(Developed by Moon Studios, published by Microsoft Studios)

Deep within the sacred forest of Nibel, the Spirit Tree watches over all life that dwells within. Aided by its children, the Guardian Spirits, it maintains the balance between the elements, ensuring that the land thrives and its inhabitants live in peace. Yet even these stalwart sentinels are vulnerable to the ravages of nature. On the night of a massive storm the Tree’s youngest child, Ori, is ripped from her father’s nurturing grasp. Thankfully she is saved by a kind-hearted creature named Naru, who takes Ori in and raises the young spirit as her own daughter. Though unable to reach Ori, the Spirit Tree watches over his daughter, pleased that Naru cares so deeply for her. Still, its paternal instincts are strong; it wants to be reunited with its child.

On the night of the Light Ceremony the Spirit Tree calls out to Ori, with brilliant, blinding illumination setting the skies ablaze. Sadly, this act did not bring his daughter home, but instead invited tragedy to befall Nibel. The Tree was attacked by the colossal owl Kuro, who stole the source of its light. Without its power, the forest began to wither and decay, becoming blind as everything died or became corrupted by shadows. As edible plants became fewer and fewer Naru forsook food to ensure that Ori had enough to eat, growing weaker along with Nibel until eventually she succumbed to hunger. Orphaned once again, Ori wandered aimlessly in the dark woods, seeking her father’s light as her vitality ebbed away. On the verge of death, the Spirit Tree used the last of its power to revive Ori, giving her the strength needed to press on. Miraculously she soon discovered Sein, the Tree’s lost core, which had fallen from Kuro’s grip. Guided by Sein, Ori travels the ravaged forest to rekindle the three Elements of Light – water, wind, and warmth – and restore Nibel to its former glory. The pair will brave many dangers posed by the twisted landscape, the monstrous beasts that have arisen from the blight, and the murderous hatred of Kuro, who is determined to extinguish the Spirit Tree’s remaining light.

With the exception of the Spirit Tree’s narration and Sein’s exposition (both delivered in a fictional language with English captions) Ori and the Blind Forest is devoid of dialogue, telling its story through the environment. At the start players see how lush and vibrant Nibel is, the blooming plants and clear water bathed in sunlight. After Kuro’s attack on the Spirit Tree, short cutscenes show the forest gradually wasting away. Once healthy plants have rotted away, replaced with ugly weeds and thorns that choke the remaining life from the land. The once pure waters are now so stagnant that stepping into it will harm Ori. Much of the forest is cloaked with shadows as storms rage. Venturing into the Valley of Winds reveals the once verdant realm has become enveloped in an eternal winter, the spider-like Gumon that dwelled there having succumbed to the cold some time ago. The sight of their frozen corpses is a sobering, contemplative reminder of the true toll of Kuro’s actions. Conversely, whenever an Element has been restored and there’s evidence that the land regains some of its splendor, it provides a sense of satisfactory hope that the remaining damage can be undone.

 

The game’s premise is much more complex than it appears from the outset. After seeing the devastation brought upon the land as a result of Kuro’s attack, hearing from Sein that the reason for her strike was because she “hated their light”, players may assume it’s just another rote tale of good versus evil with no shades of gray. As Ori progresses, she eventually learns what occurred that drove Kuro to lash out. The owl isn’t a mindless monster, but actually has a legitimate reason for acting as she did. A similar rationale explains the behavior of Gumo, the last of the Gumon, when he steals the Water Vein and leads Ori through a network of traps as he tries to keep it from her. Kuro, Gumo, even the Spirit Tree illustrate how acting out of fear or desperation can have disastrous consequences.

In an interesting twist Ori herself isn’t directly responsible for healing the forest; other characters she’s encountered such as Gumo play a greater role in restore Nibel. While some might perceive this as anti-climactic or detrimental to her character growth, I ask them to look at the bigger picture. The NPCs who set events in motion to undo Kuro’s damage were touched by Ori and her kindness. They saw the lengths she was willing to go to in order to heal their home, and it inspired them to do their part. It sends the message that so many games have forgotten – achieving victory isn’t always something that can be done alone. Sometimes great feats can only be accomplished through a group effort, and the more people working towards a common goal, the better the chances they’ll reach it. There is one plot hole related to this that isn’t well explained concerning how a previously deceased character is brought back to life, but it doesn’t really hurt the story.

