Rayman Legends is just lovely. Put aside the effusive language and critical commendation for the moment – the charming joy that is Ubisoft’s latest could stand on its own for its sheer loveliness. From the painterly artwork to the free-wheeling level design, the sequel to Rayman Origins improves on its predecessor in every field. If I could publish a picture of the massive grin on my face I could, there thanks to a game laden with endearing references, ingenious layout and a near neverending stream of new content unlocked – with pleasure – as you progress.
Having arrived on the next-gen it’s worth mentioning that Rayman Legends doesn’t hugely benefit from the boost in hardware power. The game is sharper and smoother but not noticeably different to the last-gen versions, unlike a game like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The game stands on the merit of its art design, lovingly rendered in the same fashion as Rayman Origins. Whereas that game leaned towards a cartoony, almost freeform style, Rayman Legends has a softer feel, lush in both character and environment. The 2.5D platforming remains and works in spectacular fashion with 3D enemies and multi-tiered backdrops, managing to create blockbuster action from something closer to a pop-up book than an expensive film.
It’s only right that the game presents each level in the form of a gallery, with paintings used to navigate levels, challenges and statistics that harks back to Mario 64. Rayman Legends looks incredible with a hand-painted aesthetic that is immediately endearing. The initial level count looks sparse – five worlds, padlocked in chains to be unlocked by collecting ‘teensies’ (small blue people, but not Smurfs). These worlds, each based on a theme, hold a generous handful of levels that culminate in a boss level and a musical challenge. Progress through the game, however, and almost every level receives a bonus ‘invasion’ version – a timed jaunt that rewrites the feel of the area – as well as additional challenges and things to collect. It’s insane the amount of content that keeps dripping out of Rayman Legends, as if every perk in Call of Duty were in fact a whole new mission.
As with Origins, Legends is a platformer through and through but something just feels right with nearly every level. Origins was by no means bad but it asked a lot in later levels in terms of skill. Punishing could in fact be used in regard to some of the final parts, requiring the hand-eye co-ordination of a watchmaker and an ungodly amount of patience. The levels in Legends are brilliant; each has a momentum that feels instinctual. You’ll find yourself jumping at exactly the right moment, unaware quite why, although the placement of lums – another collectable – subtly hints at the right way to go. There are levels that are your standard jump-and-explore type, frantic levels with ever-encroaching flame-walls of death, scatter-brained chase levels and even more variations on the genre. Each is inventive, ingenious and always tongue-in-cheek, albeit never losing pace or tension at the expense of humour and almost all are relatively frustration-free, the game inspiring an unconscious skill in players.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Legends lies with the absolutely brilliant musical levels. We’ve seen developers attempt to combine music with other genres before – Harmonix has built an entire studio on the concept. It’s rare, though, for a platformer to use music so well – these levels, unlocked at the very end of a stage, feel like a reward and rightly so. Choreographed to wonderfully off-kilter versions of popular songs (which I won’t spoil here), each level feels like a zany game of Rock Band. Songs and action build to a brilliant crescendo – you’ll miss jumps the first time through but repeated attempts never feel frustrating, while higher difficulties and hidden secrets entice experts back for more.
That’s not to mention the humour saturating the rest of the game. One set of levels features a glorious mashup of Splinter Cell and Bioshock, backed by a score so blatantly spoofing James Bond that track names on the CD soundtrack include ‘Dive Another Day’ and ‘Toadfinger’. The rest of the wonderful music, composed by Christophe Héral and Billy Martin, stands out in variety as well as quality. Origins relied an awful lot on jangly, ukulele-heavy music and while it does make another appearance here Legends has a more orchestral, grandiose sound that suits the very tenuous heroic theme.
From castles to ancient Greece, every stage could be framed and hung on your wall. Although later levels begin to reskin enemies and environmental dangers it’s already too late – you’re in love with the game just as it starts to wrap up its main campaign. The sheer amount to unlock – from retooled Rayman Origins levels to additional bonus stages – mean that there’s longevity here in spades.
Multiplayer, wherein online players can bandy about the levels in cartoon chaos, is very welcome, especially on next-gen consoles where alternatives to shooting and sport are few and far between. There’s even a makeshift football section to Rayman Legends, allowing friends to team up in the wildest game since Shaolin Soccer. If there’s one aspect to the game – highlighted in multiplayer – that feels off, it’s the legacy of Legends as a Wii U exclusive that flattens some of the gameplay. Whereas the Wii U’s gamepad allowed players to use touch to trigger switches and interact in other, more direct ways, the other consoles have these moves assigned to a button press. It means there’s more in the way of finger gymnastics during level runs, while unlockable scratch cards feel a little pointless when the twin-analogue sticks replace what would usually be your fingertips. It’s only a minor niggle though – never anything that dulls the giddy fun and it’s a good solution to a problem that could easily see these parts removed instead.
Rayman Legends isn’t just an HD upgrade or a game to tide you over before mechs start punching each other or beanie-hatted superpowered hipsters run amok in Seattle. It may include extra levels and a few extra costumes (taken from other Ubisoft properties) but the real value here is its inherent charm, frantic fun and a free-spirited feeling that enlivens one of the quietest periods in the life of a new console. I confess, the prospect of playing a side-scrolling platformer didn’t inspire me with confidence, or seemingly justify the cost of a brand-new machine. How I was wrong. Yes it’s available on nearly every other platform but that means that everyone can experience the expert level design, constant surprise and cheerful glee that is Rayman Legends. It’s not perfect, it’s not the best game ever but Michel Ancel’s iconic character damn well put me in a good mood. It’s the first time a game has defied my expectations to such a degree. Excuse me for a moment as I step outside the boundaries of the review, for this is a momentous occasion. Rayman Legends will go down as legendary in its own right, for this is the first game I happily score…