Those who say that video games aren’t art, or that they don’t have artistic integrity, clearly haven’t paid much attention to the medium. That’s okay, though, because those who have are aware of the fact that there have been many great examples of this over the years, ranging from more realistic titles like the Uncharted series, to beautifully animated experiences such as Dust: An Elysian Tale and Rayman Legends. You just have to look past some of the bullets to find the true art, though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good first or third-person shooter.
Thanks to both Microsoft and Moon Studios, we now have another contender for the “Most Beautiful Video Game In Existence” award. Okay, so maybe I made that up, but it could be a thing, right?
The title in question is, unsurprisingly, Ori and the Blind Forest, a brand new IP from the aforementioned indie studio. It’s been covered to death, through news, previews and the like, but we’ve finally had the chance to actually sit down and play through the full campaign from start to finish and are now ready to give you our thoughts.
Ori and the Blind Forest is as beautiful as it is immersive and haunting, eschewing realism for a stunning visual style that mixes painted backgrounds with fluid animation. It all comes together to create one of the most memorable visual presentations in all of gaming, which sits atop the list alongside Rayman Legends. The latter is (arguably) the better-looking of the two, but both are so incredible-looking that it’s like splitting hairs.
Things begin in the past, with the apparent death of Nibel Forest. You see, what was once a beautiful and thriving woodland suffered a catastrophic event that made its flora shrivel and its fauna turn evil. At least, that’s the impression that I got from watching the introductory cutscene, which sees Ori — a guardian spirit — thrown across the land as the result of a windy explosion at the forest’s Spirit Tree. When he lands, things are still somewhat okay, and he’s lucky enough to be found by a bear-like being that raises him as its own. However, as time passes, food becomes scarce and both creatures die from starvation.
Death is not the end in Ori and the Blind Forest, though, as this is a story about renewal. Not only that, but also understanding. As such, our titular character is brought back to life, and sent on a quest to rid his home of evil. It’s a long and perilous journey, though, and one that requires the hero to find and recover lost energy orbs, which will, in turn, help the tree recover. After all, it is the woodland’s lifeblood.
Completing one’s eight to twelve hour-long quest is never easy, but the satisfaction that comes with making good progress is incredibly rewarding. That’s because, despite its cute characters and storybook aesthetic, Ori is nowhere near being a kid’s game. In fact, it’s one of the more unexpectedly challenging games that I’ve played in a long time, and one that sent me to my doom almost six hundred times. Yes, you read that right. Though, to my credit, a decent amount of those deaths were intentional, so that I could respawn with more health and/or a fresh start.
This is a platforming experience at heart, but it’s not of the Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong Country variety. Instead, it’s a mechanically impressive mix between that and a Metroidvania-style experience, wherein one must scour the game world in search of items, upgrades and skills, which will allow progression through previously locked areas. It just so happens that you’ll be doing a lot of wall-running/climbing, and jumping from one to another while avoiding enemies and obstacles, like in Super Meat Boy.
Ori starts off with a basic ranged attack; a spirit flame that ‘he’ can shoot at nearby enemies. It’s not restricted to just a horizontal plane, either, and is quite helpful, though rather weak at first. Through progression, you can upgrade that weapon and enhance it, or opt to improve other skill trees that pertain to collectibles, resistance and energy costs. Energy, you see, is very important here, because it’s not only required to unlock special doors and pull off a sweet move or two, but is also necessary in order to manually save. That is, by expelling an energy orb to create a portal of sorts, which serves a double purpose by also allowing you to upgrade.
The map itself is large and varied, with tons of hidden secrets and many different paths, not to mention elementally-themed environments. You’ll likely get lost, as I did, but that’s par for the course in this type of game. Just take note of the fact that this isn’t a casual experience, and is, instead, something for the more seasoned crowd. It is fun, memorable and cute, but can also be frustrating and masochistic.
Therein lays the game’s major fault: the frustration that is created by its need for precision. Late in the campaign things become quite perilous, as you’re tasked with avoiding all sorts of danger, whether it be enemies, spikes, projectiles or wind gusts. You can use a neat ability that lets you boost off of projectiles, but even that can be a bit imprecise at times, since it’s hard to really gauge how far/fast you’ll travel on each occasion. As such, I expect that some gamers will be turned off by how challenging things are, after purchasing the title without knowing exactly what it’s like.
That said, checkpoints are generous (for the most part), so long as you save frequently. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, though, and I’d be lying if I said that saving was always a possibility. A couple of challenging chase sequences do exist, and it’s impossible to save while in a dangerous area.
Going further, it’s important to note that while things run pretty well overall, Ori suffers from a noticeable frame rate hitch. Additionally, the game crashed on me the first time that I attempted to boot it up, but only that one time.
All in all, though, Ori and the Blind Forest is a noteworthy and well above-average game, which mixes fantastic visual presentation with haunting and perfectly fitting music. Not only is it lengthy, but it’s also budget-priced at twenty dollars, making it a steal in comparison to some triple-A games that offer less content for more money. It’s not without its faults, however, and definitely won’t be for everyone.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a stunning, impressive and unforgettable new IP, but its challenging gameplay will turn some folks off.