I have been curious about Ori and the Blind Forest for a few years, but given its original Xbox exclusivity, I never actually got around to playing it. Thankfully, with the sequel just around the corner (or here, depending when you are reading this) and the recently released Switch version, I took the plunge and picked it up.
I was surprised to learn it was a Metroidvania game, after what initially just looked like a very pretty platforming game, but with “feelings” and “emotions”. I was also surprised to learn that it was a difficult game. Don’t let the wonderful visuals and cute character designs fool you, I died a total of 438 times during my first playthrough of Ori and the Blind Forest.
As you’d expect, the core gameplay loop revolves around exploring a world map, finding new abilities to explore different areas and discovering various keys and trinkets. The decision to make it a Metroidvania doesn’t really impact the overall design too much. For the most part, it is a very linear affair, with backtracking only being needed for those who want to reach 100% completion. For a regular playthrough, it is straight forward. Each area you explore will grant new abilities to be able to traverse local hazards, these include gliding, wall jumping, countering, climbing, etc.
Each area is also punctuated with a tense escape sequence which puts everything that you have learned to the test with a brilliant orchestral soundtrack to accompany you. These segments can lead to more memorisation rather than skill, offering little telegraphing of environmental hazards before they squash the adorable rodent.
The Green Trees, The Rolling Hills
Sombre tone and stellar soundtrack will be the first thing you notice upon booting up OatBF and it leads into a surprisingly moving opening 10 minutes. This kicks off the story for the rest of the game which emotionally follows suit. Although it never got my feelings in a tangible way, I did have a little bubble of emotion in the dark abyss that is my stomach.
The soundtrack is an orchestral affair, which really flexes the financial muscles which Microsoft Studios have put behind this title. The production value behind this is second-to-none, there a wide array of arrangements crammed into this little adventure, with a bunch of instruments that go way over the head of someone like me. In addition to the soundtrack being lovely on the ears, it also complements the on-screen action perfectly. The music provides timely spikes and melodies to match the flow of a tricky platforming sequence alongside a more subdued and careful arrangement for those exploration and puzzle segments.
The next thing you will notice when playing OatBF for the first time is, “damn, this looks gorgeous”. The watercolour-esque background never fails to impress and the same goes for the lighting and colour palette. It looks like magic. The power of the forest aura really can be felt as you watch its influence spread over the foliage. It’s fantastic stuff. All this background detail has an ugly side though, which, whilst rare, was noticeable. It leads to some frustrations concerning background assets being indistinguishable from the tactile elements required for platforming and traversal. This didn’t happen all the time, but like I said, it did lead to a number of deaths which felt quite unfair.
As Good as it Looks
Let’s start with some of the good stuff, what I really liked about the game. The progression and pacing of OatBF is great. You are introduced to new abilities at a brisk pace and no gimmick outstays its welcome, usually hanging about for about 45 minutes of play before moving onto the next sequence. The continuous forward momentum means that you feel like you’re rewarded consistently, and the pause screen offers nice little milestones such as how many items you have collected or a shocking death toll throughout your journey.
There are some great platforming and puzzle set pieces too. A standout favourite of mine is a temple which uses gravity in some fun ways to make you look at each platforming challenge differently. It was just enough to tickle my brain in the right ways and spark a little bit of joy. There was also a fantastic escape sequence within the bark of a gargantuan tree which was tense right to the very end.
Some of these set pieces were so good that my hands began to hurt. I’m not even sure if this is sarcastic. There are multiple points where you have to hold different, weird button combinations. For example, using both X and B to perform jumps (on opposite sides of the face buttons), which makes it really difficult wen you have to alternate between apply releasing and clawing onto the triggers. Maybe my dexterity is just down the pan, but I found this super tricky, especially given the madness that can be happening on screen.
One of the other awesome things about this first outing is the ability to create your own checkpoints. You have a limited number which can be replenished at set points. This makes each platforming sequence a deadly game of ‘Stick or Twist’, providing tension to each precarious jump. Of course, in the age of autosaving, I forgot about this mechanic a couple of times leading to a frustrating trek back, but I always appreciated the flexibility of it all. If you find a section tricky, save beforehand, or if you find a section easy to breeze through, you might not want to waste a checkpoint immediately afterwards.
There is also a light-RPG element to OatBF, which allows you to spend experience points you have accrued through combat or extensive exploration. These allow you to spend points in 3 different branches – offensive capabilities, item efficiency and survivability for lack of better terms. You can make Ori a powerhouse, but miss out on the restorative qualities of your checkpoints if that is how you want to play, it’s up to you, and I welcome the choice.
Not as Good as it Looks
The animation, alongside everything else is outstanding. The way Ori clambers up cliff faces, particularly in cutscenes give him so much life. Similarly run cycles and jumping arcs flow effortlessly throughout the platforming sequences. But, with such a range of unique and fluid animations, including those with flips and those without, it is possible for some deaths to feel unfair. Particularly when Ori is somersaulting like an unwieldly terrier.
This is most irritating with his ledge grab in particular, sometimes Ori will fly forward with conviction, whilst other times Ori will continue to slide down the wall, leading to a mad scramble of trying to get on top of the ledge, but not trigger the ledge grab animation leading to certain death. This caused me to fall ungracefully into a bed of thorns on multiple occasions. In a game which is already challenging, I don’t want to be fighting the animations too. This could be solved in the sequel by giving the ledge grab less forward momentum and popping upwards, leading to a greater window for recovery.
Another issue I regularly faced was how the screen can get so busy. It is often difficult to make out clear threats, whether this be environmental or from enemies. It doesn’t help that some enemy projectiles are sometimes just tiny balls of light. Combining this with your own light attacks results in a Daft Punk-esque laser show and not really knowing what the heck is going on, or if you’re even winning. This leads to combat against some foes being nothing more than mashing the attack button and hoping you come out on top. This is relieved somewhat when you receive the ability to counter large projectiles, however, it doesn’t work in all cases.
A Nice Sapling, Waiting to Grow
It is little things like this which pull you out of the immersive and tonally fantastic world which leads to the final payoff not hitting quite as hard as the start of the game. At that point I had nothing but curiosity for Ori and his origin, but by the end, I was well accustomed to the annoyances of this world. So, by the sounds of it, it seems like I’d just rather it was a film or album? The problem is the gameplay elements have been done so much better by other titles: Metroidvania was perfected by Hollow Knight and Super Meat Boy remains the best side scrolling “rage game”. Ori just can’t compete here.
Where it can compete however, is within the music and presentation. Visually, the game is absolutely stellar. It is when you get into the intricacies of actually playing it where the frustrations of Ori and the Blind Forest began to arise. On the whole I can still recommend having a dive into this whimsical adventure, particularly if you’re a Switch owner. I hope that you don’t find the frustrations I had with the game too much of a deal breaker because I really did want to enjoy this more than I did. Hopefully the sequel manages to tidy some of these shortcomings up and I am looking forward to checking it out.