Rayman Origins took many by surprise when it hit store shelves in 2011, returning the Rayman series to its side-scrolling platforming roots. A follow-up release from Ubisoft Montpellier was a no-brainer, but Rayman Legends hasn’t had as smooth a trek to release as some might have predicted. The completed game — once a Wii U exclusive set to release way back in February 2013 — was delayed over six months, so that it could launch day and date with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports.
A few weeks ago, we were invited by Ubisoft to meet the development team from the company’s Montpellier studio, and see what progress had been made on the many modes of Legends. While Wii U owners are likely still upset (and for the record, the studio isn’t happy about the delay either), owners of every console will be happy to hear that Legends isn’t just the biggest Rayman game ever, but one of the most inspired.
Since Legends was first announced and demonstrated at E3 2012, fans of Origins have gotten the sense that the game would largely be picking up where Rayman Origins left off; a similar art style, the same cast, and increased emphasis on cooperative gameplay thanks to the Wii U Gamepad (and now, PlayStation Vita). But although that may be the case, there is far more below the surface of what creative director Michel Ancel calls “the biggest Rayman game ever.”
Having delivered one of the best and most inspired platforming experiences in years with Origins, the development team apparently needed little prodding to return to the drawing board, and realizing the elements of gameplay and design that were unable to be completed for their first return to the series’ roots. Whether those unfinished concepts were completed or merely acted as a jumping-off point, there’s no mistaking the fact that Legends is a far more ambitious project; the result of a team who’s proven their formula works.
The structure of the game is no longer a simple progression from beginning to end, but divided up into standalone ‘Legends’ for which the game is named.
The Glade of Dreams has been invaded by dark nightmares again, but this time the enemies kidnapped all the Teensies (the small-bodied, large-nosed wizards). The invaders brought the Teensies in strange worlds all inspired by legendary settings. To save all the Teensies, Rayman and his friends will have to jump into paintings that will send them in these new worlds.
Each of these realms of fictional storytelling – Greek, Chinese, Mexican, Middle Ages, and Deep Sea – doesn’t just offer new soundscapes or styles like its predecessor, but is, in the words of the team, “a game in itself.” That’s a bold claim, but the variety of game mechanics and platforming can’t be understated.
Given just how well-paced and challenging the core gameplay of Origins was, fans would likely be pleased to simply receive more of it. Yet with more emphasis on speed-based stages and even stealth traversal in the underwater stages, players who found the previous game enjoyable but not particularly difficult are in luck. Of course, that’s before taking into consideration the functionality offered with the Wii U Gamepad and PlayStation Vita.
The developers maintain that although the game may look like a straight expansion, the improved efficiency and experience with console hardware that seems inevitable from year-to-year has been put to good use; the backgrounds and foregrounds are packed with even higher levels of detail, and subtle touches to animation deliver a finished product not far off from the team’s aim of mimicking animated feature films.
And the opportunity to push the hardware to its limits is on full display once the level designers take the visual styles of each titular ‘Legend’ to their breaking point. The boss fight of the Mexican stage was put center stage at the event, set against a backdrop of Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican ‘day of the dead’ celebration. Appropriately, the boss in question was a gigantic Luchadore, swatting the player(s) off of a series of platforms placed in a ring of lava.
With every aspect of the screen used to add a laugh, a smile, something to the immediate action, Legends truly puts the already inspired visuals of Origins to shame. But more than just eye-candy, each artistic flair adds to the central gameplay either directly or indirectly, and after an hour or so players are likely to wonder what, if anything, got left on the cutting room floor this time around.
It speaks to the team’s affection for Rayman that the improvements haven’t just improved the look and feel of this game – a handful of the best worlds and stages of Origins have been included in Legends as well, re-lit and re-rendered to match the improved detail of its successor. It may go unexplored by veterans of Origins’, but for those who missed out on the original, it’s not a stretch to consider this two games in a single package.
The challenge doesn’t just stop at completing each standalone Legend, though; once multiple worlds are completed, enemy characters are able to ‘Invade’ a neighboring world, changing the art style, music, and more. These ‘Invasion’ levels challenge the player to sprint through the previously traversed levels, eliminating the newly-placed enemies as fast as possible. The resulting times can be compared to those of friends online, which the studio hopes will extend the play experience and add difficulty.
It seems unfortunate to say that one of the most welcome elements of gameplay in Origins was the four player local co-op – a feature found in far too few games of late. Not only will Legends continue the tradition (with up to 5 players thanks to the Wii U and Vita cross-platform play), but extra mini-games have been included to expand the social aspects of group play sessions. One such mini-game, dubbed “Kung Foot’ – a game of no-holds-barred soccer – was a constant attraction at the event, channeling the fast-paced lunacy of the game into a goal-oriented challenge. Few details were given on the rest of the mini-games, but a strong indicator to say the least.
The question on every fan’s mind though – aside from Ubisoft’s decision to delay Legends‘ release on all major platforms, which was not a topic of discussion – was how the Wii U Gamepad touch controls would be carried over to other consoles. The solution may not be the most shocking, but does the trick: on platforms without a touch controller, the player’s frog accomplice – Murfy – is controlled with a simple button press. Where a Wii U player would drag, click or manipulate the Gamepad, Murfy’s AI simply takes over to keep the player moving forward.
It’s certainly a sacrifice, since some of Murfy’s functionality is particularly promising on the Wii U (and presumably Vita, although it was not available to play). The E3 onstage demonstration showed how a player controlling Rayman could be aided by another controlling Murfy via touchscreen, and remains the basic foundation.
Working with a partner to navigate levels, tickle enemies, or rotate maze-like structures in tandem was a satisfying evolution of Origins‘ co-op experience, so Wii U do have more to look forward to. If the plan is to play the game solo, the player takes control of Murfy during these sections, with AI handling the rest of the characters until they’re completed.
It will come as little concession to Wii U owners who’ve had to wait several months longer than needed to get their hands on the game, but when it arrives, it does seem to be the most unique platform from a gameplay standpoint. The graphics on all platforms seemed comparable, although there was noticeable motion blurring evident in the more high-paced ‘song stages’ on Nintendo’s console.
Creative director Michel Ancel has received heaps of praise for his attention to detail, but the team around him appear to be lock-step; the first time a jump or attack is executed in time with the music, not in reaction to an enemy appearing on screen, or haphazardly sprinting through recesses left in a massive cake by a tunneling beast, it becomes clear that an unabashed pursuit of fun remains the driving force behind Rayman gameplay.
After spending hours with the game hands-on, it’s clear that Ubisoft Montpellier is on a roll, and have put every ounce of the fan reaction and enthusiasm for a straightforward platformer to good use. Legends is everything that Origins was, but possessing much, much more content – both on the screen, and buried for those who wish to seek it out.
It seems counter-intuitive to create a follow-up title that is equal parts rhythm game, platformer, and social party experience when its predecessor won fans for its simplicity. But the pieces hold together, if for no other reason than the singular vision of the men and women behind it.
For more details from our visit with the Rayman Legends team, be sure to check out our interview with Creative Director Michel Ancel.
Rayman Legends releases September 3 for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3 and Vita.
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