When Ubisoft delayed Rayman Legends from spring to fall, I figured the upside would be that we'd receive a better, more polished end product. So why does this game feel like such a random, slapdash pile of interesting ideas in desperate need of more development time?
Make no mistake, Legends gives you plenty to love. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, for starters. While it runs on the same UbiArt framework that powered Rayman Origins, the overall aesthetic incorporates a more natural, painterly style that helps make everything come off as less of a cheap Flash game... though it does bear an unfortunate similarity to those overly precious Virgin America safety instruction videos (the matador doesn't know how to use a seatbelt -- how zany!). Liveliness permeates every moment of the action, and even the inaction. And Legends excels at wild ideas and imagination.
But in many ways, that unbridled sense of creativity serves as the source of Legends' problems. It's constantly throwing new concepts and mechanics into the mix, but there's no discipline to it, no restraint. New ways to play pop up constantly, with the rules guiding the action often changing from level to level. Yet the game rarely takes the time to roll out new additions properly, instead just plopping them down in front of you. Infinite lives and generous checkpoints allow you to blunder through each new addition, but the introduction of every new element feels completely arbitrary and poorly thought-out.
Rayman Legends gives the impression of a game whose designers had a lot of fun making it; it's suffused with a genuine exuberance that you rarely see in projects from major publishers. But what I don't get from Legends is any impression that the designers ever stopped having fun long enough to figure out how this mishmash of ideas should fit together properly. There's a lot of "Sure, throw this in, why not?" but not much in the way of, "Does this work? Is this a good idea?"
When Legends' ideas work, they do work brilliantly. Without question, the highlight of the game comes in the form of the musical bonus stages you unlock at the end of each world. Essentially just "endless runner"-style minigames, these levels also double as rhythm games, with the music perfectly synced to every action you take. Jump, slide, swing, stomp, smash: Played properly, these stages become a breakneck musical performance, more theatre than game, but wholly satisfying.
The problem is that Legends' ideas don't always work; on the contrary, they frequently fall flat on their face. The musical bonus levels aren't the only area where the game resembles an endless runner, and the further you advance into Legends' stages the more often platforming finesse gives way to high-speed chases that largely play themselves. These can be amusing -- witness the lumbering beast that eventually stumbles into a pool of magma and gives a Terminator-style thumbs-up as he disappears into the flames -- but more often than not they degenerate into the low-stakes trial-and-error philosophy that defines so much of the game.
And then there's Murfy, where the game bottoms out. Since Legends was originally designed for Wii U, Ubisoft naturally felt compelled to add some platform-specific features to the game. What they settled on was a series of iOS-style stages featuring an autonomous character named Murfy. I can't begin to describe exactly how much I hate these stages. They're clumsy, unimaginative, and generally not fun. Worse, Murfy's levels represent nearly half the game's content. You can't properly complete the game without slogging through most of them, and it utterly destroys the experience.
Murfy's levels follow in the spirit of games like Lemmings or the recent Mario Vs. Donkey Kong titles, with a self-sufficient character completing the stages of his own volition. Your task as his little flying buddy is to use the touch screen to cut ropes, tap monsters to stun them, move platforms, and basically clear a path for him. Unlike the rest of the game, Murfy's stages tend to feature too little variety, constantly retreading the same material and challenges over and over again. They're often infuriatingly clumsy, especially any time they bring the GamePad's accelerometer into play.
In fairness, Murfy's stages only suffer this problem on Wii U; on other platforms (save Vita), they play out as normal stages crammed with quick-time events, with the player forced to simply pressing a button at specific moments to allow him to advance. It's an improvement, but a nuisance all the same.
The whole of the Rayman Legends experience can be summed up in an early stage called "What the Duck?": At the beginning of the level, Rayman is transformed into a duck. This radically changes the nature of the game's controls, forcing you to learn to play in a completely different way than usual. But the entire duck mechanic is completely thrown out the window almost immediately as the level changes into nothing more than another Murfy stage. Playing as a duck could have been interesting had the developers been willing to to commit to it, but they weren't. Instead, it amounts to just another half-baked gimmick of no consequence.
The constant intrusion of both Murfy's stages and the constant running segments gives Rayman Legends the feel of a game whose designers really wanted to make a mobile app but were stuck creating a proper packaged retail product. This sensation is reinforced by the constant intrusion of pop-up notifications alerting you to the game's endless succession of unlockables and bonuses. Unlockable goodies are hardly new to games, but Legends constantly throws them at you and nags you about their presence. Individually, these are trivial nuisances at worst, but they add up quickly.
To be fair, I think most people will be completely fine with Rayman Legends' erratic personality. I can see where the lush artwork and eager spirit of inventiveness could make up for problems like those wretched Murfy stages and level design in which mastery boils down to brute force repetition. Ask yourself, what do you want from a game like this? Personally, I gravitate toward crisp controls, smart design, and rewarding challenges -- features frustratingly absent from Rayman's latest adventure.