It doesn’t take much to see when a game has some real potential. The first minute of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is not necessarily foolproof evidence, but it is captivating. You start the game from the title screen.
Then the menu fades away and the camera pans out as migrating birds and falling leaves move across the scene, creating depth of field. There’s not a single word or instruction, but it feels natural. Your focus is drawn to the middle.
It takes only 3 seconds, and you already know it’s time to take control of Ori and start moving to the left. Soon after, a bulk of magisterially directed events unfolds with occasional player input, and then it’s time for Ori to fight once more in a corrupted world.
The Will of the Wisps is anything but cliché. In fact, should you ever detect any clichés within it, they tend to be so re-elaborated that the game itself becomes an example of what a platformer should be. When you think about the platformer genre, Mario comes to mind for level design and Metroid for exploration.
Castlevania expands on things further with role-playing features and character customization, while Prince of Persia embraces three-dimensional graphics to develop its narrative. Every time you watched a Pixar, Disney or DreamWorks movie and wished you could interact with it, what you were really hoping for something like Ori.
And sure, you felt gratified when trying to save that princess in another castle, but deep down what you really wanted was something with platformer gameplay and a meaningful story. What Will of the Wisps proposes is nothing less than a legitimate AAA, ostentatiously produced, poignant narrative side-scroller, with expressive characters who communicate with delicate but incisive facial traits.
Don’t expect to stare at the screen passively, though, watching events unfold. Compared to usual narrative-first games, intro aside, Ori’s cutscenes are scarce, short and impactful. That’s the magic of this game. There are no reiterations of blatant speeches, words over words to slowly move the plot along or things happening solely for the sake of adding screen time.
The story is as simple as a children’s book. That said, neither the visual nuance that presides over an infinite soundtrack nor the evil essence that permeates the world of Niwen is proof of a journey where everything is gonna be alright. Due to its difficulty, the game is anything but for kids. Then again, if you have some and really love them, you should probably still make them experience this.
After all, a whole generation grew up with Shadow of the Beast, Agony, Gods, Another World and Flashback and they turned out okay. Fast forward a bit and we’re seeing all the unfortunate consequences of it in our society, but still… On the other hand, we’ve seen how their progeny turned out with all those battle royal-style games and it is much worse.
Many years back, parallax scrolling dominated as a way to push the bounds of graphics and mesmerize the world. Now, with Rayman missing in action, it’s time for Ori to lead the way. After your initial introduction to its graphics, regardless of the game’s beauty, you notice some assets are blurry.
So, you go looking for a graphics menu, and only at that point do you realize with surprise that you rushed to start the game and missed it and that the resolution scaling is set at 70%. So it’s time to push it to…200%…as far as it can go.
As it happens, this technical spell makes every single pixel simply stun. This is not your common side-scroller with run-of-the-mill parallax; it’s a glorious, 3D polygonal world taking full advantage of modern tools and technologies, with a wonderful use of depth of field in rolling and panning.
There are no pre-baked sprites. Every inch of vegetation in the foreground casts correctly projected shadows onto the playable level, and the whole scene is always constantly animated: if you want to see what an arguably 2D game can look like, this is THE game.
And it’s made on Unity, an engine with a reputation for average or low-budget games. It’s extremely commonplace nowadays to hear that a game runs on Unreal so…”Oh gosh, look how much more powerful it is by definition because of this thing called Unreal!”
This Unity gem is a testament to the fact that skills come first. Visuals like Ori’s put strain on a GPU constantly running at its maximum. Maxing out the resolution scale is extremely demanding. You can play it with a good frame rate for a reasonable amount of time, but during the very chaotic final segment, the frame rate crashes, so you might want to just keep it at 100% and benefit from both a great frame rate and gorgeous graphics.
Any occasional stuttering that may occur is invisible to the naked eye. It’s more a subtle tick noticed by specific technical tools you should have running. Controlling Ori is a constant joy. There isn’t any weird inertia or physics when running, jumping or doing acrobatics. The controls are intuitive and most mistakes made are due to the challenging nature of the levels. The level design is smart and ponderous.
It makes you forge ahead in exploration, learn a new move and then return using your newfound ability. It’s here that the game discloses its multi-approach conceptualization, with levels that differ based on what skills you may or may not have.
There are some sneaky animations or mechanics you have to learn. Just standing and attacking an enemy pushes your default position forward, closer to your opponent. You must spot and adjust for the existence of this mechanic since it prevents button smashing and emphasizes the importance of every pixel collision.
