Ori and the Specters in the Dark

Metroid was a platforming adventure game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that pioneered a genre. Games in that family followed a pretty straightforward formula – a lone hero journeys through a vast world filled with hazards and obstacles with no clearly defined “level breaks” and no set path. The genre also focuses entirely on a 2D side scrolling graphical presentation. The player is free to explore and overcome obstacles using their own wits, observation skills and the various movement mechanics, backtracking to old areas of the world map as new forms of movement mechanics become available, and finally clearing the game. 

The Metroid franchise added a heavy dose of combat to these games, as did successors like Castlevania, but other games in the genre like Cave Story and Owlboy greatly reduce the importance of direct confrontation as a part of the gameplay, focusing more on exploration and fun movement mechanics like jumping, rolling, swinging and flying. As someone who’s first video game was Super Mario Brothers, the Metroid (or Metroidvania or Castleroid) genre holds a special place in my heart. When I first saw the trailer for Ori in the Blind Forest I suspected I was looking at a game I would really enjoy. 

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a whole lot of time for games these days. I have a lot of things I want to do and not a lot of time to do them in, and at the end of the day the simple upsides of a video game, teaching coordination, focus, and basic puzzle solving, are things that have few returns left for me. I can only justify them as stress relief and there are other forms of entertainment I enjoy just as much so… not a lot of gaming happens in my typical week. When Blind Forest came out in 2016 I never got around to it. Then Studio Moon released Ori and the Will of the Wisps in 2020 and the chorus of high praise the game received caught my attention. I was able to pick up both games for the price of one over Christmas and finally got around to finishing them this spring. 

I was right to wait. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a very halfbaked game. It has some of the charm of the Metroid genre, with a big, beautiful map full of dangers and horrors around every corner, tons of neat things to find and some very satisfying takes on jumping and dashing. However the game also suffers from very clunky takes on the air jump, a genre staple, and climbing. It’s also got a very bizarre save system, where you can save most anywhere you want except the times when it really matters and you have a save rationing system that runs on the energy resource, which sounds like you’d have to be careful how you use it except saving is the only thing you really spend energy on and I never felt like I was in danger of running out. Worse, with most of the advanced movement abilities being context depended I frequently found myself sticking to a wall when I wanted to drift slowly in the air. 

On top of that, Blind Forest has extremely lackluster combat, leaning more to the Owlboy end of the spectrum in terms of dealing with enemies while crossing the map. There are no boss battles and no notable standouts among the generic monsters that populate Ori’s world. The game tries to make up for this by ending each major chapter of the game with a frantic chases or hectic escapes through a section of the game world where small mistakes cost the player dearly. These sections are a lot of fun at first, coming off as creative and harrowing, but they get a little stale by the end with nothing to contrast them against. Worse, as the more advanced powers like wall running and “bashing” are introduced the context controls can sometimes slip you up through no fault of your own, leaving you to restart an entire chase sequence from the beginning. There are no places to set check points in these sprinting sections and they only get longer as things go on. The last two or three of these were incredibly frustrating. 

But I stuck with Blind Forest because Moon Studios achieved a triumph of storytelling in their game. 

Now video games in general and Metroid style games in particular are a poor storytelling medium. They need to focus more on the feel of playing them than on the story and the narrative almost always suffers for this. But the Ori franchise escapes this curse through two savvy choices. First, they keep the story very simple. Second, they tell it entirely visually. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a tale about an orphaned spirit named Ori who must restore the damage done to its home forest and the Spirit Tree that created it by undoing the decay caused by the giant owl, Kuro. Simple and to the point. The game uses short cutscenes to introduce and give insight into our main characters, but it also uses the foreground and background of the game to build them up over time. Gumo is the first example of this, his long, gangly limbs coming into view in the out of focus foreground of early areas, his gleaming yellow eyes shining in the background elsewhere. And, once we figure out Gumo and make our peace with him there’s still the matter of Kuro, who begins as a pair of wings whooshing past in the distance and evolves into a menacing force of nature who stalks Ori through the skies, swamps and mountains of the game’s second half. 

