“If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”
-Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
“The following is a guest post by The Moronic Cheese Mage.”
Moon Studios released Ori and the Blind Forest upon the world in March 2015, where it shook up the Xbox One and Steam communities with its general awesomeness. An instant critical sensation, its blend of beautiful graphics, stirring music, and challenging gameplay propelled it to the forefront of the year’s best releases. Heck, it was the best game of the year! The Witcher 3? Pfffffft!
I’ve picked it as a first review on this here glorious website but, back on my blog, I’ve ranted and raved about what I consider to be a masterpiece. It is just that – a masterpiece. Running through it for the first time in December of ’15, it was like an outer-body experience. By the end, I knew I’d played one of the best games of all time – in joy, I rushed out into the streets and began shouting this at everyone I met. I was arrested shortly afterwards for disturbing the peace and released on bail the next day.
So why review this now, after I’ve written about it multiple times already, and ended up in jail because of it? After E3 2017, the news is there’s a sequel on the way – this made one vlogger burst into tears in bloody delight (no, it wasn’t me, I merely sneezed in general acceptance). The aim for me here, then, is to convince you this thing is a lovely slice of genius and well worth your time. Read on, Macduff!
Channelling Super Metroid
Moon Studios was formed in 2010 and signed up with Microsoft Game Studios in 2011 after Ori and the Blind Forest was successfully pitched, with the dev team made up of former AAA employees – head honcho Thomas Mahler, for instance, worked for Blizzard. Uniquely, the indie team is dotted across the planet – its respective staff members work remotely and rarely meet up (surely a hint at the future for us all?).
The concept for its first game was born out of Mahler’s love for SNES title Super Metroid – he noted in an interview with Polygon: “I want games like that again.” There’s a clear divide of interests in modern gaming, with the new generation of younger gamers treated to spectacular 3D open worlds which were impossible to achieve 20 years back when I was growing up. So, aren’t these 2D platformers anachronistic? Why play a 2D game when you can go and annihilate stuff in the Witcher 3, for example?
Despite technological advancements, it’s arguable the SNES remains the best games console of them all, powered along by behemoths such as Super Metroid, Earthbound, Super Castlevania, Chrono Trigger, and A Link to the Past – the sheer quality of these titles is timeless. Why should similiar games not continue being made, just because the technology available means we can now wipe out NOOBS in vast MMORPGs and the like?
FIttingly, many of the kids who played the likes of Super Metroid are now all grown up and making their own games, taking inspiration from legendary titles to build a glorious new genre: Metroidvania. This has sprung up with the advent of the indie scene and has already created a wealth of classics, but I believe this to be the finest of the lot.
For clarity, before I continue ranting: Moon Studios added DLC to the original and released the Definitive Edition in March 2016. This is the version I’m reviewing. The screengrabs below, incidentally, are from my Steam account, so marvel at the work of an imbecile in action!
Now! Many Studio Ghibli fans have wanted to play one of the animation giant’s films in game form and, whilst the recent effort Breath of the Wild took inspiration from sweeping masterpieces such as Princess Mononoke, Ori and the Blind Forest is the closest this dream has come to being realised. The imagination and confidence displayed in the concept is masterful, but it’s a world which is tinged with a genuine atmosphere and sense of purpose and history.
In short, the plot is this: Baby Ori, a disgustingly cute white tree spirit thing, is blasted from his tree during a storm and is adopted by a Totoro-type creature called Nabu. Some sort of dodgy event then occurs which decimates the once lush region and Ori is left to find sanctuary through what is known as the Spirit Tree. Energised, he goes off and soon finds Sein (who sounds remarkably like Midna from Twilight Princess), before heading off on his adventure to restore equilibrium.
I’m Blue Da Ba Dee Da Ba Die
It doesn’t take long to realise just how special the game is. With the radiant hue of melancholic blue everywhere after the emotional prologue (well worth paying attention to, by the way, not least because you receive an achievement for your time!), Gareth Coker’s exceptional soundtrack merges in as you begin your adventure.
Little Ori is an agile git, but he’s restricted to jumping at first. Naturally, it’s not long before you get your first power-up (Metroidvania kicking in), which opens up one of the most joyous sections I’ve ever played in my 300+ years’ experience as a gamer (it’s actually only 28, but I’m trying to big myself up here). This early part of the game features the segment of music below; with your newfound ability you romp up walls, take in the music, and vanish into escapism world.
This formula for Metroidvania titles is infinitely satisfying, as so evidently displayed here. It consistently involves the opening up of new areas which were previously blocked off to players, so through your intuitive nature, smarts, and skill you’re constantly rewarded by thwarting previously inaccessible regions. Moon Studios utilises this mechanic perfectly, but it also doesn’t wait long to ramp up the difficulty.
For some, this may be a fault in the game. It’s tough. You’ll make quick progress early on, but then you may come to a juddering halt as the labyrinthine maze overlaps on itself. The map is your friend here and, as the scale of your adventure escalates, you may come a cropper – stuck. If you’ve played these types of games before then you stand yourself in good stead, but if you get hopelessly stuck there are plenty of YouTube video guides to guide you past hurdles (Is this a gaming sin? Being a working adult, I don’t have the time I once had, as a kid, to spend hours working out how to overcome obstacles, so I would say it’s a resounding “no”).
