Rayman Origins is a Roller Coaster Ride
Warning: This review contains detailed narrative spoilers but only moderate mechanical spoilers.
Rayman started with a quirky and fun 2D platformer released back in 1995. Then came the 3D sequels, one that was unrelated to the first game but still good, and another that was… hrrrngggh. Unfortunately, the series eventually fell into the common trap of becoming little more than a string of spin-offs, party games, and the occasional handheld title. Those fans longing for a return to form were seemingly marginalized until 2010, the year when Michel Ancel and Co. announced Rayman Origins.
It was originally intended to be a downloadable, possibly even episodic, title conceptualized as a direct result of Ubisoft Montpellier’s work on Beyond Good & Evil 2 that would join the disparate elements of the first two games together and definitively cover the previously glossed-over origins of protagonist Rayman and friend Globox. What we actually ended up with was some odd remake-sequel hybrid and a “story” altogether different from what we were led to expect, but more on that later. Before we get to the downers, let me highlight the meritorious parts of the package.
The first thing you’ll notice about Origins is how good its visuals are. Rather than going for a retro/pixelated look or the increasingly popular 2.5D style, everything in Origins is meticulously drawn and animated by hand. While already fantastic for that alone, its aesthetics are raised to nearly impeccable levels by maintaining a delightfully excellent and whimsical style that masterfully connects the many characters, background objects, and gameplay elements to one another. The style’s not quite as bizarre or eccentric as that of the first game, but there’s still plenty of personality and charm to distinguish it from tamer offerings.
The second thing you’ll notice about the game is the music. The series as a whole is known for having eclectic yet excellent tunes, and Origins is no exception. Every track, from the most bizarre to the most haunting, does a wonderful job of establishing the atmosphere for its respective locale. As with the unique visuals, the music serves to elevate both the game and the series to something worth paying attention to.
The aesthetics and music immediately stand out, but there are subtler changes only noticeable through prolonged play and comparison. For one thing, though Origins includes the Electoon (read: MacGuffin) hunting from 1 and the Lum (read: gravity-defying collectibles du jour) collecting from 2, the gameplay doesn’t have the same feel or pace as either. The frequent inclusion of shmup levels and the changes to the standard set of powers are part of it, but it seems that Origins has taken a lot of inspiration from games outside its own franchise. The general emphasis on acrobatic platforming feels very similar to the Fancy Pants Adventure series. Collecting Skull Coins feels similar to collecting Star Coins in New Super Mario Bros. Wii or the DK Coins in Donkey Kong Country 2. Collecting Electoons to unlock costumes feels similar to the prize bubbles of LittleBIGPlanet or any other game that offers cosmetic rewards for collecting things. If you’re going to borrow ideas, might as well take from what’s good, right?
Another subtle thing is the level design philosophy used throughout the game. The best part about it is how it incorporates a variant of dynamic difficulty. At first, novice or casual players get a lot of leeway and are lead to believe they could experience and finish the game by just following the beaten path. More dedicated players can opt to take on challenging content if they want to, but they don’t have to. This is nothing new, but many games still resort to fixed difficulty levels chosen at the beginning of the game when the player has no idea how difficult a setting will or will not be, so it’s worth commending Origins for taking and succeeding at a different approach.
The lesser but still notable aspect of the level design is how strikingly utilitarian it is. If you pay attention to the patterns that collectibles form or endeavor to synchronize your actions with the rhythm of the environment, you’ll discover that much of the game was carefully crafted to put items and enemies in just the right place for various handy tricks. If you oblige long enough, you may even come to see that designing “the best of all possible worlds” (à la what Fern described in his Vanquish review) doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
However, the system isn’t without problems. While it works well whenever blasting full tilt through a level, it often detracts whenever exploring since the utilitarian level design can easily cause the game’s verisimilitude to break down. I know, I know, it seems foolish to want some realism from a decidedly and unabashedly fantastical game, but some things couldn’t possibly be perceived as anything other than façades constructed to house hidden goodies.
