Ori and the Will of the Wisps REVIEW – a perfect sequel

Ori and the Blind Forest is quite an important game to me. It came out around the same time I was really starting to engage with video games as an art form, and this game was one of the first times I had been almost moved to tears by one. I remember exactly where I was when that reveal trailer was first shown at E3. Sitting on my sofa, a cup of tea in my hand, I became transfixed onto my laptop screen by this weird, gorgeous game playing at the XBOX conference. Of course, I won’t spoil what happens in the trailer because it’s a moment best experienced fresh if you haven’t already done so, but needless to say I found myself moved beyond words and more excited for a game than I’d been in quite some time.

The game released in early 2015, I played it, I loved it, but that’s really where the story ends. Once I was done with it, I felt no reason to return to it. It’s a game with a fairly strict string of beats, its emotional peaks typically occurring during and immediately following a number of tightly choreographed chase sequences, where making one small mistake would mean you restart the encounter. That’s not a bad thing necessarily – a lot can be gained from a controlled gaming experience – but the feelings of panic, fear and desperation that are supposed to happen, while powerful in their own right, are somewhat undercut by the railroad-y nature of the segments. You’re supposed to be on this grand adventure, encountering peril and danger at every turn, but the rigidness of the game’s design does take away from the overall experience, even if that experience is still really fun and engaging.

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Of course, player expression was never supposed to be Blind Forest‘s primary intention. It’s a spectacle game, jam-packed with stunning visuals, incredible animations and a sense of scale unmatched by almost any other. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be more room for player expression – it would just take a lot of hard work. We even see snippets of this style of game with the free-form save system, allowing the player to drop a save point anywhere they see fit. This mechanic is really cool since it gives the player more freedom to play the game their way, while also adding an additional tension and careful decision-making to the experience. If the first game could introduce small ideas like this, then perhaps the sequel could flesh this out even more. Well, I’m pleased to report that’s exactly what happened in Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

When you’re playing Will of the Wisps, you get the impression very quickly that Moon Studios played close attention to the criticisms levelled towards their debut title. It would’ve been easy for the team to take the huge critical acclaim and shit out another one of those, but they instead tried their damnedest to create the perfect version of the Ori formula. The major complaint people had with the first game was the combat, or rather the lack thereof. While there was a small amount of depth with the mid-air bash and charged blasts, ultimately many enemy encounters could be easily managed by mashing the X button until the big bad goes boom. In a game with a lot of strengths, this was a glaring weakness.

However, rather than reinforcing what was already good about the original and doing little else, the developers instead completely revamped the combat system. Now, rather than having just the first game’s strict set of combat options, the player is given a wide array of tools to choose from. Right off the bat, you’re given a light melee attack that does little damage but feels infinitely better than the standard attack because the accompanying phenomenal animation work that was already there in the first game provides a satisfying feedback to your swings. The game makes you feel underpowered by giving enemies a larger health pool and faster attacks, but mitigates the frustration of being in that state by making fighting back so viscerally rewarding. As the game goes on, you’re given more and more combat options, like a crushing hammer, a fast-action bow-and-arrow, a piercing spear, and about a dozen more, but in order to keep the combat from becoming overly complex, you can only use three of these at a time (mapped to the X, Y and B buttons).

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The ability to set your own personalised loadout provides additional player choice that makes the journey you take in the game feel distinctly your own. A new addition to the game is combat shrines, which can be repeated infinitely, allowing the player to refine their loadout and figure out what works best for them. Personally, I enjoy being a heavy hitter in games, so I stuck with the hammer all the way through, while equipping the bow (replaced with the spear later) as a ranged attack, and rounding it out with the regeneration power, which allows you to refill your health meter. Of course, most of these abilities are limited by how much Energy you have, so that needs to be considered as well. For example, the spear is really powerful, but it uses a lot of energy, so it can only really be used sparingly. Choosing your own style of combat and mastering its intricacies through organically-created combos is really gratifying, and I felt like a god of war by the end.

