Too weird. Too retro. Too French? Whatever the criticisms aimed at the Rayman series over the years, they were swatted aside by 2011’s excellent Rayman Origins, a defiantly traditional 2D platform game that saw the limbless character celebrate his 16th birthday by blossoming from an awkward Gallic Aldi-Mario into a genuine gaming icon.
To the untrained (or even trained) eye, Rayman Legends is the same game. In fact, a large chunk of Origins is included as a bonus, part of an inordinately generous package that simply keeps on giving, encompassing numerous unlockable levels, a vast array of characters, and new content in the form of weekly and daily challenges.
Does the game play as generously as its content? We've been battling our way through Rayman Legends to find out.
For what it’s worth, there is some kind of back-story, the crux of which is that our heroes have taken a much-needed 100-year kip, thus enabling nightmares to infiltrate the Glade of Dreams. Absolute guff, of course, but reason if reason were needed for Rayman and his cohorts to restore order to the universe via the time-honoured method of jumping, gliding, sliding, swimming, punching and kicking their way through a series of highly imaginative fantasy worlds.
There’s a largely non-linear structure in place, enabling you to visit the worlds at your leisure, a broad church that encompasses all points from the Mexican Day of the Dead festival to "20,000 Lums Under The Sea" - Lums, of course, being the luminous collectibles that make up the game’s currency. We did say it was French...
Just like Origins, Rayman Legends keeps its all-important gameplay intact: a finely honed classical approach that unashamedly encompasses all the facets of the traditional platformer, a throwback to a time when that wasn’t a dirty word. It’s a gleefully old school approach, and a reminder of when games were more than a joyless trudge through a grey and brown war zone.
In keeping with its retro-stylings, Rayman Legends is what is known in the trade as bastard-hard. It's a blister-inducing white knuckle ride in which life or death hinges on split second decisions, thanks to the perennial encroachment of fire, water, quicksand, time, dragon, giant (really giant) fish, or other bodily threat.
For those whose gaming skills have been diminished by years of playing glorified movies, it’s a sharp wake-up call, and one that instigates no shortage of foul and abusive language that is somewhat at odds with the game’s cartoonish graphics, and 7+ rating. It most definitely isn't exclusively for kids - if anything the little ones won't get very far at all.
There are some levels where you practically have to give yourself a pep talk beforehand, verbalising the route ahead - "jump off the doughnut, dodge the centipede, leap over the toad, don’t balls it up like the previous 30 times" - and it is essentially rote-learning, incrementally working out what you do next.
It’s almost like learning a musical score, something that is possibly alluded to in a series of bespoke musical levels where actions respond in sound. These levels are a reward for conquering the boss level at the end of each world, and they involve an elongated sprint whereby every crucial punch, jump or slide is performed in time with a modified musical classic.
It's an exhilarating business: even men with steel hearts can’t fail to be moved by the prospect of hurtling through a psychedelic landscape to the strains of a mariachi version of Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger. Watching Rocky may never be the same again, not to mention Raymond van Barneveld’s walk-on…
Help me please
Thankfully there is an occasional change of pace, with more pensive puzzle-based levels enabling you to take a deep breath and enjoy the Disney-esque scenery, ranging from sun-kissed mountains to dank underwater caverns.
And as well as four-player co-op, you are occasionally joined by an assistant called Murfy, who at the press of a button will ease your passage by helpfully cutting ropes, shifting platforms, or poking enemies in the eye. It’s cleverly done, but in practise is a bit cross-eyed, requiring you to simultaneously keep track of two characters while performing thumb gymnastics akin to patting your stomach and rubbing your head.
When not going boss-eyed through play another gripe is that there's no online mode other than leaderboard-based ghost characters. Sure there's a four-player co-op, but that's not quite the same - it's no Little Big Planet.
And sometimes there’s so much going on that you can lose track of your on-screen character. The casual observer would assume that to be Rayman, but such is the array of other heroes available that you can pretty much play the entire game without seeing the star of the show, which is brings us full-circle back to our opening comments.
For the Rayman completist - we're sure there must be such a thing - Legends is the ultimate package. It's a wild ride through the unhinged imagination of Michael Ancel and his team that often threatens to out-Nintendo Nintendo.
Murder-free, this is gaming with a beaming smile on its face, a Technicolor retort to the ultra-serious simulations that permeate the current gaming landscape. Even if Rayman is at war - not that it'd be called that - it's delivered in the happiest and clappiest of ways.
Rayman may have no arms, but he is sticking two fingers up to modern gaming. You'll end up with sore thumbs of your own along the way given how tough the game is to beat too.
Rayman Legends is available for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC and PS Vita