There’s something incredibly amazing about a game that can make you remember back to the “old days” of your childhood, while simultaneously showcasing next (er…current)-gen graphics and a solid, new story. Ori and the Blind Forest manages to achieve all three with only the slightest of stumbles.
Back at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, we got to play an extensive demo level while chatting with Dan Smith, the producer of Ori and the Blind Forest. During our time, he referred to Ori as “a very MetroidVania game” (IE blending the exploration aspects of classic 2D scrollers Castlevania and Metroid), and the finished product most definitely fits that bill. It’s a fantastic throwback to the titles I loved on the original NES, and yet it’s wholly original. In short: if you’re an old-school 2D platform fan, this should be an insta-buy.
Ori and the Blind Forest tells the story of Ori, a spirit from the Forest of Nibel who was taken from his tree-womb during a horrific storm. She (I’m not sure if Ori is female…or even male; you can decide for yourself) is found by a Naru, a lumbering, kindly forest dweller–imagine Chewbacca or Ludo from Labyrinth drawn by Studio Ghibli. Naru takes Ori in as her (!?) child, and several years go by. Now, I won’t ruin any potential story elements by describing further, but sufficed to say, Ori doesn’t quite live happily ever after. The Great Tree calls to her during a storm, and brings her back to the forest. In the time that she has been gone, the forest has been overrun by dark, slimy creatures and it’s your duty to be the light in the darkness and restore order. Ori meets Sein, a floating mote of light which attacks enemies, unlocks doors, and explodes on command (think of a wayyy cooler Navi from Ocarina of Time), and her adventure begins.
The story has a very Eastern feel, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it as a 70/80s animated film (a la Wizards or Secret of NIMH)…and yet, the character of Ori and Sein (as well as all of the other “good” characters) have a very distinct anime feel. The narrative is straight out of Studio Ghibli by way of Avatar…but it never really comes across as hokey. That’s thanks in huge part to the lushly painted backgrounds and clever level design (again, think of a mashup between Metroid and Oddworld: Abe’s Odysee), and the everpresent, respawning enemies. Now, it isn’t quite Castlevania-esque, in that you won’t necessarily be fighting the same enemies the same way, ad nauseam. No, thanks to a cleverly driven narrative, you’ll unlock a host of abilities for Ori that allows you to reach new areas and items by using the enemies to aid you.
Like the other classic side-scroller titles which Ori and the Blind Forest draws inspiration from, you’ll find new and improved power-up abilities scattered throughout your travels. See that ledge way up high with the ability point floating in it? Patience, Grasshopper: your next time through, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to snag it, thanks to the level’s newest upgrade. Throughout Ori’s quest, you’ll learn double jumps, wall crawling, gliding and (a bunch) more. It’s funny, because by the end of the game, your primary attack (even after maxing it out) seems woefully inadequate, and you’ll end up using Ori’s indirect attacks (such as using their own projectiles/attacks against them). Also worth mentioning, Ori has a rather large skill tree to unlock, and in addition to the skill points that each new level grants, you’ll be able to find skill points hidden throughout each level.
That being said, as cutesy as the game can look, it can be viciously, horrendously difficult thanks to a learning curve that’s on par with Six Flags’ Superman ride. No, really. You’ll have moments of slight difficulty where you’ll re-do the same area three or four times before realizing the correct plan of action. That shit goes right out the window when you discover (and liberate) each of the Elemental stones, you trigger an escape sequence that forces you to master not only your earned abilities, but also your timing on button presses. There’s literally no room for error, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll replay each “escape” at least ten times, if only to know where the jump/vault/climb point is that you overlooked. By the time I escaped with the Water stone, I racked up somewhere around 60 deaths (more on that in a bit)…by the time I actually completed the escape sequence, I had broken 100. That means I literally tried (and re-tried) the escape 40+ times. Luckily, I managed to trim my deaths down to ~25 for the other “escapes”…but that’s still a lot. Each time I re-played the sequence, I’d think to myself “I just saved/liberated the (element) stone…why are you trying to kill me!?” The forest, and it spirits, never had an answer.
Death in Ori and the Blind Forest is trivial, thanks to nifty addition called “Soul Link”. Once Ori obtains an energy mote/fills a storage globe (and is in a “safe” area ), you can hold down B and create a Soul Link, which will allow you to respawn from that exact location the next time you die. Remember that. The “auto save” places in Ori are few and far between, which means if you get distracted by finding a new area and don’t save for, say, 10 minutes, you’ll have to go through alllllll of that trouble again when you die. And you will die a bunch…so remember to save often. You’re never really penalized for dying, though, and there were several times that I launched Ori into thorns simply so I could respawn and try again…funny thing is, I always felt a twinge of sadness in doing so. Mostly because Ori is this wholesome, sweet character, and sending her sailing to her death out of sheer laziness seems petty. That being said, you’ll need to shelve laziness to truly enjoy the game, since there are zero instances of quick-travel. You saved an elemental stone? Congratulations! Now bring it allllllllll the way back to the tree, and plow through dozens of enemies to get there. Ditto for every “carry” item you come across, or if you want to find every one of the hidden items.
Like the 2D classics that have come before it, Ori and the Blind Forest is riddled with hidden secrets, from ability points to health/spirit extenders, and finding your way to them is half the fun. Be warned, though: when the game ends, the game ends…which means you can’t re-trace your steps and explore the levels to your heart’s content. So be sure to use your time re-traversing areas to find every last item…and power up for the finale (or, more realistically, the twisting road to the finale).
All in all, Ori and the Blind Forest is a spectacular endeavor; it’s a solid love-letter to 2D exploration titles of yesteryear, while managing to bring something fresh and interesting to the table. Though the majority of the game is solid and maneuverable, there are ~10 segments that are extremely, throw-your-controller-across-the-room-and-scream-bloody-murder difficult…so keep that in mind. Save often, marvel at the gorgeous art and level design, but above all: have fun. Ori is a stellar $20 title that absolutely deserves a place on your hard drive, and seeing as it delivers 12-15 hours of content (especially if you spend time exploring), it’s easy to see why we like it so much.