'Ori And The Will Of The Wisps' Review: A Studio Ghibli-Inspired GOTY Contender
I'm just gonna get straight into it: I believe that Ori And The Will Of The Wisps is the best Xbox One game yet, and 2020's first real contender for Game Of The Year. The sequel to Moon Studios' critically acclaimed Ori And The Blind Forest is a confident, visually striking metroidvania that combines smart puzzles and brutal combat with in-depth exploration and some of the best platforming action I've experienced in some time.
The effortlessness with which Moon Studios has blended multiple genres is quite astounding. The team has taken ideas from some of the best games of the last decade while bringing their own unique ideas and twists to the table. This is a game that owes as much to classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania as it does Hollow Knight, Dark Souls, and Breath Of The Wild.
Yet through these many influences, Ori And The Will Of The Wisps manages to establish an identity all of its own. It's a bold, beautiful, emotionally stirring piece of work that could only ever have been made by a studio at the absolute top of its game. This is the perfect sequel in every way: bigger and better, and more ambitious in scope and size. I've absolutely adored my time with this game, if you hadn't worked that out yet.
Ori And The Will Of The Wisps is, much like its predecessor, a game about family and loss but also, ultimately, healing. You don't need to have played Blind Forest to appreciate the story, or that Ori's family at the start of the game is one that's come together by choice - their interactions during a brief, charming prologue sets the scene and stakes nicely.
Obviously Ori can't mill around in paradise for the entire game or there wouldn't be much of a story. Soon enough, a series of events sees our hero stranded in a strange and deadly new land, separated from his family and friends. This new land, much like the forest of Nibel from the first game, is in serious need of help. Naturally it's up to Ori and the player to deliver that help, and along the way learn a lot more about the game's star than we ever discovered in Blind Forest.
Without giving much away, the story has an almost Ghibli-esque coming-of-age quality to it - and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. There were more than a few points in the game that I found myself genuinely welling up, or open-mouthed in shock. Will Of The Wisps tells its story as only a video game possibly can, and the experience is all the richer for it.
That it manages to do all this, and get us invested by Ori and his supporting cast using minimal dialogue, is a testament to the utterly sublime score by composer Gareth Coker, by the way. His gorgeous, stirring score always manages to hit just the right note, whether in intense moments of danger or in quieter, more intimate scenes.
Rebuilding and healing a decaying world was also big part of the original game, and that's even more prominent here. Over the course of your journey you'll restore light to pitch black caverns full of monsters, return clean water to poisonous swamps, and so much more over the course of your journey. If you've played Blind Forest, you'll be familiar with the basic bones of it, but Will Of The Wisps actually manages to feel more like a traditional Zelda game in its structure.
You'll explore an overworld that seamlessly incorporates numerous dungeon-like areas, battle bosses, find new items that aid exploration and combat, and upgrade your abilities through exploration and sweet, sweet loot. The way in which Will Of The Wisps keeps throwing new ideas at you helps to keep the adventure feel consistently fresh and surprising, and it's incredibly rare that you'll be doing exactly the same thing more than once.
One location might see you closely following the path of a firefly so you aren't consumed by the darkness. Another will see you frantically dashing between cover so as not to be instantly murdered by a giant, eldritch bird monster. One of my favourite areas involved burrowing through sand, snaking and dashing between obstacles and enemies to reach my destination.
No matter what I was doing during my time with Will Of The Wisps, I always found myself engaged thanks to a smart and well-paced blend of action-oriented combat and platforming gauntlets. Combat, in particular, is a vast improvement on the last game. This time around, Ori has an entire arsenal at his disposal.
Your basic combat consists of a pleasingly bouncy feeling sword made of pure energy that invites a much more precise and skill-focused style of combat... but before long you'll be able to combine a bow, hammer, fire attacks, and even a sentry drone. Each of these skills can quickly be assigned to one of three buttons at any time, so you change it up based on what works best for you as and when you need to.
This RPG-style mechanic also extends to another new system in which Ori can find equip various passive abilities. These skills are scattered throughout the world and give Ori all sorts of handy buffs and tricks. You can improve the radius of attacks, pick items up from farther away, do more damage, or even stick to walls indefinitely. You can also have a certain number of these skills active at any time, however, so you'll need to think about what a situation demands before equipping the necessary gear.
Believe me when I say you'll need to think about what each situation demands, because Will Of The Wisps is frequently hard as nails. Moon Studios has the absolute nerve to treat you like you've probably played a video game before, and within the first few hours of your adventure you'll have picked up a bunch of new and returning abilities that make controlling Ori an absolute dream.
