Ori and the Will of the Wisps Review: A Light in the Darkness

Ori, the shining forest spirit introduced in 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest, is back in Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the sequel from Moon Studios. The game takes place years after the events of the original, sending Ori on a new quest. He faces unknown dangers in an unfamiliar land as he seeks to reunite his found family. Along the way, he gets a view from the forest floor of what ecological devastation looks like, but with the strength of a community at his back and some scampering superpowers, he may be able to bring this abandoned forest back from the brink.

Ori and the Will of Wisps begins with Ori, Naru, and Gumo welcoming Ku, born of Kuvo’s last egg, into their family. As Ku learns how to fly with a damaged wing, the owl and Ori become separated by a storm that forces them onto an unfamiliar island. Ori’s arrival causes a stir among the locals, who haven’t seen a forest spirit in some time. He’s met with a mix of hope and resentment from those who feel forgotten by Ori’s kind. As he explores, he learns more of the “decay” that has taken root in the absence of other forest spirits.

From here, players are free to begin exploring the massive map that represents the mysterious forest. Like its predecessor, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a Metroidvania style game, making use of most of the tropes and mechanics players associate with the genre. Players explore the forest section by section and they gain access to new areas as they unlock new means of traversing the world’s hazards and obstacles. With secrets abound, finding them all requires some backtracking, though less than in most games of its kind.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps
(Photo: Microsoft/Moon Studios)

The sequel borrows some ideas from modern Metroidvania games that have released in the five years that have passed since Blind Forest debuted. The sequel introduces a shard system that’s close to the charm system from Hollow Knight. It also abandons the soul points system from the original game in favor of a more traditional save-and-warp point system.

Playing through Ori and the Will of the Wisps, players will find themselves engrossed in its setting and its lead character. Ori moves in response to player commands in short jumps and quick leaps. Players will feel it as he scampers across tree limbs and over thorny vines. It’s even more impressive in some of the game’s best level designs, like when Ori is trying to navigate a rotating landscape, and it shines even more during the game’s intense, break-neck chase scenes.

The game also plays with players' sense of scale. At times, trying to work your way through a tight or densely-populated area can feel claustrophobic, then the game opens up and shows off an elephant's skull in the distant background, reminding players of their comparative stature.

This plays into the game’s themes. Like a Hayao Miyazaki film, the game dwells on the balance between nature and civilization. While the main plotline focuses on Ori and his friends, there’s a story that unravels in the background as Ori explores the forest and it becomes clear that the decay tainting the area stems from an abandoned settlement. For example, a mill that’s ceased turning has left the water still and stagnant, deadly to most of the forest’s inhabitants.

Part of the game involves undoing some of this damage. Ori can’t progress until he fixes the mill, making the water swimmable again, but there’s also a thread about the strength of community. Partway through the game, Ori meets a character who's intent on turning the glades into a refuge for those displaced by the decay. As a long-running sidequest, Ori can help make the glades more hospitable to its denizens. As Ori helps this commune thrive, he unlocks rewards that, in turn, make it easier for him to push back against the decay.

Some of Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ best moments will remind players of their favorite children’s movies. Many of the supporting characters wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney animated feature and there are set pieces that feel similarly, including the chase scenes and a moment when Ori fends off a wolf with a burning branch.

But there’s darkness here, too. The earliest areas of the game are verdant green, but later levels are darker, as the skeletal remains of the forest's denizens litter some of them. One sees the forest burning and Ori forced to float on flames to proceed in what may be the video game mechanics equivalent of gallows humor, while one side quest sends Ori to find the children of someone living in the glade community. By the time he reaches them, the children have been turned to stone by the decay. The game doesn’t pull punches, using its beauty and darkness to form a powerful aesthetic contrast.

The Metroidvania genre is as crowded as its ever been, with recent lauded releases like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Bloodstained. As such, Ori and the Will of the Wisps may not feel as vital as the original did when it debuted, but fans of the genre would be foolish to overlook the sequel. Its visual style, themes, and engrossing score distinguish it from others in its space. Its fluid sense of movement and fast-paced combat make it a blast to play, with plenty of hidden challenges to uncover. Ori and the Will of the Wisps will please fans of the original and anyone looking for an engrossing adventure steeped in natural mystery and wonder.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Ori and the Will of the Wisps releases for Xbox One and PC on March 11th. A retail code was provided by the publisher for Xbox One the purpose of this review.

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