The emphasis on nimbleness and speed also has its downsides as it means that playing “properly” will cause you to miss all the well-crafted environments and the tail ends of many great music tracks. Seriously, maintaining high speeds at all times means that the game could’ve just resorted to minimalist graphics like in N+ because there’s almost never enough time or gameplay incentive to stop and take it all in. The only exceptions to this are the underwater sections of the water-themed worlds as swimming is comparatively slower than sprinting and actually helps you, pardon the pun, get immersed. It also helps that those areas are among the few that contain enough life and supporting landscape to seem as if they could “exist” outside of being merely window-dressing for players.
This leads to me to the biggest issue, one that cannot be written off as me simply being nitpicky: Origins is too lean and too underdeveloped. Every single level introduces at least one new thing or new combination of old things, but many great ideas are never fleshed out beyond the low-hanging fruit they initially offer. Think of it like this: You’re being presented with a multi-course meal where everything you try is delicious or at least palatable. Now, imagine that, instead of letting you finish, the waiters would periodically come by to snatch away your current meal and supplant it with a different one. Rather than enjoying five hearty meals, you’d only get the first bites of fifty. You can’t fault the waiters for not offering enough variety, but you’ll nonetheless come away less satisfied than you expected!
This irritated me most in the gameplay, but it’s true of the story as well. The concept of using the game to tell origin stories is a shadow of its former self in the final product. That’d be okay if there was something else to fill the gaps, but there are only scraps of a story, only little vestigial parts that weren’t removed as the game’s development changed. You’re tasked with saving a character known as the Bubble Dreamer by collecting the aforementioned Electoons, but why these matter to your adversaries is never explained in-game. You’re tasked with opening a teleportation device known as the “Dreamer’s Door” in order to get to the final world, but it was never mentioned before you first see it and is forgotten as soon as you pass by it. A Mr. Dark (villain from the first Rayman game) wannabe is uncovered towards the very end in order to have a central villain for a climax to the story, but that same villain is more or less irrelevant for the entirety of the game. To be fair, this was also case for the first installment, but at least that one had an introductory cutscene that established the villain, the overarching goal, and the importance of the collectibles from the get go. With the exception of Rayman 2, the series has never been one that seriously tried to engage players with its stories, but it’s still surprising and disappointing to see that Origins ‘ story doesn’t even match up to the quintessential excuse plot found in 1.
Earlier, I noted that levels were easy to beat “at first”. That’s only true until you get to the Dreamer’s Door plot, whereupon the difficulty curve becomes wonky but undeniably most hostile. In particular, the subworld shmup levels and the final world suffer difficulty spikes sharp enough to discourage players that were seemingly accommodated previously. I don’t mind a challenge and I stuck with the game to completion, but I didn’t expect that parts towards the end would feel more like Super Meat Boy than all prior Origins content.
This applies to the extra-hard and optional Land of the Livid Dead too, but let’s back up for a moment. If you collect enough Electoons, then you get to unlock and play a bonus challenge level (one per world) that rewards you with an item that helps grant access to the aforementioned hellish bonus world. Despite boiling down to the need to collect ten plot coupons in total, everything about how you actually get and deliver those coupons is very stylish and clever. It’s a reward for sticking with the game and going beyond the bare minimum, and you’re conditioned to enjoy it all as the relevant chase sequences comprise some of the best parts of the entire game. The disappointment comes into play when you finally unlock and get to visit this bonus world because it’s turns out to be nothing more than a short level and boss fight in the least developed world of all. It’s technically the most difficult level in the entire game, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good or even that it’s challenging. The “challenge” of both parts of the level is almost exclusively in trial-and-error and memorization, and since there’s nothing to do in this world but follow the path set out for you, it’s about as engaging as a sliding tile puzzle. It’s an awfully disheartening finish, especially after the decent finale that preceded it.
Despite my complaints, Origins is still “good”. It’s competent, it’s adequate, it’s probably worth your time and money if you like Rayman or platformers in general. My frustrations with it come from a place where I wanted it to be all it could be, to be an instant classic, to be the thing that revitalized the series. I feel like the skeleton and vital organs for a legendary game are here, but there’s just not enough meat and connective tissue to make it whole. Origins is indeed a roller coaster ride, a short and fast trip through an expensive construct made to appear as something more than it actually is. If that’s good enough for you, then you’ll enjoy it, but I still prefer Rayman 1 over Rayman Origins.