The first eye cast at Ori and The Blind Forest suggests that it’s a game about cinematography, art, and storytelling. Whether through a play of the prologue, from images of the Ghibli-esque backdrops, or the cuteness of the characters the narrator speaks about, there are expectations that go hand-in-hand with a game that presents like Ori does.
In reality, this action-platformer’s style is deceptive and as much as one might assume so, Ori and The Blind Forest is no casual endeavour.
For most of the game you’ll be playing as a bright spark named Ori, a young spirit of light. Your goal is to restore light to the forest, by repairing a tree that was damaged by an owl. The reasons and motivations behind the owl, the tree, and the other characters that affect your journey are revealed as you play, and for a game that appears to be rather cute on the surface, it has an intriguing story.
There are so many great things about this game beyond the story, yet Ori and The Blind Forest is a game that is paradoxically less than the sum of its parts. The beauty, writing, and soundtrack all contribute positives to the tone of the game, and it has many interesting game mechanics. In that sense it’s a glorious thing.
Yet as much as I wanted to love the game, its the gameplay itself that means I like it far less than I would like.
With a death tally for the record books, it’s not an experience I feel compelled to sing the praises of. Yes, the game is difficult. Many difficult games work as games of player agency, because they’re founded on the principle that it’s up to the player to make the mistakes that will be responsible for their downfall, and not their lack of knowledge.
In such difficult games, success is usually based on the accumulation of skills that turned harder tasks into easily achievable ones through time, yet in the case of Ori, victory comes at the end of a hard-fought war of attrition. No sequence in Ori manifests this quite like the escape from the Ginso Tree.
The harrowing tide rises without warning and you’ll need to make use of the Bash skill you receive in the tree. It’s chaotic on the first attempt, but even once you’re able to string together a decent chain of movements, the game will work against you. You’ll be ever reliant on enemies to fire or leap at you, and waiting for them gives the rising waters time to catch up – though there’s also the feeling that the sequence is rubber-banded to keep tension high.
The reliance on those crucial shots from an enemy, your only way forward, means that you’re only a single mistake or misfire from failure, and each of the actions in the sequence has to be right or you will fail. The air-heavy escape from the Forlorn Ruins in the middle of the game has more difficult sequences to the point of being comical, yet the presence of some checkpoints rescues it from the talons of overly subtle cues and seeming randomness.
Overcoming the more difficult sequences of the game brings little joy, and instead of a feeling of accomplishment, there’s a residual sourness as each are overcome. Successive playthroughs of Ori and The Blind Forest reinforce the idea that the real challenge of the game is in remembering; a second playthrough gave a dream-like run through the notorious Ginso Tree escape, yet the Black Root Burrows area that were relatively untouched in the initial playthrough presented as much challenge as other parts of the game. This area new to the Definitive Edition had new paths and mechanics, ones untelegraphed by the same cues learned through repetition elsewhere.
What it comes down to is a lack of respect for the player – with the rate of dying experienced, I’m unequivocally terrible at the game, yet there are too many attributes to the way gameplay is handled that make it works against the player. Even the save system that appears to give the player an easy way to move past obstacles, means that often the player will be spawned again either close to death or half-way through an obstacle they find it difficult to move either back or forward from.
There is a very serious gap in the information provided to the player that similarly contribute to the frustration of the game. In case your first jump doesn’t stick, you definitely CAN climb the spider cocoon, and instead of telling you through the game, you might also need to know that the charge jump skill can be used while moving. The map is another area that is short on details, with the artistic overview map not having a strong correlation with the navigated labyrinth of gameplay, which manifests on occasions like trying to find your way into the Forlorn Ruins.
The numerous shifts in gameplay also means that the tone is inconsistent and that it wants the player to learn from mistakes that can only be learned from once made. The areas do build upon past lessons for the skills, but it’s still about knowing in advance what obstacles you will need to contend with.
This is reminiscent of the some of the worst habits of old adventure games, such as the Legend of Kyrandia, or the Sierra quest catalogue – any game that requires the player to die to learn how to move forward is violating their contract with the player, and shattering any semblance of immersion.
Yes the game can be finished, but the challenge remains. Needing to know an enemy will spawn two seconds after you jump to be able to pass a segment, to hang in the air to use a glide long enough to let it fire at you, so you can use its attack to move forward does not feel like good design.
If you do decide to journey to the Blind Forest, you can expect a sensual feast and also a challenge. Your luck may vary if you have better reflexes than I (a distinct possibility) and only need a handful of deaths to find your way.
There were some issues with the responsiveness of controls on the Xbox version of the game, though found the Windows 10 version beyond the capabilities of my humble computer, and while I was always able to continue where I left off from on the Xbox One, the reverse wasn’t true. There were occasions where jumps gained half their usual height, or feather glide stopped prematurely, and it’s hard to say if that
For those that played the original version of Ori and The Blind Forest, the definitive edition brings new areas, new skills, and a few additional conveniences. It also has new difficulty levels. If you still think it’s too easy, go as hard as you like in the hardcore one-life mode and come back to brag how you did it. It can be as stupidly hard as you need it to be.
Our Windows 10 version of Ori and the Blind Forest Definitive Edition was obtained via a code provided while Microsoft, while the Xbox version of the game was purchased.