Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Xbox Game Studio
Genre: Action, Adventure, Platformer, Metroidvania
Platform: PC, Xbox
Audience: PEGI 7
Release Date: 11/03/2020
Price: £24.99 – Rapid Reviews UK was very kindly provided with a review code for this title. Also available on Game Pass.
Watching poor little owl Ku get ripped away from his friends by way of a storm’s naturally devastating turbulence isn’t nice. If you’ve been paying attention to the pre-release footage you may welcome the ‘skip prologue’ option but don’t. Just don’t. As far as scene and mood setting go, Ori and the Will of the Wisps turns it up to eleven while maintaining a clean but rich tone in every damn scene. And that’s just the intro.
Playing out like a dark fairy tale, Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ story is largely told through actions and dynamic, expressive animations. Dialogue and narrative merely take a back seat to a subtle method of appealing to your senses.
When following Ori’s journey to free the wisps, find his owl buddy Ku and generally bring about the restoration of the natural order, it’s easy to forget your own presence and dissolve into feeling you’re part of the ensemble. A sombre and emotionally melodic form of storytelling gently hits its slow beats one minute, deliberately builds a crescendo the next (slowly stabbing you clean in the heart, I must add), all while harmonising with coherent pacing.
The game’s predecessor, Ori and the Blind Forest is renowned for its visually appealing art design and vivid, high-resolution fidelity. Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes this framework and iterates in the best possible way; detail. Given Blind Forest already had an elegant hand-drawn quality, Moon Studios really had their work cut out for them.
Everything’s Gonna be Just Vine
And work they did; the improvement in animation is simply astounding. Every facet of the foreground and background is draped in detail but it’s the movement of many of these minor details that create what feels like a living, breathing world. The masterful use of depth of field and stunning lighting make the illusion all the more real. Despite dense layering, you’re never left wondering what you can or can’t jump off, forging a link between artistic cohesion and fluidity of traversal.
The developer’s pursuit of visual treasure is relentless, and it shows. Even being rooted to a single spot is enough to sit back and marvel at the added definition, whether it’s the beautiful coral-tinted paradise of Luma Pools, the quiet luminescence of the Midnight Burrow or the dark, decaying trees of the Silent Woods, every image has a painted-landscape quality.
While there are archetypical areas in spirit, each of Ori’s sections, snow-capped, sandy or otherwise, feel unique and never disjointed, undergoing an organic transition when bounding through to the next delightful curiosity. Though I briefly tested the Xbox version where there are some notable teething issues with performance. On PC, I didn’t notice any major frame drops throughout the entire game. With a buttery smooth performance of this calibre holding up on my 1080p/144hz display, there was nothing to hold back the visual symphony. Graphical options, however, are painfully limited with no control over frame caps or anti-aliasing methods. Your only choices are to enable VSync, change the resolution or toggle motion blur on or off. Best to bring up the NVIDIA/AMD dashboard if you fancy tinkering under the hood.
Shrill of the Wisp
The magnificent accompanying musical score homes in on the moment-to-moment emotional rollercoaster and goes all-out puppet master in manipulating your mood. The flow of Ori’s movements runs cleanly next to the overall sound design with every pitter-patter, combustion of an enemy, slice of your spirit sword or a larger-than-life character introduction offering precision in gravitas while strings rise and fall as the trees gently sway.
Interestingly there are also more conventionally catchy melodies sprinkled in, somewhat reminding me of Skyrim’s slower moments, but always with similar use of dynamics to adhere to the overall theme. With so much aside from the gameplay to talk about, one could be fooled into thinking this is all a lead up to a less enthusiastic summary of the action. Banish the thought.
The One and Ori
Immediately on swinging your stylish ghostly blade known as the Spirit Edge, there is a sense of weight and substance. By the time you’ve finished pointlessly flailing around to gain an admiration of your new-found combat finesse, it becomes abundantly clear basic combat is a huge upgrade from the fluttering of Blind Forest’s light orbs attacks. Once blade meets skull, that feeling is magnified tenfold.
Mashing auto-combos is a simple affair, with directional attacks the only variant in melee execution, but it’s the synergy of Ori’s energetic airborne gymnastics and the tactile thuds of impact that make the art of fighting such a delight. The juxtaposition between the heavy blows and the gentle grace of Ori’s agility carries a tangible succulence, an equilibrium of style and substance.
What’s more, there’s no shortage of challenging enemies to keep you on your toes. Running head-first into a charging rhinoceros beetle isn’t going to end well. Turning to a well-timed dodge and creative use of the environment is always preferable and, ultimately, more fun.
Boss battles form a combination of Rayman Legends-like frenetic chase scenes and giant, bulking beasts that require quick reactions and careful planning. Observing attack patterns and choosing the right mix of abilities serves far better than any brute force attempt at victory.
