In its ventures into the Metroidvania genre in recent years, the indie scene has produced some adventures that do better in certain areas; none of them, however, are as balanced and universally appealing as Ori and the Blind Forest is
In the forest of Nibel, a powerful storm occurs. Hitting the Spirit Tree, which like a universal source of energy and balance lies at the very center of the woods, it strikes so hard that it causes one of the many guardian sprites that live peacefully at the site under the tree’s protection to be taken away by a gale. Still a newborn spirit, Ori is somewhat lucky to land near the home of Naru, a friendly forest creature who lives alone and takes it upon herself to raise him as her own child. As time passes and Ori grows, the two develop a strong bond whilst being nurtured by the rich and gentle environment that surrounds them; such tranquility, though, does not last forever, because after one night when the sky suddenly displays a reddish hue thanks to light that comes from an unknown origin, the forest begins to change.
Trees slowly wilt; once crystalline bodies of water turn poisonous; flowers no longer bloom; animals become violent; and the fruits that once fed Ori and Naru simply disappear. For a short while, the pair is able to survive despite the hardships, overcoming ever increasing obstacles to gain access to resources; soon, however, Naru begins to weaken, and a little while afterwards she dies of starvation, leaving Ori alone for the first time in his life. Without a mother and with the place he calls home both devoid of meaning and life, Ori decides to explore Nibel, unaware that his life and his future are intimately tied to the cataclysm that has corroded the forest and affected the life of all beings that inhabit it.
Although quite simple, the plot of Ori and the Blind Forest is, besides effective, greatly touching as well as truly remarkable. And even if the tragedy that opens it certainly plays a role in elevating the script to those heights, there are other far more significant and uncommon components that affect its quality. For starters, despite the fact it is a title focused on gameplay, it knows – through the entirety of its journey – when to punctually stop to either add extra emotional contours to its world or bring clarification to its tale; and in both regards, the game is greatly successful, because not only is the story of Ori and the Blind Forest moving, but it is also sprinkled with unexpected turns and a concise set of great characters that are pleasantly developed. Such excellence is, furthermore, complemented and highlighted by fantastic artistic prowess, because in sounds and visuals, Ori and the Blind Forest is simply astounding.
Its music touches upon the epic, the moody, the threatening, and the relaxing with equal greatness, employing an organic instrumentation, including plenty of flutes and percussion, that is a perfect match for its natural environments. Its sound effects are detailed and make Nibel come alive, whether it is in the noises made by the living creatures that exist in it or in the cracks of branches, in the shaking of leaves, in the blowing of the wind, and in the flowing of waters. Finally, its scenarios are absurdly rich, as they are beautifully layered, decorated with an impressively wide array of assets, and varied in a way that is quite unexpected for an adventure that takes place inside a forest. And in both the brief cutscenes that move the plot forward and in the twelve to fifteen hours of gameplay one is likely to extract out of the title, those sensory marvels work towards enhancing experiences that – on their own – already do more than enough to cause delight.
Once Ori leaves the region of Nibel he called home through most of his life, he will come across an adventure that plays much like a Metroidvania. It is a matter of fact that indie titles have – in recent years – treaded onto that territory quite frequently, which is a natural and bitterly welcome consequence of the silence emanating from the two franchises that name the genre: Metroid and Castlevania. Consequently, Nintendo Switch users who bump into Ori and the Blind Forest in 2019 may feel the game is merely regurgitating concepts, especially given the console has a very abundant collection of excellent releases of the kind. However, the quality of the work by Moon Studios still stands, not just because as a game originally published in 2015 it represents what is perhaps the origin point of the independent Metroidvania wave that has swept through much of the 2010s, but also due to how it is simply extremely well-done.
The ultimate goal of Ori and the Blind Forest is bringing balance and life back to Nibel; to do so, Ori will have to travel to three locations where he will get to reactivate the elements responsible for those: water, wind, and fire. Pleasantly, the game strikes a very nice equilibrium between guidance and exploration, for while – at all moments in the quest – the map of the forest will blatantly indicate the location where the next element rests, the road to get there is left for players to figure out, which gives them a good degree of freedom to take a look around and find their way. Still, even if the world of Ori and the Blind Forest is relatively large, filled with all sorts of obstacles, and bursting with branching paths and shortcuts, the complexity of its maze-like structure is kept in check, never rising to the daunting levels seen in Hollow Knight or in the most intricate installments of Metroid and Castlevania.
That happens for at least two core reasons. Firstly, aside from a couple of areas that have a more centralized position in the world, the locations of Ori and the Blind Forest do not have to be revisited as the adventure goes along, because once the element they lead to is reawakened there is no reason to go back to them save to track down extra collectibles. Secondly, although the path that lies between the protagonist and the element he is currently chasing is not delineated, given rooms only become visible on the chart either if they are visited or if the map of the area is found, that road is never too complex, as – in spite of eventual detours, optional turns, and plenty of puzzles – the placement of impassable blocks will naturally lead gamers forward to where they need to go.
