The debut outing from Ubisoft’s often-ignored limbless hero is a fascinating 2D platformer, but one that teeters on the side of annoying a little too often.
World-building & Story
The evil Mr Dark has bested Betilla the fairly, stolen the Great Protoon from Rayman’s world and trapped the Electoons (tiny purple creatures that gravitate around it), causing chaos in the process. The world needs saving and there’s only one man for the job – the limbless hero Rayman.
The thing that immediately stands out about Rayman is its larger-than-life world – it’s packed with little details that highlight its whimsical design. One set of levels are based around music and have you riding maracas and running through crashing cymbals, while the next will have you planting seeds and escaping rising water while you dodge out of the way of hunters shooting deadly brooms. Everything about it is weird and nonsensical and it feels like you’ve been transported to an alien planet, for better and for worse.
The actual story here is nothing to write home about – minor cutscenes in-between levels show what’s happening but there’s no dialogue and very little exposition to tell you what’s going on (although I did like that the level select was designed around the bad guy looking at you through his binoculars). This is a very old-school 2D platformer through and through, in that it lets its gameplay take centre stage.
Presentation & Sound
With its vibrant colour palette, quirky character designs and inventive levels there’s plenty to love in Rayman – and thanks to its 2D design it looks surprisingly good to this day.
Rayman himself seems completely bizarre as a character – with his limbless structure and massive quiff he doesn’t strike me as a platforming mascot, but it works within the confines of the game. Some of the animations are brilliant – the way the wind rushes through his hair when he’s falling for example show an attention to detail that’s impressive to this day. This extends to many of the enemies, whether it be the stuffy hunters or cutesy mosquito, they all look and move in an impressive manner.
The environments you’ll run through are pretty gorgeous too – each looks like a hand-drawn picture stuffed with detail, whether it be all the foliage in the forest levels or the bright vibrancy of the musical levels. Lighting is very impressive (expect both night-time zones as well as early dawn as you explore more of what the game has to offer) meaning the whole package hasn’t really aged a bit – it’s just as impressive now as it ever was. With that said, I did find some of the locations somewhat creepy (like something out of a nightmare) and I personally wasn’t a big fan of this.
Sound is the only aspect of the presentation I wasn’t as keen on – music is fine with a particularly Jazzy flavour at times, but didn’t have that same addictive quality of some of its PS1 contemporaries such as Crash and Spyro – although there are a handful of pretty songs here.
Gameplay & Content
Rayman is an example of a well-made and polished 2D platformer – all the pieces here fit to make a coherent final product. Unfortunately, there were also times I also found it somewhat dull, meaning this isn’t one I’m likely to return to in the future.
The titular hero starts out with a very limited moveset – he can jump, duck and throw his fist but otherwise he’s not particularly mobile. When you first explore levels you’ll notice plenty of platforms and hidden areas that you won’t initially be able to reach but make sure you remember these, as you’ll be granted new skills later on that allow you to take completely branching paths in the levels.
Some of the skills Rayman unlocks include the ability to hang from ledges, the ability to grab onto hovering rings and even the ability to slow his fall by turning his hair into a pair of helicopter blades. Returning to levels to use these new skills is part of the attraction – you’ll be freeing the enslaved Electoons and each area has six groups to find, so there’s plenty of backtracking required (later progress is gated based upon how many you’ve rescued).
The platforming here is… fine. Things like hit boxes on enemies and platform edges and defined enough that I never felt frustrated if I died due to a platforming fail and Rayman himself jumps with momentum which felt natural. One thing which did irritate me is that if you’re hit with an attack you’ll jump backwards which did lead to some very annoying deaths as I would often be thrown from my platform into an instant death pit, which never felt fair.
Still, you can normally just get up and try again. There’s an old-fashioned lives system in place here supplemented with continues which means you’ll get plenty of opportunities to have another go – and trust me you’ll need it, because there’s a punishing difficulty in place here. I did find myself reloading saves fairly often and levels often rely on you knowing what’s coming next – which isn’t a design choice I particularly enjoy, but if you relish a challenge you’ll probably enjoy what’s on offer here.
Outside of platforming, the game manages to mix things up quite nicely – you can pay a fairy to give you bonus levels that involve collecting items as quickly as possible and there’s various sections that play out like a dodge-em-up where you’re riding a mosquito and trying your best to avoid oncoming objects. I find variety always helps to elevate a good platformer and Rayman gets things right in this regard.
Yet I just came away from the whole experience feeling underwhelmed and I can’t really put my finger on why. The package feels polished, there’s some brilliant levels here (the music ones in particular are very memorable) and it’s a real looker, but it also felt a bit soul-less and forgettable on the whole. I wasn’t particularly enthused to keep playing, yet I recognise the game was pretty good.
I can see why Ubisoft made a franchise out of this (even if it took more than a decade to go back to 2D) and I certainly recognise I’m in the minority here – but Rayman just didn’t really do it for me.
A beautiful 2D world and some enjoyably polished platforming gameplay mean that Rayman has certainly stood the test of time – but there’s just something a little dull about the whole package that makes it somewhat challenging to stay engaged. If you’re into the genre though, I’d imagine this is one you’ll definitely want to check out.