Regretfully, Ori’s narrative is hindered in a few areas. The bond between Ori and Naru, for example, isn’t as strong as it could have been. The game does a superb job showing how close the two become by depicting the joy they feel in their time spent together, Naru’s selfless dedication to her adopted daughter, and the overwhelming grief Ori feels after her guardian passes away. However, Naru’s death occurs less than 10 minutes into the game, making the buildup to the tragedy feel rushed, like the developers just included this bond only to end it as quickly as possible so players would feel sad. I’m not saying that’s what the intent was, just that having Ori and Naru spend more time together before the latter’s death would have made their relationship feel more solid and give the tragedy more of an impact.

 

My only other complaint, though admittedly it’s more of a nitpick, concerns Sein’s dialogue. The light spirit mostly speaks in vague attempts at rhyming couplets, though a considerable number of these failed to follow a coherent cadence or proper word choice, such as when she tried to rhyme “place” and “way”. I’m less forgiving of the rhyming dialogue than I was in Child of Light mainly because Child of Light used consistently this for every character’s speech throughout the game while Sein switches between poetry and standard prose, making it appear less like an artistic decision and more like an annoying character quirk. It’s a shame because while much of Sein’s dialogue is basic exposition, she does have a few profound statements to make, such as when she muses on Gumo’s sorrow following the extinction of his people.

Ori is a fairly standard Metroidvania with a stronger emphasis on exploration rather than combat. Just about every region of the map has at least one power-up to increase her total health, light energy, or experience to unlock new abilities. Restoring Map Stones and unlocking some abilities helps reveal the locations of these collectibles, though there are several hidden areas that require the Sense ability to see through walls. While most of the power-ups can only be collected after obtaining a new skill, there are opportunities to get them early. For example, certain rock walls can only be broken by the Dash, Stomp, or Charge Jump skills, but in a few cases rolling or exploding enemies can be tricked into breaking them. And if players are persistent enough, they can reach items on some high ledges even before getting more powerful jump upgrades. I wouldn’t recommend trying to reach collectibles at the end of lengthy underwater areas until the ability to breathe underwater has been unlocked, as the oxygen meter will almost always run out before finding an air pocket.

 

Level design reflects the corrupted nature of Nibel by presenting a vast array of environmental hazards. Aside from standard traps like spikes and falling rocks, there are moving columns that can crush Ori, flowers that fire energy blasts (some of which result in instant death), and swinging spiked clubs. The most impressive trick is found in the Misty Woods, which has a landscape that regularly shifts to suggest it’s altering Ori’s perception of reality, along with plant-like platforms positioned over spikes that extend or retract whenever Ori jumps. Getting past these obstacles requires careful timing, maneuverability, and a firm understanding of the skills acquired through Ancestral Trees, such as wall climbing and double/charged jumps. Halfway through the game Ori obtains a feather from Kuro that she can use to glide and ride air currents. This was one of my favorite features as using it to make my way through the thorn-lined passages of Sorrow Pass and Misty Woods reminded me of the bramble patch levels from Donkey Kong Country 2.

 

Because of the greater focus on exploration and puzzle platforming, very few of Ori’s skills are focused on attacking enemies. The only purely offensive technique is the Spirit Flame, which fires light energy from Sein to strike enemies and obstacles from a distance. However, many enemies also rely on projectile attacks, so players still need to react quickly to dodge approaching fire. Several skills are used for both combat and progression through the world, such as how the Stomp attack can depress switches, break weak floors, and stun armored monsters.

 

One of the most useful skills, the Bash attack, is also the most difficult to get the hang of, at least for me. It can be used on hanging lanterns, enemies, or their projectile attacks, to propel Ori through the air. It can also be used to redirect projectiles and toss foes, but there’s a trick to its use. A cursor marks the direction of aim when using Bash, but while Ori always travels in the direction the arrow’s facing, enemies and energy blasts will always travel in the opposite direction, and sometimes the lift created by the force exerted can throw you off course. It takes some time to get used to, so for that reason I’d recommend using a controller for smoother aiming.

 

Ori puts an interesting twist on its quick-save system. Players have the ability to save the game almost anywhere by creating a Soul Link (which is also how they access the ability tree), but doing so costs Light Energy, which is also expended when using other special moves. Gathering energy cells and unlocking abilities that make Soul Link use up less power makes the process easier, but during the early sections of the game players need to use careful judgment about when to save or whether to conserve their energy. Furthermore, when respawning from a Soul Link players will be at the same status they were when it was kindled; health and energy is only replenished when saving at a Spirit Well.

The Elemental Shrines provide the greatest challenge. Not only must players use the skills Ori has acquired over the course of the game, but each temple introduces its own new mechanic to further test players. The Ginso Tree contains portals that teleport Ori from one side of the screen to the other to reach new surfaces, though moving too quickly when entering can cause her to overshoot the platform and fall. Vertical platforms are even trickier as they’re usually positioned around environmental hazards like sticker brushes, requiring both quick momentum and reaction when falling through or popping up from one to avoid taking damage.

