Rayman Legends review: Smiles undeniable

Growing up with platformers on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis, I didn't just have favorite games – I had favorite levels within those games. I'd grab my friends and force them to watch me play through the Quick Man stage of Mega Man 2, or the Yellow Planet of Bucky O'Hare. I was a kid, and games were all about having fun.

I'm not sure at what age I lost the impetus to label a specific portion of a game my favorite, but as I called my wife into my office to watch me replay a level of Rayman Legends, I realized that, if only for a moment, I had gotten it back. Rayman Legends isn't just the finest platformer released since its predecessor, Rayman Origins, it's also one of the few games thus far to make me happy that I have a Wii U in my entertainment center.

Legends doesn't worry too much about its nonsensical nature, and aside from making it clear that some evil Teensies are up to no good, the game doesn't bother with a coherent story or plot points. Instead, it focuses on its massive hand-drawn environments, branching pathways, and delightfully absurd enemies. In one stage you'll be pounding belligerent frogs into the ground and in the very next you'll come face to face with a dragon that swallows up the entire screen, and at no point will this seem crazy to you, for this is Rayman's world and having fun is the only thing that matters.

As is traditional in these types of games, you are dropped into one end of a level and must fight your way to the other. You can jump, glide, wall-run, punch (or slash, depending on your hero), and swim to get to your destination. You'll often have the option of either progressing linearly down an obvious corridor or exploring less obvious pathways in the hopes of finding secret areas. Almost every level will need multiple runs if you hope to see everything the world has to offer.

Each world follows a theme that its individual stages adhere to, keeping the art fresh as it changes from lush greenery to fiery dungeons to barren castles, and so on. Each collection of levels is punctuated by a musical level that wraps everything up while at the same time offering an original twist on a well-known piece of music. I refuse to spoil anything for you in this regard, but suffice it to say that I played the very first of these theatrical stages so many times that it's now burned into my memory. It's just that good.

As you make your way through Legends' levels, your overarching goals are to free your imprisoned friends, unlock new worlds, and collect Lums. As you progress you'll unlock new heroes, a wide array of collectibles such as new daily challenges and "creatures" that drop extra Lums, and you'll even gain access to refreshed levels from Rayman Origins. All told, there are well over 100 levels here, and if you're a completionist you may perish before besting them all.

Rayman Legends was designed as a Wii U exclusive before eventually going multiplatform, and while the Wii U is still the premiere platform on which to play the game, it hasn't made it to release day unscathed. There are a few GamePad-minded features that add to the experience – shortcuts to help navigate the myriad level menus and unlockables, playing the entire game on the GamePad – but the few frustrations that plague Legends also circle back to Nintendo's controller.

Chief among the features that aggravate rather than enhance is the ability to play as the airborne assistant Murfy, using just the touchscreen to control him. The levels in which you control Murfy have you moving platforms or distracting enemies while a second player or computer-controlled teammate does the platforming. These levels are less rage-inducing when playing with a competent friend, but relying on an A.I. counterpart is often an exercise in frustration. It can be hard to predict what the computerized partner will do, and I encountered several instances where my A.I. buddy would simply stop moving or freeze while hanging on a ledge, forcing me to restart the level or section.

Rayman Legends reveiw

If these levels were optional it would be easy to overlook them or at least save them for when friends are present, but the Teensies you free while completing them are crucial to your progression, meaning you'll end up playing them even if you don't want to. Thankfully, these levels are relatively sparse – you'll play them every six or so levels – but it's still enough to make progression more of a chore than it should be.

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I also tested out the Xbox 360 version in the hopes that the traditional controller meant these stages would be heavily modified (or fixed, as it were), but that isn't the case. If a stage requires Murfy's touchscreen antics on the Wii U, his actions are simply performed automatically with a single button press on the other consoles, which feels remarkably cheap. It's as though the game is on auto-pilot, and aside from watching the gorgeous backdrops pass by, there's almost nothing to do.

Thankfully, while the addition of Murfy's mechanics come off as more of a nuisance than an evolution, there's still a top-tier experience here. Everything from the ultra-fluid way in which your character moves to the slapstick giggles of punching an enemy so hard that it flies off the screen has been tuned for maximum enjoyment. It's a highly polished and relentlessly charming game which shows that the Rayman franchise can compete with – and in many ways surpass – the efforts of any other platforming powerhouse. And yes, that includes Mario.

As was true with Origins, playing through Legends with a friend (or three) is really the most enjoyable and humorous way. There are a couple of forgettable competitive modes like timed races through labyrinthine levels and a head-to-head soccer match, but the real treat is experiencing the quirky, insane story levels with a friend at your side – and then maybe trapping them inside of a giant apple, because hey, this is Rayman. You'll fall in love with the world Legends presents and may even catch yourself whistling its tune for a while after hitting the power button.

If you end up taking on the adventure solo, you're still going to have an absolutely fantastic time, and instead of laughing at your friends' misfortunes, you'll be laughing at your own. If you've ever gleaned enjoyment from a platformer in your life, there's simply no reason to pass up Rayman Legends. Should you own a Wii U you'll be treated to the original, if occasionally frustrating experience, though the game will make you smile no matter what system you call home.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Wii U version Rayman Legends, provided by Ubisoft. The Xbox 360 version was also tested.

Mike Wehner is a gaming and technology writer with a passion for anything with a power button. His work has appeared on a wide array of publications from USA Today to The Escapist, and just about everywhere in between. He currently calls his home and can be found on Twitter @MikeWehner.

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