I love this game. Let me get that out of the way right up front. We’re in a new golden age for side-scrollers, and Ori and the Blind Forest is up there with the best I’ve ever played. Gorgeous graphics, fluid controls, and satisfying challenges make for one of the best videogame experiences I’ve had in years.
Ori and the Blind Forest has been out for a while, but if you’re not familiar with it, here are the basics: it is a metroidvania game in which you play Ori, some kind of flying-monkey-looking thing, and you flit around the titular forest, which has become sick and is in need of saving. The story, such as it is, is straight-up videogame boilerplate. There’s a Spirit Tree, there are three main objectives centered on three elements, there’s the restoring of light. But somehow, developer Moon Studios has made this paint-by-numbers story seem vital. This can be credited mainly to two things: the game’s beautiful art design, and its poignant opening scene.
The game begins with a ten-minute interactive cutscene that is one of the most emotionally effective things I’ve ever seen in a game, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the scene is without dialogue (other than some vague narration) and the characters are basically white splotches. A good reference point would be the opening of Wall-E, which got you to fall in love with a robot who says nothing and interacts with no one. This one cutscene, one of the few in the game, gets you heavily invested in Ori and his/her/its world, and is all the impetus you really need to play the game that follows. Beyond that initial cutscene, what little story there is is doled out in ethereal snippets of voiceover and a few brief but effective cutscenes. The story hinges more on moods than on concrete plot points, designed not so much to inform as to evoke an emotional response. The voiceover dialogue, for example, is spoken in a gibberish language by a deep, languid voice and translated into captions that float ominously above Ori’s head.
And the art. Oh that art! Videogame history is littered with sick forests that have needed their light restored or their spirits rescued or their life-force rejuvenated or whatever, but you will still find yourself caring about this forest, adorably named Nibel, because it is absolutely gorgeous. The world has a very hand-drawn, hand-painted look, is beautifully lit, and makes fantastic use of color. By making Ori solid white, the designers were able to fill their environments with color without having to worry about players losing track of their character. The game also does not recycle any assets – if you see a tree somewhere, that is the only instance of that tree in the game – making every inch of its world feel unique.
This attention to detail can be seen everywhere in the game’s design. Parallax scrolling, for example, has been used in videogames since at least Super Mario Bros. 3 to bring a sense of depth to 2D worlds, but Moon absolutely nails it here. Distant objects are just the right amount of out-of-focus, and silhouettes pop into the foreground just often enough to remind you you’re deep in the forest. The haze in the air, the sunlight filtering through the trees, the particles floating everywhere – these details are just perfectly executed.
The one area in which the graphics falter a bit – a bit! – is in the abundance of glowing light streaking to and fro. It’s easy at times to lose track of which swoops of light are enemy attacks and which are power-ups being automatically drawn towards you. This is a minor inconvenience, though. Combat isn’t really the main focus, and it mostly consists of spamming the attack button and avoiding projectiles. Ori does gain a few new offensive abilities via two sets of unlockable skills – one tied to the narrative and another tied to a three-branched skill tree – but most of his abilities focus on movement and exploration.
As in any metroidvania game, there are various power-ups and items peppered throughout Nibel, often behind impenetrable barriers or atop unreachable ledges, and, as always, it’s satisfying to realize that you can finally go back and get that extra health cell now that you’ve got the triple jump. Annoyingly, though, the narrative never really revisits previously explored areas; you just have to make a point to spend some time traipsing back and forth across the map, gathering up stray, newly accessible items, a task that can feel a bit tedious at times. A fast travel option would have been nice. The one thing more annoying than having to walk plum across the map to pick up a single item, though, is the fact that a few areas become inaccessible once you reach a particular story beat. This is a frustrating design feature in almost any videogame, as exploration is such a major component of so many games, but it is especially out of place here, in a metroidvania game that is otherwise begging you to revisit previously explored regions of its world. Every time I looked at the map and saw that little black splotch of forever unexplored territory, I died a little bit inside.
But, in a weird sort of irony, this design flaw is offset by another design flaw: the near uselessness of many of these items. There are three basic item types: those that lengthen your energy meter, those that lengthen your life meter, and those that give you or help you earn ability points. Energy is used mostly to save and to power some of Ori’s more powerful attacks, but you eventually gain (and improve) the ability to restore a little life every time you save, so there’s really no need to max out both of these meters if you don’t want to bother hunting down those last few life cells or energy cells. Meanwhile, the items that help you get ability points (which unlock your skills) are strictly a convenience. Ability points are earned by accumulating energy or light or whatever they call XP, which you get every time you kill one of the infinite enemies. Sure, it’s nice to pick up an item that gives you a big chunk of XP or, even better, a whole ability point, but if you can’t find or don’t want to chase down these items, you can just grind out some ability points. And really, even that is unnecessary. Other than a few cases where I was this close to getting that next ability point and unlocking a coveted skill, I didn’t really do any grinding and was still able to completely fill out my skill tree with plenty of time and XP to spare. By the time I unlocked the skill I needed to get those last few stubborn items, I had no use for them anymore.
But enough dwelling. Those are basically all of the game’s problems, and they’re only problems to a completist who desperately needs wants to get every last item on the map. Put another way, these wouldn’t be problems at all if the game wasn’t as good as it is.
As for the gameplay, Moon again nails it. The controls feel perfect as you steer Ori through all those tricky-but-doable jumps and, later, zip him back and forth through the air like a pinball, if pinballs could kind of fly. As with any platformer, the game is full of sections that require perfectly timed jumps and stop-start running, but you never feel like you’re just hacking away at the jump button until the law of averages kicks in and you finally make it across some chasm. You always feel in control, and the challenge level and controls are perfectly tuned to each other so that you’re unlikely to ever get sucked into a Platforming Rage Spiral after spending an hour trying to land an impossible jump. There are a few escape sections that rely on the platforming trope of forcing you to basically die a million times while you memorize the necessary sequence of jumps and turns to reach the finish line. But even these sequences are generally executed so well that they kind of trick you into thinking of this design convention not as a frustrating cliché that you hate in platformers but a glorious, fundamental element of platforming.
Super Mario Bros., the most famous and influential 2D platformer ever, came out in 1985. Thirty years later, developers both small and large are still releasing fresh, innovative, enjoyable 2D platformers, suggesting that there is basically infinite design space in this genre. It’s hard to say where Ori and the Blind Forest will ultimately fall in the pantheon of great 2D platformers. It’s obviously a very crowded genre full of unique, memorable games as well as emotional favorites. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than Super Mario World. And there are so many promising indie platformers coming out every year that most of us will never play most of them. But Ori is, without a doubt, in that rarefied space with the best platformers to date. If we don’t remember this game ten years from now, it will only be because so many more great games have taken its place on all the top 10, 20, or 50 lists. We should be so lucky.