Developed by Moon Studios – Published by Xbox Game Studios – Released 11 March 2020
Available on Xbox One and PC – Reviewed on Xbox One X
When Ori and the Blind Forest released back in 2015, it became an instant classic, due to its charming story, challenging platforming and beautiful audio-visual design. It became one of my favourite games of the last decade, so when its sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, was announced back in E3 2017, I couldn’t be more excited for what it could offer. Finally releasing almost 3 years later, the game has not only kept what made the first so unique, but it has also improved upon many aspects. It boasts stunning visuals, smart level design, more challenging and versatile combat, as well as a beautiful narrative and soundtrack.
Taking place after the events of Blind Forest, the owl Ku hatches from the last of Kuro’s eggs. Ori, alongside Naru and Gumo work together in raising the baby owl, who has a damaged wing and is unable to fly. After they affix one of Kuro’s feathers to her wing, she slowly regains this ability. This brief, yet heartwarming opening scene helps set the characters and their relationships up in an efficient and charming way. Soon, Ori and Ku soar through the skies, but an oncoming storm rages and separates them to the nearby land of Niwen. You must set off to reunite with the lost owl and eventually travel across the hostile, but breathtaking land, recovering the scattered wisps in order to restore the light of Niwen’s Spirit Willow tree. While the overall narrative plays out quite similar to the first game, the various individuals you meet along the way, as well as their much expanded role, leads the story in a stronger path than before.
At the core of the experience is Ori himself. Controlling him feels much more engaging and fluid this time around. His agile nature provide the player with a sense of freedom in movement like few other games. As you progress through the game, new abilities for traversal open up to you. You’ll quickly be able to double jump (later triple jump), glide through the air, propel yourself off of enemies, projectiles and certain environmental objects, blast forward in a certain direction, as well as move through certain ground and launch from their surfaces, even water. All of these abilities allow you to reach areas you previously couldn’t, accessing new parts of the map and picking up collectibles. Controlling Ori always makes you feel skilled, as the versatility gives you confidence in his movements, allowing you to pull off dangerous and tough platforming sections, while making them look easy. Your efficiency with the controls are put to the challenge in various escape sequences, where one wrong move can cost you, making you start from the beginning of the chase. However, what’s great about these sections, is that they will always heavily make use of an ability you recently picked up, testing the player as well as giving them experience to master the mechanics.
These varied traversal skills would be wasted if the level design was lacking, However, Will of the Wisps continues the first game’s excellent and smart design to great effect. Each area has its own unique feel and style, requiring different methods to successfully get through. One area will see you having to shoot out of water and bounce off bubbles, another will require following fireflies through darkness, while a desert section forces you to manoeuvre through ground. Well-placed blocks, walls and enemies are scattered around, begging to be used to your advantage to access many hard-to-reach areas. It’s this meticulous design which gives the world so much character and depth.
If there was one aspect that needed much improvement in the sequel, it was the combat. While not necessarily bad, it was often limited with very little challenge. It has been completely overhauled in the sequel. One word to describe the new combat is ‘versatile.’ Ori has a large selection of different skills and powers to use in combat, making it much more in-line with his movement. You learn a few attacks that don’t drain energy, such as a sword and hammer of light. Alongside these, you will be able to learn a number of mandatory ones, such as shooting a ball of flame as well as the use of a bow and arrow. Most skills like these will use up energy, which can be replenished from defeating enemies, pickups around the map and at alters which fully restores health as well. There is also an in-game currency which will allow you to purchase abilities and skills and upgrade them. This adds a new layer of customisation which gives the game even more depth and freedom. Speaking of which, Ori also has a number of slots (you can unlock more) to fill with spirit shards which give a variety of passive buffs and enhancements, such as being able to stick to walls, increased damage etc. Depending on your play style, some will be more important than others.
All of these new additions leads the combat to being more dynamic and requiring more skill to master. Each one of Ori’s actions and attacks has so much weight behind them, making battles and defeating the various enemies all the more satisfying. Furthermore, the much improved combat is put to the test in a number of boss battles. While there are not many, each of them are so unique, with widely different abilities and attack patterns that force you to learn and adapt quickly. Making use of Ori’s various abilities is crucial to your success. I also found that because boss battles weren’t overused (the game alternates between boss battles and escape sequences), it made these challenging and intricate fights more worthwhile. Controlling Ori, both in combat and platforming, feels fluid and exciting.
What has also been expanded in this game is the greater variety of activities found throughout the world. Finding various collectibles, such as orbs to upgrade your health and energy, spirit light (the currency) and spirit shards are major aspects of the game’s side activities, but they are not the only thing. There are now combat trials, pitting you against waves of enemies where the reward is a new spirit shard slot. Time trials task you with completing a certain challenging route within a time limit, giving you a large quality of spirit light if successful. Also, there are now side quests that have you exploring the land to complete tasks for various colourful characters. While they are nothing truly memorable, it helps in encouraging the player to explore more than they might normally do. These all help to make the game larger, while offering more variety in its gameplay.
One thing that stands out right from the opening sequence till the closing credits, is just how breathtaking the game is. While the original was a beautiful game, Will of the Wisps boasts a much more dynamic and animated presentation. I couldn’t count the amount of times I just had to stop and admire the truly stunning landscapes and take screenshots. The sheer variety of locations makes the game never feel uninteresting or stale. I felt like I really was on a grand journey across a vast, beautiful world. The vibrant colour palette, world design, as well as the intricate and highly animated backgrounds makes the land feel alive. It also stands out in the various effects displayed in moment-to-moment gameplay and combat. Absorbing powers from small spirit trees and using various abilities and attacks look so aesthetically pleasing, where every visual is given so much detail. It easily stands tall as one of the best looking games ever made.
Accompanying the excellent visuals is the brilliant audio design and stellar music. Wondering through dark caves, open areas, underwater and everywhere in-between always sound as it should. The ambient sounds, noises from enemies and Ori himself, all offer something to the atmosphere, grounding the player in the world. However, it’s the fantastical score by Gareth Coker that really stands out. It heightens the already incredible game to something even greater. Every song encompasses each setting, scene and atmosphere perfectly. Escape sequences are accompanied by heart-racing and uplifting music to keep you pushing forward and persevering. Boss music is both thrilling and tense. Music is such an important aspect that quite a few people seem to forget, where it enhances the experience and works to fill the narrative and the various sections with emotion. This is a soundtrack that I will remember for a long time.
As alluded to in the review title, the game is “near perfect.” The only aspect that lets the game partially down is the performance. The frame rate can drop at a number of points, particularly when a lot is happening on the screen, even on the Xbox One X. Furthermore, the game would regularly freeze for a couple of seconds. This seemed to only occur while traversing the map, very rarely in actual combat. It could often happen while in the middle of platforming sections, which could be frustrating in certain difficult situations. Also, it seemed frequent when moving between areas of the map, likely loading in new assets. While this was nothing major and a patch could easily fix the problem, it was still an issue that impacted gameplay and fluidity.
When the credits finally rolled, I was emotional. The stories’ conclusion was a beautiful and sweet moment that ended an exceptional experience on a high note. After completing nearly all the game had to offer, my 19 hour adventure was something that will stick with me for many years. Everything from the visuals to the satisfying and fluid gameplay, was crafted with such care and detail. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a true masterpiece in game design that proves you don’t always need a huge, 100-hour adventure, realistic graphics and a serious story to be a phenomenal and memorable experience. I can confidently say that it is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played, and if you have an Xbox or PC, then play it and you won’t regret it.
Score = 9.5/10
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