Part of my gaming New Year’s Resolution this year was to “mix shit up a bit” and I’d decided to make a conscious effort to play a broader spectrum of games. In doing so, I’m hoping to avoid just playing the same type of game, and particularly if it’s at the cost of other types. I mention this because, having just finished Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, I moved onto Ori and The Blind Forest and, to be honest, I’m not sure if there could be a greater degree of contrast between two games. Where the former is an uber-violent FPS with an oppressive palette of browns, blacks and greys, the latter is a colourful, vivid platformer, with glowing balls of light and magic. Essentially, one’s a direct descendant of the evolutionary line that began with first person shooters back in the 80s/90s, and the other is the direct descendant of the gaming line that began with the side-scrolling platformers of the same era, and all the cumulative adaptations in that time mean the games couldn’t really look, or be, more different.
And on aesthetics, it is quite hard to do the GRAPHICS of Ori justice. In most reviews of the game (by people who didn’t take the best part of a year to get around to it) you’ll likely read loving paeans to superlative graphics, detailed breakdowns of groundbreaking techniques etc, etc – but honestly, even they fail to really capture just how stunning it actually is. I mean, I went into the game expecting it to look good, but I was still blown away by how breathtaking it all was, and I suspect that for some people, it will be unlike anything they’ve played before. The nearest gaming example I can think of would be the lovechild of, say, a Trine and a Rayman, but actually the most obvious example/parallel to me was a film. I saw Avatar in one of those super-duper 3D/HD/Imax-ey type cinemas, and whilst the film wasn’t great narratively speaking, it was visually awesome, and even though I’d struggle to sum up the plot again now, I still remember the sense of awe as I sat there in my stupid looking glasses, trying to touch the hyper-vivid plants and animals floating in front of my big stupid face.
That’s the exact same feeling I got when I played Ori and The Blind Forest for the first time, and it’s likely to be a feeling that stays with me long after I’ve finished the game. The colours, textures, and the sheer quality and depth of the animation are, quite simply, out of this world, and they all create a palpable sense of atmosphere. In short, it’s a visual tour de force.
Seriously, it really is beautiful – hauntingly so – and if you’re not immediately besotted with how Ori looks, I’d suggest a trip to a physician because there’s a fair chance you’re dead inside. Likewise, get ye healed if you’re not suitably impressed by Ori and The Blind Forest’s SOUNDTRACK and SCORE, because that’s some more next-level shizzle too. Sweeping, majestic, and rousing, it matches perfectly the level of depth and care that’s gone into the visuals, and there are genuine goosebumps to be had when they’re both working in perfect harmony with each other (pun totally intended). Listening through either my headphones or Surround Sound System, the quality of the Sound Engineering in Ori is exceptional, and in combination with all the visual stuff, it creates a level of immersion that really is quite spectacular.
The final thing working to pull you into Ori’s world is the NARRATIVE, and once again, this is brilliantly done. There’s just about the right balance of immediate empathy/emotional investment and WTFishness to grab hold of your attention and, ultimately, make you want to drive that story on. You’ll pay as Ori (obviously), a leaf(!?) thing who’s been blown out of his tree/Dad – which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a timeless motif that we can all relate to. Having become detached from said Dad/Tree, and just when things are looking a bit grim, Ori is found and “adopted” by a Bear thing with a weird white face (presumably Bear thing is into mime!?). Anyways – YAY, Ori’s safe and cared for, and can live happily ever after, right!? WRONG. Things then start to get weird(!), and your forest haven starts dying, food and whatnot disappears, and Big-Bear-With-The-Weird-White-Face keels over on you. Now, most of us in exactly that situation would likely just accept that the world’s not the place for a leafy-thing like us, but Ori’s a plucky little son of a Beech (see what I did there?), so he sets off on a journey of discovery and redemption, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home.
On your journey, there’ll be plenty of stuff to keep you occupied, and plenty more stuff trying to get you dead. You’ll need to collect various bits of puzzles, doors, blue lights, yellow lights, maps etc, all in an attempt to revive or rekindle your homeland, and all whilst plants, projectile firing insects, and an array of nasty exploding pink things try to kill you for no apparent reason.
Obviously when you write it all down, it sounds a bit daft, but it actually works quite well when you’re playing, and as you set off on your journey, additional daft stuff just sort of makes sense, and I had no problems accepting it. When shortly after setting off I met a little spirit light thing (Sein), I was all like ‘sure, that makes total sense’, and ditto when I later found out my ultimate nemesis was a big owl with a bad temper. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, Ori and The Blind Forest is more fantastical/mystical than it is, say, realistic, but it’s all the better for it, and it’s kind of similar to your Never Alone type games, in that it creates a well-realised world of lore, myth, and mystery. And, rather than going ‘yeah, you’ve gone too far with your weird doors that can only be opened with the spirit of ancient juba-jubas….I’m out’, instead I was all like ‘yeah, I knew it would be something to do with juba-jubas – it’s obvious when you think about it!’. Juba-jubas aren’t actually a thing, for the record, but you get my point, and Ori and The Blind Forest is a skillful blending of fantasy and magic, and I found I had no problems accepting it wholeheartedly.
So, to sum up so far, the visuals, sound and narrative of OaTBF are all truly excellent, and working together as they do, they make the whole greater than the sum of its (individually excellent) parts. ‘Pray tell’, I hear you ask, ‘is there anything that’s not excellent about Ori and The Blind Forest?’. Unfortunately, the answer is yes, or at least….Yes, possibly, depending on whether you’re a masochist or not. For me (and I stress this is a personal opinion) both the GAMEPLAY and MECHANICS of the game are its weakest links, and that’s a real shame because it massively detracts from all the stuff that is great about the game.