Spirit shards are a new addition as well, providing further depth to the combat and platforming. They’re essentially these passive buffs you can equip to your character to further specialise your style of play. Some of these just objectively make your character better, like taking decreased damage or making your attacks stronger, while others are much more risk-reward, such as the one that increases enemy health in exchange for a greater number of Spirit Light, the game’s currency, if you’re looking for a more challenging experience. Some of these Spirit Shards can be upgraded further, while others simply build upon pre-existing abilities. One I particularly enjoyed was the ability to use the grapple you acquire about a third into the game on enemies, adding a whole new layer of verticality to the combat. You can upgrade that to cause damage too, allowing for even more combo creation to take out enemies in the most efficient way possible.

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I can’t express enough how much all of these additions have added to the enjoyment of the game. What was once a really fun, well made but rigid platformer now truly feels like the journey into the heart of darkness the first game was shooting for but never quite achieved. The escalating combat and platforming abilities to discover creates this fantastic balancing act where the game makes you feel disempowered for a while, before introducing a new move that completely changes your relationship with the world and your ability to traverse it, making you feel like an unstoppable force of nature. The game makes you weak and helpless so the upgrade tastes all the sweeter. Levels are also designed in such a way that communicates this sense of progression. The start of a stage will often see the player venturing down or sometimes falling into the unknown, emphasising this sense of being out of your depth, only to later force the player up and out, beautifully conveying the feeling of overcoming the challenge and rising above it. This controlled verticality reminded me of the very strongest moments in Dark Souls, which is always a positive in my book. Very few games manage to pull these aspects off well, but Moon Studios makes it look easy.

The first game often gets lauded for its touching story, and I can’t say I disagree. I must’ve played that opening sequence five times now and I can’t help but tear up every time I see it. It’s a testament to the expressive animation work that you know exactly how the players are feeling and what they’re thinking with nary a single word spoken. This is helped in no small part by Gareth Coker’s heart-achingly beautiful soundtrack that hurts to hear every time it shuffles through my Spotify playlist. However, once the game actually begins, a disconnect becomes gradually apparent. Once the opening happens, the game wishes to convey this feeling of loneliness, like you’re a tiny creature in a big, scary world with nobody to protect you. It does that really well to begin with, but as the game progresses and you’re told by a big tree to save the forest and vanquish the evil etc etc, your engagement to this world and its story begins to slip. Sure, I’ll save the world if you want, but why should I? Almost every creature in this world is actively trying to kill you, while most of the ones that aren’t are nowhere to be seen for a majority of the game. Destroying the darkness is a reasonable enough goal, but you aren’t really given anything or anyone to connect to, therefore you have no real reason to fight this fight. The game never reaches the emotional highs of the introduction, which is a shame because that sequence proved Moon Studios were capable of a lot more. It’s also worth mentioning that the ending essentially retcons all that came before, seemingly afraid to commit to its darker elements. That was especially disappointing, and it felt the story feeling kind of inconsequential.

Will of the Wisps does not make the same mistakes. Instead, it makes some really important changes that add authenticity to the world, and cause the player to give somewhat more of a shit. This game adds NPCs to interact with, and they’re each unique from one another and surprisingly quite funny and endearing. There’s Tokk, the aged adventuring bird guy who you’ll find in most of the game’s major areas, who doesn’t really serve a purpose aside from being a friendly face in an unfriendly world. Opher is an energetic stick-wielding monkey who levels up your abilities and even supplies new ones. Twillen is a mysterious and somewhat creepy Spirit Shard dealer, through whom who can also upgrade your Shards for maximum impact. Grom is a lonely creature from another time whose people succumbed to the Decay, but he lends his craftsmanship abilities to spruce up your main hub in exchange for collectible Ore scattered throughout the world. There’s all the different Moki too, a simple cat-like species in need of your protection, who each feel distinct from one another and sometimes supply side quests you can commit time to if you like.

