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Rayman Origins 360 is a 2D platformer with such superb style and charm that even its old school difficulty feels palatable.
In an age where paper manuals for games are often unnecessary thanks to in-game tutorials, and are frequently not included at all, Rayman Origins bucks the trend with a booklet that includes an extensive story synopsis and character bios.
I've read it, but to be honest the details slipped out of my mind almost instantly. It's that kind of gibberish. What I'm left with is a very vague idea of what's going on, which goes something like this:
There's a pleasant world that's really a dream made of bubbles (?) and the heroes live in that world, but the baddies have given the Bubble Dreamer (I think) bad dreams and the world is going wrong so Rayman and friends have to set off from their tree to free the dreams or something by collecting lums (sparkly, common) and electoons (pink, rare).
Got that? Not really? Fair enough.
To be honest it doesn't really matter. Rayman Origins isn't a game that rests on its narrative, or its dialogue (of which there is little), or on individual characters (which is a good job, as Rayman himself has always been a bland creation).
What makes Rayman work is the character of the game itself, a charm that comes from the cumulative effect of gameplay, visuals and sound working perfectly in sync. Rayman Origins is a sidescrolling platformer with the simple imperatives of the genre at it's purest: move from left to right, avoid hazards, grab stuff along the way.
While that basic formula may be familiar, Ubisoft has embellished it with a shifting pattern of changing game mechanics and exotic environments that prevent the game ever feeling overly comfortable or repetitive.
Design elements that are slightly grotesque or mildly sexual.
There's always some interesting twist, whether it's gaining the ability to swim or glide from a friendly nymph, or getting used to world-specific objects like giant drums and geysers that change the way you explore.
There's also a constant changing of pace, a balancing of stretches where relatively relaxed progress is possible with chaotic, fast-paced sequences which require hectic fingerwork. With each world split into short sub-sections this makes for an addictive gameplay rhythm that kept me playing.
What gives the game its character, that makes it a distinct experience from countless other well-executed platformers, is the way that the visuals and music complement the bouncy, exuberant pace of the gameplay.
The visuals are distinctly European, with organic, almost sensual curves and a relaxed attitude to design elements that are slightly grotesque or mildly sexual - its certainly hard to imagine such busty nymphs in an American kids' game, but Rayman Origins is so laid back that it would be ridiculous to take offence, non?
A dash of shameless Old Hollywood swagger.
Even better than the art style is the music: Christophe Héral's score is nothing short of stunning, one of the best soundtracks to a game I've ever heard. Salsa, tinkly cocktail piano, hectic strings - the soundtrack jumps genres constantly, but maintaining a constant sense of fun and sophistication, a dash of shameless Old Hollywood swagger.
It's also horribly, horribly catchy.
When these elements come together fully, the result is sublime gaming.
Take the Tricky Treasure bonus levels where you chase a runaway treasure chest, each of which starts with a slam zoom on to the startled treasure chest, a burst of orchestral music and then a twanging banjo as you hold down sprint to pursue the errant chest through a shifting, collapsing landscape. Rarely has blind panic, rote-learning of a level's landscape and repetition been so satisfying, and so ultimately rewarding.
Although the game peaks with the Tricky Treasures - which are in themselves too short and punishing to be replicated through a whole game - there are plenty of highlights elsewhere, whether it be the kinetic satisfaction of completing one of the fiddly end-of-level forcefield-breaking puzzles with a violent downward jump, or the ethereal atmosphere of swimming through a darkened cave as Héral's music tinkles spookily in the background, hands clawing out of the walls as you swim past them.
As is the way with this kind of game, there are frustrations, and thankfully Ubisoft have provided the option to skip levels after a certain amount of deaths on a specific section. However, skipping levels means a failure to collect that levels electoons, and a certain number of these are required before later sections will open.
While the story may be perfunctory, Rayman's world is infectious.
I didn't get to the end of Rayman Origins: ultimately, my platform skills weren't up to scratch. However, until I hit the brick wall of my own incompetence I had a fantastic time with the game, and pushed far more hours into the 50 or 60 per cent of the game I played than I have done with games I've completed in their entirety: Rayman Origins has a just-one-more-go compulsion that makes retrying tricky sections deeply addictive.
While the story may be perfunctory, Rayman's world is one of such infectious fun that you'll want to absorb yourself in it.
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