It seems that whenever there's any suggestion that the 2D platformer has lost touch with reality in the face of blockbuster titles, there's always some quirky variant released to remind people that fun comes in many forms.
One of the more salient examples of this hit Xbox Live in 2010: Limbo was a dark, brooding title with a bent for wanton brutality. It challenged the player to not only perfect their puzzle-solving abilities, but do so in a world almost completely bereft of any colour, yet hauntingly beautiful in it's own right. Importantly, the platforming added to the concept, as Limbo simply rewarded absolute accuracy with another opportunity to die.
Where Limbo has a hint of East German propaganda about it, Rayman Origins assaults the player with a kind of all-encompassing vibrancy even Disney would consider over-the-top. It's garish, bold and bright. It constantly encourages the player to move faster, jump higher and collect more shiny tokens. It is, in short, the anti-Limbo. Looks can be deceiving however, as underneath the cutesy veneer is a game of remarkable quality.
Rayman Origins is an attempt to tie together Rayman and Rayman 2: The Great Escape, but those unfamiliar with the history of the franchise won't necessarily suffer for it. Set in the Glade of Dreams, Rayman and friends incur the wrath of an aged resident of the Land of the Livid Dead, who promptly unleashes all sorts of hell on the Glade by capturing weird-looking musical Electoons. Naturally, it's up to Rayman to resolve the issue in as colourful a manner as possible.
This is achieved primarily through the use of extremely varied yet wonderfully designed levels. While it's not necessary to capture every bonus token along the way, the enjoyment gained from exploring the terrain makes what would otherwise be a frustrating experience entertaining instead. The sheer speed at which action can occur makes for frantic gameplay too, whether it's being pushed along by a rapid water flow or shot into the sky by a geyser, or simply bouncing off walls to reach hanging vines, there's never any real assurance that the next stage in the level won't be even more madcap than the last.
Because the hand-drawn art is so engaging, it's easy to forget there's a game underneath, instead of some kind of interactive painting. The world teems with intricate detail, and each frame is animated with a frankly preposterous level of attention. Most platformers that attempt this kind of visual fidelity fall flat when it comes to responsiveness, yet here Ubisoft have managed to not only animate superlatively, they've created an extremely accurate platformer to boot. Jumping in particular feels extremely intuitive, leading to the speculation that the game itself might be offering a guiding hand, when in reality it's simply that everything is stitched together in such a brilliant way most of the movement is reactionary rather than forced.
Accompanying this remarkable world is an incredibly varied audio score. No matter the action, there's a corresponding background soundtrack that appropriately represents the situation, from dark forest drumbeats to Aboriginal didgeridoo samples. It's never invasive, yet adds to the overall package in an inspired fashion.
Rayman Origins is never challenging to the point of controller-throwing, but it does require attention to master, particularly if additional level bonuses are to be achieved. There is the potential here for alienation as there is a fairly solid difficulty curve as the game progresses, perhaps running the risk of leaving the more casual player behind. Fortunately, checkpoints are intelligently placed, and there's no limit on the number of times each section can be attempted. Nor does the game punish the player at all for failure, which is something likely to encourage participation and keep participants coming back for more. The freedom provided to the player is owed in no small part to the genius of Michel Ancel, design lead and creator of of the franchise who has returned to nurture yet another release to fruition.
The world can be attempted alone, or with the assistance of up to three other friends in one of the best jump-in, jump-out co-op systems seen in this genre to date. Additional local players assume the role of Rayman's friends, and can interact with each other on the screen in order to achieve objectives, leading to heated debates and even more stupidly addictive action than before. As death results in the player forming a bubble and floating around, other players can revive fallen comrades and allow them to participate again immediately, which is a nice touch for parties with wildly varied skill levels.
Ultimately however, the strength of Origins lies in the whimsical subject matter tied into a surprisingly strong platform foundation that manages to both enthral and entertain. There's real intelligence behind the unfolding action, and the sense that the title has been slaved over by developers who understand not only the franchise, but the very concept of what it takes to make a compelling 2D platformer.