Despite the combat-heavy nature of the early moments, the platforming is no second fiddle, even fans of the mighty Celeste (yes, you with your lofty expectations) will feel invigorated.
Hop, Flip, Jump
From the moment of the first leap into a neatly timed wall-jump, familiarity reigns. Even without being reacquainted to Ori’s mechanics, Will of the Wisps impressively guides you into competence through natural progression.
Death has no consequence, with respawn points littered everywhere, you’ll rarely have to retrace more than a handful of steps. To make up for this, Ori’s platforming sometimes requires Celeste-level accuracy to traverse its many rock-face or entwined greenery. Moving from end-to-end of each of the generously sized sub-sections of the overall map involves parkour like athleticism and though rarely lacking in challenge, always feels fair.
Little Ori’s not exactly a wimp but there’s always time to bulk up. In Will of the Wisps it takes less than an hour to obtain your mid-air dash, double jump and ability to stick to walls, making a mockery of the slow plodding pace of progression in Blind Forest. Upgrades are plentiful and equipping shards allows for a more personalised build. You may decide to increase attack strength at the cost of defence but doing so may take up that precious slot that could be filled with the shard for increasing drop rates. Decisions, decisions. Aside from the jump button, the face buttons can be mapped to your tastes.
Holding the left trigger brings up an ability wheel to which you can quickly map one of your moves to the button of your choice. It’s snappy and avoids having to slow the pace of the game by forcing navigation through menus. With the potential for complex combinations on-the-fly, no ability feels wasted. A specific ability may be required to take out a wall, perhaps to create a new shortcut to a previous area, but if it’s only wanted for that single action, or perhaps you want to start a combo off with a specific move but don’t intend to rely on it for the duration of the fight. Situations like these are frequent and make the quick wheel a godsend.
Energy wells are back and can once again be used to refill health and energy, on top of their function as teleporters. Adding to the quality of life touches this time, however, is the ability to teleport from almost any area of the map to a well of your choice, forcefully slashing any notion of pointless backtracking.
Furthermore, the map is used to great effect, highlighting all collectables as you come into relatively close proximity, avoiding the need for mind-numbing levels of pedantry when searching the nooks and crannies and helping completionist runs retain the high-octane pacing.
Speaking of side quests, well, they are nothing more than fetch quests; take item A to NPC B, exchange for item C for NPC D and so on. While far from imaginative, the simple joy of traversal more than makes up for it. What’s more, the currency you’re rewarded with will be put to good use through purchasing upgrades of your current shards, brand new shards or even fresh abilities. In addition to side quests there are point-to-point races, complete with online leaderboards, and combat shrines, where Ori’s tasked with defeating waves of increasing difficulty and enemy numbers, offering powerful recompense and a nice change of pace from exploration.
Where there’s a Will, there’s a Wisp
Freely drifting through the winding tunnels of Ori’s stunning world, you’ll naturally stumble upon hidden secrets, often requiring the resolution of minor platforming puzzles. Each instance of deciding where to go and how to get there feels like its own bite-sized adventure.
True to form for anything Metroid-inspired, progression is gated by abilities, however, there’s still a great degree of freedom from the get-go and always something useful to find whatever stage of the game you’re up to. Exploring a new area will leave you with mental notes as to where you’ll need to return once you’re sufficiently equipped. This is par for the course where this genre is concerned but Ori’s intricate level design effortlessly elevates it above its brethren. Everything is deliberate.
Features of the environment are often neatly woven into the gameplay. A chameleon-shaped structure embedded in the ground, its spiky spine acting as platforming trap, its eye a trigger for releasing its stone tongue, forming a bridge for you to cross. The little touches shine.
There may be a wall of hazards with little smooth spots you can grab on to. At the time it may seem like nothing more than a gap in the weaving thorns. When you later return to the same spot you quickly realise it allows just enough elevation to make that all-important lantern appear in view, allowing your grapple-aided leap to get you to that last gate key. Moments like this are plentiful and sometimes the genius of the methodology only becomes apparent the next time you arrive.
Some familiar features come in to play, such as pushing rocks to block lasers or bouncing in and out of close-proximity portals, though none are overused and this minimalist approach to the use of mechanics avoids the trappings of repetition. The fiftieth act of mid-air projectile redirection is as fresh as the first, due to evolving context. This design approach extends to many facets of the platforming and keeps Will of the Wisps feeling satisfying and rewarding.
For your eyes Ori
When a game grabs your attention early on, you can usually see it through. Ori’s bite never lets go though, holding firm through every breathtaking moment of the gameplay’s symphonic elegance.
Considering my biggest criticism of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is that you need to manually zoom in each time you open the map, I have no reservation in naming this as one of the best action platformers of the last couple of decades.