Subject: Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps [PG-13]
Posted on: 2020-03-18 15:54:17 UTC

I've been inspired by Thoth's off-and-on reviews of games, and felt like giving it a shot myself for a game I just played through. This review will spoil much of the game Ori and the Blind Forest, and I'll mark when I'm about to spoil anything major from Will of the Wisps. This is a game that quickly found its way onto my favorites list but also got itself instantly uninstalled as soon as I beat it. So, what does this game do well and what made it falter (in my opinion)?

For those who may not know, Ori and the Blind Forest was a 2015 metroidvania platformer by Moon Studios and published by Microsoft. You play the titular Ori, a forest spirit ripped from his parent Spirit Tree in a storm. In searching for its child, the Spirit Tree unleashes a wave of power and light, accidentally destroying the children of a nearby owl named Kuro and leaving only one egg untouched. Kuro, driven by grief and determination to protect her last child, rips the vulnerable light from the tree, causing the forest to slowly die without a force to balance the elements of nature. It is therefore up to Ori to restore the Spirit Tree and save the forest. In the end, Kuro realizes the destruction she wrought upon the forest after nearly killing Ori, and sacrifices herself to restore the Spirit Tree.

Gameplay-wise, Ori and the Blind Forest was a fairly typical metroidvania with one twist, a mechanic called Bash. Ori can leap off of many map elements, most projectiles, and every enemy in the game, flinging himself in one direction and sending the target away from him. What made the game stand out to me, though, was the beautiful art and fantastic soundtrack. Ori and the Blind Forest is a game about the power of parental love, and how that power can inspire or harm everyone around us; the music and artistic landscape reflect these extremes, ranging from moody and contemplative to vibrant and triumphant.

This brings us to the sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Ori has adopted Kuro's last egg, and names the owlet Ku. Once Ku is old enough to fly, Ori and Ku fly to an adjacent forest, where they're again caught in a storm. Ori and Ku are separated, Ku is injured, and the forest has been slowly succumbing to an apocalyptic event called the Decay for years. Once again, Ori must save the forest (by collecting the titular Wisps of light from the long-dead Spirit Tree of the island), find a way to return home, and reunite with his family.

I'm going to start with what Will of the Wisps does well. The art style remains true to the first game, with stunning artwork all around that now reacts to Ori's movement. The music mostly sticks to the melodies that defined Blind Forest, though that's not necessarily a bad thing: it's beautiful and fits the environments very well. What changed over the past five years are the mechanics and story, and one seems to have been sacrificed in favor of the other. The game now feels more like something from Zelda than a metroidvania title. Instead of having a different key bound to each ability, you now get to equip three abilities at a time (including your basic attack). Several skills from the first game must be either re-learned, found as passive buffs that can be swapped out, or purchased from NPCs. There are plenty of sidequests that grant you useful buffs, money, and even lore. The maps have also been redesigned; for the most part, every collectible item in an area will be obtainable using only the new skill or mechanic introduced in that area. Backtracking has been mostly eliminated if you're a thorough player.

The result is a game with much more focus on combat and casting abilities in addition to the platforming, and I think the game is mostly better for it. I just wish that the game gave you more of a warning that the free attack you get near the beginning is all but useless: it's weak, it's clumsy to direct in a game where a good chunk of your time will be spent in midair, and several enemies are straight-up immune to it. You will want to buy other attack options as soon as you possibly can. However, I miss the backtracking; the level design is so beautiful that I think it would be fun to have to revisit old areas with new abilities and see the maps with fresh eyes.

All of this so far is what made me put the game on my favorites list within a day of downloading it. However, there is one glaring disappointment: the story. Here's where spoilers for Will of the Wisps come in. While Blind Forest had a tightly-woven story that emphasized and explored a single theme, Will of the Wisps lacks that because of the introduction of NPCs. Instead of having the forest itself act as an entity you protect as a nature spirit, it feels like you're just saving the forest and helping townsfolk as a byproduct of helping your friend. Unlike Kuro, the villain of this game is not redeemed by backstory or actions in the end. They are just Evil, and Ori seems to feel no remorse over striking a killing blow.

The final straw, though, had to be right after that battle when Ori has metaphorical sex to save the world. No, really.

I've tried to think of another way to interpret it, but having Ori "embrace" the light made from the Wisps and "become one" with it in order to become a Spirit Tree himself and give life to the forest seems pretty clear-cut to me, especially considering the first game's emphasis on parenthood as a theme. I wouldn't have a problem with this if any of the Wisps (or their amalgamation) had any character to them. This is supposed to be an ancient being, the culmination of decades or even centuries of experiences across an entire forest; it should have more to say than "Go here." Instead, the writers chose to give interesting discussion of the forest's history to a grouchy bird and a map vendor.

I think that the move away from a closed-in metroidvania really hurts the game here. You are given no guidance on the order in which to complete the dungeons; you're just told there are four of them. I picked one at random and got almost all the way to the end before the game informed me that I needed to beat all of the others before I could continue. If the game were more linear, then each Wisp could be developed as a separate character aspect of the forest through comments on the environment; instead, there's nothing. This entity that ushers in a new stage of life for Ori and the forest as a whole speaks a total of about five times, and none of them reveal any characterization. Even just before Ori merges with the light, the only thing it says to him is "It is time," and Ori accepts this destiny without hesitation.

I have conflicted feelings about this game. Mechanically, it's a joy to play (plus or minus a bad key binding--I don't know who thought setting CTRL to Dash in a game that has sections that require dashing several times in rapid succession was a good idea, but the human hand doesn't work that way). Aesthetically, it's every bit as gorgeous as its predecessor. It takes all of the charm, style, and Bash-centered level design of Blind Forest and polishes them into something excellent. However, I cannot get over that ending. It makes me angry, but more than that, it makes me sad because I know Moon Studios could have done better. They have done better. It's frustrating to see a work do so much so well and have such a glaring weakness.

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