Saturday, 23 Sep 2023

Ori and the Will of the Wisps review: A lively adventure in the shadow of the forest of death

SkitterSkitter skitter. It’s time to move. Paws padding across the sand dunes, Ori scampers out from under the log, leaping up into the air and rebounding off the wall, grabbing a pole and flinging himself upward—and then movement. The owl turns its head. Ori freezes, pressed behind a scrap of fabric.

The owl looks away. Skitter skitter. Up and over this time, then leaping across a gap—mere feet from the owl’s head. If it turns around…best not to think about it. Clinging to a crumbling wooden log, Ori stops for a moment. The owl screams, frustrated it can’t find its prey. It nudges the log, to no avail.

Again, it looks away. Ori sprints towards a small cave, a place where the owl can’t follow. It was a ploy though. The owl hears him, turns, takes flight, its talons closing. Ori makes a last desperate dive for the entrance, and finds it. Burrowing into the sand, he pauses, heart racing.

Or maybe it’s my heart. Who can say, really?


First, the briefest note on performance—and I’m only doing this because from what I’ve heard, the baseline Xbox One version of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is pretty rough. Suffice it to say, the game ran great on my PC. I have an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti which is admittedly overkill, but aside from one point where it was slow to load a cutscene, everything went fine. Assuming that bears out on lower-end GPUs, I wouldn’t worry much.

A word of warning if you’re planning to play on the Xbox though. Microsoft says there’s a day one patch coming, but didn’t know when that patch would be ready, nor was I all that concerned. This is PCWorld, after all.

In any case, back to the review.

Remember the mountain bed

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is about speed. That’s what I love most about it. Plenty of games have a double-jump and an air dash and a wall-climb, but there’s a kineticism to Ori. Obstacles are almost never a single discrete hurdle for the player to overcome. They’re chained together, sometimes dozens in a row—double jump off the ledge into the wall, then leap towards the other side, air-dash, catapult yourself off an enemy mid-air, touch the other wall, run up it, use the incoming projectile to propel yourself higher, and so on, until finally, palms slick with sweat, you find a moment to sit and breathe.

It’s instinctive, a force operating in the player’s subconscious. It’s that elusive “flow” state, and while Ori is hardly the only puzzle-platformer to induce this feeling, it’s rare. (Celeste has its moments, as do Super Meat Boy and the oft-overlooked Rayman Origins.) It takes an extraordinary amount of skill on the part of the developers, designing levels that are readable at a glance, the player hurtling through them as fast as they appear on-screen.

As such, the best additions to Ori and the Will of the Wisps are all movement-related. A grappling hook whips Ori along at high speed, and can also yank him towards airborne enemies from a distance—a cousin to Blind Forest’s celebrated “Bash” ability, which still allows you to use enemies as a springboard up close.

And then there’s the…I don’t know. Tunneling? Burrowing? Shown in our E3 2018 demo, Ori has the ability to dive into sand dunes and explode out the other side, flying high into the air. This ability also works with snow drifts and—eventually—underwater, and it is a hell of a lot of fun. Easily the standout addition to Will of the Wisps, I’d say. The Windswept Wastes in particular revolve around burrowing through one sand dune, bursting out the far side, leaping over a gap, and then diving straight into the next one, a series of actions that never wore out its welcome no longer how many times I did it.

Not that I did it much. My main complaint about Ori and the Will of the Wisps is that it takes a long time to get going, and then it’s over. When I demoed Will of the Wisps last month I was told it’s two to three times the size of Blind Forest, and in terms of land mass? That might be true. You move through it so damn fast though, and when credits rolled I found I’d finished Will of the Wisps with a 99 percent completion rate (I’m missing a few collectibles) in just under 10 hours.

That’s precisely the same length as Blind Forest—which is fine. I don’t mind a 10-hour runtime. I dreamed of an Ori the length of Hollow Knight, but honestly 10 hours is more than enough. It doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The pacing is strange though. Will of the Wisps is more open-ended than Blind Forest, especially the middle chapter. You’re given the option to visit three areas central to the story, plus two or three ancillaries filled with collectibles. Problem is, each zone tends to revolve around a single ability or gimmick.

