|Platform Win, Xbox One|
|Publisher Microsoft Studios|
|Developer Moon Studios|
|Release Date Mar 11, 2015|
Ori and the Blind Forest is the kind of game I hate to review.
I've reviewed hundreds of games, and some have been a real pain in the ass, for sure. Some games are bad, and I have to play them anyway. Some games are middling, disappointing examples of a great concept and bad execution. Then there are games where I want so badly to stick around in them, to explore and collect everything, to find all their secrets, and I just can't, because I'm on a deadline.
Ori and the Blind Forest fits into that last camp perfectly. An international collaboration with developers from all over the world — collectively known as Moon Studios — Ori feels in many ways like the apotheosis of decades of action-adventure game design, wrapped in some of the most beautiful, cohesive presentations I've ever seen in a game.
Ori and the Blind Forest begins as a storm buffets the ancient, life-sustaining Spirit Tree, and a single, magical leaf is blown away to land in the forest below. The leaf, it turns out, is a cat-like creature named Ori. Ori is found and adopted by the kind Naru, who raises Ori as her own. The pair live a happy life until one night, when the Spirit Tree is corrupted, leaving the forest "blind" and dying. With everything he cares about at stake, Ori meets the spirit Sein and sets off to restore the Spirit Tree and save the forest.
It's not the most original premise, granted, but Ori and the Blind Forest gets away with it for two main reasons.
First, there's real characterization and personality to Ori and the other inhabitants of the forest. Moon Studios takes enough time at the beginning of the game to invest you in the story and its leads before putting everything in danger, all without feeling too cutscene-driven. Ori treats its characters with care and respect, granting them motivations and personalities, all with almost no dialogue to speak of. There are villains in the forest, but there's no clear evil, not really.
The second reason should be apparent with even the most cursory of glances: Ori and the Blind Forest is strikingly beautiful. There's a quirky, distinctive art style to the characters themselves, and they are painstakingly animated to express the character their absence of much spoken dialogue at all can't provide. Ori also artfully manipulates the emotional impact of these moments with a sweeping orchestral score.
Ironically, as impressive as the character animation and soundtrack are, I was more struck by the world around them. Ori and the Blind Forest uses traditional sidescroller visual cues like parallax scrolling in ways I've never seen before, layering hundreds of instances of animations everywhere in the game world. The result is a space that feels alive. Everything always feels in flux, in motion, ready to shift at a moment's notice. I'm sure there's static artwork in Ori somewhere, but I can't remember any of it.
Ori's traditionalist streak isn't limited to its visual concepts. Ori and the Blind Forest's skeleton is deeply rooted in the item-gated action-adventure genre that reached a sort of platonic ideal with Super Metroid in 1994, and in that respect it isn't unique. Other genres have borrowed Metroid's name and smashed it into other games to try to make something new, but I've never played a game so determined to take and develop those ideas and augment them with incredibly refined, responsive mechanics the way Ori does. Moon Studios has prioritized this mechanical foundation, resulting in incredibly tight, responsive controls that make Ori a joy to play.
Per its influences, there's plenty of exploration in Ori and the Blind Forest. You're free to go more or less wherever you want from the start, impeded not by invisible walls but by Ori's physical limitations. When you encounter a barrier you can't traverse, or see a spot you just can't reach, it's because you haven't found the skill you need to make it happen yet. As the game progresses, Ori finds new abilities that should be familiar to genre vets, like wall jumps, the ability to float and more.
But Ori and the Blind Forest isn't content to use its abilities as one-off keys to new areas, or even rote tools to be employed the same way over and over. Instead, it practically demands you use the new parts of Ori's arsenal on a regular basis almost as soon as you find them, in scenarios ranging from simple enemy encounters to elaborate platforming challenges that will kill you for too many mistakes.
Ori will kill you so often it keeps track of it
I should probably mention here that Ori and the Blind Forest isn't an easy game. Per the in-game statistic, by the time the credits rolled, I had respawned 308 times in my initial playthrough.
Yes. Ori kills you so often it keeps track of it, a trait it shares with games like Dark Souls 2.
It's worth pointing out that shooting and fighting isn't actually Ori's focus. In fact, where other games would place difficult enemies that take direct violence to bring down, Moon Studios has placed difficult, twitch-oriented navigation puzzles. These are Ori's boss fights — sections of the game where you have to keep moving or die, though moving to the wrong place will also kill you.
I don't want to mislead you: This is trial-and-error design. You will die, a lot in all likelihood, until you learn the minimum necessary to overcome the challenge Ori is putting in front of you.
Here's the thing, though. Performing well in Ori feels amazing, because it isn't easy. Ori isn't on rails, and it's not full of quicktime sequences. It's about timing and reflexes, and quickly sizing up as much of a situation as you can and acting accordingly. Even the basic gameplay loop of platforming and defeating common enemies involves moment-to-moment decisions about how best to use your skills beyond "shoot the thing."
Ori and the Blind Forest wants to do things differently in ways that make sense. The simplest example: Ori doesn't fire energy directly — instead, attacks come from Sein, who floats above and in front of Ori. This adds some tactical considerations and played with my understanding of what I could or couldn't hit. It's not a profound, deep mechanic on its own, but it tweaks the formula enough to make it feel distinct, different from the hundreds of other games that have dipped into the same well Ori draws upon.
This difficulty is further leveraged by making quicksaves a resource. Ori can use his limited pool of energy to create save points around the Blind Forest, and over time he can earn more and more energy to save more often. But that same energy pool can be used offensively for charged attacks that come in handy against more resilient enemies.
This save system is a smart, small tweak on established convention that typifies so much of what the game does well. But I think Ori is just as well-served by its brevity. At just over seven and a half hours, I sat at around 90 percent completion in the game. And when it ended, I could still remember the characters, who they were, what they were doing and what I was doing.
Moon Studios seems freed by the lower price point of a downloadable game to make something that isn't artificially extended. There's lots to explore, but not so much that I lost track of the plot or my motivation, which, for this kind of game, has always been a particular challenge.
Ori and the Blind Forest shows a spectacular level of confidence
Ori and the Blind Forest is a rare realization of fantastic design and production values in a space where I wasn't expecting to find it, displaying a spectacular level of confidence in what it is and what it does. And here's where we come back to wishing I hadn't reviewed it as quickly as I had to. It's a game that provides so much to explore and appreciate, and I would have liked to have taken just a little more time than I was able.
Ori and the Blind Forest was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews