Ori and the Blind Forest Review: Hope Springs Eternal
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One (Version Reviewed), PC, Xbox 360
Release Dates: March 11 (PC, Xbox One), Xbox 360 (2015)
Life isn’t fair sometimes. It comes with hardships, failures and upsets over the cruel passage of time, all of which steel us on the path to true success. Much can be said about the process of game design, with even the most brilliant minds toiling away for years until they arduously scrape together their Final Fantasy. Moon Studios is a prime example of unfairness, as no studio’s debut title, designed collaboratively with remote developers, programmers and artists around the world, should deliver as profoundly supreme a gameplay experience as Ori and the Blind Forest.
It takes place in the world of Nibel, where our young protagonist, Ori, is born into a magical, colorful land. Ripped away from his home in the Spirit Tree, he is taken in by a caring mythical bear-like creature in Naru. It is through nature that brings the story together, as both Naru and the world of Nibel fall ill due to the diminishing powers of the Spirit Tree. Weakened in fortitude, Ori’s resolve is reborn in order to save the Blind Forest from the clutches of Kuro, the game’s gigantic winged beast antagonist.
Ori and the Blind Forest combines a plethora of gaming genres to create something wholly unique. To call it a Metroidvania is too simple a description, as it has a core focus on platforming action (with an RPG-like skill tree system) as much as it does with an opened sense of exploration. Players will gain the services of Sein, the spirit of the Blind Forest personified, as a means of attacking enemies with charge bolts. As progress is made, you will learn new methods of both traversal and offensive capabilities, as both are deeply intertwined throughout this adventure.
What I find most intriguing in the design of Ori and the Blind Forest is its save system. If you are out of enemy range, or in a safe zone, you can drop a save point Spirit Flame at your discretion. It is fueled by your energy meter, limiting its usage. In an action platformer, it sounds broken by design. However, by using up your energy for defensive strategies, it limits your ability to take out enemies with stronger attacks. The style in whether you take things safe or make aggressive combat moves is up to the player, allowing for a more fluid gameplay style than one that forces saving to mandated checkpoints.
Ori and the Blind Forest relays its story by showing, as opposed to telling. Not only does the game use pathetic fallacy of fog, rain, moonlight and other means in a precise manner to help weave a strong narrative, but through excellent colorization players can’t help but feel connected to the more emotionally gripping scenes. Gameplay also helps to drive the narrative, as scripted moments of fast-paced escape platforming help shape a palatable tempo throughout the adventure. Guided with minimal narration, subtlety is what makes the storytelling special.
One of the very first things that jumps out at the player is just how gorgeous this game is. Ori and the Blind Forest, as a 2.5D sidescroller, benefits greatly from meticulously detailed, hand-drawn environments. This design choice allows for multiple background layers, with animations built around its natural setting and in reaction to your movements. Every color of the palette is utilized to perfection, helping to breathe life in what is a truly realized mythical world. With a 60 FPS framerate for gameplay (a hard 30 FPS set for cutscenes and character animations), its smoothness brings balance between imagery and input.
As combat is first introduced in Ori and the Blind Forest, simplicity is the operative word. Sein begins only shooting limited-action lightning bolts, then adds an explosive energy burst attack as upgrades are added. Outside of a ground pound and a way of redirecting incoming energy attacks, the combat system itself, strictly against enemy combatants, is rather shallow. I would have preferred a more conclusive way of adding variety to defeating enemies, as most are defeated by short retreats and launched electric projectiles.
It was empowered, however, by a smart upgrade system. Ori can upgrade his powers at a save point after accumulating enough ability points. These are earned by destroying enemies, uncovering hidden orbs, etc. By allowing a three-tiered system that improves either your combat, defense or your item gathering abilities, a great deal of player agency is awarded. Not only can they craft their own style of play, but it opens up all sorts of self-imposed playthroughs, including “no ability” speedruns and the like.
