Rayman Legends Hands-on Preview: platforming with soul

Ever since the limbless figure of Rayman lolloped onto PlayStation and other platforms in 1995, Michel Ancel’s kooky platforming series has consistently managed to strike that perfect balance of fun vs. challenge, taking gamers on a visually arresting and audibly charming journey filled with wacky characters, distinct settings and patience-testing action.

As the sequel to Rayman Origins, Rayman Legends follows a similar pattern to its predecessor, fusing traditional platforming mechanics with a few Rayman-eccentric twists. Wrapped lovingly with silky smooth cartoon visuals and a delightful soundtrack, Rayman Legends oozes style out of every pore and, like other games in the series, expertly manages to make the art of stomping on enemies’ heads, freeing trapped Teensies from jail, and collecting cute-faced Lums an utter joy.

The colourful environments and slick animation in Legends are very much on a par with Origins, though the evolution of the UbiArt engine has added an extra layer of sheen. This is showcased by the sheer depth and polish of the environments as well as the enhanced lighting and shadow effects that add character to the five distinct game worlds. From the lush greenery and vegetation that spreads throughout ‘Toad’s Story’ to the atmospheric underwater caverns crawling with all sorts of colourful sea-life in 20,000 Lums Under The Sea, Legends is the best looking Rayman game to date.

The visuals work well with the soundtrack too with every object you interactive with generating a unique sound that synchs perfectly with the impressively varied audio experience. One minute you can be motoring along in a speed level banging your head to the sounds of an adapted version of rock classic ‘Black Betty’ – the noise of drums pounding in time to the fists of the troll-like creatures banging on the ground of Castle Rock – and next minute you can be swinging serenely through Jibberish Jungle to a dreamy piano solo where a tinker of notes enriches the track as you pick up Lums.

Four players work together to cut through cake in Fiesta De Los Muertos

By paying so much attention to how things sound – showcased most magnificently in the ‘sound stages’ produced specifically to make the most out of music – Legends occasionally feels like a rhythm-based platformer. And, like the very best games in this particular sub-genre, the combination of addictive platfoming, superb sound and crisp visuals creates an experience that you can’t help but lose yourself in.

Though gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played previous titles, particularly Origins, Ubisoft has stepped things up a notch in terms of variety. Old school platforming action (jumping, swinging, stomping and bashing) is where the action mainly lies, though a host of mini-games, online challenges and new features have been added to make Legends the most diverse and in-depth Rayman experience yet.

Along with Rayman, Globox, and the Teensies, players can also control the ginger-haired Barbara, and there’s the option for four players (locally) to team up together. The five worlds take their inspiration from a variety of materials. 20,000 Lums Under The Sea, for example, is a clear nod to Jules Verne’s nautical adventure and takes place under water. It’s not just about avoiding deadly underwater traps either as the gameplay often takes players down a Sam Fisher-style stealth route dodging lights to avoid patrols. Fiesta de Los Muertos on the other-hand takes a different theme. Inspired by the Mexican Festival, this is a much brighter setting filled with a festival theme and plenty of sweet treats to work your way around before you come face-to-face with the end-of-level boss, El Chili.

Mini-games such as Kung foot provide some competitive shenanigans

Each world and level within it offers something a little different and Legends does a good job at mixing things up so they don’t become too stale, ramping up the pace with timed-challenges and then slowing things down giving you time to explore for hidden areas and go about the addictive pursuit of collecting Lums and freeing trapped Teensies. The mind of Rayman creator Michel Ancel has once again been let loose and Legends is full of humour and brilliantly conceived levels that give players countless creative ways to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

Aside from the game hub, which now requires players to jump into paintings to enter the game worlds, one of the most noticeable additions is a small flying creature called Murfy, who has appeared in previous games giving players advice and tips on how to progress. In Legends, he crops up as a playable character (in some levels) working alongside Rayman to help him get passed tricky obstacles. Using Murfy (by simply pressing ‘O’), he can carry out a number of actions including tickling and poking enemies to make the path clear for Rayman, shifting ledges so he can jump to safety and chopping down ropes to bring objects crashing down onto foes.

Though the addition of Murfy does add an extra level to the usual platforming challenge in Rayman titles (you now have to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time), it’s clear that Murfy’s actions were never meant for console play but are more suited to the touchscreen’s of Wii U and PlayStation Vita. In the PS3 version, Murfy moves automatically into a position from where he can interact with an object, you don’t control him per say. All you have to actually do is press ‘O’ whenever he glows. We can imagine it’s much more intuitive and interesting having to shift platforms, prod enemies and pull levers manually with a touchscreen rather than just tapping ‘O’ whenever Murfy shows his face. Nonetheless, he doesn’t appear in every level and you still have to rely on timing your ‘O’ button actions to perfection so there is some skill involved. It’s just obvious the character and his interactions were created with touchpads in mind and therefore his inclusion feels rather futile.

Timed-challenges require quick reactions. In this case – leg it!

Though Murfy is likely to make a few enemies as well as some friends among the console gaming fraternity, the level design, challenge and reward of playing Legends is sure to delight all. In addition to location variety from the likes of underwater caverns, castle gauntlets, lush jungle settings and greek mythology-styled backdrops, there’s lots of gameplay diversity. Shoot-’em up-style side-scrolling sections give way to slow-paced stealth levels. Frantically-paced, time-based challenges where you have to rely on super quick reactions, lead into slower-paced sections where logic’s needed in order to work out how to traverse the environment.

There’s over 100 levels to complete and Legends switches things up nicely with a change of pace between levels, as well as fresh level design and an increasing challenge that feeds on that one-more-go mentality. There are musical stages, addictive mini-games, such as the four-player supported Kung Foot (a highly addictive take on the game of football) and daily online challenges to complete against players worldwide. There’s also a selection of remastered Rayman Origins levels to enjoy which are worth playing again even if you enjoyed them first time around.

Rayman Legends is shaping up to be the platformer of the year. It’s not only a feast for the senses but a game that should keep fans of the genre busily entertained in the months prior to the arrival of the next-gen consoles. With some ingenious level design that will challenge and frustrate, enjoyable mini-games allowing you to let off steam with friends, and online challenges designed to encourage competition, Rayman Legends looks to have it all.

Rayman Legends is due for release on WiiU, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PlayStation Vita on August 30, 2013.