Ori and the Double Feature: Two Metroidvania Masterpieces

Ori and the Blind Forest is a Metroidvania developed by Moon Studios and published by Microsoft Studios. It released on the Xbox One and PC in March 2015, and later on the Nintendo Switch in September 2019. It costs $20. I played the PC version.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the sequel developed by Moon Studios and published by Xbox Game Studios. It released on the Xbox One and PC in March 2020 and later on the Nintendo Switch in September. It costs $30. I played the PC version.

I’ve been meaning to play Ori ever since I immersed myself into Hollow Knight back in 2018. After finishing that indie darling, however, I felt worn out from playing so many Metroidvanias back to back, so I took a break from the genre. This year I felt re-energized on them and decided it was time to give Ori a fair shot.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a charming 2D indie game with a vague nonverbal story, as most indie Metroidvanias are. The game begins with Ori, a forest spirit, being born from a guardian tree and wandering far from home. It befriends other creatures in the forest, ignoring the call of its parent tree until one day the tree looses its light and the forest becomes corrupted. The game has a strong “innocent child saving the world through its pureness” vibe going for it, winning over any antagonist with kindness.

That’s not the only nonviolent element of this game, either. Most Metroidvanias are known for their challenging combat, but The Blind Forest instead makes the combat go sit in the back seat. Well, to be more accurate, the combat is sitting in a trailer behind the car. That’s not a bad thing, though. Ori and the Blind Forest ignores combat in order to focus more on platforming.

And boy does it deliver on the platforming. The level design is excellent and in perfect harmony with each of Ori’s abilities. My favorite skill is Bash, where Ori uses enemy projectiles to launch itself into the air. It feels so good to pull of. Once you get the hang of the controls, Ori begins to have this fluid, graceful momentum that makes you feel like an olympic gymnast. The platforming is challenging, but if you die the game is quick to get you back to where you left off. In that sense, Ori and the Blind Forest may have more in common with Celeste than it does with Hollow Knight. The game also gives you the ability to make your own checkpoints at the cost of a spirit orb, which is a genius way to let you pace the difficulty with a risk / reward mechanic.

Most “boss fights” in the first Ori are actually escape sequences. I’ve seen many people complain about these, but for me, it’s where the game shines the most. The escapes are tense tests of your skills, like putting an exclamation point on the end of an eloquent platforming sentence. In fact, I think they even outshine Metroid’s escape sequences.

Speaking of shine, every scene in this game could be its own desktop wallpaper; the game blends foreground and background seamlessly into one of the best-looking 2D games I’ve ever seen. This level of detail, however, proved to be a double-edged sword. There were several moments where it was difficult for me to find Ori on the screen; there were just so many glowing things. This unclear design led to a few cheap deaths, but as I said before, the game puts you back into the action so quickly that they were hardly setbacks. This first game is already one of the best Metroidvanias there is, and one of the best indie games I’ve ever played.

And the sequel improves upon it in every way.

You could technically play Ori and the Will of the Wisps on its own, but I highly recommend playing Ori and the Blind Forest first. Will of the Wisps contrasts in tone with the first game quite deliberately, and if you played Wisps first, you’d loose all of that.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps starts out with Ori living with the friends it made in the first game. During a storm one of the friends gets lost in a new forest, where a spirit tree has also lost its light. So Ori embarks on a journey save this friend and the new forest.

Will of the Wisps is even more beautiful than The Blind Forest. I just wanted to take a screenshot every second I was playing this game. The way they crafted foreground and background to work together made it the most immersive 2D game I’ve ever played. Even better, though, they fixed the conveyance problem I had with the first game. I’m not sure exactly how they did it, but Ori’s silhouette has greater clarity, as do the enemies and their attacks.

Will of the Wisps takes off the gloves and gives Ori a full combat moveset. You have several different weapons at your disposal, from a blade to a bow to a hammer. Each had their own weight and feel, and while other Metroidvanias still have better combat, it’s a welcome addition that doesn’t feel forced. These weapons can be swapped around for others such as a spear or throwing star, but I for my playthough I stuck with the sword, bow, and hammer.

Will of the Wisps also introduces shards (aka enhancements) that you can swap in and out, similar to the charms in Hollow Knight; however, I found most of Hollow Knight‘s charms useless or very situational. They mostly change your play-style rather than feel like genuine improvements to your character. Will of the Wisps’s shards, on the other hand, feel truly helpful while at the same time rewarding certain adjustments to how you play.

In a way, Will of the Wisps’s changes definitely make it feel more like other Metroidvanias. They are objective improvements, but they also make it stand out less than the original did.

Combat was not the only thing overhauled. Will of the Wisps adds NPCs living in a small town filled with side quests and upgrades. At first glance it sounds like Ori just copied Hollow Knight‘s town Dirtmouth, but after a second look I saw Ori’s own twists on it. There’s an optional town-building mechanic, which I thoroughly enjoyed in-between bites of platforming. It felt like a genuine improvement and iteration to further the genre instead of just aping what came before.

Will of the Wisps also adds in several different challenge shrines, either for combat or platforming. The platforming ones were my favorite; it’s fun to see how far you’ve come in mastering the movement system by outrunning the little time trial ghost. With so many tricks up my sleeve, I might come back to speedrun this game.

And that brings us to Will of the Wisps‘ bread and butter: the platforming. It’s the best of any 2D game, rivaling if not exceeding Celeste. Once again it’s challenging but not punishing, and the new powerups play with the old ones in clever ways. My new favorite powerup is Light Burst, which creates a projectile for you to Bash on. The flow and fluidity is turned up to eleven. I would pull off tricks and stunts through a platforming section, burst off a projectile, dash across a gap, jump off the wall, and land at just the right spot, I’m sure I could break olympic records as Ori. It was thrilling. I thought I’d finish Will of the Wisps over the course of a week like I did with The Blind Forest, but I ended up playing the whole thing in just a weekend.

I’m now going to dive into story spoilers, so if you don’t want them, leave now while you still can!

Ori’s tone is much more serious than the first game. Whereas Blind Forest was about overcoming darkness through the innate goodness of a child, Will of the Wisps recognizes that not everyone is going to take your hand in friendship. Ori grows up in this game. In a way, it’s fitting then that he received weapons. Every major story beat in the game felt like Ori was learning about responsibility and how to take care of others.

Which is why it felt so right that Ori gave up its life as a spirit to become this forest’s new guardian tree.

Ori and the Blind Forest had its emotional moments, but the ending cutscene in Will of the Wisps was particularly surprising and poignant. I’d expect something like this from an RPG, not a Metroidvania. It was a bittersweet journey for a character in a genre that normally doesn’t do stories very well. Props to Moon Studios for going out like this and for having the guts to do that to their main character.

The game was already so good, but that ending solidified Ori and the Will of the Wisps as my favorite Metroidvania of all time. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s a solid contender for my Game of the Year. I can’t wait to see what Moon Studios puts out next.

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