Strap yourselves in everyone, we’re taking a feel trip today.
Ori and the Blind Forest took out my game of the year for 2015, beating out many other worthy competitors such as The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne. The reason at the time, and it still holds true today, is that there’s been no other game that’s made me care so deeply about the characters so quickly and then used that against me. From the early moments on I was hooked and all the other aspects of the game’s craftsmanship just served to amplify those deep feelings I had. So to say that I had high expectations for the sequel is putting it lightly; I was expecting the kind of near perfection that they had delivered the first time around and was extremely nervous that they wouldn’t be able to match it. Spin forward to the game’s first moments and suddenly I’m back there, 5 years ago, just after the game finished with all those feelings rushing back again. Now here I am today having finished the game and taking a good week to process it emotionally before I could write the review.
Suffice to say, Moon Studios has done it again and I’m an emotional wreck because of it.
SPOILERS FOR ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST FOLLOW
Picking up right where The Blind Forest left off you follow the story of how Ori, Naru and Gumo raised the lone hatchling of Kuro (the original’s protagonist) who they’ve named Ku. She was unfortunately born with a broken wing, rendering her unable to fly. However Gumo finds a feather which he then attaches to Ku’s wing, giving her the ability to fly. Her and Ori then set off on their first journey together and follow a band of owls to the old forest of Niwen. However before they can return a storm hits and the pair gets separated. This is how your journey begins, a simple quest to reunite with your little owling, but the destination is far more meaningful than you can possibly imagine.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps maintains the original’s art styling with a little more emphasis towards the 3D elements than the 2D ones. The environments still have that wonderful dreamlike quality about them with their lavish use of bright colours, unreserved use of bloom and lighting effects galore. The simple fact that I have a screenshot directory with some 34 screenshots in it is a testament to just how gorgeous this game is, every one of the frames it renders not feeling out of place in a concept art reel. The only downside with the heavier focus on the 3D elements is that during some cutscenes the resolution of some models becomes apparent which draws away from the impact those close in scenes should have. There are some solutions for this available thankfully although none of them natively supported by the in-game graphics options. I’m hopeful that these will become available in future patches however as I’d love to play this again in full 4K resolution with all graphics settings pushed right to their limit.
I also have to give a special mention to the soundtrack that Gareth Coker, who was responsible for the original’s as well, created for The Will of the Wisps. Once again he’s managed to create a brilliant set of emotional pieces of music that beautifully match the events happening on screen. For many games the sound track is an afterthought so it’s always great to see when it’s given just as much care and attention as everything else that’s put in.
The Will of the Wisps retains the same core game loop as the original with some of it’s newer elements borrowed some elements from some modern metroidvania titles. The progression system has been significantly increased in breadth and complexity, no longer being a simple choice between a couple different skill talent trees. Instead you’ve got multiple different paths to progress through, each of them with different mechanics for their progression. The level design has also been significantly improved as whilst it follows the standard metroidvania trope (I.E. unlocking new areas in already completed mission with new abilities) not once did I feel like I was missing a significant part of a level because I didn’t have a certain ability. There’s also a myriad of quality of life improvements as well, making the journey to 100% a run through something I actually considered doing for the first time in…quite a long time. With this release Moon Studio has proven that they’re dedicated to developing extremely high quality titles and aren’t satisfied with simply retreading old successes.
The game’s platforming starts off from the basics once again, a good thing considering it’s likely been quite a while for many players since they played the original. Some of my old muscle memory was still there, like expecting double jump and wall sticking from the get go, but it didn’t take long before I had those few abilities and the game started lumping on more things on me to make the platforming sections more varied and challenging. Each of the games…I want to call them biomes… comes with a new ability that will be the main trick that you’ll use to progress through it. That ability then also unlocks other areas in other biomes as well, typically granting access to upgrades and other collectibles that you couldn’t get ahold of. Towards the end of the game this will also get you into situations that were obviously not designed for, like skipping entire sections, but that’s mostly to your benefit. There’s also a bit of emergent behaviour you can exploit here too, like in the main Moki town which you can easily clear out of most of its collectibles before you complete the requisite side quests. Overall the platforming is as solid as it ever was.
Combat feels much the same as it used to although, I admit, this may partly be because I didn’t invest as much time in progressing the combat abilities as I did the other parts of the game. There are new abilities, some of which are also required for unlocking certain areas of the game, but for the most part it’s still a dodge/attack game loop. To be sure there’s going to be some broken skill builds out there that will have you wrecking all sorts of havoc but I played it safe for the most part, favouring instead being able to recover from my mistakes rather than going full glass canon. Still though for a few of the boss encounters I’d switch out to a different build that then made those encounters a lot easier going as without some kind of damage buff some of them could take forever to complete.
Progression comes at a pretty steady clip thanks to the multiple different progression mechanics. For starters you’ve got your simple life/mana orbs which you can easily find throughout the levels and most will be available to you immediately or soon after unlocking the biome’s ability. The main avenue for progression is spirit shards which modify your current abilities or attributes. Initially you can only equip 3 at a time but that can be upgraded to a total of 8 if you complete all the combat shrines. Most of the shards can be found around the place but a choice few will need to be bought. About half can be upgraded as well, although none need to be upgraded to be useful. You can purchase and upgrade new combat abilities from a vendor as well, a couple of which you’ll need to purchase in order to unlock some of the areas of the map. I tried the spirit surge initially but it’s pretty underwhelming. The spear was by far my favourite as it did an absolutely insane amount of damage and is pinpoint accurate. The downside is the mana cost but that can be made up for with the appropriate shard selection. There’s also a myriad of side quests which change the world around you although I don’t believe they have an appreciable impact on how the game plays out (apart from opening up more secrets to you).
There’s also a bunch of time trials scattered throughout the game, pitting you against a ghost Ori in a race to the finish line. I think originally they may have included a wide variety of rewards but they only now give spirit light, the game’s main currency. Whilst this is certainly helpful it’s not like you’re always scrounging for it. Indeed if you complete the side quests and find most of the secrets then you’re likely going to be rolling in it. I usually kept above 6000 as I wanted to max out the damage buff from a shard I had but even when I did go and splurge on something I don’t remember it taking that long to get it back up again. Regardless the challenges themselves aren’t too difficult, especially considering you can just follow the ghost and then overtake them quickly right at the end (doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, right?).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that all these mechanics would make for a game that’s too busy but they all work together to give the game a steady, moderate pace. There’s always something you need to do but the game doesn’t punish you for taking your time to explore around and uncover all the secrets they’ve hidden around the place. This makes it really enjoyable to simply take your time with the level, figuring out all the tells they’ve built in that lead to secrets or hint at how the current blocking puzzle could be solved. The fact that I only got stuck a couple times is a testament to how well the game is designed.
The same niggle I had with the original makes an unfortunate return in The Will of the Wisps; that being the use of long platforming sequences that must be completed in one shot. There’s more than one in this but they’re thankfully 1) shorter than the original’s final boss fight and 2) somewhat better designed so that you don’t feel like you’re running up against unfair mechanics designed to make you fail. That improvement is then offset by some slight…mushiness in the keystroke detection which makes doing some of the more involved platforming a bit clunkier than it should be. To be fair it could be that I was attempting things you weren’t intended to do as I distinctly remember this grumble coming to the front when I was clearing out the Moki town before I’d done all the plants and building improvements.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The game’s narrative follows a very similar trope to the original but god damn do they know how to find your heart strings and tug on them relentlessly. It wasn’t enough that the game’s opening moments made me remember the original’s tragedy with such vivid recollection that I needed a minute to compose myself before playing they then had to set up yet another tragedy after I had already bought into the game’s premise emotionally. To be sure the plot is simplistic and predictable but I couldn’t help but feel for each and every one of the characters. This is only made better by the fact that it didn’t rely heavily on the story that came before it either, the original’s characters only having a passing role in this game.
Probably the biggest thing that stuck with me, which is possible fertile ground for a sequel, is that they didn’t resolve Shriek’s storyline positively, instead condemning her to misery that she’s known her entire life. That honestly hurt me more than anything else given what you know of her backstory. But, having had some time to process it, I can see it for what it is: great storytelling that didn’t go the way I wanted to. That doesn’t make it bad, just sad for me.
Now I’d usually chide a game for hinting at a sequel but I’m happy with the way it was done here, for a couple reasons. Firstly it’s already established canon in the world and the current story threads (bar Shriek’s) are resolved. That means that any further games in the series will have to stand on their own and, quite likely, lose “Ori and” from the title. Whilst it’s beautifully sad how Ori’s thread resolved I’m glad it did as it’d be all too easy to keep riding that cute little spirit’s goodwill until all the money was squeezed out of him.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an exceptional sophomore release from Moon Studios, demonstrating that they’re exceptional craftspeople when it comes to the genre of metroidvania that’ll make you cry. If you’ve made it this far in the review then you know what I think about the game’s various elements and I’m not going to rehash them again. All I’m going to do is say that, no matter what kind of gamer you are, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is worth your attention. If you haven’t played the original then do yourself a favour and give it the once over so you can play its sequel immediately, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.95. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total play time and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
Puzzle-platformers are the corridor shooter of the indie scene; they are the genre that nearly everyone attempts in their quest to become the next big thing. This means that, for the most part, original ideas are few and far between and often those that are truly unique fall flat on their executions in one way or another. It’s rare that any of these style of games executes all elements well, especially for indie developers who usually have to make sacrifices in one element to support another. Ori and the Blind Forest however makes no such trade offs with every aspect of the game setting a new standard for what the tried and true puzzle-platformer genre can deliver.
Ori is the child of the Spirit Tree, the great entity that provides life to the forest of Nibel. However one day Ori was ripped from the safe arms of the Spirit Tree during a storm and was lost deep in the forest. Thankfully though Naru, a creature of the forest, found Ori and raised it as her own, teaching her to gather apples and build bridges. Then one night the Spirit Tree set the skies on fire, hoping to find its long lost child and have them return home. Those cries went unanswered and the forest began to wither, the elements that supported it no longer being nourished by the spirit tree. Ori now wanders the forest alone, seeking out the Spirit Tree in the hopes of restoring the forest.
