For those who begrudged last year's best platformer, Kirby's Epic Yarn, for its inherent lack of challenge, Ubisoft's Rayman: Origins would gladly be your huckleberry. Essentially a reboot of Michel Ancel's ageless, armless platforming wonder, Origins is one of those games that simply reminds you why we love this genre to begin with. Apart from its gorgeous looks and clever level designs, Origins is simply packed to the brim with whimsical moments of adorable weirdness, the likes of which ought to melt even the most glacial of hearts.
The Origins in the subtitle refers to the game's place in Rayman history as a sort of origin story for Rayman and his crew, but I'll be damned if I could really make heads or tails of any of it. True to series form, Origins' dialogue and storytelling plays second banana to the gameplay and visuals. There's stuff involving nymphs, collectable Electoons, and a bunch of angry monsters, but truth be told, none of it really matters. The dialogue is still made up largely of gibberish with occasionally helpful subtitles, and really, all you need to know is that Rayman's on a mission, and many a jerk chicken, cantankerous fish, and malcontent monster will suffer should they get in his way.
And they do. Often, in fact. To combat these vile forces that have imprisoned those smiling, cooing Electoons (they're basically purple dots with faces and ponytails), Rayman will need a smorgasbord of different abilities to best them, ranging from wall-running to deep-sea diving, with plenty of standard combat in-between.
One of the smarter decisions Origins' designers made was to space out the period between acquiring these abilities. The first five worlds each tend to revolve around a specific ability, whereas the remaining worlds after tend to utilize them all willy-nilly. It gives you ample time with each new mechanic before giving you a series of levels that force you to use several of them at once in rapid succession. Trust me when I say it balances out the challenge in a way that becomes sorely necessary as the game goes along.
It's weird to say it, but Origins is easily one of the more challenging platformers I've played in a good long while. Note that I did not say "difficult" or "hard," but rather "challenging." Toward the end of the game, things do get quite difficult, but by the time you get there, you've already bested so many different obstacles and crazy, timing-based levels that you pretty much know what you're in store for. It's an immaculately-paced campaign that builds you up bit by bit before throwing the hammer down on the player. Moments of frustration are there, especially in some of the treasure hunting side levels, where you're forced to chase a runaway treasure chest while navigating obstacles purely on adrenaline and reflex, leading to more trial-and-error than one might prefer.
Then again, trial-and-error is kind of platforming 101, alongside double-jumping, cartoonish bad guys, and levels that revolve around lava, ice, water, and jungles. Origins has all of those things too, but I assure you it uses them with greater creativity than most other genre forebears. Each level in Rayman: Origins feels painstakingly crafted and unique. Yes, certain mechanics and pitfalls are used mutliple times throughout the game, but no two levels ever feel like a riff on one another. There is this great sense of variety as each world opens up, and that feeling never tapers off.
It also bears mention that Origins' control scheme is damn near perfect. Nothing kills a platformer like unresponsive controls, or mechanics that are too difficult to pull off. Ubisoft's Montpelier team has found a fantastic balance of goofy animation and moves that are responsive and generally pretty easy to pull off. Sure, you might periodically mis-time a wall jump or inadvertently overshoot a platform, but thankfully, the game's checkpoint system is exceptionally good at making sure you don't have to traverse a million previously bested traps over again, thus keeping frustration at a minimum.
The only downside to Origins' general challenge level is that it makes it tough to stop and take in the scenery. You'll want to, as Rayman: Origins is about as beautiful a 2D platformer as I've ever seen. The game's art style is as close to an interactive cartoon as we've seen to date, with phenomenal, hand-painted-looking character and world art that blends seamlessly across multiple art styles. The moments you do get to take in are often hilarious and transfixing, goofy and gorgeous all at once. While you might periodically wish for the game to slow down a moment and let you soak it all in, odds are you'll be having too much fun to really care.
Odds are your friends will be too, should you opt to include them in on the fun. Co-op play for up to four players is available, and though the levels don't alter with additional players, the game experience most certainly does. Adding additional players definitely ups the frantic factor by a significant margin, albeit not in a detrimental way. The co-op mode is simply a laugh riot, full of unexpected silliness and absurd attacks that often involve screwing with your friends as much as helping them. Again, you can get through Rayman entirely on your own, but playing with friends is absolutely the ideal way to go--provided your friends aren't terrible at these sorts of games, of course.
It's easy to call Rayman: Origins some kind of love letter to the genre, but truth be told, I doubt Ubisoft would be dumping Origins at retail during a period filled with much higher-profile blockbuster releases were the publisher so head-over-heels for the game. It's a little bit tragic that Origins wasn't released during a window where it could breathe a bit more freely, and take a bit of its own spotlight, away from the blinding lights of the Assassin's Creeds, Modern Warfares, and even Super Mario Lands of the world. Origins' hours of wonderfully crafted entertainment deserve to be seen, to be played, and to be enjoyed by as wide of an audience as possible. Seek this one out.