The floors of the Forlorn Ruins damage Ori whenever she steps on them unless she holds an artifact called the Light Vessel. This relic also allows Ori to walk up the walls in the ruins, with the movement controls rotating 90 degrees every time she does. Later, this inverted gravity mechanic is used to jump from the walls onto floating magnetic blocks, falling while stuck in the same orientation as on the wall. It can be tricky adjusting Ori’s position in free fall when it’s necessary to change the angle needed to reach another block.

Mount Horu is by far the hardest temple. Like in the Forlorn Ruins, the ground itself will harm Ori, which makes sense considering it’s in an active volcano. Suspended blocks in the air are covered with spikes, and lava flows frequently fall, resulting in an instant death. Making it to the top requires frequent use of Bash on enemies and their projectile attacks. The ultimate goal in Mount Horu is to knock a series of large stones loose to block the lava flows and open a new chamber that will reveal the Element of Warmth, with every chamber putting one or more of Ori’s acquired skills to use. It’s a trying but rewarding final challenge.

Unfortunately the shrines also contain the most frustrating sections of the game. After obtaining an element the temple will begin to collapse and force Ori to escape quickly, much like the countdowns from the Metroid series. Again these sections test players’ mastery of the skills they acquired (air dashing, wall climbing, using the feather to catch gusts of air), but they present a very sharp spike in the difficulty curve. Usually when fleeing from a dungeon there’s a rapidly advancing instant-death trap, such as constantly rising water in the Ginso Tree or intense flames in Mount Horu, and once again the volcano proves to be the incredibly arduous since players must not only escape the flames but also dodge several instant-kill attacks from Kuro. If Ori is caught by these traps or fails to reach a new route before the passage is destroyed, she’ll die and have to start the escape from the beginning. Adding to the problem is that since the threat is always approaching, there’s no way to create a Soul Link to save progress. It also doesn’t help that there are experience-boosting collectibles littering the pathways that, if missed, can’t be obtained again since a Shrine becomes inaccessible after restoring an element, though I have heard the developers are working on a patch to fix this.

 

The hand drawn visuals are simply beautiful. Every region of Nibel has its own depth, vibrancy, and unique aura, from the contrasting vibrant and stagnant sections of Thornfelt Swamp, to the warm muted colorscape of Sorrow Pass. An effective balance of light and shadow brings an eerie beauty to several of the darker, more corrupted areas like the Moon Grotto with brilliant blue shimmers. Furthermore, every background aspect is unique to its region, making the world feel much more organic.  Character animations are fluid and facial expressions convey their emotional state perfectly. Ori’s labored movements after venturing out into the dying forest, the loving warmth of Naru’s smile, Gumo’s mournful gazing over the remains of his people, and the almost constant murderous rage in Kuro’s eyes tell players all they need to know about what the characters are feeling without the need for words. I found it interesting that most of the enemies encountered are designed to resemble insects or fungus; it fits considering those are the species that would thrive most in a decaying environment.

 

The soundtrack by Gareth Coker compliments the fantastic setting of the game. Soft piano and low-toned woodwinds create an aura of eerie serenity in the Sunken Glades and Moon Grotto, sharp cello reflects the harshness of Thornfelt Swamp, flutes are prominent in areas where riding the wind is common, and the music which plays when escaping a shrine are very fast-paced with intense string and percussion. Several tracks feature vocal work from Aeralie Brighton whose ethereal resonance makes the world feel even more mystical. The only thing that hinders this beautiful music is that it isn’t dynamic; when moving from one region to another the previous track simply stops before the next one begins rather than seamlessly blending into one another. It’s a small issue, but it breaks the immersion somewhat.

Great sound design and ambient effects like leaves rustling in the wind or the cry of distant animals further enhance the atmosphere. The noises Ori makes when walking differ depending on the surface, hollow wood cracking under her weight while stone produces solid thumps. When double-jumping or using Bash, there’s a very audible whoosh as she propels herself through the air. And while this isn’t the most realistic, I found it amusing that when some enemies are killed by using Bash to knock them into a pit, their death cries are the Wilhelm Scream.

Aside from a few issues, Ori and the Blind Forest is a fantastic title. It does what a Metroidvania needs to in order to excel – tell a compelling story and make exploration a joy by drawing players into its world. It’s a fairly short game, able to be completed in about 3-5 hours, but it feels so much more expansive. I feel confident in saying this will be fondly remembered alongside other indie gems in the genre like Aquaria, Cave Story, and Dust: An Elysian Tail.

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