Reviewed: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori's opening

I remember a couple of years ago I played Bloodborne for review. It was difficult. Bloodborne was basically the same as Dark Souls except different. You know, like when you know a language, but suddenly everyone speaks it in a different accent. I fell into the habits quickly enough, but it turns out all those habits were wrong. If you head over to New Zealand, all the vowels are Caesar cypher shifted across one, which means they say all their words weird and it requires some adjustment. I guess, by the same token, here in Australia we finish all our sentences in questions?

So it was tricky because I knew on some level what I was supposed to be doing, but I just couldn’t get it to work. The buttons were the same, but there were critical differences in the gameplay behaviours. Where Dark Souls (2 in particular) rewarded patient, careful gameplay, Bloodborne encouraged you to push towards enemies in a relentless attack.

And bear in mind, this was for review. There weren’t any FAQs or Walkthroughs or Lets Plays available at the time. I was in a Facebook chat with two other game journos that we mostly used for dick measuring (“What? Father Gascoigne only took me two attempts!”), but otherwise, there wasn’t any support network in place to help me out. And what was phenomenal about Bloodborne is that despite my inability to shift my playstyle — which I didn’t fix until the Vicar Amelia fight — I never felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I never felt lost, or confused, or… inadequate. I was failing, but I knew where I was going, where I needed to be and what had to come next at all times.

And there’s something about that which inspired me to press on and continue. I was on a work trip at the time, and I was basically forgoing sleep in favour of doing the work involved and playing as much Bloodborne as I could. And what kept me going was the idea that I knew what I had to do.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is like the direct opposite of Bloodborne in this sense.

Ori and the Wolf
Although in both Bloodborne and Ori the first boss you fight is a wolf….

The Will’o’Wisps

I spent so long in Ori and the Will of the Wisps with barely any idea of what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going next. I should have finished it about 2 hours earlier than I did, but I got so utterly lost that I went back and finished every other thing on the map before I continued.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps has some of the worst breadcrumbing or signposting or leading — whatever you want to call it — that I’ve seen in a game. I spent giant chunks of time pixel-hunting across the map screen to work out what I’d missed. I spent even more time revisiting areas to work out if I’d been there already because the brown background on the map looks too similar to grey. Areas are locked behind skills you don’t unlock in the typical passage of play, but instead purchase and then upgrade. This really grinds my gears, because that skill — stomp — was a regular upgrade in the first game, so I figured if I played long enough I’d acquire it.

And the game makes no effort to help in that regard. When you acquire a new quest, Ori and the Will of the Wisps marks the quest giver on your map. You can track the mission if you like, which will highlight that quest giver and throw the “details” up on your screen. ‘Find someone who needs a light’ it says, which is spectacularly unhelpful unless you’ve got the memento disease and you forget what you’re doing every 12 minutes.

And while Ori and the Will of the Wisps’s visuals are absolutely gorgeous, a masterpiece painting animating in as many frames as your rig can handle, they don’t help with the issue. Often elements are obscured by background and foreground noise. There’s a specific puzzle which requires you to pay special attention to a background scene which is out of focus. And the secret rooms deliberately obscured by foreground artwork are fine for collectibles, but there are main path items hidden in alcoves invisible to the naked eye.

I recall feeling elation in last year’s phenomenal Supraland because I had found a way to break free from the bonds of the game world to climb ‘outside’ the map. And I recall that feeling being heightened when I was greeted by a ‘coin’ — a dumb collectible used to purchase power-ups, but eventually used only to chart your completion of the game. In Ori and the Will of the Wisps, I felt the elation of pulling off what I thought were some slick moves to climb past where I should be, and then dismay when I saw a keystone hidden up there, a required item for players to continue the game. I hadn’t usurped anything – players were supposed to do their best to try to escape the bonds of the game to continue.

There’s a sense here that the people playing Ori and the Will of the Wisps knew it far too intimately. There was never any question in their minds that people would be able to work out what to do or where to go next. I remember it being a little like this in the first Ori, but here it’s ramped up to 11. I wonder now if I didn’t feel this way before because I came to the first game late, and there were ample guides available to me by then.

Needlessly Combatative

What’s striking about Ori and the Will of the Wisps is how, when I know where to go next or what I have to do, it feels so fluid and natural while still being white-knuckle tense. Ori careens through gorgeous blue-green areas with ease, taking on all manner of critters as she tries to find the lost owlet Ku.

Where the first Ori game focused more on puzzle platforming, Ori and the Will of the Wisps feels much more like a traditional Metroidvania, with combat challenges, boss fights and more. The puzzle platforming is still there, and a lot of the classic Ori moves return — launching yourself off projectiles (or projectiles at your enemies), dashing post double (or triple) jump for distance, wall climbing and clinging — and the chase bosses are there too.

But Ori spends a lot of time straight up smiting enemies too. And the combat is good once you upgrade some abilities — a lot better than in the first game, where it was an add-on at best. Being a little forest spirit, Ori relies on agility more than brute strength, and combat gets a lot easier as Ori becomes more agile. I found the first boss fight the toughest, actually.

