Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Balanced. If one were to try and sum up the ten hour journey to see the ending credits screen to Ori and the Will of the Wisps into one descriptor, it would be that. From the first introductory cutscene to the final, emotional send-off, everything that developer Moon Studios have crafted looks and feels in perfect harmony. Elements never vying for standalone superiority. The need for storytelling never out-weighing the prevalence of gameplay; acknowledgement from its player-base of the sheer effort put into each vista, never blinding the team from the knowledge that not everyone will share in that awe. It’s that humble impression, that doesn’t devolve into wrestling away control from the player, that caps off a release in 2020 that one can only describe as palpable. To come away with respect and amazement at what one has experienced. Not a single second wasted, not a moment one would consider unnecessary. Moon Studios have done it.

Their debut effort in 2015, Ori and the Blind Forest, had already set itself apart with the sheer breadth and ambition of its artistic and presentation elements. Another studio who recognized that the then-resurgent design philosophy that is/was the Metroidvania sub-genre was not just a flashback to past fondness. And while not without its short-comings — its combat the only real major culprit, which felt especially secondary and not as fleshed out — Ori‘s gorgeous aesthetic, heart-tugging soundtrack and appreciation for the finer detail cemented Moon Studios as a name to trust.

With a visual look such as this, it’s no surprise to see the follow-up, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, has taken so long to even attempt a claim at being superior. The sequel that builds on the strengths of the original, while seeing to the drawbacks that stopped it from achieving perfection. It’s been five years to the day since the original first dropped but it’s been worth the wait. Fans and followers of Metroidvanias have been blessed these past few years — Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, Yoku’s Island Express and The Messenger all similarly debut games from studios whom made a great first impression through varying means. But Moon Studios appear to have done the seemingly impossible and bested all of them. Masterminding what might be the pinnacle of the genre in modern times and arguably one of the best games of this generation.

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Anyone who’s even taken a peak of Ori will know of Moon’s artistic strides that made Blind Forest such a talked-about debut. The way environments are so heavily, densely layered, yet at the same time don’t come across as over-compensating or distracting from an element that may or may not be unfortunately lacking. Because the truth of the matter is that there are virtually no “lacking” components to Will of the Wisps. What starts as a lively, resonant palette of color — that same pastoral-yet-mythical sheen that gives moments of calm and peril alike an almighty impact — soon gives way to an experience that allows everything else to shine. As unique as each of the background and foreground assets are, you can’t help but take a second to inspect and admire how each platform, slope or tree branch feels emboldened with purpose in the grand scheme of things. How the game painstakingly presents a world so organically proposed — many a platforming conundrum yet seldom feeling like it’s confiding in a set template. How subterranean reaches and connecting routes twist, snake and adjoin to rooms that themselves don’t feel repeated. How, most importantly, all of this is connected.

It’s great to see how gently yet subtly the transition from one region to the next is, yet the route there — even after many a repeated trek back and forth — loses none of its appeal. Despite already working out how best to avoid spikes, pitfalls and traps alike, Will of the Wisps revels in the freedom it harbors due to its swift, fluid controls. And it’s a set-up that easily and quickly pulls you in. Especially when movement-based abilities further open up and expand late on and you find yourself voluntarily free-running from platform to wall to hanging surface to an object you can use to launch yourself off of — ending with a grappling to a surface that, at one time, felt impossible. Impossible in the sense the ability required hadn’t been unlocked yet, but also that personally you didn’t have the confidence to partake in through such risky manoeuvres. And that’s the underlining brilliance of Will of the Wisp‘s structure in regards to its progression — the kind of willing involvement that only gets better and better the more you engage with its many mechanics. Regardless of your level of experience or how confident you initially feel or think about this kind of precision-platforming where speed, timing and good reflexes are all key — the game gently, and cleverly, eases you into the rhythm. Building up set-pieces and conundrums alike where before long, Ori’s fast and dexterous move-set becomes second nature.

