The year is 2020. Two and half months have passed with no notable game releases to speak of. Nintendo Directs have been inexplicably absent. Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X release dates are on the verge of cancellation. Conferences are delayed or nixed, flights are grounded, borders are closed and the citizens of the world have been quarantined to their toilet paper fortresses. I’ve seen the memes: “Gamers have been prepared to stay in their homes for years.” Only one problem: this year, with its multitude of delays, has seen almost nothing in terms of new video games to play. (It’s a miracle leveldowngames.com was able to get up five reviews over the last two months!) But just when the Covid Dragon blazes its unholy plague across the land, Moon Studios rides in on its horse to save the day with a release that I’ve been anticipating more than nearly any other game. The crowded spring release calendar has begun, and first up in our stuck-at-home gaming extravaganza is Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which, I can confidently say after completing (and nearly 100%-ing) the game, is the first great can’t-miss release of 2020.
|Publisher||Xbox Game Studios|
|Available On||PC, Xbox One|
|Release Date||March 11, 2020|
|Time Spent Playing||12 Hours|
Ori and the Will of the Wisps picks up a short time after the series’ first entry, Ori and the Blind Forest from 2015, leaves off. Following the events of Blind Forest, Ori has befriended the young owl Ku as they fly towards the land of Niwen. A storm separates the two from each other, and Ori begins a search to locate Ku. As expected, Niwen is filled with threats large and small, both creatures and hazards to stop Ori from progressing. As Ori discovers the truth of the spirit guardians, the spirit trees, and her true destiny, you will uncover new abilities and mechanics that allow you to progress deeper into areas and unlock new treasures. Like most Metroidvania games, Ori and the Will of the Wisps pushes the player to visit areas and locations multiple times to reach areas previously inaccessible. The more you do, the more you will be rewarded.
The previous entry to the series, Ori and the Blind Forest, is my favorite Metroidvania game of the last decade, and that’s saying something considering the stiff competition in the field. I am pleased to announce that Ori and the Will of the Wisps somehow takes the original formula and builds upon it in nearly every way to great effect. Everything you loved about the original is back, with even greater depths of character exploration to access. Most notably, the skills and abilities system has been reworked and Ori will now equip and level up different abilities using a currency dropped by enemies or found in the environment. These abilities equip to three different action buttons and passive slots, and with over 10 abilities and 20 passive “shards”, there is a lot of variation to how you choose to build Ori and play the game. Some abilities seem more powerful or useful than others on an initial playthrough, but having talked to other players, it seems their favored builds differed from my own. Even if I didn’t use some of these skills, finding them and completing that collection was rewarding on its own and creates incentive to try different builds when I inevitably replay.
Abilities weren’t the only overhaul from the original. The story of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is much more crucial to the gameplay when compared to the original, and hit on emotional levels for me that Blind Forest lacked. The plot is propped up by a host of original and new characters that are universally charming and a joy to meet, and visiting the hub of Wellspring Glades to purchase upgrades and turn in collectibles is a nice respite from the dangers of Niwen. My favorite new character, Kwolok, features prominently through a portion of the game and, like most of the other new characters, has his own small arc with a beautiful conclusion. Moon Studios also clearly looked to its competitors for inspiration this time around, with many changes obviously being inspired by Hollow Knight. Most blatant is an increased focus on combat, with a sword-type melee weapon that feels remarkably similar to the Knight’s Nail. Also replaced is the original map system, which is now controlled by newcomer Lupo, who hides in inconspicuous spots throughout the world and will fill in areas of the map for a small fee, reminiscent of Hollow Knight’s cartographer. This should not be seen as an insult to Ori. The combat and mapping of Hollow Knight worked great there, and are implemented well here too.
With these changes, however, comes a slightly different feel from the original game’s playstyle. More combat means a slightly decreased focus on exploration. If you’re a huge fan of Blind Forest, as I am, I expect you’ll find plenty to love in Ori’s new adventure, but be aware that there is a different feel to the overall experience.
What doesn’t feel different, thankfully, is the grace of Ori’s movements. Ori and the Blind Forest succeeded for me in large part from how fun it felt to explore the environment. As the game progressed, Ori improved her ability to jump, dash, dodge and dive, and chaining these together felt effortless and satisfying. Moon Studios succeeds here yet again, with new movement techniques that combine for a truly interesting and innovative take on platform progression. Reaching heights or depths by combining a triple jump with a dash into a wall stick, launching from an enemy’s projectile onto a bouncy flower and through a blue teleporter to grapple to a wall covered in blue flowers will never not be fun. Challenges appear throughout the world where you race a time trial ghost for a small reward. I was completing these challenges not because I needed the money at the end, but because linking these moves together was fast, challenging, and honestly the best part of the game. Every gamer owes it to themselves to play an Ori game just for a little bit, as no other franchise succeeds in parkour-style movements with expertly crafted environments so well.
