Long-time gamers are accustomed to the kind of gated progression offered by adventure games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. As you travel the map, you catch glimpses of portions you won’t be able to access until later on, when you find an upgrade that gives you new powers necessary for the previously unreachable areas.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps operates firmly in this well-established pattern. Ori—the impish, monkey-like ball of light first seen in 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest—is so weak at the beginning of his quest to find a lost, adoptive owl brother that he can’t even attack the myriad bug-like enemies in his path. Slowly but surely, though, he finds a wide array of upgrades to his offensive capabilities and locomotion that lets him fully explore a fallen forest world made dark by a mysterious corrupting force.
The most striking thing about Will of the Wisps, though, is how it maintains a feeling of near-overwhelming threat despite Ori’s inexorable rise in power. Even as your abilities increase, Ori remains a very small force working against a sprawling and uncaring universe. This becomes most apparent in the boss battles, characterized by detailed, screen-filling monsters whose massive (if repetitive) attacks allow little room for error.
These battles are punctuated by thrilling chase scenes, where Ori has to use every movement ability in his arsenal in quick succession to stay ahead of the ever-encroaching threat. Here, as in much of the rest of the game, players need some extreme levels of technical skill to get through even standard platforming challenges. There are frequent sections when Ori needs to stay off the ground for 10 seconds or more at a time, often using dozens of intricate and well-timed button presses in perfect succession to survive to the next safe spot.
Frequent checkpoints make it easy to keep trying these difficult sections until you get them right, at least. But don’t expect Will of the Wisps to be a walk in the park just because the main character happens to be cute. Even experienced gamers will find themselves wanting to throw their controllers at some of the toughest bits here.
Even at its toughest, though, there’s real joy to be found in Ori’s intricate movement options, which are introduced slowly and carefully enough to make sure you’ve mastered them each in turn. By the time you reach the end of the game, you’ll be transitioning between double jumps, wall jumps, air-dashes, grapples, quick-drilling through sand, and missile-like mid-air directional launches with the grace and confidence of a gymnast flying through a pre-planned routine.
A wonder to behold
The screenshots above should make it evident just how absorbing Ori‘s detailed, layered, painterly world can be. But they don’t do justice to how the game looks in motion. Little touches like the rustle of a plant as Ori goes by or slight variations in Ori’s forceful sword-slashing animation go a long way toward adding a sense of vibrancy to the world.
The sheer level of detail in every single frame of Will of the Wisps is hard to overstate. The more you dwell on a single scene, the more you notice details that can be as small as individual blades of grass or as big as a massive background tree holding up the branch that serves as your next platform. The game avoids the repetition of cookie-cutter objects that characterizes so many 2D platform games, as well, with each bit of scenery seemingly hand-drawn with its own unique flair. This variety makes discovering new environments a constant thrill, right up to the end.
There’s an effortless naturalism to Ori‘s environments that’s endlessly fascinating to dwell on, as well. Every tree, rock, and grassy outcropping is seemingly arranged by some unseen process. Even video game trappings like moving platforms or stone doors held shut by levers seem perfectly in tune with the overgrown world.
On the downside, the sheer busy-ness of an average Ori scene can be a bit overwhelming and hard to read from a gameplay perspective. It’s often not clear which parts of the scenery are interactive objects and which are just background details, and that confusion can lead to more than a few pointless deaths. On-screen UI indicators—used to suggest incoming threats or suggest when Ori can use certain abilities, for instance—
can also often be too subtle for their own good, obscuring important information amid a flood of visual input.
Key items and pathways that should be obviously signposted can also sometimes be too well-hidden in the crowded environments, a fact that can lead to hours of fruitless searching for the apparent next step in the game’s progression. None of this is insurmountable with practice learning how to examine an Ori scene for the important bits, but as a player it’s still frustrating.
Played on an Xbox One X with a compatible 4K display, Will of the Wisps also serves as one of the best examples for the value of HDR color we’ve yet seen. Ori himself glows especially bright against the usually somber tones of the game’s backgrounds in a way that makes him seem even more of an unstoppable ball of energy.
This is especially apparent in one late-game section, where Ori has to dart through an encroaching and damaging darkness to find glowing bits of the environment that provide temporary safety. Each such safe-zone practically jumps off the screen in the HDR color-gamut, calling out to the player in an extremely fresh and satisfying way.
The worst thing we can say about Ori and the Will of the Wisps is that it ended leaving us wanting more, after just about 10 hours of exploration and battling before the credits rolled. Finding all the additional hidden paths and items throughout the game world would add a few more hours on top, but that’s only a stopgap solution. When a game is as pretty and joyful to travel through as that of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, you want to have an excuse to inhabit that world for as long as possible.
- Progression system makes you feel powerful and somehow small at the same time.
- Hand-painted environments are a wonder to behold, especially with an HDR display.
- Ori’s locomotion abilities give an immense feeling of freedom, once mastered.
- Massive boss battles punctuated with thrilling chase scenes.
- Frequent checkpoints limit the frustration of difficult challenges.
- Environments can be so busy that it’s hard to find interactive platforms and objects.
- After 10 hours for a first story playthrough, we want even more Ori content.
- Seeing the game quit back to the Xbox menu yet again during the review process (though a day-one patch seems to have fixed the issue).
Verdict: A beautiful, difficult, and masterful swan song for 2D platforming on the Xbox One. Buy it if you have any interest in the genre.
Sam Machkovech contributed to this review.
Listing image by Microsoft