As an emergent art form, videogames have the capacity - some would say the duty - to evoke an emotional response in their players. Some games can make us feel exhilarated and empowered, while others can turn us into oppressed and terrified bags of nerves. Protagonists can inspire genuine love and camaraderie, whereas villains delight in plunging us into heartbreaking melancholy. But every once in a while, a very special and lovingly-designed game manages to tap into the most important emotion we have.
See, playing Rayman Origins will make you happy. I'm not talking about the short-lived pleasure you get from a massive adrenaline hit, rather, you'll experience the full fuzzy force of wholesome, uncomplicated, heart-warming, honest-to-God happiness.
This is down to Michel Ancel and his team creating a truly lovely alternate universe to inhabit for 8-12 hours. After Rayman and his crew rile up a crotchety ancient evil by snoring too loudly (no, really, that's the premise right there), the limbless wonder sets out through five themed worlds in search of those elusive Electoons, which unlock new levels and subsequent worlds with their plump pink presence. It's an age-old formula, but it provides the canvas for a wonderful, colourful, playful experience that thrives on adorable art direction, the thrill of discovery and a liberal dollop of good old fashioned sillyness. Whether you're bopping along the heads of tootling, warbling music birds, collecting a bevy of merrily boogieing lums or posing behind a large-breasted Valkyrie while a bizarre little magician thrusts suggestively against a magic tube, you'll realise that you've had a smile on your face from the very first cutscene.
Again, it's not the rictus grin you'll get from scraping a hard-earned multikill or deploying the perfect Predator missile. It's the unconscious and automatic smile of someone who's having the time of their lives.
Presentation and production values are absolutely astounding. The raw sillyness factor is balanced with sumptuous artistic richness that stands in stark contrast with this year's glut of stark shooters. Music and audio design is also top notch, once again marrying unbridled ridiculousness with a deep level of competency. It's clear that Ancel and co. poured a huge amount of genuine love into the project and refused to deliver anything other than their own vision in the face of an industry that's sticking to its guns in any sense of the phrase. When a studio is happy, gamers are happy - and it shows. It always shows.
But all of this is arguably window dressing for Rayman Origins' most impressive achievement: being one of the most technically accomplished platformers in recent memory.
From a mechanical standpoint, Rayman Origins is difficult to fault. Controls are instantly responsive, jumps and momentum are perfectly weighted and attacks can be effortlessly chained from hovers, leaps or sprints. New abilities, and hence new opportunities and challenges, are doled out in thoughtful and well-paced ways; constantly providing you with new things to do and exciting new obstacles to circumvent.
Level design is equally impressive. As well as providing a devious mix of varied challenges, the stages are packed with secret rooms to discover (heralded by an adorable Whooo! cheer that never gets old), lums to collect for high scores, hidden skull medals and even jewelled teeth that eventually unlock an unbelievably tough zombie-themed level. The focused linear drive of traditional platforming is tempered by the constant lust to think outside the box, explore your surroundings and just enjoy the experience at your own pace. A few side-scrolling SHMUP levels also occur near the end of every chapter, and while there are arguably slightly too many, they're also mechanically smooth and present their own unique challenges.
The Rayman series has a well-deserved reputation for being hard as nails, and Origins isn't afraid to throw some astoundingly tough sections at you from time to time. However, the new checkpoints and hearts system means that death will only set you back a minute or two at the very most, encouraging you to take extra risks without fear of being punished without mercy. Perfectionists will lust after collecting as many lums as possible and logging speedy completion times to unlock new trophies and medallions - which is a gruelling undertaking in and of itself. The hardest challenges are all optional (in fact, many are even contained within completely optional levels), so in many ways, you choose your own difficulty on-the-fly. Replaying levels for higher scores also gives you the opportunity to go for the harder challenges you ignored the first time around.
Rayman Origins' good looks aren't just down to the peerless art direction. Its detailed sprites, luscious backgrounds, smooth animations and impressive effects all run at an unimpeachable 60 FPS - the visual experience is graphically brilliant as well as artistically rich. I can't believe that I'm about to say this, but Rayman Origins is possibly the best looking game you'll play this year.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Rayman Origins is also playable with up to three friends. Players can inhabit the same space (learning lessons from Super Mario Bros. Wii, I assume), and cooperate to hoist each other onto higher platforms or share collected hearts rather than hoarding goodies for themselves. Naturally, though, players are also ranked at the end of the level, resulting in the occasional all-out brawl as erstwhile allies scramble for the biggest bonuses. Occasionally confusing, yes, but fantastic fun nonetheless.
On the flip-side, online multiplayer isn't included, and only the primary account holder can unlock achievements or trophies. It's unclear whether this is down to Ubisoft's unwillingness to issue another UPlay passport - which they're simply not very good at - or a deliberate design decision... but happiness is best shared when you can see the smiles on your friends' faces. Right?
- Impeccable, well-paced platforming
- Outstanding presentation
- It will make you genuinely happy
- No online multiplayer
- Achievements are locked to primary accounts in multiplayer
- SHMUP levels lose their impact after the first couple
The Short Version: Rayman Origins is mechanically brilliant, perfectly-paced and drop-dead gorgeous, but can you put a price on happiness?
Probably not. But we've got a score for it.