Like all Metroidvania efforts, Ori and the Blind Forest follows a pattern that has the main character slowly expanding his set of abilities; and, as new tricks are added to his repertoire, he will be able to overcome obstacles that were stopping him from accessing new areas. From a cold standpoint, the skills Ori acquires are nothing out of the ordinary, as they include a double jump, a ground pound, a sideways dash, a light grenade, a leaf that – serving as a glider – lets him either float for a while or ride wind currents, as well as the abilities to climb walls, briefly burst through the air like a bullet, and use projectiles or enemies like launching pads for higher jumps. Still, what ultimately matters is what those skills are used for, and – in the case of Ori and the Blind Forest – they are employed to inspire awe.
When merged with the game’s exploration vein, the puzzles of Ori and the Blind Forest tend to be light and of the environmental kind, usually involving figuring out how to open gates and getting rid of certain obstacles that stand in the character’s way. When joined with the title’s platforming component, though, they become creative, complex, and challenging, for other than requiring precision in how the moves Ori has at his disposal are used, they also ask for a nice deal of reasoning regarding how the traps will be overcome.
Although this second component appears in the overworld with some frequency, it becomes especially visible in the three areas in which the hero will reactivate the elements that give life and balance to Nibel. Standing somewhat apart from the forest’s map, these places work like standalone temples that leave exploration behind and turn up the volume on the combination of puzzles and platforming, as each of them focuses on a clever mechanic that will test the full extent of one’s skills.
The culmination of that challenge will arrive in the escape sequences that follow the restoration of the energy to those places, perhaps a nice nod to the frequency with which Samus has to flee and beat the clock whenever wrapping up one of her Metroid quests. In these segments, as the element comes rushing back into the area, Ori will have to be quick and precise, because the buildings will crumble around him and all sorts of traps will appear out of nowhere while he runs to get away from the natural fury of an element that is looking to swallow him whole.
Despite being exhilarating, tough, and standing as the very apexes of Ori and the Blind Forest, it is worth noting that these portions can become slightly frustrating. And that happens thanks to how at times it feels like it is simply impossible to avoid some of the hazards that are thrown at the hero without knowing they are coming beforehand; in other words, these sequences hold unfair moments that force players into trial and error, a process that can be especially annoying considering these escapes have no checkpoints and can sometimes last for over two minutes.
As great accessories to that core gameplay, Ori and the Blind Forest brings to the table a couple of mechanics that add a nice unique edge to it. Killing enemies, which is done by making Sein, the protagonist’s orb-shaped companion, shoot flames that automatically target foes that are close enough to be reached, will cause Ori to slowly amass ability points. And once a certain amount of those is collected, it is possible to exchange them for helpful additional skills.
Organized into a tree with three branches (Utility, Efficiency, and Combat), these extra abilities which are progressively unlocked not only work as a nice incentive for gamers to get rid of as many enemies as possible, but also go a long way towards making the character stronger and aiding players in their exploration of the world, as these skills include breathing underwater for an unlimited time, giving Ori a third jump, allowing him to see through walls to find hidden areas, and more.
Meanwhile, energy – which is obtained either by being found around the levels or also by disposing of foes – is used by Ori to produce what the game calls Soul Links. Effectively, these work as checkpoints, as the protagonist will be returned to the one that is currently active (the last one that was created) whenever he dies. Soul Links can be produced pretty much anywhere, with the exception of escape sequences or areas where the ground is unstable, and they are a very welcome addition to an adventure that can sometimes reach high degrees of difficulty.
The fixed save locations of Ori and the Blind Forest, which simultaneously work as warp points, are very scarce, with each of the forest’s areas having just one of them. As such, Soul Links will be the main tool gamers will use to record their progress as well as to give themselves some sort of relief. And since that energy is abundant, the flexibility brought in by Soul Links is a great and clever addition that keeps frustration at bay.
To those who want to squeeze as much value out of Ori and the Blind Forest as possible, the game also presents a series of collectibles that are scattered around the map, usually tucked away in corners that reveal new puzzles or platforming tasks and that can only be accessed by revisiting previously cleared locations with an expanded set of abilities. Life and energy cells, which respectively augment the character’s health and energy storages; and ability cells, which give an extra boost to his ability meter, are scattered all over the place and are a joy to track down.
The experience of going after them is made specially satisfying due to the fact that, among the optional skills that the hero gets as gamers go deeper into his ability tree, there are a few that add markers on the map that indicate the placement of those items. Sadly, however, as a strange oversight, large breakable energy stones, which also count towards achieving full completion, are never given those indicators. Still, that issue is far from bothersome, especially when one considers how immense the greatness that surrounds it is.
Ori and the Blind Forest is, by all means, an utter joy to play through. It has stunning detailed visuals that give life to a pulsating forest filled with beauty. It boasts a remarkable soundtrack packed with noteworthy tunes of gorgeous instrumentation. It tells an unforgettable story of a highly emotional nature. It offers gameplay that mutually encompasses the grand exploratory aspirations of Metroidvania titles and the excitement of focused platforming segments. And it sports a level of challenge that pushes players to their limit while hardly leading them to frustration thanks to a brilliant check point system.
In its many ventures into the genre in recent years, it is arguable the indie scene has produced a few adventures that do better and are more impressive in a few of those areas. None of them, however, are as balanced in each category as Ori and the Blind Forest is. As a result, one can confidently say that the gameplay style it explores has never been used in a product that is so universally appealing.