Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rayman Legends (Wii U) Review

I love platformers. I love platformers a lot. Rayman Legends is a damn fine platformer. Set one-hundred years after the fantastic Rayman Origins, Legends finds Rayman and friends being rudely awakened from a century-long nap to see the Glade of Dreams once again overrun by nightmares, now stronger than ever, having created all new threats like armies of dragons and skydiving toads. Legends carries over the wonderful sense of humor and personality from Origins, while introducing a host of creative new levels and experiences. The game’s central hub is an art gallery of sorts that links to all of the game’s various worlds and modes from paintings. There’s a lot to see and do here: besides five core worlds and a sixth bonus world mostly comprised of remixed levels, there are also special daily and weekly challenge stages, a multiplayer football/soccer mini-game known as Kung Foot, a gallery of collectible creatures, and even forty unlockable remastered levels from Origins. I’m going to keep the focus on the core experience here, which is the new worlds the game offers, and it’s also important to note that, as it indicates in the title, I’m reviewing the Wii U version only and in addition to that, the single-player experience in particular (this will all be important later).

The first thing one likely notices about Rayman Legends is its enchanting art direction and visuals, which like Origins, are simply a treat to take in. Legends takes things a step even further than Origins though, incorporating more dynamic lighting and subtle 3D elements into the mix. The result is a beautiful technical achievement for video games. I’m amazed that video games have come so far technologically-speaking and can actually look like this and still move at a solid frame rate and function properly. I suppose it’s cliché to say, but it’s fitting that Legends’ many levels are accessed from easels in an art gallery, since each one can accurately be described as an animated painting. The game’s multi-layered world is rich with detail and texture, from strange tree people walking around in the far background to tiny dewdrops beading on a giant tree root that Rayman just slid down. Enchanting forests and creepy castles, beanstalks rising from palely-lit swamplands, and deep-sea caverns littered with metallic waste all come to life in this ocular banquet. Sometimes I wouldn’t move at a level’s start as I took a blissful moment to take in the game’s rich aesthetics.

Legends feels like a much more high energy, boisterous experience than its predecessor. It feels grand and epic and seems to be constantly moving at a frenetic pace, darting from one zany platforming challenge to the next in a more concise, more focused, and altogether briefer experience than Origins. Part of the game’s feeling of grandeur comes from its titular theme of “legends”, placing a focus on grand set-pieces and gigantic boss battles with massive dragons, toads, and luchadores. Rayman and friends control with a fluidity and motion that makes stringing runs and jumps together into a form of interactive poetry. More levels than ever before focus on an “endless runner” style of platforming, where one false jump or screw up means death (these levels are never frustrating though when one instantly respawns at a nearby checkpoint to try again; the real fun comes from trying to master them without failing though). It’s amazing that these kinds of levels work as well as they do, as one loose screw in the form of a misplaced platform or enemy could have turned them into an unwieldy mess; I can only imagine the amount of rigorous testing required to perfect the design of these challenges. What is amazing about the level design and control of Rayman Legends is how intuitive everything feels: somehow when running up a wall, hopping over pillars of fire backwards and upside down and leaping from bouncy drums to stacks of monsters, I always knew exactly what to do. Every precise jump I made felt exhilarating and sometimes it felt like a miracle that I had survived, but I know that in actuality it’s down to the game’s precisely crafted systems. I quite enjoyed perfecting the “Invasion” challenges, where monsters and gimmicks from another world take over sections of a level, which feel like an evolution of the speedrunning treasure chest chase levels from Origins, but unquestionably the standout running levels in the game are the musical levels. These sublime platforming masterpieces, where one’s every action is timed to the melody of wacky covers of famous songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and “Woo Hoo”, are a revelation, a highlight of the entire platforming genre, nevermind this game, and I’d love to see more stuff like them from this development team or others in the future. These levels are the showstopper, but one shouldn’t ignore a myriad of other fantastic levels as well. Generally, Legends has some of the tightest level design I’ve ever seen in any platformer.

