It’s bloody gorgeous.
That’s likely to be one of the first thoughts that runs through your mind after starting up Moon Studios’ debut offering. And it’s an impression that will stay with you from beginning to end; Ori and the Blind Forest easily gives Ubisoft’s UbiArt games a damn good run for the money, even trumping them for visual splendor on a regular basis.
Ori and the Blind Forest might not push the Xbox One’s technical capabilities, but it’s easily the most eye-catching game on the platform. The backgrounds are lush, the animation is spot on; never does the game falter in providing something gorgeous to look at.
Thankfully, the commitment to all that visual glory hasn’t come at the expense of gameplay, and Ori and the Blind Forest comfortably sits in the upper echelons of essential games if you own an Xbox One or Windows PC. Ostensibly a Metroidvania, Ori and the Blind Forest offers around 6-8 hours of exploration, combat, and levelling up your character. As you progress through the world you’ll gain new abilities which open up avenues you couldn’t access before, and you can choose from a number of different skill trees in which to invest your points when you level up.
Metroidvania-style games are in vogue at the moment (are they ever not?), but it’s rare to come across one so accomplished. Dust: An Elysian Tale was the last one of note on consoles, and it’s interesting that only the indie scene seems to be overly concerned about the genre, despite it being so popular among players. Yes, Microsoft, we’re all still waiting for a sequel to Shadow Complex. Chop chop.
Little things will stick in the mind long after playing, like the fantastic animation. Ori leaps and bounds, and swipes and flourishes, but she does so with enough animation frames to make it seem as though she’s stepped straight out of a big-budget animated film. Luscious soundscapes lend atmosphere to each area, pulling you forwards. Promises to yourself or your partner that you’ll just play for 10 more minutes soon become broken, as every area demands you explore every nook and cranny.
Ori and the Blind Forest is also a game that isn’t scared to offer a challenge to players. Never too difficult, but always on the right side of offering a stiff challenge, Moon Studios’ debut shows that the developer has a keen sense of how to balance difficulty to satisfy players. Yes, you’ll die from time to time – but never so often that you’ll throw your controller at the wall, and it will always be no-one’s fault but your own. It’s challenging, but never frustrating – and so it also manages to cater to a more casual crowd. Dark Souls this is not, though it shares From Software’s love of intricate world building.
Unfortunately, Ori and the Blind Forest isn’t without its flaws, and one of the most egregious mistakes made by Moon Studios is how they limit your ability to save your progress. Even in the early nineties, having limited saves was a frustraing bit of guesswork, as you attempted to second-guess what may or may not be coming next. By tying your ability to save progress here, and also by preventing you from upgrading your abilities unless you’re at a save point, Ori and the Blind Forest can occasionally frustrate. It’s a huge shame, because in all other regards, this is one of the most accomplished and visually arresting games you’re likely to play all year. I sincerely hope that Moon Studios sees the light and makes some post-release changes to the save system because as it stands, it’s a pain in the proverbial backside. I can only imagine they were inspired by Dark Souls, but what’s good for the goose isn’t alway good for the gander.
Combat, too, can sometimes feel a little clumsy and under-developed. The real joy of Ori and the Blind Forest lies in wanting to explore its world and soak in all the fantastic art, so it becomes something of an unwelcome distraction to find yourself frequently pushed into combat. It wouldn’t matter so much if combat itself was satisfying, but more often than not it comes down to simple button-mashing. A combo system or something a bit deeper would have really gone a long way to elevate these encounters, but unfortunately while Ori and the Blind Forest impresses in its visual design and shows itself to be very much a game of 2015, its combat feels antiquated, even languishing in the shadow of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – a game nearly 20 years its senior.
Other disappointments are minor, but worth noting. Ori and the Blind Forest is nothing if not a slave to gameplay tropes, and so there is plenty of block pulling to be performed before you can reach platforms, you’ll need to time your movements in order to get past hazards in the environment, and there are annoying difficulty spikes where you’re required to stay ahead of rising flood water. All of these tropes felt dated back in the 90s, so it’s disappointing that Ori and the Blind Forest falls back on them so readily. For a game which appears to be forward thinking and utterly modern, Moon Studios’ debut title has one foot firmly in the past, and that’s not always to its benefit.
However, these are all minor complaints. They’ll annoy and even frustrate at the time, but for the majority of your playthrough you’ll be too busy admiring the art and enjoying the sense of exploration to care about the small bit that frustrated you 5 minutes ago. Ori and the Blind Forest is a major accomplishment – an indie game made on a budget which feels as though it’s had millions thrown at development; a game made by a small handful of people, but which feels as though it came from a team numbering in the hundreds.
Ori and the Blind Forest is, quite simply, a thing of beauty and everyone at Moon Studios should be incredibly proud of it. And gamers should play it – it’s one of the few games released so far this year that I would genuinely describe as essential. The flaws outlined above prevent it from reaching that golden maximum mark, but it’s not that far off.
Ori and the Blind Forest invites you into its fantasy world, and is determined to keep you there – and by the time you’re finished, you won’t want to leave. What better reccommendation can there be than that?