Looks can be deceiving.
For instance, Ori and the Blind Forest ($14.99, Xbox One and PC) looks like a Hiyao Miyazaki film. Its imagery evokes the same sort of fairy tale whimsy you might feel while watching My Neighbor Totoro. Its star, a small, adorable white creature, is equal parts ferret and Mogwai. This is, without question, a cute video game.
Start to actually play it, however, and you’ll find that just on the other side of Ori’s fuzzy warmth lies a spiked trap, or an acid-spitting blob, or some other terrible thing determined to turn your Mogwai ferret into a dead Mogwai ferret. This is, without question, a hard video game.
It’s also a very special one. Combining stunning, dreamlike visuals with the harsh reality of a challenging action game, Ori and the Blind Forest is as grueling as it is gorgeous. It’s also the best video game released so far this year.
Ori’s opening sequence tells the tale of a stray leaf ripped from a great tree during a terrible storm. That leaf morphs into the catlike Ori, who is discovered and cared for by the matronly humanoid Naru. Their familial bliss doesn’t last, however, and by the end of the prologue you’ll be an emotional wreck. It’s the beginning of Up all over again.
The intro serves as more than just a teary-eyed meet-and-greet: It shows off the incredibly beautiful work of developer Moon Studios. Ori’s delivery is marvelous, sporting a look that oscillates between a cartoon cel and a vibrant watercolor painting. The land of Nibel is gorgeously realized, all greens and blues and purples, taking players from dense, swampy caverns to soaring cliffs. Gareth Coker’s wonderful orchestral score recalls the early works of Disney masters like the Sherman brothers. It’s Charlotte’s Web by way of Howl’s Moving Castle, and it’s a sight to see.
And like any great Disney film, Ori does a tremendous job of evoking pathos with its remarkably well-drawn characters. Aside from the infrequent voice of a narrator, there’s no dialogue here. Through clever animations and smart storytelling, Moon Studios makes you genuinely care about the creatures you meet along the way.
That said, the story isn’t exactly shocking. The forest is dying, so off goes Ori to save it by finding some magical objects scattered about. It’s familiar narrative terrain, and the vaguely New Age mystical vibe is a bit much, but it’s easy to forgive the loose plot in the face of some of the most satisfying exploratory action-platforming in years.
Our hero begins with just a jump, but uncovering every nook and cranny of the huge, sprawling map requires the acquisition of new skills and abilities. A double jump here, a floor-breaking stomp there: It’s a well-worn genre dating back to Nintendo’s classic Metroid (and kept alive by Konami’s awesome 2D Castlevanias), but Ori carves out its own niche thanks in no small part to absolutely spot-on controls.
I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Ori’s move set expands significantly over the game’s eight or so hours, and the designers want to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing. A novel dash move that lets you lock on and boost off enemies and projectiles becomes indispensable, but it would have been a disaster had it not been dialed in so perfectly. Ori recalls another excellent downloadable game, The Mark of the Ninja, in how its effortless controls engender a real sense of power.
Which isn’t to say this is an easy game, because Ori is a beast. Death is not only common but expected. The game even keeps a running tally of your futility and trumpets the number of deaths alongside your completion time once you beat it (my total: 224). It’s also a game married to (and some would say marred by) a little too much trial and error. Beating a tricky platforming sequence on the first try, or second, or fifth, is uncommon in this game.
But despite the déjà vu, Ori is rarely frustrating, because in another inspired control move, the game lets you save whenever — and wherever — you wish.
At first, it’s a risk/reward proposition. Saving eats up some of your “energy” meter used to unlock doors and perform big, explosive attacks. Should you waste energy to save now, or try to hop that gap and risk having to redo a few sequences? (Hint: Save now.) Over time, saving becomes not only a second-nature button press but potentially beneficial, as one unlockable ability ties saving to a health boost. About to die? Save, and you’re, well, saved.
Fair warning: Putting the save controls in the hands of the gamer can prove troublesome, as I discovered roughly six hours into Ori when, in a freak accident, I saved just as Ori was clipping through the environment. The result? Ori was entombed in a rock for eternity, because you only have one save at a time. It’s a nasty bug, for sure, though I couldn’t replicate it. At any rate, save early, save often, and save carefully.
Random bug notwithstanding, Ori mostly plays exactly the way you want it to play. This is no more evident than during the game’s occasional escape sequences, which require you to use your powers to run away from some calamity. These are categorically difficult but totally intoxicating; nailing a jump, floating past some spikes, dashing from rock to rock as, say, a flood of water nips at your heels. Negotiating Ori’s environments, defeating its enemies, and discovering its secrets are its own reward.
And just as its star rejuvenates Nibel, Ori and the Blind Forest is a burst of life in a video game landscape cluttered with the dying twigs of play-it-safe sequels. Beautiful, colorful and tons of fun, it’s the first must-have of 2015.
What’s hot: An aesthetic masterpiece; outstanding controls; great save system
What’s not: Except when you save into a bug; a bit too much trial and error
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