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There are many other characters to talk to throughout the game, and I grew to really like all of them. They give you a compelling reason why you need to save this world, which was much-needed in the original. Furthermore, many of their backstories are grounded in tragedy. They are all victims of the Decay, the vague evil antagonist of this game, and it’s their stories that lend down all-important stakes to this adventures. Death is very real in this world, and you need to try your best to prevent any more from happening There’s a number of really quiet, touching moments scattered throughout the whole experience to always remind you of what’s on the line, and it’s a much more engaging experience for it. I’m going to avoid spoilers since I know this game is very fresh in the public consciousness, but I sincerely believe this game’s conclusion will stick with me for years. It challenged me in ways I wasn’t expecting from the sequel to a game whose ending I haven’t thought about in years. I was anticipating the first game’s patented backtracking and inability to commit, but that didn’t happen. Will of the Wisps really commits to its narrative in a way that doesn’t often happen in video games, and for that I can’t thank Moon Studios enough. I’d love to do a spoiler discussion on this game once the dust settles, so maybe look out for that at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, this is where we address the elephant in the room: the technical problems. As much as I loved my time with Will of the Wisps, it is not a finished game. Not that it’s lacking in content, but rather it has major performance issues that seriously detracted from the experience. Framerate issues persisted from start to finish, even on the lowest graphical settings I could manage. It normally wasn’t a huge problem in less busy areas, but the game really struggled during boss fights or any other situations where it had to render a lot of objects at once or even one big complex object like a character. At the best of times, it was a minor annoyance I could ignore, but in the worst cases, I was getting killed because framerate dips meant input lag and input lag meant I was unable to dodge attacks I prepared for seconds ahead of time. Chases sequences easily felt the worst for this, since they often required very specific movements to survive, but when the game is stuttering like Joe Biden responding to a immigrant activist, dying just feels awful and it seriously detracted from what would otherwise be a thrilling and emotionally engaging encounter. I had a couple instances of the screen going black, forcing me to quit the entire game and restart, and one unfortunate animation bug right at the emotional climax of the story which had me giggling instead of crying. I should say that while I would normally blame my equipment for these issues, my PC specs exceed the recommended requirements for the game, so I feel this is a fair criticism to make. It’s a shame because, while I was heavily impacted by the story, I feel those pivotal narrative beats would have had so much more punch if I hadn’t felt the need to mess about in the graphics settings every five minutes.

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So, would I recommend Ori and the Will of the Wisps? Yes, definitely, absolutely! I can’t stress enough just how strong this is as a sequel to Blind Forest. It takes the strengths of its predecessor – animation, soundtrack, satisfying platforming – and builds upon them tenfold. The spectacle is even more awe-inspiring, the music still so powerful, and new platforming abilities make traversing this beautiful world more fun than ever before. However, Moon Studios made the fantastic decision to experiment with an overhauled combat system and a much more vibrant cast of characters to explore within the world, and the experience is much stronger for it. It subverts what you’d expect from an Ori sequel in all the right ways, and for that I’m truly grateful. However, I would hold back on buying it for now. The performance issues aren’t something that detracted from the experience too much for me, but there are some people for whom this will be a deal breaker. I’m not sure if this is simply a problem with the PC port, but I’ve heard stories of issues for the XBOX One and XBOX One S versions too, so be mindful of that. I’d hold back on purchasing this until the team has released a few patches, but once they have a stable product on their hands, I can’t recommend Will of the Wisps enough. The places they go with this story are truly quite brave, and I don’t regret a single second I spent with it.

With such a phenomenal start to the year, the bar is high for other games to claim the top spot. However, with Doom Eternal, Resident Evil 3 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake just on the horizon, expect a hard-fought battle ahead of us this Spring.

FANTASTIC

8.5/10

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