Often it's easy to simply look at a game, and judge it based on its visual style and aesthetics. For instance, one look at Ori and the Blind Forest, and you might think this might be a heartwarming casual game best enjoyed with your family huddled around the TV. This is certainly one of the better cases of 'Don't judge a book by its cover.'
The game revolves around the titular Ori, who is easily one of the most adorable little creatures you'll ever play as. The first ten minutes or so does a great job at setting up an emotional connection between the player and Ori, who tragically loses the only parent figure it had for most of its life. It's heartbreaking, and I'm not ashamed to admit it made me tear up a little bit. Maybe it's because I'm a parent. But it's not long until Ori is joined by Sein, a glowing orb of light that acts as Ori's only line of defense. With the nimble Ori being able to explore the vastness of the forest and Sein acting as his faithful protector, it's up to them to bring the Light back to the forest that was once flowing with it.
Ori and the Blind Forest, at its most simple description, is a Metroidvania game. It houses an explorable labyrinth, interconnected together, with various sections gated off until Ori or Sein gain the appropriate skill to allow them passage. And while the game starts off at a relatively easy difficulty, it's not long until the game starts throwing in some deviously genius puzzle elements that strengthen the overall experience. Now I'm usually not one for puzzles, it's not my strong suit, but Ori's puzzles always factored into the platforming in a way that didn't have me questioning of what I had to do next, but how to do it instead. I was never left scratching my head, trying to figure out what I need to accomplish in order to advance, but rather how to go about it, and figuring that out was always satisfying.
You see, Ori's gorgeous aesthetics cleverly hide a deep and challenging platformer with clever mechanics that will challenge you very early on. One of the first major dungeons introduces you to teleport stumps that make you appear in a different part of the screen. You'll have to combine your precision platforming skills to perform some truly awesome chain teleports where you'll literally fly through about five of them at once all while trying to avoid deadly spikes and thorns. It's tough to describe in words, but accomplishing that feat certainly felt good, and the best thing is that there was much more of that accomplishing feeling to come. Another part of that same dungeon introduces you to an ability that allows you to either leap off of enemies or their projectiles, while throwing them in the opposite direction. There are some truly genius sections where you'll actually have to carefully aim projectiles with this move in order to advance.
The combat on the other hand isn't very deep, and seems to only serve as Ori's only line of self defense, since otherwise he'd be completely vulnerable. Sein's light energy attacks don't pack a whole lot of punch, at least not from the get go, so you'll be mashing the X button continually around various enemies until their health bar drops down, while frantically jumping around in order to avoid their projectiles. While that sentence can easily describe many popular Metroidvanias, at least in those, the combat changes with different weapons or tools at the player's disposal, whereas here, the combat remains the same through the whole experience.
While Ori's nimble nature makes him a natural for platforming, the controls aren't always so precise, and there are times when he can feel slightly floaty. This is super evident in sections where you have to land on a specific piece of land that might be surrounded by spikes. I tend to either overshoot or undershoot it due to the slightly floaty controls. It's something I've gotten used to over the course of the game, sure, but certainly something that needed to be pointed out.
Ori's energy meter can be used for a variety of things, and it's actually up to the player to pick and choose how they want to use it. For one, it can activate Sein's explosive flame, which does a big area-of-effect explosion, and can also clear some debris in order to progress. That same energy can also be used to unlock passages to sealed off areas. However, what's most unique regarding this energy system is that it can act as a player's manual savepoint. For one energy orb, Ori can place down a flame, or a bonfire if you will. It's at this bonfire that Ori's skills can be upgraded, but that same bonfire will be Ori's next respawn point when you die. It's an extremely smart system that might sound like it makes the game easier, but in actuality makes you sacrifice a precious resource in order to use it. Remember, you might lose out on opening a sealed door, or perhaps you won't have enough energy to use Sein's flame explosion attack. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities to get energy orbs back, but it's a challenge in and of itself to remember when to use these to your biggest advantage.
There are three skill trees that you'll be able to spend points in, one focusing on Sein's offensive abilities, one focusing on making things easier for Ori like automatically picking up orbs that are further away or gaining more health with each health orb, and then one that modifies the game like showing collectibles on the map.
I can't believe I was able to wait this long to talk about the game's visual and audio design. To get right to the point, they're both fantastic. Ori and the Blind Forest might be one of the most gorgeous games this year. Now don't get me wrong, it's not on the same level of The Order 1886 for instance, but there is a big different between technically impressive graphics and artistically impressive graphics. It's one of those instances where you could easily think this was designed by a studio like Ghibli. It very much reminds me of the cute, anime-like visuals of Dust: An Elysian Tail, which funnily enough was also a great Metroidvania. The gorgeously fluid graphics bring each and every character to life, be it friend or foe. Equally impressive is the game's emotionally evoking soundtrack, making you feel hopeless when things look bleak, but then uplifting your spirits when you accomplish something meaningful.
Ori and the Blind Forest hangs the Metroidvania inspirations right on its sleeve, but it manages to carve its own space in the genre. It's beautiful, it's smart, and emotionally draining and yet uplifting at the same time. When a game manages to portray a meaningful parent/child relationship and then break you down completely in the first 10 minutes, you know the devs did something right.