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I’ve been wanting to play Ori And The Blind Forest for a long time. I’m late, as usual; the sequel, Ori And The Will Of The Wisps, is already out and has already received much critical acclaim. Both games get namedropped often in discussions of the best Metroidvanias available today, so it was high time I took the first for a spin.
I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would.
That feels like such an unfair thing to say. I did like it! It’s a good game! There are so many great things about it. It looks absolutely gorgeous, for one, with stunning painted scenery stacked in several parallax layers. It looks incredible in motion, the foreground and background equally beautiful as they pan past. Rocks chocked in moss, gnarled roots grasping soil, even deadly bramble-filled pits or magma caves look amazing. Animations are wonderful too, with characters clambering across the terrain not just along the 2D plane in which the game is played, but into the background or foreground as well. The way these creatures move through the titular forest makes it feel so much more like a real place. Ori’s adventure spans many distinct locales, but they never ceased to floor me with their sheer beauty, right up until the end of the game.
I also loved the story, told mostly through narration by the Spirit Tree or Ori’s companion spirit Sein in what is (I believe) a made-up language, with subtitles. It tells of a forest that has lost its life-giving spirit light, causing much of the wildlife to be corrupted and evil. Ori, a wayward guardian spirit, must travel the land, restoring balance to the elements and rekindling the light. No easy task, especially when the huge sinister owl known as Kuro is trying to stop Ori at every turn. The story makes the gorgeous forest itself the focus, weaving everything into the stunning environments Ori explores. There are bits of history to discover, people and even entire civilizations that fell during the cataclysm, damage that must be undone. There’s even more to learn about the terrifying Kuro, who is one of the better antagonists I’ve encountered in recent memory. Great stuff.
Some annoyances taint the experience, though. My first hurdle was the controls. Ori And The Blind Forest was clearly designed for a gamepad, but unlike many 2D platformers it actually supports analog movement. I’m not very skilled with analog sticks, so I felt I was constantly running into obstacles when I’d meant to stop short. Also, some of Ori’s abilities require aiming with the analog stick, which I’m definitely not good at. So I tried the mouse and keyboard controls instead. These felt more precise in some ways, but they cannot be rebound, and the default keys are a little awkward. I liked the mouse aiming, but it meant that running and jumping (and Ori does a lot of that) was controlled entirely by my left hand. Sure, I could have used third-party software to reassign keys, but that’s a lot of effort, and some keys serve multiple functions and therefore cannot be separated. I ended up sticking with the keyboard and mouse controls, but they never quite felt right.
Part of that is my fault, because I kept expecting Ori’s jump to be higher than it is. Ori is good at leaping across long distances, but doesn’t gain much height, and this constantly frustrated me when navigating vertical passages. Even the inevitable double jump upgrade is more about distance than height. In my experience, even subtle details of how characters handle in games like this can make a huge difference to different players, whose opinions will split wildly based on whether the character movement feels right to them. Ori’s handling felt good to me, but not as perfectly tuned as something like Celeste. Other players might feel the exact opposite.
The saving grace, however, is Ori’s Bash move, which is not very aptly named as it doesn’t involve hitting anything. Once Ori acquires Bash, they can activate it while close to an enemy or enemy projectile to temporarily freeze time, and aim the Bash. Ori will fly off in one direction, while the projectile or enemy will be hurled in the opposite direction. Bash can throw Ori much higher than their jumps can, and effectively makes enemies part of navigating the forest. It felt great to chain several Bashes together to reach new areas, and I love the precise mouse aiming for this.
Bash also helps with fights, which I admit I found more annoying than fun. Ori must battle corrupted creatures of the forest, but their default attack, Spirit Flame, isn’t very effective. Fired by the nearby floating Sein rather than Ori, Spirit Flame launches little auto-targeted blasts of light, but they don’t do much damage. More importantly, their glowing flashes (coupled with those emitted by the enemies) served to obscure the action, causing me to lead Ori headlong into obstacles or enemy attacks far more often than I would have liked. Once I had Bash, I found myself throwing enemies into spikes rather than trying to blast them, and other abilities help too. Generally, however, fights were brief nuisances that interrupted the exploration that I was actually enjoying.
