The original release of Rayman Legends was supposed to be in rather different circumstances. What was once a launch window exclusive at the top of various wishlists is now a multi-platform arrival in a busy game season. While that's a pity, this is still the same project that was so eagerly anticipated in 2012, and it delivers on its promise. Thrilling, compulsive and gorgeous, it hits its marks in almost every way.
Perhaps surprisingly, Legends eschews the story-driven approach of Rayman Origins in favour of a hub area filled with paintings, the same setup as that in the original Wii U demo and Challenges App. There are more paintings and categories, of course, but the principle seems to be that our limbless hero is simply leaping into mythical memories of heroics, and aside from the very beginning and occasional stages that demand a certain number of collected "Teensies" — the creatures you're tasked with rescuing this time around — you can generally hop around and try each of the first four main worlds at your whim. This structure is ideal for multiplayer, where the urge may simply be to experiment with different styles of level.
It's possible to jump around as, unlike in Origins, you're powered up and good to go right from the beginning. Attacks, wall running and all vital athletic moves are present and correct without any story-driven unlocks, and they work wonderfully. There are a lot of improvements and tweaks to this game over its predecessor, but the most vital is the subtle but noticeable enhancement of the platforming mechanics. Rayman and his many buddies still move in what can be considered their own unique way, but they're a smidge more nimble, while jumping feels slightly quicker and is more natural. There's less of a sensation of floating in jumps, not enough for fans to yearn for the old days, but enough for the platforming to feel tighter and more directly in the player's control.
The level design certainly maximises this increased sense of control, with stages offering up plenty of variety and — regardless of each individual level's distinct style — a greater focus on momentum and tempo than was commonly found in its predecessor. Longer levels do have ten Teensies to find and rescue, including two hidden away in mini-challenge rooms, yet even these stages — with their sense of exploration and hidden secrets to find — have a noticeable flow. With the occasional exception, the stages are often seamless, large areas as opposed to smaller sections broken up by checkpoints. Generous checkpoints are still present and correct, but there's a palpable sense of each stage offering something notably fresh, whether with a new mechanic or simply optimisations of those seen before.
While Origins was exploration-heavy, with many levels being relatively sprawling, lengthy affairs, Legends mixes up proceedings with various shorter levels in which just three Teensies are to be found. These are often frenzied, event-driven extravaganzas where the action is intense, the set-pieces dramatic and, often, you're dashing frantically to the right or scrambling up collapsing towers. The music stages are part of this — there's one in each main world, for example — but only represent one example of these action-focused levels. Some function as Runners, but with a greater degree of skill and platforming nous than required in the prescribed, rhythm-based music stages; both are gloriously fun in their own ways. Other shorter levels are the boss battles, which are three-stage affairs that assault the visual senses more than the speed of your thumbs, but provide more welcome variety.
Overall, as you progress from castles, to forests, to flying castles, peculiar underwater secret labs and more besides, there's a rapidity to progress that's rather welcome. The upping of the tempo doesn't mean that any agility is lost, so the punching, kicking and acrobatics that so distinguish this latest series featuring the famous mascot are present and as simple to use as ever. The game itself is challenging, not to complete, but just in terms of keeping you on your toes; levels still have plenty of verticality and tricky moves to pull off, regularly utilising the limitless lives and checkpoints. Of the 39 "main" levels — there are actually many, many more — there are 27 that deliver exuberant, wonderful platforming for single players, and a dozen mandatory Murfy levels that do not.
We'll address multiplayer shortly, but in single player there are 12 levels that force you to play as Murfy, a small critter that embodies touch-screen controls and manipulations on the GamePad. By tapping eyeballs, cutting ropes, firing catapults, tickling enemies, manipulating light and more, the play on the main controller clears impassable environments in teamwork with a platforming buddy. In single player you're forced to use the GamePad, it's not optional, as an AI-controlled character does the actual platforming. These levels are fun and challenging in multiplayer, but far less so when playing solo — these sections aren't distinctly bad, but the most fun is in the running and jumping, so shifting platforms and tapping obstacles simply cannot compare. Quite why having Murfy controlled by AI wasn't included as an option is unclear, as it would have had the same hurdles as working with the auto-running partner. The AI is functional and rarely stupid, but it feels rather like an uneasy, unnatural union; the riotous gymnastics and platforming fun are simply lost as the computer-controlled character ambles along.
In multiplayer, however, the feel is entirely different; it's here that Murfy makes complete sense and adds to the experience. In the levels designed with the character in mind, there's a puzzle-heavy approach that instantly has you and your co-player in loud, enthusiastic communication. The true beauty of these stages is that they can be equally challenging with another experienced gamer or someone with less miles on the clock; in-fact, one of our play partners is an avid DS/3DS player, very much part of the "Touch Generation", and they were as effective — perhaps more so — in the role of Murfy as anyone. Some of these levels require intricate timing and teamwork, and putting that together with another player is a delight.
Murfy is playable in all levels with the exception of boss stages, which opens up the majority of the content on offer. Outside of Murfy-specific levels the role of the touch-screen player is minimised but effective enough to be worthwhile, as enemies can be disrupted and hidden items dragged to useful spots; at its worst it still matches the touch screen play of New Super Mario Bros. U. Multiplayer can also happen in the more traditional sense of multiple characters running on screen, and that is terrific fun. This is tough platforming that will likely frustrate inexperienced gamers, so having both options should suit most households, while support for all major Wii and Wii U controllers means that it should be easy to get up to five players involved at any time; it's simply a case of dropping in and out at will. If all but the Murfy content is exceptional in single player, the experience becomes fully rounded with some friends and family in on the action.
