Ori and the Blind Forest is a solid game that does absolutely nothing new. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if that’s all you’re looking for, it might not matter much to you. From the art style, to the hauntingly beautiful score, this was obviously a labor of love for a lot of people. It’s just kind of a shame I can’t point to one particular part of it and go ‘This is what makes Ori and the Blind Forest special.’

Maybe it’s because the story is practically non-existent. After an eye-rollingly saccharine prologue, you’re given control of the titular character, Ori, a cat-like spirit of the dying forest. Joined by the Navi-esque light sprite, Sein, and separated from the source of her power, Ori has to rekindle the life and light that was stolen from the forest by the great owl Kuro. It’s a tale reminiscent of older Hayao Miyazaki and Don Bluth films, particularly Princess Mononoke and The Secret of NIMH, respectively. You’re a small creature in a magnificent but dangerous and somewhat alien world. Nature is awe-inspiring and beautiful, but it’s also eerie and cruel in equal measure.

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But this is only surface level, aesthetic stuff. A while back I wrote about how I feel games resonate with people more when gameplay and story compliment one another. In that respect, Ori and the Blind Forest doesn’t come off terribly well. The story is a framing device for its gameplay, nothing more.

What you’ve got here is your standard Metroidvania style, action-adventure platformer, leaning more toward the Metroid side of the equation. You gain powers and skill points to augment said powers but there’s no leveling, statistics or equipment. Certain segments of the game world are unavailable until you unlock a certain power like the double jump or ground slam, and certain enemies can only be defeated with specific powers.

What’s aggravating is that these powers aren’t given much narrative resonance beyond: ‘You gained enough light points to unlock it. Congrats.’ I can’t help but compare Ori and the Blind Forest to another recent Metroidvania-esque game, Guacamelee. Many of the abilities you unlocked in that game were similar to the ones in Ori and the Blind Forest, and they were all goat themed for some reason. Silly? Sure, but at the end of the day I remember that the charged punch in Guacamelee was called the ‘Dashing Derp Derp’ and I have no idea what its equivalent was called in Ori and the Blind Forest, even though I just played it.

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About the only thing that can be said to be mechanically memorable about Ori and the Blind Forest is the Soul Link system, which is pretty much just a limited form of save-scumming. At almost any point you can use a light shard to create a save point, so when you die (and you will die, a lot) you aren’t thrown back to an arbitrary checkpoint. The shards are used to power both this save system and a charged explosion attack, so you have to be careful about how liberally you use either. Ostensibly these shards are limited, but if you’re careful enough it’s not hard to manage.

What is hard to deal with is the game’s difficulty itself. Most of the time death is a minor inconvenience, and similar to Rayman Legends, you’re back in action almost instantly. Ori and the Blind Forest only becomes controller-shatteringly painful when you reach the end of one of its three dungeons. Like in the Legend of Zelda games, you have to use the new abilities and skills you learned over the course of the dungeon, but in this case it’s not to beat a boss. Instead you have to escape from some disaster that’s shattering the world around you. These sequences are long, require incredibly precise and specific platforming, and if you mess up, you’re thrown all the way back to the beginning. No checkpoints, no stop gaps, nothing.

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Some people like this kind of challenge. In the same way I’m not terribly impressed by someone playing Simon Says at a high level, I myself have never seen the appeal. More than once I wanted to just abandon Ori to one of these Sisyphean versions of Hell; forever running away from a rising swell of water or crumbling cavern. I beat these sequences (and the game for that matter) out of indignance; they severely marred any fun I might’ve been having beforehand.

All that kept me sane during these exercises in frustration is the musical score. Composer Gareth Coker establishes a sweeping, whimsical motif early on, and builds a strong thematic identity. Even in dark forests and fiery pits, the game’s score can be foreboding or oppressive and still harken back to its main theme. It even manages to make some of the story’s more cloying sections palatable.

I’d say the visuals were a relaxing and enjoyable element of the game as well, but to a lesser extent than the music. Ori the white, glowing cat creature is adorable, particularly the way she will rest her paws against walls and doors, and swish her tail back and forth. She stands out well against the game’s colorful, painterly environments, and stands in contrast to the enemies’ sickly, corrupted appearances.

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I suppose the only problem I have with the setting and visuals is similar to the problem I have with the story: It feels like they were just slapped on top of the mechanics of the game. Everything feels so constructed, from spikes to crushing platforms, or even enemy placement. I very much feel like I’m in a video game, not an actual world.

There’s nothing really wrong with Ori and the Blind Forest, but there’s nothing really right about it either. I adore the soundtrack, but that’s good on its own; it doesn’t really improve much on the game itself. It looks beautiful, but its visuals are more akin to a skin that’s been pinned haphazardly and ill-fittingly over nonthreatening mechanics. Ultimately I feel the same way about Ori and the Blind Forest as a whole as I do about those dungeon dash sections: Frustrated.

  • This is what I’d expect from looking at videos of this game. Metroidvania I think is a misunderstood term, or misapplied comparison. Anyway, the soul of Metroid and Castlevania (especially since SOTN) isn’t how there is a vertical 2D labyrinth that is freely explorable and basically non-sequential by design. It’s how exploring the space basically tells a story through pictures. You’re really taking in a visual story, apparently for most people without even realizing it. You are exploring architectural themes and visual juxtapositions, and everything else is to serve that.

    People think these are “mechanic” based games, but they are really non-verbal narrative games. That’s why projects that try to recreate the experience so often fail at the enterprise. Their creators don’t understand where the soul of the game is to be found. They think it is in the puzzle-like navigational elements, but it is elsewhere. I think people in Japan have a more intuitive grasp of this.