Friday, September 20, 2013

Rayman Origins (PS3) Review

Rayman Origins is an insane game. A delightful, charming, funny, quirky, unique, bizarre, brilliant, crazy, insane game.

Origins is a celebration of the absurd: a wild and crazy mixture of the funkiest corners of human imagination. I’d never played a Rayman game before this one and have never had much interest in the series. After playing Origins, I kind of regret that. The back-story of Rayman’s world is actually quite interesting to me. A god-like being known as the “Bubble Dreamer” dreams Rayman’s world and all of its inhabitants into existence, and this creature also lives with his creations, who spend their days lounging on top of a giant tree. One day, their loud snoring attracts the ire of their underworld neighbors, the Livid Dead, a group of crotchety zombie grannies. When Rayman, his best friend Globox, and the rest of the gang refuse to quiet down, the Livid Dead unleash war upon the Glade of Dreams and send an army of the Bubble Dreamer’s nightmares to attack.

After freeing himself from a cage, Rayman and his friends set out to free the Electoons, which are the “stuff of dreams” that hold the Glade together, and the Nymphs, guardian fairies who protect each land, from the nightmares. The story serves as a back-drop for a beautiful and imaginative landscape. I was a bit disappointed that most of the game’s worlds fit the incredibly worn-out themes of “forest”, “desert”, “ice”, and “water” (and follow Nintendo's Rule of Mario 3 by having the second world be the desert world), but the level designs themselves, both visual and gameplay-wise, more than make up for this. Also, in addition to the numerous individual levels in the game being expertly-designed, many worlds combine different themes to produce something truly special. The desert world, for example, is both desert and music-themed, and everything Rayman hops and bops on emits some kind of tune or note. Enemies sing and flute snakes fly through the air. The player makes their own music that combines with the background music for a richly sensory experience. The ice world, meanwhile, combines a frozen surface paradise that acts as a refrigerator full of canned goods, frozen fruit, and ice-skating dragon waiters, with a fiery, oven-like underworld that’s home to dragon chefs and fire-breathing sausage creatures.

Rayman and friends lounging on the Snoring Tree

The Glade of Dreams is brought to life by incredible art direction and animation. Rayman Origins is honestly one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, both in terms of the magnificent painted environments, full of numerous details in both the foreground and background, and the cartoonish, animated characters that live in this world. The cartoony inhabitants of the Glade of Dreams combined with the beautifully rendered naturalistic environments create a vibrant and eye-catching universe. At any point in time, the game is honestly akin to viewing a painting in a museum. Technically-speaking, even after leaning as close as I could to the TV screen, I couldn’t find a single jagged edge or flaw with the visuals. They’re technically perfect.

The music and sound design is also wondrous. Between the varied and unique tracks that accompany the game’s world to the hilarious sound effects and auditory touches in the game, such as platforms releasing drum beats when Rayman lands on them to the Lums, the collectible critters of the game, waking up and singing at certain points, the Glade of Dreams is truly alive. The music is at times beautifully environmental and natural-sounding, at others gleefully silly and downright hilarious, at still others potently atmospheric, oftentimes appropriately upbeat, and finally just plain epic.

Origins is a visual marvel

As a platformer, Rayman trims a lot of the unnecessary, outdated components of the genre. Gone are frivolous “lives” and in their place are unlimited tries and frequent checkpoints. This allows the designers to create zany and immensely challenging scenarios where it doesn’t matter if the player fails a million times. The treasure chest chase levels in particular and the game’s final secret level (which is one of my favorite levels in platformer history) require precise, pitch-perfect timing and platforming to be overcome, and are incredibly satisfying to finally conquer after many, many attempts.