Tying all of this experience’s grandness, energy, and beauty together is a wonderful musical score that is joyfully integrated into the experience in a way that only a video game can accomplish. The musical levels are the obvious example of how this game masterfully integrates music into every facet of the experience, but they are worth mentioning again, and again and again. But this display of musical creativity doesn’t stop with them: the score often changes multiple times in the same level, transitioning between each area to set the mood or situation. Nothing ever sits still In Rayman Legends; everything hinges on a playful interactivity that never lets up. The soundtrack here is grand and sweeping when flying through the air amidst the ruins of a sky castle and moody and mysterious when swimming further into the depths of a sunken industrial complex. It rises in tempo and pace as you land more perfect jumps and get further and further in one of the precise Invasion challenges. It sometimes brings to mind the whimsical animated films of Disney and at other times mimics something you might here in a James Bond film. This is a fun, moving, and brilliant soundtrack. The game’s main theme refused to leave my head every time I turned my Wii U off.

I hope it’s clear at this point that I feel that Legends is a platforming joy, but this otherwise fantastic experience is tragically marred by one very irritating flaw: the Murfy levels. Murfy is a fairy-like character that shows up in a handful of specific levels and that the player controls with the GamePad’s touch screen and uses to manipulate certain elements in the environment, such as cutting ropes or moving platforms. If one is playing cooperative multiplayer (which supports up to five players), one player would control Murfy with the GamePad while the other(s) would platform through a level (players can also control Murfy even in regular stages in multiplayer), but in single-player, an AI-controlled character automatically does the platforming in these levels while the player solely controls Murfy. I do not like the Murfy levels. I found these levels to be boring at best and teeth-gratingly frustrating at worst. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what exactly makes these levels not work. Maybe it’s my extreme disdain for when shoehorned gimmicks bring down a great game that would be so much better without them, maybe it’s the fact that what is clearly something designed around multiplayer has been forced into the single-player experience at its detriment. But I think what it really comes down to is that these levels make me feel like I’m watching someone else play the game while I tinker with some puzzle-game off in the corner on my low-res GamePad screen. It’s about expectations: I expect to be playing a fun platforming game, and when I go from a great platforming stage to a level where I do none of the platforming, and have to try to get a decent, but certainly not great AI that sometimes doesn’t behave like a rational human player do what I want it to do by manipulating elements in the level around it, it becomes very frustrating, and has no place in a platformer as fluid and fun and beautiful as Legends…at least in single-player. I can imagine the Murfy levels being quite fun with a group of friends, on both sides of the equation, and I think they’re a neat use of the GamePad in that regard. It’s just a shame that they were shoehorned into the single-player, and that they’re frequent enough (though thankfully still in the minority) to seriously intrude on my enjoyment of this game. Legends already feels a bit light on the number of new core levels, and the Murfy levels’ inclusion certainly compounds this issue.

I’m aware that the single-player Murfy levels play out differently in the versions of Legends that don’t have access to a touchscreen, such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. In these versions, the player apparently actually does the platforming themselves and Murfy is controlled by a few button prompts. I chose to purchase and play the Wii U version because that was the original version of the game before Ubisoft delayed it and ported it to other systems, and therefore the Wii U version is the developers’ original vision for the game, which is what I wanted to experience. That said, there’s a decent chance I’d enjoy the Murfy levels more if I was the one actually doing the platforming, so I would have at least appreciated having the option to play them this alternate way in the Wii U version. Perhaps the ideal situation, however, might have been having these levels off to the side in a separate co-op specific section of the game with more traditional levels in their place for single-player.

