Rayman Origins: a counterargument - good but ultimately forgettable
Author's note: This is a counterargument to "What's next for Rayman?".
In a year of blockbuster releases, it's easy to overlook the little guys. You were probably too busy watching the skies for dragons (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) or the shadows for superheroes (Batman: Arkham City), but that's no excuse to disregard 2011's other great releases because of a developer's smaller budget or the mad holiday rush. Games like Rayman Origins climbed the top of critics' lists, too.
But if you did find time (and energy after all that on-foot adventuring) to play the colorful Rayman reboot, you might be left feeling like your money would have been better spent on other treasures—like Bastion or Tactics Ogre.
First of all, Rayman Origins is a wonderful game. It crams just about all the basic game design ingredients you could want into its 10+ hours—it has challenge, particularly if you're going it solo; collectables, like Lums and Tricky Treasure chests, which lead to more collectables (like skull teeth); and a whole chorus of music bellowed by the critters themselves, with a lot of clever fluctuations and undertones as you progress through the levels.
It's fun, too, especially in multiplayer. I never felt frustrated enough by the more difficult stretches to stop playing. It also controls relatively well once you get used to sprinting, jumping, and the various power-ups that fairies grant you (the wall-running caused me some trouble at first). Levels aren't too long or too short, and you hop around visibly distinct environments—from the lush foliage of Jibberish Jungle and the icy peaks of Gourmand Land, to the ocean floor of the Sea of Serendipity. Rayman Origins is bright, creative, and one non-stop jukebox.
So why then is Rayman Origins forgettable? I hate to say it, but it's like a popcorn flick—good for wasting time without much value or return. A year from now, Rayman Origins won't come immediately to mind when I think of games I loved from 2011. Don't get me wrong: Rayman Origins plays well enough. It's not a screw-up. Ubisoft relaunched Rayman to a good start, even if sales didn't reflect that. However, the difference between high-quality games like (for example) the first BioShock and high-quality games like Rayman is one stays with you through the years and the other doesn't. That positive recollection is what fosters nostalgia, a stubborn sensibility born from good memories that tricks us into thinking games are remarkable even when their aging design passes its expiration date. Andrew Ryan, the Big Daddies, the Little Sisters—how can you forget the powerful declaration of Ryan's "Men choose; slaves obey", or the lumbering stomps of a charging Big Daddy, or the sweet calls of a Little Sister from a darkened hallway? The Lums? They're cute, but that's about all they have going for them.
The problem with Rayman Origins is that early on, it advertised the richness of its newly envisioned characters, world, and story. This Rayman is—quite clearly—a much younger, rambunctious, immature incarnation of himself. But Ubisoft stopped there. The developers neglected to really give these characters some depth. Even the Bubble Dreamer, whose slumbers can disturb the very fabric of the Glade, is barely present throughout the game.
When I sat down with Rayman Origins, I wanted to get sucked in like a Moskito inhaling our heroes' foes. But Rayman's and Globox's and the other playable characters' mosquito mounts also spit out what they suck in—and that's largely how I felt the game treated me. As much as I enjoyed its silly humor and unpredictable environments, it wasn't engulfing me in its lore of fairies and magic. It wasn't pulling me closer to the characters by thrusting predicaments on me that revolved around the characters and their interests. I'm not asking for a narrative on par with Skyrim. I'm just asking for a taste of what was offered before the game even came out.
Then again, the classic game Super Mario Bros. 3 didn't explore Mario's dreams and aspirations or delve into his home life, but we still couldn't get enough of the plumber and his Mushroom Kingdom. So what makes a blank slate like the NES-era Mario different from Rayman and his buddies, who dance and punch and do little else? That's hard to say. But Super Mario Bros. never promised more than it delivered; and what it delivered was so much more. For one, it didn't contain "hidden" Electoon sections that were tipped off by a very noticeable "Help me!". Its secrets were secrets, and the number of them seemed bottomless.
Rayman Origins, on the other hand, settles into its routine of collecting, saving Electoons, and riding on the backs of Moskitoes. You know what to expect at every curve, and the game never requires you to use abilities or ideas in fundamentally new ways. Any ingenuity it does have is quickly belittled by its unwavering demands on the player: to maneuver the narrow gaps between dangerous enemies or traps to safety on the other side and to keep pace with the sometimes vertically or horizontally scrolling screen. Enemies change but never change enough or force the player to deal with them in memorable ways.
Rayman Origins has some oomph in its enemy and level design—it's just missing the pizazz.