Combat, it should be noted, is not strictly the main ticket for rewarding excitement in this game. In Ori and the Blind Forest, the grander focus is on puzzle-like platforming that requires a shared emphasis on action maneuvers. In order to conquer the more elaborately designed areas, players need to rely on Ori’s abilities as the game progresses. Wall jumping is impeded by spike-laden terrain, while some of the most elaborate chases require precise air-dash moves and enemy-attack-dependant projectile reflections for minutes at a time.
Players will find that methods for defeating the platforming challenges that lie ahead of them are not so cut and dry, requiring patience and a key eye to solve. One wrong move and it’s quick death, leading to one of my favorite aspects of Ori and the Blind Forest; its difficulty. If you know what you’re doing, you can find yourself breezing through the first 30% of the game on a second playthrough. It’s the growing pains of learning how to take out enemies, avoiding traps and manipulating objects properly that keeps a balanced gameplay flow. Don’t be surprised if you die dozens, if not hundreds, of times throughout. Overcoming adversity is a just reward for a game that requires the best of its users. Don’t worry, resurrecting is quick and painless.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb sound design. Ori and the Blind Forest enjoys the works of a brilliant orchestral soundtrack, one that plays thematically appropriate tunes of all varieties. Whether it be at the most tender of moments or the thrilling escapades of impending doom, the music is nothing short of cinema quality. It is a predominant quality in the game’s narrative direction, working perfectly in tandem with the palette-rich tapestry it plays overtop.
It’s not all praises for Ori and the Blind Forest, as it does have some minor downfalls. Firstly, the framerate is not 100% solid. At 60 FPS, most of the time you will enjoy a smooth gameplay experience. However, I would much prefer an on-the-fly option to lock it at 30 when encountering some of the game’s more intense moments. The stuttering, while occasional, can really make things harder than they should be due to unreliable frame drops. These moments are minor, but noticeable.
How the game ends, I feel, is artistically sound and pays off justly. However, once the story is finished, there is no going back. Ori and the Blind Forest, like any good Metroidvania title, has hidden power-ups, including extra life and energy orbs hidden throughout the game. Unfortunately, as soon as you enter the last “dungeon-like” area, the entrance closes in on you, and you cannot return to the proper map. Furthermore, due to the save system being dependent on your usage, once the game is completed you cannot access that file’s adventure ever again.
It’s a frustrating oversight in a game that I yearn to return to, especially for completion purposes. This design choice inherently denotes Ori’s piecemeal, calculated progression as relatively unimportant in the end, which undermines the entire 6-8 hour journey you undertake. Markedly easier is it to use a full-powered protagonist to find all the secrets tucked away in a masterfully designed overworld, especially as the journey to the final area of the game takes on a “victory lap” of sorts. Starting from scratch and grinding away for hours to gain your traversal skills back, instead, is daunting of a task saved only for the bold.
It’s disappointing, as such a lack of intuition that can be solved with a post-release patch is one of a few lesser issues standing in the way of absolute greatness for Ori and the Blind Forest. Perfectly executed is the sum of its excellent parts, molding gameplay and story in a manner befitting a top-budgeted release. Microsoft took a risk in acquiring Moon Studios as a first-party developer, even more so with the intention of releasing their first game at a meager $20 introductory price-point.
“Budget” or “B title,” while apt a descriptor in an industry with ever-growing marketing and production expenses, does not do justice to describe Ori and the Blind Forest. To do so is reductive a means to explain how deep its gameplay mechanics are thoughtfully crafted, or how captivating its story is in its harshness. Rare is it for me to find myself fighting off the inevitability of tears, especially in a plot heavy with voiceless characters. Moon Studios, in its unique approach to game development, came together as a team to craft a title worthy of high regard. This is what video games should strive for, both big budget and small.
Ori and the Blind Forest, even in its early 2015 release, is already a strong game of the year candidate. Exquisite is its composition, as the hot-cold pacing of exciting platforming action mixed with thought-enticing puzzles and exploration is a sought after quality. Small blemishes in replayability and rare framerate dips should not overshadow the bigger picture, as players can expect to be fully immersed in a somber, yet enrapturing world full of wonder.
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.
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