My biggest gripe, however — or at least, what I thought was my biggest gripe — is the way saving works. There’s only one “true” save point in each of the main areas in the game. They are much too far apart to be used as respawn points. Instead, players can place their own respawn points as they explore, more or less at will… except they can’t, because each one consumes one of Ori’s energy points. Energy is used for some other moves too, but its main purpose is for placing Soul Links, and this feels incredibly stingy, especially early in the game when Ori doesn’t have a large energy reserve. I was reminded of the old debate between quicksaves and checkpoints: players must remember to manually create quicksaves, but they help avoid repeating sections because players won’t respawn too far back if they die, whereas checkpoints mean players don’t have to think about manually saving and can just focus on the game, but if placed poorly can mean frustrating repetition. Ori’s Soul Links combine the worst aspects of both of these options. Players must remember to place them, but there’s a limited number before Ori runs out of energy, which means there’s still a lot of repetition after failure. I was relieved to hear that the sequel does away with Soul Links in favor of automatic saves.
But it wasn’t until after I’d finished Ori And The Blind Forest that I realized what my biggest issue with it is. Shortly after I’d finished the game, I visited a friend who was, by chance, in the middle of playing Ori And The Blind Forest with his daughter. They showed me where they were in the game, and I saw that they’d been following the main story and hadn’t done a lot of backtracking to earlier locations to look for secrets. This crystallized things in my mind: Ori And The Blind Forest is best when exploring new places, whereas going back to look for its (many) secrets simply isn’t that fun. My friend and his daughter were smarter than I had been, focusing on the fun parts of the game and not bothering with optional things they didn’t enjoy. The thing is, I usually do like going back to find secrets, in games like Guacamelee! for example, so naturally I scoured every corner of the lovely forest looking for things. And never realized that I didn’t like it.
Part of the reason is that the challenges in Ori And The Blind Forest are largely navigational. Many locations involve carefully threading through areas covered in deadly spikes or thorns, executing a string of airborne maneuvers, using enemies to Bash through a gauntlet, or similar tricky challenges. They feel like sections from an extra-hard platformer like Celeste, rather than a typical Metroidvania. These are fun, if difficult, challenges while exploring, and tend to highlight new moves Ori has learned in each area. But it’s not that fun to go back through these areas again when looking for secrets, especially when it might turn out that Ori’s new moves don’t even open that sealed door like I thought they would.
Like Guacamelee!, Ori And The Blind Forest shows completion percentages for each area on the map, but they’re not as helpful in finding missing pickups as I expected, and I gave up while most areas were stuck on 99% completion with no indication of what I’d missed. Ori’s precision platforming sections are better suited to a fixed sequence of levels than a world meant to be crossed and re-crossed. In fact, there are several locations that are clearly meant to be visited once only, and it wasn’t even possible to return to them until the Definitive Edition of the game was released.
Oh right, the Definitive Edition. This is the version I played, but I didn’t know what was added. It turns out there are some new locations complete with new abilities for Ori to find, and I found the first of these places pretty early. But I quickly assumed I needed to return later, because it was a darkened cavern and I couldn’t see. Surely Ori needed some upgrade that created light, and would return here later in the story? But no, I finished the whole game without the story ever taking me back there. Turns out I should have braved the darkness anyway (which I later went back to do) and found some abilities that would have been really helpful in the rest of the game, including making combat more interesting. Oh well.
But what I really should have done was just play through the story and not tried to find every single thing in the game. I don’t necessarily think Ori And The Blind Forest would be better if it weren’t a Metroidvania with an interconnected world, but I do think it would be better with fewer hidden items and secrets, or at least fewer ones that can’t be found the first time through an area. What’s the point in increasing Ori’s maximum health when most hazards can take them out in just one or two hits anyway? A focus on constantly treading new ground would have highlighted the game’s strengths. In a way, it sounds like the original version of the game did this better, but more backtracking was added in the Definitive Edition (many secrets require the new moves from the Definitive Edition to access). I think the designers had a better sense of the ideal playing experience the first time.
And I must reiterate that that playing experience is great! Resist the temptation to track down every little thing and Ori’s adventure will be a lot of fun. Not to mention absolutely gorgeous, every step of the way. Despite my complaints above, I do recommend the game, and I’m looking forward to trying Ori And The Will Of The Wisps too. Ori’s forest is a lovely place to journey through, and if you haven’t taken that journey yet, you should.