Ori and the Blind Forest is exceptionally beautiful with an amazing combination of 2D and 3D artwork that seamlessly blends together. The lavish use of glow and lighting effects elevates what would otherwise be a flat environment to a whole new level, giving Ori this kind of dream-like aesthetic that’s simply a joy to behold. Combine this with the absolutely amazing soundtrack and sound design and you have a game that’s, put simply, one of the best looking and sounding games I’ve played in a very long time. My only regret is that I didn’t play it on my new gaming PC (I was on holiday with the family and had my now aging ultrabook with me) as this beauty comes at a cost, although it was still readily playable.
At a gameplay level Ori and the Blind Forest is a puzzle-platformer with a host of additional mechanics thrown in that help differentiate it from this now crowded genre. Sure you’ll still be jumping from platform to platform a lot, trying to figure out how to use each of the abilities you have in order to get the next section, however interspersed with that are combat sections, resource decisions and a myriad of areas to explore that will reward you in many ways. This is then all backed by a three tree talent systems that’s broken down into combat, utility and new abilities that allow you to customize Ori to fit your preferred playstyle. All of these elements are blended seamlessly together so you won’t be slammed with a wall of possibilities the second you start the game. Suffice to say it’s a comprehensive list of features, something you don’t often see in indie titles.
The platforming is done exceptionally well, something I’m loathed to admit given how many times I failed on various platforming sections throughout the game. It starts off being very forgiving, with jumps being short and the punishment light, however it slowly escalates to the point where each jump needs to be almost perfectly executed in order to make them and failure will result in you going back to your last checkpoint (which you have to create yourself). For the most part everything works as advertised however there’s a few, let’s call them quirks, of how things work which can catch you out if you forget them. The one notable example I can think of is if you glide, then climb, then jump again (this all requires you holding the shift key down) you won’t then automatically glide again, something which will often result in your untimely demise.
The puzzles follow the platforming pretty closely, starting off straightforward and routine in order to introduce the mechanic du’jour and slowly ramping up the difficulty as you progress through a section. You likely won’t find yourself stuck on any one of them for too long however the time it takes you to actually solve them may vary a bit depending on how good your twitch reflexes are. Still apart from one particular section I didn’t feel like the puzzles were overly difficult or unduly punishing to the player and should you invest most of your points in one of the particular talent trees I’m sure the vast majority of the puzzles would’ve been a lot easier.
The talent tree and character progression system is also well designed giving you the choice of three different branches to choose from each of which has a specific set of benefits associated with it. It’s gated slightly in terms of further upgrades often requiring a campaign unlock to progress past them however this is more to encourage you to spend your points in the various branches rather than hoarding them for when you get that particular unlock. Indeed the levels come often enough that even after you unlock the next stage you won’t be waiting long to get that ability you’ve been lusting after and, should really want to powerlevel your abilities, there’s hidden ability point orbs all over the map to help you get across the line.
It’s not often that I can say that a game has a near-flawless execution as it’s quite hard to avoid some form of niggling issue or strange quirk but Ori and the Blind Forest has managed to attain that level of polish over its four year development cycle. Indeed apart from the one platforming quirk I mentioned earlier there’s really no other technical fault to speak of however there is one particular section of the game (the final “boss” section) which I take issue with. The instant-death punishment that sends you all the way back to the start of the section, coupled with an extremely short time to gauge what the next section requires you to do, means that you’ll likely end up dying repeatedly to things that you could simply have no way knowing were coming. It is perhaps the only black mark I will count against this otherwise exceptional game but it’s sections like that which have made me stop playing games completely in the past.
Bringing this all together is the absolutely brilliant story which, whilst simplistic, is delivered in such a beautiful way that it instantly draws you in and refuses to let go until the ultimate conclusion. I can’t remember a time when a game made me care about the main characters so quickly and then made me empathize even further with characters I either hated or found annoying. The finale is incredibly satisfying to, closing the story out and avoiding the temptation of leaving it open ended for a potential sequel. The fact that I’ve teared up several times recalling the various plot points as I write this review is a testament to the effect it had on me as it really is quite a beautiful story.
Ori and the Blind Forest is the game to which all puzzle-platformers will now be compared as it executes near-flawlessly in every aspect. The graphics and artwork are simply stunning with the dreamlike aesthetic providing an amazing backdrop for the beautiful soundtrack and foley work. The core game mechanics are rock solid, requiring you to push your own limits if you want to succeed and progress to the next stage. These characteristics would make it a great game in its own right but the story that binds everything together is what elevates this from being a great game technically to an exemplary title that will be used as the reference point from here on out. I could gush more but honestly you’ll be better served to stop reading now and grabbing yourself a copy of this absolutely brilliant game.
Ori and the Blind Forest is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 8 hours of total playtime.