The Murfy levels are my main gripe with Legends, but there are a few other points that I want to address that keep Legends from being truly all that it could be to me, and that ultimately make Origins hold perhaps a slightly higher place in my heart, although I’m still debating that (also Legends cheats by including levels from Origins). Let me try to explain. There are fewer main worlds in Legends than in Origins, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but even with so few worlds, some of them felt a bit underwhelming to me, or at least didn’t live up to a lot of their potential. I love the idea of the worlds themed around the Day of the Dead and Greek mythology, but the former largely felt like a retread of the food-themed world from Origins and the latter, which had so much potential in a game supposedly themed around legendary monsters, is largely set in featureless catacombs and lava-filled caverns that are fairly boring aesthetically, at least compared to the feast of riches the rest of the game (and Origins) provides. Where were the full levels set on a Mount Olympus-like environment, or the battles against Rayman-styled Greek gods and monsters? We only get a glimpse at this potential in the world’s boss fight stage and in its opening stage, which is *sigh* a Murfy level. Maybe I sound petty, and ironically the Greek-themed world has some of the funnest levels from a pure level-design standpoint, but this is simply how I felt playing the game; perhaps Legends was too hyped up for me, or perhaps the inspired worlds in Origins simply set the bar too high. The very big exception to my disappointment in the game’s world line-up is “20,000 Lums Under the Sea”, which is a bizarre and wonderful mixture of deep-sea industrial environments and stealth elements all wrapped up in a presentation inspired by secret agent clichés. It’s a bunch of my favorite video game tropes all wrapped up into one atmospheric package and is not only my favorite world in Legends but one of the coolest worlds in any platformer I’ve ever played. As a side note, I also love the underwater world from Origins; these games do underwater platforming damn well not only in terms of control and mechanics but also in regards to level design and aesthetics.

Speaking of Origins and the reasons why I might prefer it to Legends: besides not having any Murfy levels to suffer, I loved just about every world in Origins and although they may have generally relied more on familiar platformer tropes than Legends, they used these themes in captivating ways and I found most if not all of these lands to be creative and really fleshed-out. Origins’ own food-themed world in particular combines several different themes and tells a sort of story through its levels. I love that kind of stuff in platformers. Origins also simply feels like more of an adventure. There was a world map. There was progression. It felt like a journey through the Glade of Dreams that covered a wide range of territory. Legends is neat and focused; its levels are all neatly lined up in a row in the art gallery, and players can tackle them in a somewhat nonlinear fashion. Therefore, Legends feels more like a collection of awesome levels that Rayman and friends are just having fun with than an actual adventure to save the world like in Origins. Honestly, I can appreciate both approaches and I can see some preferring one or the other, but I think ultimately Origins’ approach just leaves more of an impact on me personally. Origins also has this unique atmosphere to it that I love, but then again I also love the grand and energetic atmosphere that Legends has. I guess I could compare the merits of both games here all day, but when it comes down to it, I feel Origins has stronger worlds and feels more like a story, and that combined with no Murfy levels makes me currently lean a little more in its direction.

Despite those dang Murfy levels and my other nitpicks about unfulfilled expectations from the game’s worlds, I still love Rayman Legends. Even though a Murfy level might make me rage during one moment due to some utterly stupid move on the part of the AI, the next expertly-constructed platforming level would make me grin from ear to ear and forget all about it. Despite the stuff that dragged the experience down in places for me, Legends’ best moments filled me with visceral joy like few other games can do. The fact that I find Origins to be the overall more complete and fulfilling experience in many ways and yet I still basically like both games equally is a testament to just how strong the strong parts of Legends are. This element of so much of the game being so good makes the stupid Murfy bits all the more frustrating to me, but oh well, I’ll shut up about that now. The bottom line is that Rayman Legends is a zany, superbly fun bundle of imagination and joy in these dark and depraved times of ours and you should play it. When one considers the inclusion of the forty levels from Rayman Origins in addition to the core Legends levels, plus Kung Foot and the daily and weekly challenge stages, the amount of imagination and wondrous fun to be found in this experience is, indeed, nothing short of legendary.

Plus I will never not smile when listening to this song.

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