Monday, January 27, 2014

GOT 'IM - Rayman Origins

Two completed target games on the year, and it's not even February yet! Here's the second: the gorgeous, entertaining, and brutally difficult Rayman Origins. 

Now, before I talk about Rayman Origins, I'm going to talk about myself (of course...).  My favorite video game genre is Japanese RPGs.  My second-favorite is probably character action games - your Zelda, Castlevania, Devil May Cry, Prince of Persia, God of War, etc.  Third on the list is platformers - Mario, Mega Man, Ratchet & Clank, Donkey Kong, etc.  Platfomers, which are essentially stylized action games with an emphasis on precise running and jumping, are just about the most video gamey games around.  Mario jumping between floating blocks or Sonic sprinting through a candy-colored stage is what video games ARE to a large number of people.  I wouldn't be a gamer nowadays if it weren't for Mario and Mega Man.  Even though I don't devote a huge amount of time to them anymore (and I'm not very good at them), I will always consider the platformer to be one of my favorite genres of video game. 

Oh, and what's fourth on that list?  Hard to say.  Either fighting games, western RPGs, or puzzle/adventure/visual novels (whatever Professor Layton, Zero Escape, Phoenix Wright, and Ghost Trick are). And wait a second, is Prince of Persia a platformer or an action game with some platforming?  Should I call Ratchet a shooter instead of a platformer?  Whatever.  I have no fucking idea.  Not an argument worth having. 

Right, back to platformers.  Rayman is a series of platformers that has been around since the PS1 era, and I've always managed to avoid them.  I remember Rayman 2 being a well-liked Dreamcast game getting comparisons to Banjo-Kazooie (a very strong 3D platformer) and was vaguely aware of Rayman's presence in the PS2's library.  Anyhow, now that I've done some research, I know that Rayman is the brainchild of Michel Ancel, one of the more well-known designers in the UbiSoft stable of game-making talent.  Rayman is a wackier, more irreverent, more French version of Mario.  With kicking and slapping.  Not bad at all.

Now Ancel had been making Rayman games (and a few other titles like Beyond Good & Evil) for fifteen years when he and Ubi decide to make a nice big Rayman push with Rayman Origins - ostensibly an Episode One for the Rayman series, returning to their 2D platforming roots (...pretty much only the original Rayman was in 2D) and making it as smooth and beautiful as possible.  It was a success, so Origins had a similarly-designed successor in 2013 called Rayman Legends.

Now back to talking about myself - Rayman Legends was what got me into Rayman.  That's right, the 2013 one, not the one I'm supposed to be reviewing here.  I saw trailers for Legends, and I was intrigued by its lovely visuals, its nice-looking action, and especially by its sound design (more on that later).  So after watching some of those trailers, I did some Rayman research and figured that I should play some Rayman in my near future.  I ended up buying Rayman 1 & 2 on the PSN store and Rayman Origins on PS3 disc sometime in mid-2013.  I eventually decided that Rayman 1 probably wasn't a must-play, Rayman 2 could be fun one day down the line, and Rayman Origins was exactly what I wanted.  So it made my list of 2014 targets, and I beat it in about ten days in mid-January.

As far as I can tell, Rayman's a mix of 90s forced-coolness and European silliness.   Consisting of a floating head and torso surrounded by two floating gloves and two floating sneakers, Rayman's expressive face, floppy ears, red hoodie, and exaggerated movements label him as an obvious mascot attempt, but also as something obviously not of this world.  Rayman's origin isn't very well-detailed for a game with Origins right in the title.  It seems that one of the Nymphs (powerful, well-endowed fairy ladies) created him to protect The Glade of Dreams (Rayman's home) and its chief resident the Bubble Dreamer (a lazy, somewhat capricious, omnipotent being).  The entire world of The Glade, from its magical Nymphs, the abundant Teensies, the goofy Globox, and most of its horrible, grotesque monsters, were born from the dreams of the Dreamer.  Most of the Rayman games involve Rayman and his best bud Globox saving the Glade from the Dreamer's nightmare-monsters, receiving assistance from the Nymphs and a few of the more ambitious Teensies.

Rayman Origins' first trailer shows the head Nymph Betilla creating Rayman from a ball of light.  Rayman immediately uses his new life to, uh, use his helicopter ears to blow a gust of wind up Betilla's skirt.  So that's the kind of guy he is.  The game's opening cutscene shows Rayman, Globox, a few Teensies, and the Dreamer sleeping peacefully, until their rhythmic, beat-boxy snoring enrages some underworld monsters, who promptly invade the Glade and send Rayman into action.  Here's the trailer: boom, trailer.  And here's the opening: Boom, snoring.  That's kind of Rayman Origins' vibe. 

Back to to the game.  Rayman Origins is a very traditional platformer in every sense.  Your actions consist of running, jumping, striking, swimming, and... that's the whole list.  Sure, there are lots of permutations of those four actions (i.e. dashing, jump-kicking, spin-punching, etc.), but that's the gist of it.  The stages are widely varied, balancing open areas, water, aerial maneuvers, wall shenanigans, some shmup stages (more on those later, and a few boss battles that involve punching weak points at opportune times.  Yup, sounds like a platformer.

