We're playing Rayman Legends on Xbox 360 in the heat of summer. The game was originally intended as a Wii U-exclusive title, announced before the console had even been released, and designed to utilize its touch screen for new mechanics.
But someone at Ubisoft got cold feet, probably because the Wii U wasn't the runaway success its predecessor had been. And so the game was postponed for six months, allowing the developers to convert the otherwise finished Wii U game for PS3 and Xbox 360 (and announced a few weeks ago - PC).
And for that, we are grateful. Rayman Legends is a game of such caliber that it deserves as big an audience as it can possibly get. And it's probably not only the summer heat to blame if a certain Italian plumber is sweating at the moment. While the New Super Mario Bros. series seems a bit long in the tooth these days, Rayman Legends shines bright with ideas and style to such a degree that we might need to start talking about a new genre king.
You'd have to be exceptionally cold-hearted not to crack a grin from your first moments with Rayman Legends. The game crackles with joy across everything; graphics, level design, sound effects, the completely awesome music. Even the game's main menu, arranged as a large gallery filled with paintings that make up the game's levels, is so throughly cozy that we caught ourselves numerous times just running around and doing stomach slides with Rayman.
The story is minimal - something to do with the titular rascal and his other hero friends having slept for a hundred years, while nightmares have invaded the Glade of Dreams and kidnapped a bunch Teenies (the little blue big-nosed creatures we first met in Rayman Origins). Fortunately, the little green flying dude Murphy is ready to wake up our heroes with a stinging smack, and Rayman and buddies immediately set out to gather thousands of small yellow Lums and free all the Teenies they can find.
Legends is very obviously a direct sequel to Rayman Origins from 2011, and shares many of the basic mechanics. This means that you chase Lums, find secret rooms, jump, run, leap, swim and float through a multitude of colorful worlds, while handing out smackdowns to the enemies of one's way (and most likely your friends too, if you're playing co-op).
But Michel Ancel and his team have obviously given their imaginations free rein, because while Origins was fantastic, Legends is so packed with inspiration, ideas and inventiveness that its predecessor almost seems monotonous by comparison.
Each world its own clear theme and set of mechanics that mixes things up and provides variation.
This may not apply so much for the first world, but in Toad Story we soar on updrafts and avoid thorny foliage and meat-eating plants, and learn the importance of being able to steer and float Rayman through in the air and around needle-sharp hazards.
In the fabulously named the Fiesta De Los Muertos, the theme is both Mexico and food, and large portions of the levels are made of cake, which both companion Murphy and certain monsters happily eat, thus creating new paths for Rayman to use.
In Olympus Maximus the theme's ancient Greece, and here we both need to dodge fireballs and mischievous gods that shoot lightning at the players.
Personal favorite though is 20,000 Lums Under The Sea, which blends a Jules Verne-like universe with James Bond atmosphere and stealth mechanics (as well as a nod to that franchise's musical cues), as Rayman sticks to the shadows both above and below water, staying out of sight of the the deadly guns that shoot at anything that moves within their field of view.
Gone is the shoot 'em up sequences where you ride on the back of a mosquito and fire wildly at everything that moves - on some sections and levels you're granted a upgrade that lets you fire out long-range gloves much like a shoot-'em up, but you've got to contend with keeping your character floating in the drafts and avoiding spiked vines or enemies.
The collecting of Lums and the hidden Teenies is the game's driving force, and the more you collect, the more things you unlock. New characters and costumes, tough time trial-like bonus levels, scratching cards that reward you with more Lums, collectible creatures (providing Lums) or bonus levels from Rayman Origins that have been updated with the new graphic style. The difficulty increases at a steady pace, and if you want to find all the hidden rooms, levels and collectibles, you can expect to spend considerable time in the company of the game.
Besides the fact that Rayman is massive fun - both in terms of gameplay in the ordinary levels, the imaginative boss design and the small cutscenes - it also looks and sounds absolutely amazing. The style is a further development of the hand-drawn look from Origins, but with much more detailed and nuanced colouring, making it all rather reminiscent of a living oil painting. The music is nothing short of fantastic, and continues the curious instrumentation with generous use of ukulele and mouth harp. Some of the music is new, some is recycled from its predecessor, but they're all wonderful to listen to all the same.
Each world ends in a blazing and hectic muscial level where you speed through a route designed such that jumps, punches and Lum collecting are timed to the music - in this case consisting of familiar and iconic rock songs and classical pieces tweaked for the occasion, such as Black Betty in Rayman-gibberish, or Eye of the Tiger in a mariachi interpretation. It sounds both amazing and is absolutely hilarious. Who said rhythm games were dead?
Like we mentioned, we've been playing the Xbox 360 version, and so haven't had the chance to get acquainted any of the Wii U demos that have been shown previously. But Legends does not in any way feel like an amputated experience on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Quite the contrary: Ubisoft have gotten the most out of the extra six months they've spent building.
As in Origins, four-player co-op is on offer, and like before the addition of more players makes the game both easier and more difficult. Easier because dead players can always be revived as long as one player is alive, and harder because it requires an extra degree of coordination in some stages. Co-op is joined by Challenge Mode, which provides daily challenges online that you can divulge in. Unfortunately we've been unable to try this part of the game prior to the game's retail release. Finally, there is Kung Foot, a kind of two-dimensional combination of football and beach volleyball, a very chaotic and therefore also entertaining game.
Rayman Legends is concentrated love. Joy flows out of its every crack and pore, and although it gets quite challenging at times, the game is sufficiently generous with its checkpoints that it never becomes frustrating, and a reasonable dosage of tenacity is usually enough to push through. And if not, you can always jump out, choose a new level and return later, as Rayman Legends is delightfully non-linear.
Rayman Origins was perhaps the best platform game of this console generation, and Rayman Legends has it beat it on all counts. It's as simple as that. It may well be the protagonist has been in business for 18 years, which is a lifetime in game context, but he certainly doesn't feel that way. Rayman feels refreshing like few others.