever was responsible for it at Ubisoft should get a big sloppy kiss.

The art is perhaps the most striking thing about Origins. It’s colorful, light, fun, and perfectly suited to the game’s tone. It’s never stale, boring, or awkward. Some of my personal favorites come from levels where Rayman is bounding through an endlessly sweltering kitchen, dodging forks, knives, and swinging from ropes made of chili peppers while the aforementioned mariachi music hollers in the background. Simply put, the art in this game, much like everything else, is fantastic.

Rayman Origins is a brilliant statement at the end of a long-lost, all but dead genre. Its prose, constructed by Michel Ancel and Ubisoft, tells its audience about a type of game that was to the 16-bit era as the FPS is to today’s consoles. If you’re sick of brown shooters holding your hand while micromanaging every move you make, or you’re the type of person who loves a challenging game, Rayman Origins is your huckleberry.