Ori and the Blind Forest is one of those games that doesn’t do anything much new, but it does do a few key things extremely well. A 2D platformer in the Medtroidvania vein, it casts the player as the titular Ori, a small, white, rabbit-looking dude who must rescue his home forest from invading nasties.
With Ori, developer Moon Studios said it wanted to focus on platforming, atmosphere, and story, and it has the first two nailed. Ori is a quick little guy, and the fine level control you have over him with both the analogue stick and jump button initially feels too twitchy, making it easy to over-correct on mistimed runs or leap too far with a panicked stab of the jump button.
However with practice it comes together, and the addition of a few power-ups soon have Ori wall- and double-jumping his way through levels with confidence. Both he and the player will need that attribute in spades though, as Ori is a difficult game. Not Meat Boy difficult, but there is a ton of trial and error involved, and at some points death comes so quickly you may wonder how you’ll ever proceed.
That’s part of Ori’s immense charm though, as with numerous deaths come mastery, and as you'd expect, the lingering rush of overcoming what initially appeared to be overwhelming sustains you through the game’s numerous trickier passages, when all you can do is die just slightly further along before you are whisked back to a checkpoint. Ori does have a health bar that can be grown, but enemies tend to scale with him, and there are enough one-hit-kill hazards to make the going uniformly tough throughout.
Another reason Ori can be unforgiving is that most checkpoints are player-created using orbs that – in a neat little trade-off – are also consumed by Ori’s charge-up attack. Those accustomed to constant auto-checkpoints will no doubt lose a chunk of progress at least once after forgetting to save after a tricky section, but with this much practice going into perfecting a tricky screen, you can then blaze back through and feel doubly-good about yourself.
The forest itself is a vivid delight. A translucent wonderland that’s an even prettier version of the forest levels of the Rayman games – a clear influence – it looks completely hand-drawn, and no two assets are alike. It feels alive too, and not just because the game doles out a folksy tale about tree souls.
The story itself is spare and rather cliché, but it is lifted by some wonderfully expressive animation from its leading players. A coming-of-age story influenced by The Lion King and The Iron Giant, it’s a simple fable that neither offends nor astonishes.
The same can be said for a few other of the game's attributes. Its sweeping but cheesy score is pretty on-the-nose, and I found the made-up in-game language, which sounds like it was invented in all of 30 seconds, to be rather cloying. Fortunately it's hardly ever used.
Combat is slightly flat too. Ori has a companion in Sein, who attacks enemies on his behalf. It’s an interesting choice to have the player’s main attack be a lock-on lightning bolt that emanates from a floating orb, but it works well enough here, even if it reduces battles to 'rush, zap, retreat, repeat'. Enemies can be zapped when Ori has broken line of sight which comes in handy, but Sein's limited range counters this, forcing an aggressive approach from the player.
Aethestically, enemy design is a little dull. Many are simply colourful blob-like creatures that worm around and huck poisonous balls of spit at Ori. Many respawn the moment Ori leaves the immediate area too, so bypassing rather than battling is often the optimal strategy. It is a shame to miss the satisfying spectacle of watching adversaries explode into technicolour clouds, though.
The game’s environmental puzzles and level design more than make up for all of this. These have Ori doing the usual stuff like dragging boxes around or redirecting beams to destroy gates, but each is fiendishly well-designed, and the focus always remains on agile platforming.
And that's Ori's holy trinity right there: level design, visuals, tight gameplay. Most else is more than competent, but these are the things that make Moon Studios' debut so memorable. Looks like Microsoft was on to something after all.