Understanding its Genius
Ori plays out like most other 2D platformers, so why is it so enthralling? After an initial appraisal, it has plenty going for it, but there is the extra element of genius which lifts it above other games. Beautiful aesthetic? Yes. Endearing protagonist? Indeed you become rather fearful for little Ori in his dangerous world, but grow great admiration for his abilities. Compelling gameplay? Absolutely. Engrossing story? Yep, which is accomplished through minimalism – in other words, without hurling exposition at the player through overlong cut scenes (take note, numerous AAA developers).
From my perspective, what makes it stand out is the sense of gravitas it creates, which is generated largely by the music. A parallel can be drawn here with SNES classic Donkey Kong Country 2, for which genius composer David Wise took an atypically dramatic approach to the genre with ambient, emotive themes. Due to this, the game enters new dimensions of brilliance as you become so emotionally invested.
As an example, a “standard” level such as Hot-Head Hop, the sixth into the game, is transformed thanks to Wise’s efforts. I remember sitting transfixed as a kid in 1995 as I traversed the usual bubbling lava level I’d become accustomed to in numerous other games. With this music, though, DKC 2 became dramatic – beautiful, even; tinged with an existential realisation and hairy monkeys.
I often make the claim an immersive soundtrack is more integral to the gaming experience than graphics. Music usually has the capacity to spark emotions in a way visuals don’t – it’s a visceral experience, which is where Ori and the Blind Forest delivers its killer blow: the soundtrack is phenomenal. With every element of the game working perfectly in unison, the music lifts your emotional involvement and you forget you’re playing a video game.
It’s a rare occurrence – in my experience as a gamer (since I entered adulthood, anyway), it’s only happened a handful of times, with Half-Life 2, Rayman Origins, Breath of the Wild, and DKC: Tropical Freeze (a much-ignored masterpiece) springing to mind most recently. When a game becomes so exceptional, you are fully absorbed into the world – Ori and the Blind Forest manages this with ease. Hark! Listen to the melodramatic comparison below.
Whilst on your journey, you’ll encounter many breathtaking sights. You’ll also, potentially, get a little emotional. There’s a moving segment in an icy region where one individual’s clan has been wiped out which is enough to make even an axe-wielding maniac shed a tear. What the game consistently does extremely well is ramp up the odds and build on the experience – every new area becomes more dramatic, you become engrossed in the story, and your newfound abilities will fill you with confidence in this strange, threatening landscape.
I don’t expect everyone to have the same experience, of course. I’m willing to bet someone out there gave it a go and went online 10 minutes later to report “it’s sh-t lol”, but if you have an introspective, introverted nature, along with a fondness for games which evoke memories of the SNES era’s finest moments, whilst adding to this with modern technology and gaming sensibilities, Ori and the Blind Forest is for you.
Failing that, if you’d simply like a title which offers one hell of a challenge, a visual treat, and a soundtrack to die for, here it is. It’s £15 (about $20) for all of this – make it part of your collection.
The Royal Roundup
I’m going to go off on a bit of a rant here as this topic interests me. Feel free to skip ahead or jump straight to the comments section to pour abuse on me. Here we go!
I recently forgot myself (normally preferring to be relatively patient online – except, of course, to NOOBS!!!) and ended up engaged in a flame war with an individual who claimed specs and graphics are the most important element of modern gaming. Fatigue caused the flame war, having recently thumped over 300 hours of overtime into my new job (serving tea at a tea shop – we English take tea rather seriously).
It was right after the, for me, pointless Xbox One X announcement at E3 – £500 for exactly the same games console, but with souped-up graphics. Even large chunks of the games press baulked at the news. However, the person was unrepentant – the spec enhancements breed innovation, the person claimed. I argued it’s, largely, caused quite the opposite – mainstream gaming is becoming rather lazy, instead making cash through a spiral of CoD and GTA clones. Easy money through a stale, tried, and tested mixture of ultra-violence, boring cut scenes, and a vacuous preoccupation with replicating lifelike graphics.
The individual disagreed and then argued spec advancements have paved the way for indie games such as this. I agree, but that wasn’t what I was dribbling on about; now the industry has reached something of a peak in graphical prowess, “innovating” by continuing to ramp everything up to 11 and presuming that’s best has forced gameplay into the shadows for many AAA blockbusters. My disappointment stems from this over-reliance on graphics to do the talking, whilst disregarding key components to the gaming experience which are just as (if not more) important. Considering the amount of money flying around for AAA devs, a lot of them are seemingly too conservative to try anything new, leading to a vast amount of generic filler which is here today, gone tomorrow.
I’m well aware my pointless opinion amounts to nothing, before anyone jumps in to remind me; this is simply one individual suggesting AAA devs put their focus into ensuring the entire package is, like, totally banging, geezer. Graphics are lovely, but they’re rubbish if everything else wrapped around them has been treated with disdain.