In an attempt to expand on the gameplay of its predecessor, Will of the Wisps is more conscious of combat. More weapons and skills have been implemented. But the result isn’t what you’d expect, as the more you meet challenging and evolved enemies, the more lackluster the combat feels.
It’s the worst part of the game. To be clear, boss fights are enjoyable apex turning points in which the developers surprise you and show you what a game engine can do in unexpected ways. When you’re convinced that the final blow is at hand, the darkest forces of Niwen find a way to cast danger and renew the pressure on you once again, challenging your concentration.
Standard enemies don’t lose their crap should they end up outside their default positions, but they are nothing more than a representation of old platform foes with very simple, repetitive, common routines. In later sessions, you will die many times, though the developers have been consciously generous, letting you try again from the closest position possible without waiting in order to reduce frustration.
Still, it’s clear that the platformer genre, probably more than any other, has inherited the trial-and-error approach of LaserDisc games like Dragon’s Lair, where every single punch of a button needs to be perfectly timed. In certain compulsory scripted transitions, Ori’s cuteness hides its inflexible nature. Getting stuck and having to repeat and fail in a constant loop without any loading time doesn’t make it more fun.
It’s as worthy a consideration for this game as for any other, but respawning within proximity to enemies you’ve already killed, like a bee’s nest, is a noticeable detriment to the experience. Evading and timing your attacks provides satisfying feedback, but the amount of times you spend doing things over again becomes disturbing.
Finding your way brainlessly with random, spontaneous attempts would be your own fault, but having to deal with incessant threats that prevent you from testing your timing and coordination is more of an annoyance than it should be when every move you make is a big risk. This is typical with enemies that you don’t expect to respawn so soon while backtracking.
It’s a punishment that’s both undeserved and demotivating, like opening the map to check your objective only to find that the highlighted spot is a distant, obscure point in the furthest corner of the world.
At times, you discover that the combat is more an obstacle than a routine game element, and you might try to avoid it when out of place. Though, this is not because of clunky controls.
They are extremely responsive in every situation. They have no noticeable input lag and are extremely accessible via gamepad, even in the most intricate circumstances, while still being equally satisfying with keyboard and mouse, which have a steeper curve when it comes to mastery.
Regardless, the second option fits better with not-so-secondary skills like Dash and provides more satisfying and distinctive feedback when Ori swings on screen with its gorgeous keyframe animations. It also lends real purpose to that quality keyboard you bought: no, that one you spent your money on because your favorite YouTuber advertised it. That’s not a good one, trust me.
You find a decent number of characters in the world you have to heal. The instant you find Lupo, you know it’s map time. And Twirlen is your go-to guy when it comes to developing your character. These two are there so you can prepare yourself for the next challenge and ease it up.
Triple Jump is essential only on paper. And the level design and skill distribution have been so meticulously refined that it’s really difficult to characterize Spirit Smash as mandatory. It’s a smart and convenient first choice when opportunity knocks, being efficient immediately and throughout the whole game.
If you’d consider Will of the Wisps a good game, you’d be making a mistake. It’s a hymn to old school gameplay, made with the best technologies available today. It’s the standard-bearer of a revolution that has been happening under the shadow of a thick pile of commercial products.
It’s just difficult to market and advertise when all you can do is show a static side view. Nevertheless, its visual wonder is eye-catching. Just try watching gameplay videos in a public place. When Ori’s on screen, it attracts the attention of anybody nearby.
At the start of this millennium, the outlook for bi-dimensional platformers was honestly depressing, with 3D graphics being inevitably pushed. 20 years later, titles like Dead Cells, Hollow Knight and Rogue Legacy, just to name a few, have clapped a majority of the most highly acclaimed and marketed 3D games out there and have imposed high standards for the genre in gameplay, graphical fidelity and conceptual design. No matter how good your favorite recent game is, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is on a different level.
It’s how things should be done. If you didn’t play it yet, now’s your chance and there are no excuses, with the latest update and refinements, the positional audio is even more phenomenal.
Let’s say somebody told you that the best console exclusive of this generation was made by Microsoft (even if it’s available on Nintendo Switch too) and that it has the same finesse in detail that Nintendo is famous for. Let’s be honest, it’s not like you can argue much with that. Will of the Wisps definitely fits that bill. And it’s a real shame, if not a show of pure ignorance, that when the conversation shifts to the best games and studios, Moon Studios never gets mentioned.