Whether playing solo or with others, it's fortunate that the experience expands beyond the all-new stages. Such is the compulsive nature of the game, and the fact some of the stages are relatively short, that the main story feels like it's over too soon, with the credits catching us by surprise. With progress you do unlock "Invaded" levels, which shake up existing environments with new enemies, layouts and a 60-second time limit; also included in the main galleries are Rescue stages to unlock characters — similarly, these are relatively short, high tempo tests of skill. The Online Challenges area, meanwhile, brings along the same structure that Wii U owners enjoyed ahead of time with the Challenges App. Unlike that app, accumulating levels of "Awesomeness" and plenty of Lums is far easier, opening up the Extreme daily and weekly challenges relatively quickly.
The main attraction, beyond those extras, is the Back to Origins hub. Five worlds from the title return with eight levels each, which provides a welcome extra to flesh out the core experience; Murfy is playable, once again, in all but boss encounters. It's here that the slower tempo and increased length of the original's levels are shown off, meaning that depending on your preferred approach you should be well accommodated; such is the quality of the first title's content that revisiting these levels is certainly worthwhile, while they're mixed up slightly for new Teensie placements. A fair few flying mosquito levels make the cut, which is welcome as they don't feature in the Legends content, and the tighter physics and controls also serve these stages very well.
One quirk is that these stages aren't necessarily unlocked by progress through the main game, but obtained via lucky tickets. At the end of every stage you receive bronze, silver and gold trophies depending on the number of Lums collected — Teensies are vital for this total — and these tickets are the second highest prize. In our case we typically unlocked these first-time on most stages, and you then use the GamePad screen to "scratch" these tickets for extra goodies. You sometimes receive Lums, and on other occasions collectible creatures at which to gawk at as you please, and it's here where you unlock Rayman Origins paintings. It seemed to drip-feed us steady levels, with a rush late on, but it does mean that you can beat the first two or three stages of one of the Origins worlds before hitting a blocking point that needs a lucky ticket. This does encourage you to focus on the main game — these Origins levels are supposed to be extras — and we found that the majority were available after redeeming the main game's worth of tickets. You win more tickets in the Origins levels, too, to maintain the cycle.
It's these Origins levels that add plenty of meat to the title, while it's also abundantly clear that this was a game originally conceived with the Wii U in mind. Not only is Murfy evidence of this, but also the substantial Miiverse integration that's included. You can post to Miiverse after beating a level, to show off Invaded level times and for almost any purpose the network's known for, while the challenges are all fully integrated with online leaderboards. The GamePad is also an information hub, constantly showing the latest unlocked level or character and giving ready access to statistics and a view of friend's best challenge times. Throw in off-TV play, and it's clear that the development team wanted to embrace the system's controller, while the Mario and Luigi characters were our heroes of choice.
The developers also, as promised regularly in public statements, made impressive use of the Wii U hardware. The visuals truly are stunning, rich and full of depth, with a crispness and clarity that's truly impressive. It's not just the technical aspects that impress — though they certainly do — it's the design, with layering and attention to detail that sets a new bar for platforming on the system. With an impeccably smooth framerate that never dips and glorious orchestrated music that weaves from beautiful to goofy, this is a treat for the senses. The UbiArt framework in-use is something to behold in action, and a noticeable step-up over Origins; it all looks less hand-drawn and has more of an animated CG movie sheen, yet suits the subject matter perfectly. The animation is that bit smoother, more vibrant, and switching between the Origins levels in a HD version of that game and the Wii U emphasizes the level of improvement.
There's one other feature of this title that simply must be mentioned, and that's Kung Foot, a shallow multiplayer-only part feature. Please don't read "shallow" negatively, as some of the most fun experiences in the real world are the most simplistic and childish games. On different sides, with a goal each, two teams use the characters to punch and kick a ball and each other to score — there's little else to say, but that it's brilliant. When playing with others it's the perfect rowdy five-minute warm-up ahead of the real action.
Rayman Legends is so close to perfection that its minor missteps are all the more noticeable. Single players will likely tolerate but not love the mandatory touch-screen Murfy levels, while we're left wanting more, with the main story levels being over in a flash at well under 10 hours. Clearly aware of this, the developers made those hours utterly glorious, and then threw in enough extra content, challenges, remixes and collectibles to conceivably more than double that play time.
And the fact is that playing levels again, hunting out those hidden Teensies or chasing gold cups, is completely worthwhile and essential. It's also worthwhile playing extensively in both single and multiplayer, as each option feels distinctly different, shaking up the experience in pleasing ways. For those who haven't seen Origins through to the end or even played it, meanwhile, the extra 40 levels are a fantastic inclusion.
We feel obliged to acknowledge that, for some Nintendo fans and particularly Wii U early-adopters, this is potentially a controversial release. Whatever the background it is here now; we struggle to see how any version can be better than this, as it's a game that feels like it was designed solely for the system. It's stunning platforming, with a move-set and dynamism unique to this fresh new series for the Rayman character, and it's memorable. It deserves to be enjoyed by all platforming fans that own a Wii U; it should not be missed.