The best part of Rayman Origins is the spectacle.  The action is quite smooth, and I'm pretty sure every normal stage is beatable with the dash button held down the entire time, if your finger dexterity is not of this world.  These stages are linear and designed with speed runs in mind (once you beat a level you can replay it to race against a clock) but there is also a ton of shit to collect.  Oh, and when I say "probably" I mean "definitely."

Glowing Lums are fairy-like beings that are essentially Rayman's answer to Mario's coins, and the tiny purple Electoons are cheerful purple sprites that are Rayman's answer to Mario's stars.  Rayman earns Electoons by completing each stage (1 Electoon), finding hidden caches of them (0 to 2 Electoons per stage), by collecting certain amounts of Lums (another 0 to 2 per stage), and then by beating a target time on a speed run of a stage (1 per stage on non-boss, non-mosquito levels).  There are 243 total Electoons to collect - you need around 150 or so to unlock the final boss's zone, and 200 to unlock the final challenge stage. 

The most distinguishing feature of these stages is that they are hilarious and gorgeous.  Rayman Origins looks stunning, and its stages are just weird and quirky enough to be funny without being obnoxious.  The ice stages resemble mixed drinks, with champagne pools, floating ice cubes, and random olives. The desert zone is comprised most of woodwind and percussion musical instruments.  The jungle zone, well, is pretty much a normal jungle zone.  I haven't even mentioned the Mexican cuisine dragons.  But even if the stages are traditionally-themed, they're beautiful to behold.  Rayman Origins looks great.

Oh right, I think I mentioned boss and mosquito stages a few paragraphs ago.  Rayman Origins has five or six boss battles (depends on your definition of one), and they're most exercises in dodging crazy shit.  You avoid the boss's pattern, a weak point appears for a few seconds, you punch the weakpoint, rinse and repeat.  That's ALL of the boss stages.  While not always interesting, they're varied enough and HUGE enough to be pretty cool spectacle.  Honestly I wished there were more than six.   Mosquito stages are shmup ("shoot em up" scrolling stages like Gradius) areas where Rayman rides a trusty mosquito through hazardous areas, with collapsing walls, falling fireballs, the works.  There were probably at least a dozen mosquito levels in Rayman Origins, including part of the final boss.  It was a nice diversion, but not quite as fun as the regular running and jumping. 

But the one thing I've been skirting around for this entire review - Rayman Origins is HARD.  I finished the game with about 180 Electoons, and there is NO way I'll be returning to max it out; too stressful.  The water stages are on another level of difficulty, because controlling Rayman underwater, while quite precise, seems to have more death-touch hazards than usual.  Rayman only gets two hits of damage before he dies (and that second hit is conditional on finding potion items) and it's easy to do when you're struggling with swim controls in a coral reef full of homing tentacles.  Yeesh. 

Oh, and if the regular game's challenge level isn't enough, you periodically unlock challenge stages called Tricky Treasures, which are fast-moving scrolling levels where Rayman chases down skittish treasure chests with legs.  Getting to the end of each Tricky Treasure level nets Rayman a jewel called a Skull Tooth.  Obtaining ten Skull Teeth unlocks the final challenge of Rayman Origins: The Land of the Livid Dead.  I unlocked nine Tricky Treasure stages, tried all of them, and after a lot of cursing and hand cramps and general despair, I managed to beat two out of the nine.  It's fun to watch speed runs on YouTube, though. 

So Rayman controls well, moves quickly, looks gorgeous, and is very challenging.  Now for the worst bit - it took me 10 days and maybe 13 hours to finish Rayman Origins, and that's with a LOT of repeating certain segments where I was dying dozens of times.  Including Tricky Treasure, there are maybe 65 stages in the game, most of which are way shorter than the levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns (my new 2D platforming standard).  Rayman Origins doesn't have much optional content other than those Skull Teeth, and a more skilled gamer than I could probably finish Rayman in three short evenings.  Too bad.  Wish it were longer. 

But I've barely mentioned the best part of Rayman Origins - the sound design.  While not as stunning as the music stages in Rayman Legends, the soundtrack to Rayman Origins is a whimsical acoustic masterpiece.  Each area has a unique vibe that gives it a sense of place, with tunes that match it perfectly.  The guitar, banjo, kazoo (heh), and other twangy instrumentation choices of Rayman give it a recognizable sound all its own.  Even better - a few of the more dangerous chase-type stages are rife with musical cues, with the soundtrack matching the movements of Rayman and the environment around him.  If the music seems to be ahead of your jumping, you'll probably die soon.

Beating Rayman Origins was a stressful week and a half, but also a satisfying one.  I didn't get very far at all into the optional content, but it's a platformer in the most classic sense and I enjoyed it very much.  Definitely makes me want to play Rayman Legends, which certainly isn't very good for my spending habits. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins

Targets: 2/14


I'm still working on Metroid Prime, and the plan is still to have that one done by February 1st. I'm also being distracted quite heavily by Persona 3 Portable (AGAIN!?) and a bit of FTL.  Not sure when I'll be able to finally move on. 

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