Some of these are entertaining, as I said. The Windswept Wastes introduces that sand-dash, while the snow-capped mountain of Baur’s Reach teaches Ori to melt and freeze the local flora and fauna, and there’s a darkened underground area (similar to Hollow Knight’s Deepnest) where every jump is near-blind until you unlock the ability to light your surroundings.

But because the developers can’t guarantee you’ll have these abilities in the other zones, they don’t build on each other. You might occasionally miss a collectible for want of a skill, necessitating a second trip, but only very occasionally. Otherwise, the middle act feels like a series of tutorials, less like climbing a mountain and more like climbing a series of small hills. Having one skill or another unlocked already might let you approach problems differently, but by and large zones require only Ori’s most basic skills and the one you unlock therein.

It’s only in the final hour or two that the skills finally come together. The last act is gated behind finishing the rest, in whatever order, which means Will of the Wisps can count on the player having Ori’s full toolkit. And it really shines there at the end, with some incredibly creative platforming puzzles and memorable chase sequences. It’s just a shame this section is over so quickly. I felt like I was just getting a handle on combining Ori’s skills, and then I was done.

Merely finishing Will of the Wisps isn’t the only challenge of course, and Will of the Wisps is built with speedrunning in mind. The open-ended nature actually seems more interesting for these players, as grabbing an ability early might help shave off seconds in another zone later. There are also a series of “Spirit Trials,” or races through set obstacle courses, and an extensive “Spirit Shard” system that mimics Hollow Knight’s Charms. These give Ori modifiers, allowing players to triple-jump or grapple off enemies or reflect incoming melee damage, and so on. You can have three equipped to start, and unlock more slots as you go. Again, hundreds of potential combinations mean plenty of options for speedrunning.

For the one-and-done adventurer though? It feels a bit slight. I found a Spirit Shard setup I liked, and had little reason to stray from it, and definitely no incentive to hamper myself with Shards like “Enemies respawn faster.” There’s also a merchant that sells you additional combat skills—but again, since Will of the Wisps can’t guarantee you’ll buy them, none end up feeling necessary.

I don’t think the open-ended nature is at fault here, as Blind Forest’s straightforward (almost entirely linear) design felt constricting at times. Will of the Wisps is too afraid to punish the player though, by which I mean too afraid to force them to make a second (or third, or fourth) journey to a zone with new skills unlocked. And isn’t that what you want from these Metroid-style games? That feeling of returning to an earlier area and uncovering new secrets?

That said, I still had a good time with it. Will of the Wisps didn’t have the same impact on me as Blind Forest, but Moon Studios has built an incredible world and a mythology, and they know when to layer on the swelling strings to give the story emotional heft.

If our review’s spent less time talking about that aspect, it’s only because I spent a lot of time on it mere weeks ago, and don’t want to rehash it all here. Still, it’s worth pointing out, as we give our final verdict. Moon Studios has an eye for the cinematic, a knack for taking the ordinary (i.e. “a door”) and turning it into something extraordinary, be it a hibernating bear or a decaying watermill or a lost temple filled with sand. 

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is at its best in these moments, when scenery and story and player skill all come together for a perfect escape sequence, or a fiendish platforming puzzle, or even just a quiet moment of contemplation in the wilderness.

Plenty of games nail the mechanics of Metroid. Few are able to disguise them so well.

Bottom line

It’s really a wonder to behold, and as I said in our preview: Ori and the Will of the Wisps is more than the sum of its parts. Is it just another Metroid homage, one among many? Absolutely. I think it’s one of the best-playing, sure, but it’s still well-trod territory of late.

I found myself gripped by it though. As I said earlier, I wish it was longer. That’s usually the sign (or at least one sign) of a good game, in my experience. I wanted one more environment, one more collectible, one more challenge, just one more reason to spend more time in that world.

I waited five years for a second outing with Ori. Now it’s done and I’m right back to waiting. So it goes.

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