Ubisoft made big waves in the industry when it released Rayman Origins, a triumphant return to the company mascot’s 2D platforming roots. Blending goofy humour with thrilling platforming sequences, it captured the hearts of millions, but perhaps the most stunning aspect of the release was the flash new engine that it ran on. UbiArt allowed the art team to manipulate hand-drawn sprites with impressive gusto, presenting players with an unprecedented art style that really did bring drawings to life. Unruly Heroes, a new platformer from Magic Design Studios (consisting of some staff that worked on Rayman), carries on the dream and acts as a sort of spiritual successor to Origins, blending a fantastic art direction with slick platforming gameplay that makes for a compelling experience you won’t want to miss.
Unruly Heroes is a retelling of the classic Chinese folk tale Journey to the West, following the adventures of four unlikely (or, ahem, unruly) heroes as they endeavor to collect all the fragmented pieces of the Sacred Scroll and restore peace to the world. It’s an admittedly flimsy premise, but what’s lacking in the story department is more than made up for with the overall charm and humour that permeates every bit of the cast and the environment. Whether it be the goofy band that plays music on the loading screen or the hammy but surprisingly solid voice acting, there’s a certain kind of whimsy to Unruly Heroes that draws you into its deliciously weird and beautiful vistas.
Just about every level you encounter instils a sense of awe in how it lays out the environments, paying immaculate attention to detail to make the lush countrysides and damp caves feel like real places with self-sufficient ecosystems. Things like tiny drops of water dripping inconsistently from a cave ceiling or fireflies dynamically flitting about in the foreground cement this feeling, and the way in which the background gradually fades out soaring rock faces and warm sunsets creates a powerful sense of scale for a 2D game. Unruly Heroes stands as a prime example of how well a strong art direction can carry an interactive experience; this is arguably one of the most visually striking games available for the Switch, not because of how far it pushes the hardware, but because of how focused it is in executing the chosen art direction.
Luckily, the gameplay is no slouch either, even if it isn’t necessarily anything innovative. Levels are laid out in a Donkey Kong Country-esque fashion in which the path forward is always made abundantly clear, but little caves and branching paths along the way usually lead to extra goodies. It builds on this, however, by instilling subtle puzzle-solving elements that necessitate regularly swapping control between the four main characters to best use their unique abilities. One character can inflate like a balloon to access hard to reach places while another is capable of breaking down special stone walls, and while there’s nothing here in the puzzle design that’ll really make you think, it provides a welcome break in the platforming action every now and then.
The platforming itself could hardly be described as difficult either, but it’s clear the developers have made quite an effort to give each level a unique stage gimmick of some sort to make it memorable and interesting compared to what came before. One stage sees you riding a wooden log down a gorgeous river, while having to dismount at key points to save the log from getting ground up by buzzsaws. Another stage takes you through a spider’s nest laden with eggs that have to be destroyed in a certain order on each screen, culminating in a fight against the queen of the nest. The next stage then lets you take control of the defeated spider queen, using her attacks and wall-crawling abilities to your advantage. Although the relative ease of these stages does take a bit of the wind out of their sails, Unruly Heroes understands the value of memorable set pieces and diverse stage design, making for an experience that always keeps you guessing.
Threaded through all the platforming and puzzle-solving are slices of combat that see your characters having to fight off all manner of animals and monsters, and while this is perhaps the weakest part of Unruly Heroes, it’s still surprisingly engaging for what it is. The four characters all more or less control the same, but utilise a different weapon of choice to make them feel unique, whether it’s an old-fashioned Bo staff or a Zenyatta-style collection of floating orbs. A quick tap of the shoulder button initiates a dodge roll and spamming ‘Y’ or ‘X’ causes your characters to dole out the pain with a mixture of light and heavy attacks. Once you’ve built up enough of a combo, a unique and flashy special move can be triggered that torches any remaining stragglers. As a side dish to the main course of the platforming, combat works well, but it does tend to get repetitive with time.
It should take you anywhere from five to ten hours to see Unruly Heroes through to the end, but there’s plenty of replayability options here for completionists. Every stage contains a hundred gold coins to collect – which can then be spent on new skins for the four playable characters – and a secret scroll which unlocks a piece of concept art for viewing in the extras gallery. Also, you’re given a ranking medal upon completion of a stage which takes into account how many coins you collected, how many times you died, and how fast you finished.
Along with all this, you can naturally play with a friend in local co-op at any time, and even take them on in a segmented PvP arena with a handful of stages and game modes. It’s a neat distraction, one that some players will no doubt find a solid amount of enjoyment in, though the complete lack of other players in the online matchmaking lobbies was rather disappointing. We certainly wouldn’t recommend Unruly Heroes for its in-depth multiplayer potential, then, but what’s here is a welcome inclusion that’s harmless at worst and good value added at best.
The ever-expanding Switch eShop has no shortage of excellent platformers under its belt, and while Unruly Heroes may not be the absolute best of the best, this is still one of the finest platformers we’ve played in a long time. Stunningly beautiful art direction coupled with diverse level design and well-paced gameplay makes this one an easy recommendation for both longtime platformer fans and for new players looking for an easier game to get into. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Unruly Heroes hits all the notes that it needs to, and it’s more than deserving of a spot in your games library.