Some people are bothered by the term Metroidvania, which we’ve never really understood. We’re fully aware that it’s an unnecessary subgenre classification that derives its name from two of the industry’s most respected franchises, Metroid and Castlevania, but we're quite alright with that. For those of you unfamiliar with what it means to be a Metroidvania, it’s a label generally associated with side-scrolling video games that feature non-linear, interconnected worlds meant to be explored. The player character starts very weak, with limited abilities, but as they acquire new powers and moves, they grow stronger and gain entry to areas they couldn’t previously access. For example: Guacamelee, Shadow Complex, and Strider are all considered Metroidvanias. So now that we’ve hopefully done a decent enough job establishing what a Metroidvania is, let’s get into why Ori and the Blind Forest, the latest game from the global team at Moon Studios, is one of the greatest Metroidvanias we’ve ever played.
Because we feel that it might lessen the emotional impact to know too much before jumping in, we aren’t going to dig too deep into plot details. If you haven’t been exposed to a trailer and don’t feel you need to see video footage of Ori and the Blind Forest before deciding if an action-oriented Metroidvania is for you, we recommend going in blind. The opening of the game alone is powerful, and it wonderfully – and somberly – sets the tone for the journey to follow. To give you some sort of context, this is a game about restoring balance to and saving a desolate forest once brimming with life. It’s about love, loss, sacrifice, and the bond between parents and their children, reminding us of The Lion King and Studio Ghibli flicks in spirit and presentation. The animation and the overall visual delivery isn’t a single ounce short of breathtaking, lending to something so convincing that we didn't just care about the characters, we felt invested in their world. Truly, it’s extremely powerful stuff.
It’s easy to compare the hand-painted look of Ori and the Blind Forest to Child of Light or Rayman Legends, two gorgeous games developed in the Ubi-Art engine. But, while it’s completely understandable if you want to argue over which game is the prettiest looking, there’s something so genuine about the visuals here, something that kept us wholly engrossed in the densely-layered, lush fantasy environments on the screen. This is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking 2D games we've ever laid eyes on. What’s particularly remarkable is how well Moon Studios have made a forest that’s equal parts what we expect a forest to look like, yet just as alien and foreign as what you’d find in the Metroid series. It’s accompanied by an atmosphere that, thanks partially to a masterful orchestral score, always walks a line between beautiful and eerie, eliciting feelings of desperation and hopefulness to great effect.
You play as Ori, a spirit of the forest of Nibel who looks like a combination of Stitch (from Lilo & Stitch) and some sort of adorable bunny or marsupial. Ori is a nimble – yet fragile – character whose moveset is initially limited to a solitary jump mechanic. After he meets up with Sein – think a tiny ball of light that hovers around the character like Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Igniculus from Child of Light – Ori begins to obtain powers that allow him to string together multiple jumps, climb walls, glide through the air, and perform other moves that are typically synonymous with Metroidvanias. But Ori and the Blind Forest doesn’t settle for being a mere imitation of its inspirations. Sure, there are moments where it’s clear that Moon Studios took notes from Nintendo’s flagship franchises – especially Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario – but the concoction of homage, inspiration, and fresh ingredients allow it to feel like an adventure all of its own.
Other than the distinct and captivating presentation, what largely attributes to the game’s uniqueness are your methods of attack and traversal. Instead of Ori making physical contact with enemies, it’s Sein that does the dirty work, shooting out small orbs of light at creatures in the immediate area with a press of the X button. It’s an interesting dynamic because you need to get pretty close to the enemies but avoid colliding with them, which took us a few minutes to wrap our head around. In time, this attack can even be charged up and released to deal massive damage and clear obstructions within range. But Ori also has another means of interaction, one that dually serves as a key part of getting around. With the Bash ability, Ori can cling onto enemies or their projectiles to use them as either a weapon or his personal propulsion system. This mechanic lends to some rather clever “platforming” as you treat the inhabitants of Nibel as your personal stepping stool, blasting upward to secret areas or pathways that would otherwise be out of reach.