What’s more, Kuro reaches the full extent of a great villain, her wrath at Ori and the spirits driving her to more and more extreme actions that eventually threaten the very thing she sought to protect. Kuro perishes not in a direct confrontation with Ori but rather when she returns the light she stole to the Spirit Tree to end the peril that threatens her last egg. This is not the kind of thing that happens in most video games, which seek to give players the satisfaction of overcoming their antagonist in the game itself. And I’ll admit, not having a direct part to play in Kuro’s downfall was a bit annoying to me, as a player, even though I found it very satisfying as the audience. 

However, when I switched off Blind Forest I seriously considered not continuing with Will of the Wisps. The mechanics in Blind Forest were pretty mediocre, and represent by far the biggest part of the game. Sure, the presentation of the story in the game was excellent but I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest another six to ten hours in a game if 95% of that time was going to be aggressively meh. I decided I would give Will of the Wisps fifteen minutes to win me over. 

Within ten I had Ori running through a forest with a torch in hand, the Howler chasing me under logs and over stones in a familiar and frantic chase sequence that ended with something quite new – a boss battle, and a very satisfying one. Will of the Wisps had won me over. In fact, Will of the Wisps feels like the full, complete version of Blind Forest, possibly a complete realization of what Moon Studios had hoped for. The controls are tighter and there’s much less chance of context dependency costing you a fight or a running sequence, although it can still happen. 

There’s also much more control over what Ori can do – players get a slew of abilities from a glowing sword and bow to a nimbus of light and an explosive superjump, all of which can be swapped in and out of your primary action buttons at will. Energy is no longer part of the save system but rather powers most of Ori’s high powered attacks, making rationing energy pretty important for most of the game (though by the end that was much less important). Rather than requiring active saving the game autosaves your progress at fixed waypoints, which are quite plentiful and actually exist in the middle of some of the longer escape sequences. Everything about playing the game is tighter, more responsive and more intuitive. 

And nothing about the story in Will of the Wisps suffers for it. Ori and its new friend, Ku, find themselves stranded in Niwen, another land who’s Spirit Tree has gone dark and now suffers from decay. But Ori and Ku are quickly separated and Ori must find and save its friend before evil befalls her. This story is again set up and told through heartfelt cutscenes. But now, more than ever, evil pursues you through the shadows of the world. 

From the moment the Howler’s many eyes fixed on Ori during the introduction I knew Moon Studios had taken the lessons of Kuro and expanded on them. Almost every area of Niwen has some kind of ominous portent hidden in the middle distance, visible from most places as you explore. The predatory grace of the Howler, undulating through the forests. The twitching legs of Mora poking around the trunks of the Mouldwood. The alien specter of Shriek stalking the Silent Woods. The decay of Niwen is everywhere in evidence. 

But it’s not just the twisted and evil we see in this game. There’s also Baur, slumbering as he waits for spring, and the massive wheels of the Wellspring, caked with grime and sludge at first, then slowly turning to new life and purpose as you cleanse them and set them to motion again, portents of the good you can do and are doing as you work to find and save your friend. The story of Will of the Wisps is the obvious continuation of Blind Forest, but that’s really a mark in its favor. In Blind Forest Ori is young and a bit naïve, and too green to directly confront the massive dangers of the world. 

In Will of the Wisps that changes. Ori has grown up, it has an adopted younger sister to look out for, and it’s much more confident and skilled. Ori is a torch bearer, both literally (however briefly) and figuratively, relighting the land of Niwen and showing its inhabitants kindness and compassion even as the search for Ku consumes most of its attention. In the end, when Ori unites with the Will of the Wisps, we see how far the character has come and it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. 

So on the whole, while I did find navigating the first half of the story intensely frustrating at times, I’m not sorry I went on the journey with the little light spirit. Ori’s saga was fun, heartfelt and even moving. It harkened back to good memories from the past and left the door open a crack for future things. And it reminded us that even the most towering specters of the dark cannot prevail against even a spark of light, a message that rings true no matter what.

A reminder that I am still running a crowdfunder for my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes. Check out the Indiegogo for more details on the story and preview pages!