Anyway, I’m in the minority as the big blockbuster games make millions and the big devs barge forward on their way. Ultimately, it doesn’t affect me as my preference for video games is perfectly catered for by the vibrant indie scene and the Nintendo Switch, but therin lies my point – the vast majority of indie games are better than the AAA titles, with a smidgen of the budget and often when harking back to 1980’s era graphics (as seen with the glorious Shovel Knight).
To conclude my rambling, a perfect example of how graphics complement the gaming experience, rather than overwhelming it, is Ori and the Blind Forest. It’s a work of art, regularly featuring lush, tinted blues to reflect the sense of melancholia, poignancy, and peculiar elation which is never far away when immersed in the experience.
The first thing, in fact, you’ll notice with Moon Studio’s game is just how incredible it looks. It is like a Studio Ghibli film in game form, with a fluid frame rate and vibrant colours at every turn. What makes its looks extra special, however, is how every facet of the title comes together to make a magical experience. It’s not just all about how gorgeous Ori and the Blind Forest looks – the indie team made sure every element of the experience tied together, so it’s not a lazy attempt to win over gamers with fancy looks. This is a complete experience.
I’ve discussed this in detail further above in this review, so there’s no point in repeating myself. It’s one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve come across, and one which riffs off Princess Mononoke a great deal. It’s absolutely imperative you play the game with your earphones in, or headphones on, to fully experience Ori’s charming bleeps and bloops.
As mentioned way above, the Moon Studios team went all out to capture the genius of Super Metroid. It’s wonderful we have this new era of indie devs eager to achieve this and, by cripes, I could make the bold claim Ori and the Blind Forest is better than Nintendo’s finest.
The game is bloody difficult, make no mistake. My advice is to save regularly, otherwise you may be forced to leap back to a section ages ago as you forgot to save. This can be irritating as Ori’s world, like nature itself, is ruthless and unforgiving. A more adorable character has never been subjected to such a slaughterhouse in video game history, I believe.
This isn’t NES era, Ghosts ‘N Goblins-type maddening difficulty. It’s not unfair – if you fail, it’s simply your fault. As such, save regularly and you’ll soon find the perfect gaming mechanic of powering up with new special moves opens up the Blind Forest into a lush world for you to explore. The challenge simply adds to it as there’s the genuine sense of accomplishment for taking the game on and beating it.
My worry here is a lot of gamers will be drawn in by the fancy graphics, but then be left stumped. The “Overwhelmingly Postive” feedback on Steam would suggest otherwise, but I did buy this for a friend’s birthday and she, whilst initially in love with it all, got stuck pretty quickly and has since entirely abandoned it. It’s a tough one, that’s for sure, and more for the seasoned gamer than someone looking for an easy romp around.
It’s not the longest game in the world and, reminiscent of NES-era titles which ramped up the difficulty to make the game last longer, it’s almost as if Moon Studios aimed for the same thing. That’s misguided conjecture, though; it has crafted a game which offers a genuine challenge. You see the map above? Use it, otherwise you’ll only have yourself to blame if you die horribly. In other words, it’s up to you, gamer! Don’t go blaming any noobs should you fail.
As soon as I’d guided Ori to his heroic destiny, I wanted to immediately jump back in from start to finish. So, I did! It’s terrific for speedrunning or taking in the whole emotional journey again; that difficulty level, after six months away, for instance, will come back and bite you in an instant and you’ll want to take the whole game on and unlock all the achievements.
It’s a terrifically imaginative world, but it’s born from various inspirations, namely Super Metroid and Studio Ghibli. In essence, it’s just another Metroidvania title, it’s just that it achieves its goal quite exceptionally. Ori is also a loveable new video game hero, with the overriding message the game promotes of tolerance and love being a particularly welcome touch.
Voice Chat: 0/10
Unfortunately, whilst you play you will not be able to roar at other gamers observations such as “NOOB!” or “PlayStation sucks! LOL!” etc. It’s a crying shame and I’m getting draconian with my score to represent my seething inner turmoil at this state of affairs.
Like most gamers, I enjoy wasting money on pointless in-game transactions from greedy developers. This game has none of that – for shame!
You can’t make Ori take a selfie. There’s not even a mod for this option. For shame!
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I’m conscious indie games aren’t for everyone and many modern gamers might baulk at the idea of a 2D platformer in an era of sweeping 3D grandeur – titles such as Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, GTA V, or No Man’s Sky (tee hee, foddle hah). How can, what amounts to being a retro game, deliver anything of interest?!
Gameplay, simply put. A concerted effort by Moon Studios to ensure every element of the game is near enough perfect, with not a single aspect failing. Ori and the Blind Forest has the rarest of commodities – a sprinkling of genius. I can quite confidently claim this is one of the best games I’ve ever played; it took me on an emotional journey which, by the end, left me crammed full of a stupid sense of glee. I hope you can get the same level of enjoyment from it, too.
Addendum: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Finally, anyone who paid attention to E3 might also have noticed Microsoft announced a sequel is in the works. Other than the monumental news of (rather aptly) Metroid Prime 4 being in development, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the title which inspires wonder in me most of all. Above is the trailer – it’s destined for the Xbox One and Steam sometime soon enough.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.