Ori and the spider boss
This boss fight was a lot of fun.

I also found it — and all the boss fights — quite tedious. In Ori, the boss movesets are so small and telegraphed that none of them feel particularly challenging. Instead it’s boring performing the requisite moves to dodge your enemy until they make a fatal error — the same fatal error they made four movements ago. The only real challenge is in their size — bosses are always huge, and they can corner you if you’re not careful — but once you overcome that hassle they’re all a cinch.

I found myself most challenged when Ori returned to its roots and used a chase boss fight instead. The chase sequences are masterfully created, designed to maximise tension as you nail that lantern bash just before the monster’s jaws close around you, flinging you out of harm’s way over and over. In this sense, it’s clear that the heart of Ori is in puzzle platforming — that while improved, combat in Ori and the Will of the Wisps is still just an afterthought.

Can’t stop the rock

Another odd choice for Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the decision to use unskippable cutscenes, randomly interspliced among the very skippable ones. Or worse, when the cinematic presentation of the game is such that you can’t tell between gameplay and cutscene. My personal preference will always be for unskippable cutscenes to be yeeted into the ocean. Still, at the very least I think it’s important that a game pick a lane — skippable, or unskippable.

In Ori and the Will of the Wisps, unskippable is a mistake. There’s no question that, as a gorgeous game with a very driven art style, Ori and the Will of the Wisps wants you to take in and appreciate what it has to offer. But there is nothing gained from unskippable cutscenes here, and quite a bit is lost. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is about forward momentum. It’s everywhere in the way Ori moves, the level design and the skills. With gorgeous background and foreground artwork, it feels odd to say this, but a lot of work has been put into making Ori and the Will of the Wisps a game that is best appreciated at breakneck speeds, whipping from wall to lantern to vine to an enemy projectile.

Ori talks to the spirit upgrader
People love this dude’s hat

When you hit that zen moment where Ori and the Will of the Wisps is at its best, you’re not looking at anything but the projectile beyond your next target. You’re two moves ahead of yourself, not just a master of the language but freestyle rapping it, and the world is just a blur of colours around you.

And then the game halts you for an unskippable cutscene, and you put the controller down, robbed of that momentum.

And sure, you appreciate the artwork. That is one gorgeous giant frog. But the scenes themselves are stagnant, single frame works. The giant frog in question speaks a made-up language so lip-syncing isn’t an issue. And he’s not exactly the most animated character in the world. This stays true for a lot of these halting moments. Simple animations and a very tight camera angle, with the player robbed of agency as they wait for some Moki’s to say the same thing three times or something.

It’s almost definitely hiding loading times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still jarring.

Careful Wisp-ers

Outside of these issues Ori and the Will of the Wisps tells a beautiful modern fairy tale, exploring loss and failure in gorgeous ways. When the narrative uses gameplay to move forward, it absolutely nails it, and if you pay attention during those stilted cutscenes there’s a lot to like as well.

Ori and friends
Ori’s companions seem to come straight from an illustrated children’s book.

It almost feels like a children’s storybook at times, with cute creatures performing wordless pantomime vignettes, introducing and growing the story. The underlying theme is that we might not be able to undo the damage done to the forest, but we can still try to improve it, which is a beautiful message of hope in a climate change reality. There’s a secondary theme about the nature of rejection that I found even more poignant, although I didn’t feel like it was explored as much as it might have been.

And with a fairly happy ending, it capitalises pretty nicely on the story beats it already laid out, even if it comes off a bit saccharine to me. There’s a strange air of inevitability as Ori fulfils the titular will of the wisps, a sad smile on my face as the ending plays out.

But it feels out of tune with the audience the gameplay is created for. With some complex platforming sequences and the directionless UI design, Ori and the Will of the Wisps felt like a game built for people around my age. The map and quest system is like something from the Sierra Adventure games of pixel-hunting and near-nonsensical puzzle solutions, while the complex jumping puzzles remind me of the platforms of the Sega era, which were only ever about four hours long but entertained me for weeks because I was, frankly, a bit shit.

What it boils down to is some extremely confusing gameplay wrapped in a package created for, I think, children. And don’t get me wrong, ‘children’s entertainment’ can entertain far beyond its years, but I do wonder about the specific audience Moon Studios had in mind for Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

If you love Metroidvania games, there’s a lot here for you. And the truth is, I’m all for using guides in games. I think the social aspect of Dark Souls — with the soapstones and robust community of helpful creatives — is one of the most fascinating things about the series.

But that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t frustrating without it, and as someone who played and finished Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 without guides, I feel the contrast quite keenly. Play Ori and the Will of the Wisps for the gorgeous visuals, the touching story, the fantastic soundtrack and the feeling of flow you get when you start to nail the gameplay. And forgive it for the bad breadcrumbing and the halting momentum.

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