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Beware the cute. The first moments of Ori and the Will of the Wisps are a lesson in emotional manipulation, and those of us who have developed a hard crust for sentiment will be quick to spot the signs. We are introduced to a plump owlet with a tattered wing. His attempts at flight result in a flapping drop, and one look at his eyes, bulging and moist, tells you that we are being groomed for grief. Sure enough, moments later he wheels, with a newly installed patch of feathers, straight into a storm. Players of the previous game, Ori and the Blind Forest, will know the pattern; it’s one plucked from Disney, which often supplies a dose of bitterness at the beginning of its movies, like the prick of a needle before the lollipop reward—think of the barracuda attack in Finding Nemo, or the opening minutes of Up, which were decidedly down.
Still, just because you can predict a punch coming your way doesn’t mean you won’t sport a bruise, and, though my tear ducts remained tightly fastened, I must confess to getting caught up. The game’s developer, Moon Studios, is savvy enough to bury its simple script in rich soil; the orchestral music, by Gareth Coker, swells and swallows you whole, while the art style, directed by Jeremy Gritton, practically aches—firmly ordering your heart to follow suit. And it does. The game, like its predecessor, is a Metroidvania, a genre whose rigid structures—given easily to rust—do a marvellous job of masking a thin plot; who needs a narrative when you have a sequence of locks and keys?
The narrator, who sounds like a blue whale crossed with a coffee grinder, sets up the story with the broad, moral-infused strokes of a fairytale. I would relay this to you, but, to tell you the truth, I can’t remember it. What’s important is that the forest is good (as is communicated with lush, dripping greens and light like golden syrup), and that its goodness is under toxic threat (hence the gurgling pools of purple and the thornbushes, which evoke fangs, as if the land were opening its jaws). Ori, whom you play as, is a Spirit Guardian: a nymphish white creature resembling a cat in size and tail, a rabbit in ears and hop, and a ghost in glow and glide. Indeed, the primary joy of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is movement; the act of jumping—the essential gesture with which video games were decreed—has a precise, alchemical property: the perfect blend of height and billowy reach, delicately tuned with aftertouch and pillowed on silken animation.
After an hour with Ori, you wonder why so few games manage to turn motion into a thrill. How odd that the simple art of moving through space, in a medium predicated on such principles, should elude so many. The answer, of course, is that there is nothing simple about it, and the games that treat heft and grace as matters worthy of sweat and study are the ones that stick in the memory—Batman: Arkham Asylum and Gears of War, for instance, with their heavy-treading heroes, or Spyro the Dragon, a clattering jumble of scamper and soar. There are passages in Ori and the Will of the Wisps to which the word “platforming” barely applies, because between the double-jump and the dash; the light burst, which turns projectiles into launch pads; the grapple; and the feather, held aloft like a parachute, you won’t touch a single platform. Having spent a weekend with it, I was disheartened when, emerging like a hatchling on Monday, I found my feet boringly hitting the pavement.
You know you have a special game when quitting it is akin to breaking out of a greenhouse and finding reality falling bleakly short. Our own lives, tragically, do not stack up. For one thing, our daily quests lack the fable-like airs of Ori’s, who has to gather the Wisps: a series of fiery orbs scattered far and wide. Would that we had as vivid and enticing a series of destinations as Luma pools, with its clear blue depths, or Baur’s Reach, a brittle forest half-buried in snow. The visual style brought me back to the leafy layers of Wolfgang Reitherman’s The Jungle Book—specifically to the background art of Al Dempster, who, by adding something as slight as the glimmer on a painted river, or as thundering as real footage of a waterfall, created a whirlpool of depth and motion from the most still of scenes.
Note, in Ori, the Mouldwood Depths, where the walls are lined with the twitching wings of dead insects (a debt of inspiration, here and in the simple, slashing combat, is owed to Hollow Knight), or to the dusky backdrops of Inkwater Marsh, which rustle with benevolent creatures. And if only our hours were stirred with gusts of flute and swerving strings; Coker’s score strikes the tricky balance of moving, not marching, us to the brink of feeling. Most of all, I’m envious of the design of Ori’s days: the way the unfolding chambers of each new area are etched and illuminated on the map, and how even his distractions—side quests now feature, tempting you to the edges for treasure and ability upgrades—lead him back to his task with a natural, easy ebb.
The Metroidvania genre has, in recent years, suffered from overcrowding—a state of affairs that, when viewed from a distance, actually looks like a Metroidvania: each developer returns to the same ground again and again with a new gadget (or gimmick), hoping to unlock a fresh path forwards. Some fare better than others; most burrow ever deeper into cliché. Ori and the Will of the Wisps isn’t without its share of creaky tropes—the amassing of new powers, the world cut into elemental quadrants, the bosses with screen-wide bars of health—but the creaks come out clean and oiled. It has enough belief in its genre to proceed with nothing other than earnest devotion, unburdened with the need to boast a USP and brimming with the confidence that comes with knowing that, in the beauty stakes and beyond, there are very few, in the rarefied realms of indie or AAA, who can challenge it.
I would place Ori and the Will of the Wisps in the small catalogue of games, tucked into a sunny corner of my mind, from which I would make prescriptions for anyone with rainy spirits. The solution, when life stands no chance of imitating its art, is merely to jump back in. My review copy had a scattering of small bugs and a frame rate that mouldered in the depths when the action thickened—both of which, I am pleased to report, have been spruced with a day one update. But even when those marks were there, the game gleamed with polish. Moon Studios is comprised of a team of developers spread across the world, all working remotely in orbit of a single passion, and if you wanted to poke fun at—or a hole in—auteur theory, this is the game you would brandish. The elements of its atmosphere cohere in so focussed and fierce a vision that I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t opted for one of those Dreams-style stamps in the bottom corner: “Made with Skype.”
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Xbox Games Studios
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on] and PC
Release Date: March 11, 2020
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