Despite some bad blood having been spilled towards the end of Rayman Legends’ gestation – Ubisoft Montpelier staff were furious to discover they’d crunched for six months to finish the game, only for its release to be postponed by the higher-ups as a Wii U exclusive became a multiplatform release – none of that gore appears to have seeped into the creative groundwater. This is one of the most jubilant, vividly imagined and open-hearted platformers to come along in a long time. To play it is to vicariously experience the development team’s abiding love of videogames, and to be reminded why you love them too.
The Glade of Dreams is in peril once again, as the Bubble Dreamer has had a series of ever-more-terrifying nightmares in which the adorable, blue-skinned Teensies have been imprisoned. Each stage contains a total of ten Teensies waiting to be freed. Eight lie scattered throughout the course of the level, while a special king and queen Teensie are tucked away in hidden rooms. Each time you stumble upon a door leading to one of these chambers, you’re alerted by an “oooh!” of wonder from an offscreen audience.
These discrete areas allow the design team to think in microcosm. It’s not uncommon to find these challenge rooms occupying a single frame, as if they were plucked from a mobile game. This genealogy becomes explicit in one puzzle that appropriates the liquid physics and mole-burrowing mechanics of Where’s My Water?, but replaces liquid with scalding magma and finger swiping with the frog-pixie Murfy, who buzzes about in a looping flight path, excavating only when you hold the B button.
Murfy is a sporadic presence throughout the game, always careful not to outstay his welcome, automatically zipping over to the nearest obstruction. In his more mundane contributions, he drags platforms between two points, slices horizontally stretched ropes to create handholds for Rayman to leap between Tarzan-style, and rotates puzzle elements. His more memorable contributions include gouging cycloptic plants in the eye so they belch an updraft that Rayman can ride into the sky, or tickling a hulking Minotaur until it drops its guard, providing you an attack window.
The delayed release has allowed Ubisoft Montpelier to pack in a staggering amount of content, with six different themed worlds, each containing roughly ten levels. Once you’ve completed each one, they can spawn an Invasion – a timed challenge in a bespoke version of the stage with its own accompanying leaderboard and three new Teensies to free, amusingly strapped to fireworks. There’s the fourplayer Kung-Foot minigame that looks like football but feels like a horizontal 2D version of air hockey with face-palming own goals. There are two unique female characters to unlock in each world, achieved by completing a special bonus level where you are pitted against threats such as rising quicksand or a wall of flame. Then there are the unlockable Back To Origins stages, taken from Rayman Origins and remastered for your nostalgic pleasure.
Ubisoft also used the enforced delay to add boss fights to the game, and it’s a good thing too. These encounters add exclamation points to the end of each world, acting not as arbitrary difficulty spikes but as rewards for making it through the preceding stages: an enormous luchador who must be ground-pounded on his scalp, the criss-crossed Band-Aids that reference King Hippo from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! acting as your crosshairs; a robotic dragon in a stage modelled on BioShock’s underwater metropolis; and even a smoke monster for Lost fans, because… well, why the hell not?
In the Olympus Maximus world, there are giant serrated blades attached to the walls in cheerful tribute to Super Meat Boy’s sawblades, although the character physics in the two games could barely be more different. Super Meat Boy allows you to make nimble mid-air corrections to your leap; Rayman and his supporting cast, on the other hand, are controlled in a floppier, less responsive manner. If you make an errant leap it can be extremely difficult, even using the glide manoeuvre, to steer your way safely back to the platform you just left. Legends forces you to judge your leap correctly on the first attempt or pay the price. Thankfully, checkpoints and heart pickups are generously placed.
Even though time is only a scoring concern on the Invasion levels, the game is built around the concept of racing lines, and many levels will drop in a pursuing threat to force you to hit that line or die trying. The game’s designers use strings of collectible Lums as perforated guidelines to help you discern the optimal path. The racing analogy becomes even more apt when you realise that you press the right trigger to make your character sprint. When you’ve memorised a level back to front, it feels intensely gratifying to make it to the finish without once letting off the gas.
You enter each stage by leaping inside a canvas propped on an easel – a fitting device, since the UbiArt Framework engine enables the game’s visuals to carry a painterly aesthetic. Rayman Legends seems to draw its inspirations from a deep pool: Lewis Carroll, Salvador Dali, Tim Burton, even Ren & Stimpy.
Modern 2D platformers rarely reward you for studying the scenery, but Legends teems with inspired flourishes, such as the purple Mini-taurs cleaning cavern floors in one Olympus Maximus stage – perhaps a winking reference to all the extra polish added during the game’s delay. It may well have been a great game at its initial deadline, but the staggering level of detail in its amplified incarnation helps it run rings around its already estimable predecessor.
Rayman Legends is released on August 30 for Xbox 360, PC, PS3, Vita and Wii U. 360 version tested.