Let’s take the GAMEPLAY first, and I’ll explain what I mean. A lot of Ori’s gameplay is reasonably original, but sometimes that isn’t necessarily a great thing – especially if you accept that sometimes particular mainstays of a genre are there for a reason. Take saving, for example. Those collectible blue lights I mentioned earlier, they’re used for ‘special attacks’, but also for saving your game – because OaTBF mostly eschews regular checkpoints. Obviously, that means you’re going to have to strategically balance your need for offence with your need to save the game, which is fair enough to a point, but I don’t think it’s particularly well executed in Ori and The Blind Forest. At all. Invariably you’ll get it wrong and find yourself facing a big bad dude with no special attack, or you’ll not be able to save, die, and then have to do a mahoosive chunk of the game again.
Again, that’s fair enough, to a point, because in many ways platformers are about incremental progress, learning from your mistakes, and avoiding them again, right!? So next time, just save the game at a different point, thus making it less of a ball-ache when you die! That’s great in theory, but now consider the following two points. 1) When you die, you’ll return to your most recent save point, but with the same amount of life and special/save points you had when you saved, but 2) all the enemies you’d killed at that point might have respawned. So, let’s say you’ve survived a really hard bit by the skin of your teeth, decide to use your one save point (with one life point), and carry on with your journey. When you next die, you’ll respawn there BUT with one life point, no special/save points, AND with tons of bad guys who’ll have risen from the dead.
For me, that’s not far away from game-breaking, right there, and it’s made even worse by the fact that often you’ve got no choice but to take a trial-and-error approach in new areas, because, for example, you have to drop down, but you can’t see what’s down there, and until you do drop down there’s just no way of knowing if you’ll survive or not the first time. There’s also an absurdly high degree of ‘InstaDeath’ that you have pretty much zero chance of avoiding the first time you encounter it. Finally, all that beauty and visual flair we talked about at the beginning; that actually becomes an issue too, because aesthetics, it seems, have been given priority over gameplay and practicality. Ori’s glowing and white, the stuff you shoot’s glowing and white, and sometimes when you jump, some little glowing white arrows appear on the screen, and it’s all but impossible to see what’s going on because there’s just this big blur of glow-ey white. Anyways, taking all of that together, not only will you spend a lot of time failing to progress, you’ll spend most of that time actually going backwards – sometimes being stuck at a point you’d already made it through because it’s now virtually impossible to get past again. That’s several miles beyond frustrating, and I think it’s genuinely unfair, and it resulted in me finding a lot of my time with Ori deeply, deeply unpleasant.
At this point, I’ll freely admit that I’m really, really out of practice with Platformers, so you should certainly allow for that, but I also have to say that I’m not helped at all by Ori and The Blind Forest’s mechanics, which I found to be clunky, clumsy and unresponsive. When the stakes are so high (see previous paragraphs), it’s paramount that the controls are consistent, smooth and reliable. I found pretty much the opposite, and a long-press on the jump button (bigger jump) would often result in a dainty skip, and a quick press would often, inexplicably, lead to a huge fucking leap into an abyss, or killer plant, or whatever. In fact, there are plenty of times Ori reacts differently under the same conditions, and given the same commands, and it’s fucking infuriating. Again, factor that into the aforementioned saving issues, then add on the blind luck/trial-and-error stuff, and what you’re left with is a ridiculously frustrating AND deeply unpleasant experience.
Sure, practice helps, and it’s sometimes possible to mitigate the frustration (by, say, not saving when you’ve only got one life point) but that becomes a catch-22 because there’s an equal level of frustration going back to a save point when you had more life points, but that might’ve been an hour ago. If you’re forced back an hour because there’s no way of knowing if you’ll die when you drop down (or because of an initially unavoidable InstaDeath) that is, for me, plain fucking cheating. I’m not going to lie, there were a couple of occasions when I had to turn the game off because my TV was in genuine danger of having a controller thrown at it. Don’t get me wrong, I like a challenge, and I do like platformers, but Jebus H. Christmas, Ori and The Blind Forest was brutal – and often, objectively unfair in its brutality.
And honestly, that was a real, real shame, because I so very much wanted to enjoy my journey. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy – and I didn’t want it to be easy – but I didn’t want to resent the game, and (at the time of writing) that’s basically where I’m at. Where games are challenging, they should mitigate that with well thought-out mechanics, or checkpoints, and call me old-fashioned here, if you’re going to have manual save points, they should reflect the conditions at the time of saving, and not throw all the crap you’d just beaten back at you. That’s not a challenge, that’s either cheap, or bad game design, or both.
So, basically, I’m walking away from Ori and The Blind Forest – at least for now. Life’s too short for games that I’m not only not enjoying, but that I’m actively, consistently disliking. I started by commenting on how different Ori and The Blind Forest is from Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, and there’s one more difference that, in the end, is crucial. Wolfenstein was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it. Ori is decidedly not fun, and I honestly can’t remember a game I’ve enjoyed less in a long, long time. If you’re into (and really good at) platform games, by all means give it a try, but if you’re not, or if your gaming time’s precious, or you’ve got a keen sense of fairness and justice, I’d recommend you give it a miss.
Yes, it’s undoubtedly beautiful, and yes it’s intriguing and unique, but it’s all for nought if it’s not enjoyable. As much as I wanted to move the story on at first, and as great as Ori was at pulling me into that world initially, there came a point when I just thought ‘what’s the freakin’ point!?’. Not only did I not care about Ori’s journey anymore, I wholeheartedly wanted the little shit-weasel to fuck the fuck off out of my life.
Again though, I’d like to emphasise that this is my personal opinion, and I’m willing to concede it’s an opinion flavoured by some Sour Grapes, and frustration, and probably by me being a bit rubbish too. So, if you’ve played Ori, and if you disagree entirely with my assessment then please feel free to let me know in the comments….