Like the last few games in the Rayman series, Rayman Legends is all about cruel challenges, sweetly presented. It’s a standard platformer—run, glide, jump, and ground-pound, while keeping an eye out for secrets—enlivened by great aesthetics and smart level design. While it’s not terribly hard to get through a world, getting all the bonuses is a much tougher proposition, and the timed levels can be downright vicious. But because your struggles take place in a world of gorgeous visuals and gentle music, it’s impossible to get quite as teeth-grittingly enraged as the repeated deaths might warrant.
And unlike many platformer sequels, Legends is packed with new ideas, presented with the cheeky wit that’s distinguished the Rayman franchise. You’ll spend a few levels transformed into a duck, puzzles are built around making frogs eat cake, and there are chomping vines that pay homage to Half-Life 2. There are even stealth levels, backed by music that seems like a deliberate reference to the greatest scene in Oceans Twelve.
And speaking of music: The single best thing in Legends—or in any platformer I’ve played this year—are the music levels, in which you race through a timed level with every jump and punch synced to the music. Platformers, with their emphasis on precision timing, have always been close to music games, and these levels are a fantastic fusion of the two. If the entire game worked that way, it might start to feel as restrictive as music-platformer Bit.Trip.Runner. As an occasional treat, though, it feels great to barrel through a map where every element is reinforcing your glory.
Legends also doesn’t skimp on content, with plenty of new worlds, old levels ported over from Origins, weekly challenges, and even a multiplayer soccer mini-game. The latter two modes suggest that the designers intend for Legends to keep being played for months after release, with players competing for top scores or settling roommate arguments with a quick round of Kung Foot.
But the screen where you choose those modes is the first sign of what’s wrong with Legends. The Origins world map had a good-natured unwillingness to explain itself; the Polokus delivered Dadaist koans when you asked for advice. Here, though, that hookah-smoking god lays out every aspect of the game in plain sentences, repeated just in case you missed something. I can’t fault the designers for wanting players to understand their game, but the simple clarity required for Leaderboard dominance sits uneasily with the series’s willful absurdity.
And once you stop being charmed by the game’s style, other problems start to show. The co-op is good fun, but because developers had to make every map work in both single-player and co-op, the game can never create the teamwork perfection of ’Splosion Man or Battleblock Theater. Worse still, Legends brings over Murphy the Frog from the Wii U version of the game. On the Wii U, Murphy allowed a second player to use the gamepad to move objects around; here, Murphy is a non-player character, moving to wherever you next need him and controlled with a simple button press. Because he follows the player, however, it can be very hard to keep him in the proper spot during co-op, and levels that require precision from Murphy are nearly unplayable when multiple characters have to jump through platforms that he’s moving.
So Legends has some problems that Origins didn’t, especially in co-op. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent game: stylish, challenging, and with some delightful new ideas. Call it the Frank Sinatra Jr. Problem: If this game were released on its own, it’d be praised for all the things it does well, but given its lineage, it’s the shortcomings that sit center stage.