Rayman also blends its collecting, another staple of the platformer genre, very intelligently with its game design. Instead of collecting a bunch of coins that only increase a needless life count, Rayman tasks the player with collecting the golden Lums and much of the challenge in the game comes from finding these creatures and trying to maximize their numbers at every turn. The game does a nice job of incentivizing the player to collect these critters as at the end of each level, their Lum totals are tallied up and traded for Electoons which can then be used to unlock new character skins and secret levels. The player has to pay close attention to every detail in a level to collect every last Lum and meet each stage's strict goals for gaining Electoons. Also, hidden in each stage are cages full of trapped Electoons. Time trials also add extra challenge and where I usually don’t bother with them in most games, I found that it was fun to replay the levels in Origins in two different ways: either taking it slow and trying to find every hidden collectible or breezing through them to optimize my time. These time trials also reward the player with Electoons. Each level is well-designed both as a traditional platforming challenge and in regards to hiding its collectibles.

Wonderfully absurd in the best way possible

Rayman doesn’t control quite as tightly as I’d like, but the game still plays very well. I found Rayman’s hovering move, where he can float in the air for a short time by spinning his hair, to be a bit finicky and unreliable at times, as I’d swear I’d press the correct button, but would go falling to my doom. Also, on some of the harder levels (like the aforementioned endless runner-style treasure chest chases), sometimes it can be a bit frustrating if the game requires pin-point precision platforming, but it’s not clear right away what needs to be done or how much pressure needs to be applied to that jump button. This is definitely a trial and error game in many situations.

I’m also not a big fan of the levels where Rayman boards a gigantic mosquito to do battle with waves of enemies in a “shoot em' up”-style side-scrolling shooter. These levels were a nice way to add variety to the gameplay at first, and can be fun at times, but as the game went on, I found them to be a bit too prevalent and I found myself becoming tired of them very quickly. These levels just aren’t as engaging to me as the traditional platforming stages and I usually just tried to “get through them” so I could move on to the next regular level. If I wanted to play a shmup, I’d play one, but Rayman is a platformer and having this different genre forced on me is annoying. In some platformers, these different kinds of levels work, such as the mine-cart levels in Donkey Kong Country and even the swimming levels in Rayman Origins, which actually control well and are beautifully atmospheric, but the shooter levels are just a bit dull and repetitive. Of course, traditional platforming is still far and away the most prevalent kind of gameplay in Origins, so these stages are only a minor annoyance.

The shooter levels aren't my favorite, despite having gigantic chicken bosses

Origins has plenty of levels to enjoy but does suffer from some odd pacing. After completing the first five worlds, four more worlds simultaneously unlock and can be done in any order, but these four worlds are really just expansions of the game’s four main territories that have already been visited. It feels a bit redundant going back to these familiar world themes again and as a result the game has a bit of a “dragged-out” feeling. These “new worlds” contain completely new level designs, but the theming is familiar. Due to this, even though the game technically contains ten full worlds of levels, it still feels like there aren’t enough unique world themes, especially because what’s here is such high quality and I would have liked to see how creative the team could have gotten with even more unique worlds. I guess that’s what Rayman Legends is for though.

Rayman Origins is both delightfully absurd and wonderfully creative in its story, art direction, music, and level designs and it’s an all-around raucously fun platformer. It’s also one of the funniest games I’ve experienced, not because it’s full of overt jokes and dialogue, but due to the game’s oddball characters, lively animations, strange and magnificent music and sound effects, and the charming way in which the inhabitants of the Glade of the Dreams all speak in a gibberish, Pig Latin-like language. The hilarious way all of the characters, friends and enemies alike, carry themselves and just the whole way the game presents itself and how it never takes anything seriously leads to a refreshing and unique sense of humor prevalent throughout the whole experience. Origins’ gameplay isn’t quite as perfect as that of some of the other platformers I’ve played, but it is still very responsive and near-enough perfection that it's not a damning issue in the slightest. Besides, the game highly succeeds in its genre thanks to its creative and funky levels and aesthetics. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the bosses in this game are massive, beastly, and beautifully revolting creations. Origins is a product of pure human imagination and a powerful demonstration of the kind of visual, musical, and interactive euphoric mixture that video games can bring to a player. It’s a celebration of nonsense of the best kind, and an experience that will stay in my heart for a while to come.

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