Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ori and the Blind Forest Review (XONE)

The best game on Xbox One isn’t some popular multiplayer FPS or crazy action game, it is a 2D “Metroidvania”-style platformer called Ori and the Blind Forest.  With amazing graphics and beautiful music and one of the most emotional and heartfelt stories we’ve had the pleasure of playing through in years, Ori is simply an incredible experience that no gamer should pass up.  It was my pick for 2015 Xbox One Game of the Year for and still easily stands as my favorite game on Xbox One to this day.  See all of the details in our full Ori and the Blind Forest review.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Microsoft
  • Developer: Moon Studios
  • ESRB Rating: “E” for Everyone
  • Genre: 2D Platformer
  • Pros: Amazing visuals; incredible music; outstanding gameplay; great story
  • Cons: Escape sequences
  • MSRP: $20
It should be noted that the original release of Ori and the Blind Forest that came out in March 2015 is no longer available and has been replaced with a “Definitive Edition” of the game.  The Definitive Edition adds some new areas, abilities, and story elements as well as selectable difficulty options and a theater mode to fill out and improve what was already a stellar game.  It is available both as a download as well as a physical copy at retail for $20 and is worth every penny whichever way you decide to get it.

The story in Ori and the Blind Forest takes place in a mystical land called Nibel that is protected by a great Spirit Tree.  A magical leaf – which turns out to be a little magic cat / fox thing named Ori – is blown away during a particularly intense storm.  Ori is saved and adopted by a forest creature named Naru and they live happily together for a while.  The forest around them is slowly dying, however, which leads into the rest of the story.

Sharing too many details will pretty much ruin it, so I’ll leave it at that.  Just know that Ori and the Blind Forest is an emotional roller coaster full of genuine joy and happiness along with deep and crushing sadness.  The game doesn’t really have many cutscenes or much dialogue – just brief narration here and there – but the characters personalities and motivations and emotions are portrayed so well through their animations and actions that the story is very easy to understand.  The game does an incredibly good job of making you emotionally invested in Naru and Ori right from the very start and seeing their story through to the end is a real driving force while playing the game.  I like to compare it to Disney / Pixar’s “Up” mixed with Studio Ghibli movies like “Princess Mononoke” and “My Neighbor Totoro”, to give you an idea of the nature of the blend of happy / sad and darkness / light you’ll find in Ori.

The story really does drive you to keep playing, but the gameplay is also absolutely fantastic in its own right.  Ori and the Blind Forest is a 2D Metroidvania-style platformer where you explore a large open world to discover new abilities that let you explore new areas of the map.  The focus in Ori is much more on platforming than combat, unlike most Metroidvanias, but there are still some enemies present.  Your abilities include double and triple jumps, floating on a feather, energy blasts to fire at enemies, butt stomps, wall climbing, super jumping, and more. 

An interesting thing about Ori and the Blind Forest is that the first ten-minutes or so tricks you into thinking it is just a run of the mill slow and easy platformer, but that isn’t what the game really is.  Ori, in actuality, is a hardcore precision-based 2D platformer that ramps up in difficulty significantly.  I’m honestly not a fan of the current indie game trend of making everything super difficult and hardcore, but Ori does a few very smart things that make it much more accessible and playable than many hardcore 2D platformers.  First, you can make your own checkpoints anywhere you want.  You might paint yourself into a corner by placing a checkpoint poorly, of course, but if you’re smart you can power through anything.  Secondly, none of the difficult platforming sections or puzzles overstays their welcome.  You generally only see a type of puzzle or tricky platforming section used once, so the game has a ton of variety to it that keeps things interesting.

And the third smart thing Ori and the Blind Forest does with its gameplay is that it just plays incredibly freaking well.  Ori feels really great to control.  Too many other hardcore 2D platformers ask for extreme precision but give you sloppy controls.  Ori doesn’t do that.  You always have perfect and precise control over everything the character does, which makes the difficult sections of the game bearable because everything is very fair.  When you die, and you will die a lot, it is because you screwed up and can do better, and there is something satisfying and rewarding about that. 

The only things I’m not a huge fan of are the escape sequences that essentially serve as boss fights in Ori and the Blind Forest.  These sequences, where you must quickly escape a flooding tree or volcano or something, require absolute precision and lightning fast reflexes in order to get through them and represent easily the most frustrating moments of the entire game.  They are hard!  As I said, though, you persevere because the story is too good to stop playing and the gameplay is so tight you know that you can do it if you just give it another try.  As frustrating and momentum killing as the escape sequences can be, however, they also represent some of the biggest moments of pure gameplay satisfaction in the entire game when you’re successful.  You’ll love them as much as you hate them.

The presentation in Ori and the Blind Forest is also pretty incredible.  The hand drawn visuals are simply gorgeous and amazingly detailed and the animation is some of the best of any 2D platformer.  It isn’t just the characters that are animated, either, as the screen is filled with movement in the foreground and background to make the world really feel alive. 

I also can’t say enough how great the sound is.  The sound effects for everything are great and fantastic and perfect, but it is the soundtrack that really ties the entire experience together.  A sweeping orchestral score perfectly matches the action onscreen and really sets the mood.  And I absolutely love the main menu theme that sets the stage from the moment you boot up the game that you are in for a truly special experience.

The reason why Ori and the Blind Forest is such a moving and emotional experience is because it all happens so naturally and organically.  It doesn’t beat you over the head with “You should feel this now” cues like some games do and instead lets you become invested in the characters and world on your own.  Most importantly, everything about the game compliments the story.  The great graphics and sound, obviously, but the brutal difficulty and barely-make-it-out-alive escape sequences connect you to the characters in an extremely natural and real way. 

Compare that to a game like Unravel that seems like it was built with a “How to Make a Game of the Year” checklist in hand only to end up feeling forced and hollow instead like an “Oscar Bait” movie that totally backfires because it is too obviously fake and phony.  Ori and the Blind Forest, on the other hand, was built with heart and love from the beginning, not GOTY ambitions, and that heart and love shows through in how polished every single aspect of the game is.  Great presentation, awesomely fun and satisfying gameplay, and a touching story all make Ori and the Blind Forest one of the best games not just on Xbox One but of the entire PS4 / XONE generation so far.  Buy it.  For the love of everything that is good, buy it.    
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.