If the perfect movement doesn’t whet your whistle, it should be said that Ori and the Will of the Wisps truly has a little something for everybody. I enjoyed perfecting my jumps through obstacles, playing in a pseudo-speedrun style that made Ori look like a gymnast. However, the game doesn’t have to be played quickly and with precise movements, as most areas are actually pretty forgiving with small mistakes. The combat is fun, challenging, and almost always fair, with huge boss battles that will truly test your abilities. If you like platformer games at all, I can’t think of a better example than the Ori franchise to display its highest heights.
Ori and the Blind Forest was praised for its unique graphical style, which is somehow miraculously better in Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Moon Studios has created lush environments full of ruins, stones, sand, clouds, skyscapes, trees, brush and grass, all beautifully rendered without exception. As Ori sprints, jumps and swims through the world, water, grass, and bushes will react realistically to her passing. Though the game plays in a side-scrolling fashion, both the foreground and background are used to incredible effect, whether it be animals approaching you to get a better look or a monstrous enemy searching for you as you hide behind vision-obstructing obstacles. The colors used are reminiscent of the prequel, but even more eye-catching. Bright skies with beautiful fires light up an open town, just as Ori’s luminescence will be all that guides you through a foreboding dark wood. Not a pixel of graphics was phoned in, and Moon Studios deserves all the praise in the world for creating what is truly a visual masterpiece.
It should be noted that standout amongst Ori’s entire adventure are the encounters you’ll have with the “bosses” of the world. These encounters are few overall and don’t always involve combative sequences, but they are without fail executed almost perfectly to inspire the same tension your little spirit guardian must be feeling. From animation to music, everything about these moments stick their landing.
Speaking of music, Ori and the Will of the Wisps boasts a beautifully composed soundtrack by Gareth Coker, who composed the previous game’s OST and has also contributed music to Ark: Survival Evolved, Minecraft, and the Darksiders franchise. In one word, the soundtrack feels natural; drawling violin notes and gentle percussions provide a pallet for whistles, woodwinds, and chanting voices. The main theme evokes a spirit of mystery and exploration, fitting to the dark tunnels you’ll be spelunking in Niwen. When times get tense, songs like “Escaping a Foul Presence” fade in and introduce bells, xylophones, and harsh brass bursts that provide motion and electricity matching the protagonist’s peril. In moments of rest, you’ll visit Wellspring and be treated to “Sanctuary in the Glades”. This tune is my favorite from the soundtrack, and is actually one of my favorite pieces of video game music in recent years. The muted trumpet laying the melody against an orchestra of major-key strings is simply divine and almost sounds like the atmospheric noises one would find in A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood. All of these songs are mixed perfectly with nice combat noises and hilariously cute gibberish from the charming NPCs.
Moon Studios issued a day one patch for Ori and the Will of the Wisps that reportedly fixed a lot of the glitches early reviewers were experiencing with the game, including crashes, lost progress, graphical malfunctions and audio looping. Many reviewers returned to the game following the day one patch and reacted positively to the changes, yet it would be wholly unfair of me to not mention the multitude of bugs that remain in the game’s current state. On more than one occasion, entering a cutscene forced the game into a strange graphical loop that was inescapable besides from force closing the program. Thanks to the autosave feature, the game resumed just prior to the cutscene and seemed to fix the issue, but these lapses of game flow were enough to emotionally remove me from the moment. Other (and admittedly less serious) glitches encountered include frame rate drops (which didn’t happen with lots of enemies, but seemed to be random), disappearing audio or subtitles (which, for me, appeared to be linked to pausing the game), and a rare clipping through an object. Ori and the Will of the Wisps was delayed multiple times, and honestly, it could’ve used a little more time in the oven before being considered fully baked. It was unfortunate to encounter problems so glaringly obvious in an otherwise wonderful game.
Allow me to be candid for a moment. I work in healthcare and have small children at home. With the fear in the world of CoViD-19 and the surrounding hysteria and panic, these last few weeks have been nothing short of stressful. I’ve had travel plans cancelled, work schedules have been all over the place, and we’ve had some difficulty getting supplies for our home, including fresh food. My family is still in a good place, but the thoughts and worries have been constant clouds in my mind. Ori and the Will of the Wisps has been a welcome escape from these concerns. For a few short bursts of time, I was able to escape the crowded grocery lines and travel through Niwen, full of friendly faces and frightening foes alike, all placed in one of the most beautiful video game worlds to date. The credits rolled for me at just over 10 hours of play, but I expect to get a few more hours reaching towards the 100% marker in the first playthrough alone. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is available on PC and Xbox One via Xbox Game Pass, which runs at such a cheap price that this game should be a no-brainer for most people to play. For me, this is the first high profile release of 2020, and is a near-perfect Chapter One to what looks to be a very promising year.