Back in 2015 a game called Ori and the Blind Forest was released, and it took my interest immediately. Its artistic style looked so vivid, striking and painterly, a feat that really makes an impression when you consider it runs on the Unity engine, showcasing just what Moon Studios managed to achieve with it. The gameplay was mesmerizing and intense, and was a real breath of fresh air into the Metroidvania genre and 2D-sidescroller style of gameplay. These initial impressions were going simply by the trailers of course, before I even got the game.
It was when I started playing that my budding appreciation for this game truly blossomed. It is for the best that the trailer explains very little about the game’s narrative, as it is best experienced by the player, though I doubt the story would be any less memorable. As you play, it almost feels like you are running through a story book as the Spirit Tree narrates your path through the game. The gorgeous, hand-painted visuals and orchestral music score are really on point, working in tandem with the game’s immersive story to deliver a truly moving experience.
Ori and the Blind Forest takes place in the fictional forest of Nibel. The world is one continuous level, with each area blending seamlessly into the next without any repeated elements. In the starting area which acts as both the tutorial and introduction of the story, you learn Ori was torn away from the Spirit Tree as a newborn during a powerful storm, and was found and adopted by Naru, a creature that looks vaguely like Totoro. It is no secret that the design team was influenced by much of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, as one of the areas “The Valley of Wind” is a direct reference to “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” Indeed, Moon Studios was admittedly inspired by many different sources in the making of Ori and the Blind Forest, including The Lion King and The Iron Giant in regards to formulating the game’s story.
Things are peaceful for a time, until the forest of Nibel begins to whither and decay. Food becomes scarce as the waters are tainted, leaving the forest unable to sustain any of its inhabitants, including Naru and Ori. Naru dies not long after, leaving Ori to wander alone, though her fortitude too begins to deteriorate with her spirits. As she collapses, losing the last of her strength, the Spirit Tree uses the last of its power to revive her; this is where the game truly begins.
After being revived, Ori encounters Sein, the “light and eyes” of the Spirit Tree. Sein acts as a guide for Ori throughout the game, as well as her primary means of defending herself from enemies using her Spirit Flame. Sein tells Ori that the only way to bring life back to Nibel is to restore the light of the three main elements: Water, Wind, and Warmth.
Much of the game involves seeking out new abilities and upgrades in order to progress. The HUD sits neatly at the bottom of the screen, showing both Ori’s life and energy levels. The health and energy meters are extended by finding Life Cells and Energy Cells throughout Nibel. Many of these upgrades require you to seek out and master new abilities, which Ori can find at the sites of other fallen spirits. Those abilities can also be augmented, either by collecting Spirit Light from enemies or the environment to level up, or finding hidden Spirit Light Containers.
The save system in the game is an interesting hybrid. Your character has the ability to place white flames called Soul Links, which cost energy to produce but can be placed anywhere (except directly in dangerous spots). Alternatively, you can find and ignite Spirit Wells throughout the world which act as checkpoints, restore health and energy, and allow you to transport between wells you have already discovered (Definitive Edition only). As you would expect, dying will send you back to the last checkpoint, and you will need to repeat your progress. This does make the game a touch challenging, as it forces you to use the save system strategically.
There is a pretty decent difficulty curve to the gameplay. It does not get too comfortable to the point where the player becomes bored, nor too intense where the player becomes frustrated; it tends to keep a decent flow. The only extremes which can take away from the flow of gameplay come from the more climactic parts of the game, specifically the run-for-your-life sections after restoring one of the three elements, or the encounters with Kuro the owl; I got so frustrated after restoring the Wind element that I almost thought of putting the game down and coming back later, as not only do you get a one-shot obstacle run, but also need to evade Kuro right afterwards. Generally though, the difficulty in such sections (and indeed much of the game) comes from timing and finding the right path, so once you got it down it practically becomes reflexive. Expect to die a lot in your first playthrough, even on the lowest difficulty.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a touching coming-of-age story with strong themes of family ties in an action-adventure wrapper, sure to well up tears in your eyes, draw a gentle sigh of awe from your lungs, and ultimately embrace and warm your heart. The handcrafted visuals coupled with the orchestral composition, through both their gloomy and empowering beauty play to the narrative to convey a truly breathtaking labor of love. Without holding your hand too much, Ori keeps you immersed in its rich and mystical world, the challenge making every success all the sweeter. This is a game that I truly cherish, and I anticipate its sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps with bated enthusiasm; it is my hope that the sequel leaps off and soars above its predecessor.