Getting around the large interconnected forest is seamless, with no loading screens – though there is the occasional technical hiccup that likely occurs due to behind-the-scenes loading. It’s all about exploration in this region and charting your path to the next significant landmark, where the light that once protected the forest can be restored. These three areas are sort of separated from the world, and, in a way, their design feels reminiscent of temples from the Legend of Zelda series. Whether it’s the Ginso Tree with its screen-wrapping traversal, or it’s the Forlorn Ruins and its trippy Super Mario Galaxy-esque gravity mechanics, it’s not just about platforming straight to the goal; it’s about solving environmental puzzles and navigating challenges standing in your way. Instead of traditional boss battles, each of these sections ends in an intense action sequence that requires you to make your way to an exit without utilizing checkpoints or saving. These are, unquestionably, the most difficult portions of the game, as they force you to react instantaneously and stay a few steps ahead of the pursuing threat.
With that said, it should be known that overall this is a challenging game. Sometimes that challenge is due to a sequence needing lightning-fast reflexes and flawless precision platforming, but other times it’s due to the player needing to use practical thinking to reach new or secret areas, and even those situations can require great reactionary skills. None of this difficulty feels unnatural or unfair, necessarily, it’s just a game that often embraces an old-school design mentality. But one neat feature that helps out immensely is being able to create a save point just about anywhere you please. As long as your Spirit Meter is full and you have energy to spare, holding the B button will create a save point – referred to as a Soul Link – where you can save and access a skill tree. At first we felt that the lack of regular checkpoints was too archaic this day and age, but then we realized that you can essentially save about every ten seconds, so, in this regard, the amount of challenge you want is at your discretion.
On a less positive note, once you complete the game there’s no returning to your save file to track down any remaining items. To make matters worse, if you don’t collect all of the items on your first run through the temples, you can’t return for them. We weren’t aware of this during our first playthrough, so we found out the hard way. It’s one of those things that wouldn’t have been an issue had the game properly communicated to us that we only had one shot, but, unfortunately, we didn’t notice any indication of this. Another problem we ran into is that a few sections of the game have some unfair/unpredictable traversal. This is because you need to use the projectiles of your enemies to launch yourself from, so you have to rely on their output to stay in motion. In some of these problem areas, if the enemy doesn’t shoot right when you need him to, you're guaranteed a death. Thankfully, this was an infrequent occurrence, but it's one that we felt necessary to mention.
Outside of the criticisms we’ve detailed above, Ori and the Blind Forest is a near flawless experience. The developer has stated that they obsessed over how precise and accurate the controls/movements are, and it absolutely shows. As with any game, there’s a moment here or there where you swear that taking damage or dropping from a wall wasn’t your fault, but it typically wasn’t long before we realized that the error could in fact be attributed to a misjudgement or miscalculation on our part. You need to understand the mechanics and how the world is brilliantly designed for them. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be getting around Nibel like you’ve been a resident for years.
Don’t expect that your adventures will last longer than eight hours. In that time (according to the in-game counter) we had collected all but two pickups, and even those we could’ve easily nabbed along the way had we known it was our only opportunity. But we don’t think the somewhat brief runtime is a negative in this case, because upon finishing our first playthrough we immediately started another. Sure, we wanted the ride to last longer and would’ve been delighted if it had. However, when a game is so well-crafted and firing on all cylinders like Ori constantly is, we’d rather have something close to perfection as opposed to anything bloated that could potentially overstay its welcome. Plus, like Super Metroid, Guacamelee, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this is one game we anticipate revisiting for years and years to come.
When we reached the closing credits, we were at a loss for words. The final action sequence and the ensuing cutscene flooded our skin with goosebumps and caused our eyes to well up. Not since The Last of Us have we been so emotionally moved and touched by a video game. Meaningful story can all too often mean the negligence or cheapening of game mechanics, but Ori and the Blind Forest gets both of them right. Saying that the experience was utterly magical is not an exaggeration.
Ori and the Blind Forest isn’t just a magnificent video game with impeccable mechanics and brilliant design, it’s a work of art. What could’ve easily been a journey so wrapped up in delivering its poignant narrative that it squandered away its gameplay potential, ends up being a Metroidvania that can hang with the greatest the genre has to offer. This is a powerful experience that we expect will be remembered for a long time to come, and it's, without question, one of the best games available for the Xbox One. That's a big statement, we know, but Ori's got more than enough spirit to back it up.