Rayman 2: The Great Escape shares many qualities of its two-dimensional predecessor, especially in presentation but some frustrating sections hold it back from being a true classic of the system.
Unless you were Nintendo, most franchises making the switch from 2D platformers to 3D around the Nintendo 64 era were usually misses more than hits. It was a transformative time; an entire new dimension for developers to play with which presented many more challenges. The games that made it work are still hailed as definitive classics such as Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda:The Ocarina of Time. But those that struggled usually fell afoul of poor camera optimisation, variety in gameplay or poor controls. With that said the Ubisoft sequel to the popular Rayman falls somewhere in the middle. Released in 1999 originally on Nintendo's console, it was then tweaked and distributed on all the competitor machines (Sega Dreamcast and Sony Playstation) as well as the PC, with an enhanced version then later released on the Playstation 2. The story is set in the Glade of Dreams, a magical world which is under attack from robot-pirates captained by the main villain, Admiral Razorbeard. The back-story to this is that they have been enslaving hundreds of different worlds prior to this which is surprisingly dark considering the previous game's cutesy visuals and story.
As the limbless Rayman, you begin the adventure captured aboard the prison ship, The Buccaneer, and must escape. From there you travel across different lands freeing friendly characters, rescuing caged prisoners, solving puzzles and battling the robot-pirates. Early on in the story you unlock the ability to travel through portals which in reality is the 3D map screen that you control Rayman and move to each level as you unlock them. It is comparable to the map screen in the predecessor but due to the game's scope it feels much more like you are travelling a great distance with each area. The theme music at this section is also perfectly dreamlike and slightly ominous, and this goes with the rest of the score which is even more of an improvement on the previous instalment.
Visually it hasn't aged as gracefully as the hand-drawn art of the original; however there is still a lot to admire in the whimsical polygonal worlds and an ambitious colour palette. Michel Ancel, the game's lead designer, made sure to differentiate it from the traditional 3D platformer environments with colourful but otherworldly backgrounds.
On the face of it, being a 3D platformer it ticks the boxes for the genre in that each land offers new challenges from a platforming perspective but in structure, it’s quite different from the likes of Super Mario 64. Where that game particularly encouraged endless exploration of open lands each with plenty secrets, Ubisoft’s effort sticks to being a basic collectathon with some light puzzle-solving. There is no main hub world with its own mysteries or multiple objectives in each land; each level is mostly linear with a clear start and end point. This isn’t necessarily a criticism but does slightly limit the scope of the experience.
The game mostly runs well from a technical perspective however there were a few times that it completely locked up and I had to restart the level which, disappointingly, seemed to be when large open areas were on screen.
There are at least 19 levels to complete with the final being the end battle with Razorbeard. However, nearly all have a bonus race stage that unlocks if you successfully complete the level while collecting all of the hidden magical yellow ‘lums’ and freeing the caged characters. This is pretty tricky to do and in my playthrough I only got to do this once. But with each level regularly taking over an hour to complete it means there is a fair amount of content to this game.
And Ubisoft were smart with level design in that they offered a wide variety of gameplay so that repetition doesn't set in too often. Amidst Rayman's ability to fire his fist at baddies like in the original, you unlock more powers like his helicopter hair upgrade late in the game to fly across inaccessible areas. However, some of that variety comes in the form of sequences where Rayman speeds through areas riding a jet ski tethered behind a friendly character or a rocket which explodes on impact. These are where a vast majority of the frustration grew as they can be overly long and incredibly tough at points. The controls can be jittery here and any mistake can lead to death and send you back to the last checkpoint. The simple repetition of having to redo sections because I failed at the last jump was overwhelming at times especially in long levels where the end was nowhere in sight.
Although this game is much easier and forgiving than its original, these 'trial and error' sections where pattern memorisation is vital are where you are reminded of the difficulties endured in the first instalment. Similarly, the boss battles can also be a little on the tough side although this is not a unique criticism and in the developer’s defence they do find a way to make each main boss fight distinctive. This is where evaluating this game is tough. The amount of improvements made over its original is commendable and the save system is much better in that you can save on completing any level with no limit on lives like in the first game. However, if you are halfway through and want to save you still can't and either need to persevere to the end or quit and lose progress. This can be frustrating due to the length of some of the levels and I would have welcomed a mid-stage save point. Nevertheless, the slightly darker tone is also a nice touch and there are some humorous cut-scenes especially with the main villain receiving updates from his underlings on Rayman's progress (in this version these are mostly text with Rayman speaking in a gobbledygook language but on the other platforms it seems there was actual spoken dialogue.) Overall, the game definitely improves on the original in difficulty curve and the transition to 3D has been a success in some surprising ways. However, where the game relies on 'trial and error' set-pieces is where the most time can be spent repeating the same sections to endless frustration. It doesn't reach the heights of the best in the genre but it also holds its (floating) head up high as a first attempt conversion from its two dimensional origins.