Chaining together jumps, rolls, double jumps, dashes, and grapples can feel a little daunting at first, but getting your hands on all of this so early on gives you enough time to make sure its second nature by the point Moon Studios really turns up the challenge - which happens alarmingly early on, it has to be said.
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Blind Forest had some pretty demanding platforming segments, and there are plenty more for you to get stuck into here. By the late-game areas, you'll have a constant gentle sweat on as you navigate some truly fiendish platforming gauntlets, all while dealing with increasingly challenging enemies. Fortunately, responsive controls and a much smarter checkpoint system than the one in Blind Forest means that you'll never find yourself walking away in a rage. Unless you're particularly fragile, I guess.
While platforming and combat always work in perfect unison in Will Of The Wisps, the fusion is at its absolute best during the game's boss battles. In the original game, beating a dungeon-style area would end in a thrilling chase/escape sequence that really put your platforming skills to the test. These sequences are back - and better than ever - but have been combined with more traditional boss fights that require you to make use of everything at your disposal.
Typically, some screen-filling beast from the depths of hell will give chase for a bit before you're forced to stand and fight. Study attacks, dodge, work out the best time to strike, and whittle away at a formidable health bar. At a certain point there'll be another bit of a chase, and then you'll finish up with more combat-focused action.
There aren't many of these encounters, but each one demands you make full use of everything you've learned so far, and the way they flip effortlessly between platforming and fighting makes them all feel like an entirely unique set pieces. It's thrilling, expertly designed stuff, and it's in these moments that every aspect of Will Of The Wisps is firing on all cylinders: The music, the visuals, the platforming, the combat - all working in perfect harmony to deliver something truly special.
They're also incredibly tough... but there is an adjustable difficulty level for those who are really struggling. Although to be honest, even on "easy", Will Of The Wisps is hardly a breeze. Whatever difficulty you choose to play on, beating a boss feels like a well-earned victory. And of course, watching this wondrous fantasy world slowly come back to life by your own hand is a reward in and of itself, because every single place you go will take your breath away.
Moon Studios has built on the fairytale-inspired aesthetic of Blind Forest by incorporating gorgeous 3D environments that, when coupled with some truly stunning lighting effects and phenomenal art design, lend every area of the world an astonishing level of depth. From the barren deserts to deep underwater, every single part of Will Of The Wisps looks and feels truly alive, and is an absolute joy to explore as a result.
There's even an entire lengthy side quest (oh yes, there are side quests this time) that involves you fixing up an old village with some of the many collectibles you can find scattered throughout the world, lending a new depth and meaning to exploration that a lot of metroidvanias just don't have.
You'll want to help fix up this old village beyond doing it for the usual completion/reward reasons, because it's filled with a cast of charming characters. Lupo, the bug-eyed cartographer and Tokk the winged wanderer are particular highlights who always have something interesting to tell you, and can often be found beyond the village having their own adventures and getting into scrapes.
Having a place where you can stop and relax, and shop and upgrade is also simply welcome change of pace from the rest of the game. As a genre, metroidvanias tend to constantly make players feel like they need to be pushing onwards, and that lack of spotter can feel a little oppressive after a while. Having the village as a kind of unofficial hub area for your adventures helps to be break the game up a little.
And of course, you don't ever have to hang around there if you'd rather just get on and see the world. There's rather a lot to see, after all, including optional races, combat challenges, and a brilliant trading side quest that really encourages you to dive into the world and get to know exactly what every character wants and needs.
It's at this point in a review that I'd usually air any grievances I had with a game that I was otherwise largely positive about... but Will Of The Wisps really doesn't have very many issues at all. And believe me, I've been racking my brain, cold-hearted and cynical prick that I am. Beyond the very occasional framerate slowdown (usually when opening and closing the map) and one particular section that had a completely baffling lack of checkpoints, this game is something truly special.
It should also be pointed out that I reviewed the game on Xbox One X, so I'm really not sure how well the game will run on a standard Xbox One or PC. Having said that, Moon Studios is working on final performance optimisations and image quality adjustments that'll arrive with a day-one patch, so I'm hopeful that the game will look and run beautifully on all available hardware.
Those minor niggles aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend Ori And The Will Of The Wisps to all of you. Whether or not you've played the original game, picking up this new adventure should be a no-brainer. Moon Studios has gone bigger and better in every conceivable way, crafting an epic, emotional adventure that borrows from some of the best games out there and smartly remixes various genres and ideas in thrilling, unexpected ways.
There really is no other way to say it: this is 2020's first "must-play" title.
9/10 - Exceptional
Featured Image Credit: Microsoft