Rayman Origins doesnít take an old school approach to game design merely because itís a 2D sidescroller based around an aging Ubisoft mascot. Itís old school because itís hard. Not Demonís Souls hard, perhaps, but it would still rather send you to your doom than provide you with a glowing breadcrumb trail or one of those last-minute rewind getaways beloved of The Prince of Persia. Youíll die in Rayman Origins, and youíll die quite a lot. Youíll get over all that, though, because the game is so precise, and because itís so joyfully intricate.
Leaving the Rabbids behind him, Raymanís back on pure platforming territory, assisted by drop-in co-op buddies in a hand-drawn adventure thatís delivered via Ubisoftís new UbiArt framework. Thatís a suite of tools that apparently lets the publisherís designers put games together without half the fuss thatís normally associated with that sort of thing, and what the publisherís designers Ė Ubisoft Montpelier, in fact Ė have put together on this occasion is a grinning cavalcade of dribbling freaks.
Rayman Originsí art is beautiful, but its subject matter is very rarely beauty itself. Instead, this is a world built of gorse bush thorns and slack-jawed bullies. It's a place where horrible gummy monsters lurk in the bottom of gooey pits, and where plants come with glittering fangs and huge, bulbous noses. It looks like European political cartooning at its meanest Ė which is saying something Ė and when it moves, when it bounces and oozes and squelches before the unblinking gaze of your HD television, it recalls the boils and gristles and Band-Aid love of early Ren & Stimpy.
The story shouldnít bother you for too long. The Glade of Dreams has been over-run and the Fairy Council needs a limbless hero to sort things out. Sounds kind of implausible to me, Rayman, but luckily itís all just a simple excuse to chuck you into some wonderfully detailed environments, with sixty levels of sticky mayhem awaiting you across 12 different backdrops.
And the scenery isnít the only thing that Ubisoft swaps in and out. Like a 2D Mario Galaxy, this promises to be one of those games thatís brimming with ideas, and where a jungle level sees you swinging from cartoon hand to cartoon hand at one moment while you navigate rushing gorges, and slide down waterfalls the next, zipping through tinkling arrangements of collectables. A boss fight turns out to be an opportunity to be chased from a deep hole in the ground by a huge many-toothed mouth. Later, a trip into a cavern sees you wall-springing between the spars of a collapsing shrine and ducking falling spikes before riding Tetronimo-shaped icicles across a lava floe.
Origins moves with the quick-change artistry of a Chuck Jones cartoon, taking you from avalanches of popcorn to mysterious grottoes lurking beneath wonky fishing villages, but when it settles onto a really striking idea itís more than capable of getting the most out of it. In a sandswept temple, for example, the game gets a good ten minutes of action from just filling the screen with clouds of angry bats, and forcing you to drive a path through the middle of them by ringing gongs that will clear them out of the way.
Itís a simple enough idea, but even here the developer pours on the invention, spacing out those gongs through a maze of twists and turns, and throwing in sudden drops and shifting platforms. For a few nail-biting moments, you become a sort of gong yourself and have to move through the level at double-speed while the bats come closer and closer. Then, at the end of it all, your reward for all this work is to risk your life once more Ė and in an entirely different way, no doubt - in the next level.
Origins is fun to mash through on your own, but it comes alive in co-op, with up to four people clustered around a single screen helping each other out or - just as often - sending each other to their deaths. Itís Rayman by way of New Super Mario Bros Wii, with the clutter of moving bodies making the game harder rather than easier, while each new player ups the potential for hilarious mishap.
Every playable character Ė after Rayman, youíre joined by Globox and two Teensies Ė has its own saggy, misshapen animations, but the same basic arsenal of slaps, jumps, and a haerocopter floating move, and there are lovely little interactions to discover as you smack each other around or bounce on each otherís heads. As with Mario, when you die you respawn in a floating bubble and have to wait for another player to release you. And as with Mario, strange and frantic tactics are born in the frenzy of button-mashing when all else seems lost.
Mario may not have needed this kind of back to basics approach, but Rayman really does. The oddball hero has been quietly falling to pieces for the last few years, descending into a muddle of distracting mini-games and underwhelming launch titles, so itís good to see him back in such mesmerising form. With Origins, Ubisoft has found a perfect way to restart his cartoon heart, by the looks of it - along with a brilliant collection of old ideas to make him feel new again.