It goes without saying that when you create a portable system powerful enough to play console titles, you are going to see a lot of those console titles ported to that system as is the case with the new PS Vita and its impressive launch line-up of title that includes Rayman Origins. One could easily dismiss this as a hastily prepared cash-in port, and in some ways that may be true, but if you have to cash in at least Ubisoft chose one of the better titles of 2011 and arguably, one of our favorite platformers of all time.
Not much was required in bringing this game to the Vita handheld. The stylish presentation and unique art style was well within the specs of Sony’s new system and the simple nature of a side-scrolling platform game with minimal controls was also little to no challenge for the device. If anything, the Vita probably offered too many new features to tempt the designers into tweaking the game to force their inclusion. Thankfully, Ubisoft resisted the urge to tamper with perfection and kept the fancy touchscreen implementation to a bare minimum.
Before you even get to sample the fantastically fluid and eloquent gameplay waiting inside the Glade of Dreams you’ll have to overcome your initial shock and awe the first time you experience Rayman Origins graphics; that can only be describe as “inspired”. No still imagery and certainly, not words, can do justice to the work of art that is unfolding on your screen in silky smooth scrolling action with delightfully entertaining animated characters…so many characters. My only regret is that these stunning visuals lose a bit of their impact when shrunk down to the smaller, but nonetheless impressive, 5-inch Vita screen.
At first you can only play as a few characters like Rayman and Globox, but as you explore further into the glade and earn Electoons, you will unlock additional playable characters that can be swapped out between levels. Rayman Origins can be played alone or with up to three others in some diabolical co-op that will test your patience and your team-building skills. Having additional players takes some of the edge off of dying since when you do die you’ll appear in a bubble and simply have to float over to any other player and have them touch you to bring you back into the game. And there are definitely certain locations and special secrets reserved for those players and their characters who can work together as a team to reach them.
Rayman Origins is all about exploration and collection. Lums are the main collectible and the basis for part of your final level ranking. Lums are scattered liberally about the levels, often in lines, arcs, and patterns that will require careful and precise jumping, bouncing, and floating to reach them all. Special crowned Lums will temporarily turn regular Lums pink and double their value. At the end of each level your Lums are tallied and you are awarded up to two additional Electoons based on the total you have gathered.
While Lums are the main collectible in each level, Electoons are the most important, as they will fill in your level medallions and unlock new gameplay content. Medallions have a varying number of Electoon slots that are filled by various means. Some Electoons are hidden in secret areas of the levels, requiring you to first find their secret door (listen for the "HELP ME!"), then complete a mini-challenge before smashing open their cages. You can also earn an additional Electoon by completing each level’s Time Attack challenge. If you’re really fast you can earn a Speed Trophy.
When you earn enough Electoons special challenge areas will open up on the map. These super-challenging levels require you to run through all sorts of mayhem after a magic chest until it finally stops, at which point you can open it and obtain a Skull Tooth. Find enough of these Skull Teeth and you can access the Land of the Living Dead.
At the heart of all this collecting is a solid platform game with fantastic and responsive controls. There are no outrageous gimmicks or power-ups; only simple running and jumping and a few character specific skills that are added as you progress further into the game. One of the first skills you get is the ability to slap or punch, and later you get the hover ability; the next best thing to flying. And when you are ready to fly, just climb onboard a giant mosquito for some Defender-style arcade shooting action.
You gotta love the French and their ability to achieve new levels of visual design. I was hooked after the opening cutscene and the first tree level, but each and every level after that brought new moments of awe and wonder, like a fairytale storybook book come to animated life. Even the silhouette load screens where I could actually control my character as he ran across the hillside were brilliant. Some levels are quiet and peaceful and others are so full of insanity and distraction that they seem impossible to finish, but no matter how frustrated you get, you always come back for more.
Sadly, one of the best features of the console is also the Vita’s most glaring omission and drawback. Gone is the highly appealing and wildly addictive co-op gameplay that allowed up to four people to tackle these challenging levels as a team. It is understandable however, as the console multiplayer was local-only, and adding playable net-code to the existing game would have been a daunting task. The new Ghost mode attempts to fill the social gaming void by allowing you to record and share your time trial data and other unlockable items with your friends using the Near functionality.
The audio for Rayman Origins is equally as charming as its visuals with fun non-speech sounds for all the playable characters and loads of original sound effects for the creatures and various environmental effects. Perhaps the best feature is the music that not only mimics the pacing of the action but mirrors the themes of the levels. In one world where you are bouncing on drums and running along wooden flutes, the music is actually composed using those instruments, and even the sound effects of you jumping across the beaks of birds resting on musical bars integrates into the score in real-time. Brilliant!
As the name might suggest, Rayman Origins takes us back to the roots of platform gaming, both in its simple 2D, side-scrolling presentation and its fundamental gameplay concepts of running and jumping; not unlike a certain Italian plumber we all know. What was one of the greatest console platform games of 2011 has just become the first great handheld game of 2012 and a must-buy launch title for anyone with a new PlayStation Vita.