Ori and the Blind Forest stole many a gamers heart when it released in 2015. The stunning art and the beautifully told melancholic tale were married with responsive platforming and expert pacing that came together to give gamers something very special indeed. Ori is back for another adventure, and in Will of the Wisps he takes everything we loved in the Blind Forest and improves them in every way. He has also learned some new tricks in the past five years that change things up significantly.
When we last saw Ori, he had brought back life and spirits to the forest of Nibel and was watching over the mighty owl Kuro’s last egg as it begins to hatch, which is exactly where The Will of the Wisps begins. We very quickly are introduced to Ku, Kuro’s youngest child who immediately becomes a beloved part of Ori’s adopted family. His youthful enthusiasm and clumsy nature are instantly endearing, and his frustration at his physical limitations is poignant and heartbreaking. Very soon, a sequence of events unfolds that take Ori and Ku far from their home and leaves them stranded and separated in a new land filled with new wonders and a multitude of dangers. Ori must find Ku and somehow forge a path back to their forest home.
Before I talk about the gameplay, I need to talk about presentation. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is easily one of the most gorgeous games I have ever played. The sumptuous visuals range from colourful light-dappled emerald accented forests to shadowy chasms oozing dread, and swampy mires emanating noxious fumes and giving an impression of aging decay. Light defuses through tree canopies or is refracted through bodies of water; shadows seem to lurk and skulk almost as if they themselves are alive and looking to snare Ori at any moment. Every scene is vibrant, rich, and filled with such loving attention to detail it is literally breath-taking.
But the visuals are only part of the story here, the music and environmental sound design do not just accompany Ori on his journey but enhance the emotional heft of every scene, every challenge, and every encounter. The initial terror of Ori finding himself alone and isolated is brought home with music that infuses the scene with a sense of loss, fear, and sadness. And as you encounter enemies or danger-filled areas, the tone, tempo, and timbre will change seamlessly to pull you deeper into the experience. I do not know if this is done dynamically or not, but it reminded me of the old iMuse midi technique used by LucasArts back in the ’90s only this time the music is not limited to a restrictive synth sound pallet, but instead is able to be drawn from the limitless imaginations of the composers and sound design team. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is nothing short of magical.
But, all of that is just the backing track. The foundation of the game is the same tight and responsive puzzle platforming we saw in The Blind Forest. Only this time, Ori has a much more robust set of tools to help him navigate and survive in this new environ. From double and triple jumps, air-dashes, and wall-scaling amongst others. Ori is even more nimble this time around, and he now has access to an ever-growing and expanding bag of light-based offensive weapons. And just as it is with the platforming, combat is an acrobatic dance of chained manoeuvres and kinetic movement. You can slash, jump, shoot, flip, lasso, and pound enemies in near limitless combinations. Each new weapon or skill opens up new possibilities and combos, and it’s all completely freeform and infinitely entertaining.
Chaining together the perfect series of jumps and dashes in order to reach a seemingly inaccessible area, or avoiding certain death from various pits, spikes, and toxic pools, or pulling off a multi-opponent offensive combo as you dash back and forth across the screen taking out enemies with skilful abandon are some of the most satisfying gaming moments I have experienced in years. Moon Studios are to be applauded for so expertly bringing all of these elements together so elegantly. Ori and the Will of the Wisps can be challenging, but it is never punishing. The learning curve can be steep, but the barrier to entry is very low.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can give the team is that they have managed the impossible; making a new player feel like an absolute badass without lowering the ceiling for high-skill players looking for extra challenge, or wanting to execute things with some added flair.
For all of its technical accomplishments, visual polish, and mechanical depth, the real draw for me is the storytelling and the emotional journey you are taken on throughout the game. Ori and the Will of the Wisps can be deeply affecting and does pull at your heartstrings, all the while never crossing the line into the obviously manipulative or falling in the trite tropes that lesser storytellers end up leaning on. I don’t want you to think that this is some sad guy slog through an emo woe is me ballad, Ori and the Will of the Wisps can be melancholic, but it is also joyful, fraught with danger, and has some truly euphoric highs. There are many games and movies that have not managed a fraction of the emotional depth of this game despite having infinitely more resources. As someone who considers story to be one of the most important and powerful aspects of gaming, Ori and the Will of the Wisps gave me all I could ever ask for, and even a little more. I adored every second I spent in this world.
+ Stunning soundtrack and sound design.
+ Emotionally complex and satisfying story.
+ Tight and responsive platforming.
+ Exceptional and ever evolving combat.