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Naturally, Will of the Wisps brings back the former chase sequences that require perfect timing. With it, the “so near yet so far” frustration of missing a platform or environmental object — added to by the general trial-and-error posing of tricky situations wherein would-be hazards and pitfalls may not entirely be as obvious on first sight. Yet it shouldn’t be understated just how well Will of the Wisps nails the ease of getting stuck into and engaging with the liberty of movement on offer. More importantly, how the game never discourages you for going at it in a less-than-cautious manner. It doesn’t matter how many times you die; upon death you’re revived almost instantaneously to go at it again. The lack of checkpoints or the minute window of opportunity presents may initially seem a little taxing, but the difficulty is undoubtedly fair, if tough, in its approach.

What’s more, Will of the Wisps expects its players to step up to the mark, yet it’s that trusting of our intelligence that prevents the difficulty curve from feeling anything other than finely-tuned. To not take things for granted and to properly, thoroughly read the environment to see one’s self pass the next seemingly-impossible scenario becomes the real driving factor. Where there are plenty of times where the solution seems entirely absent, Will of the Wisps once more builds its solutions on a mixture of educated guesses, timing and experimental dabbling with the abilities one has already equipped. And on some occasions, whether it be a brief stealth segment in one example or region with supposed safe-zones to quickly get to in another: a leap of faith with no guarantee of success.

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Of course for those having played the first game, Moon’s integration of both its aesthetic and of the free-flowing controls on offer should come as no surprise. What should come as a surprise — and wonderfully so — lies more on the gameplay front and how, on a mechanical sense, Will of the Wisps improves on the basis of providing an even greater breadth of tools at a player’s disposal. There’s no place better to start than with the combat — Will of the Wisp‘s most ardent improvement over the original. An element that flows in and out of regular exploration/platforming with immediate and accelerated pace. An arsenal of tools that — providing you have the accumulated energy to use — can aid in a helpful chain of melee swipes, projectiles and area-of-effect strikes. Helpful tools for a game that once more should not be underestimated in its scale of difficulty. Even on “Normal” later foes and inevitable boss fights likely to frustrate if one doesn’t spend some modest time finding that perfect balance between short-range and longer-ranger offensive means. More importantly, when to mix things up depending on the situation.

It becomes even more encouraging to see pop up when taking the game’s alternate to allotting skills into account. Though the linear point-based upgrades from previous are now gone, players instead can assign a series of perks/traits to their person, switching up those they’ve uncovered on their travels whenever they desire. Those who’ve played Hollow Knight will immediately recognize the badge-like approach here — further adding to Will of the Wisps‘ leaning more towards player-made experimentation. Finding the ideal mix of perks that may in one instance increase damage dealt and taken, allow you to stick to walls, build up energy with every successful melee hit or simply provide you with additional health. In this department alone, there’s plenty to dabble in and with increased slots made available upon completing challenge shrines — one of Will of the Wisps’ new forms of side-content on offer — there’s incentive and purpose to the game’s wider breadth of content beyond simply padding out the main story. Even the time trial-styled races, whereupon players race against AI ghosts in getting from A to B, are a novel distraction that makes great work of adapting to the winding labyrinths.

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Even the smaller details can’t go unnoticed. While saving is no longer a manual requirement — automatically saving progress at frequent intervals — the game does a great job at masking its back-end requirement for loading assets. There are virtually no load-screens in Will of the Wisps. Even when one wants to warp to a required region — fast-travel is now easily accessible through a simple trip to the main menu — Moon Studios cleverly hides the required tim, behind an animation so as to maintain the illusion that one’s play-time is consistent with smooth transitions to suit without hitches. Think Metroid Prime‘s elevators and you’ll have an idea of how it operates. In general, Will of the Wisps‘ technical performance is without fault to the point that playing this beyond 1080p, into 1440p resolution, never saw a frame-drop during one’s playthrough. Even during the game’s more erratic and screen-filled conflicts with many an enemy (running this on fairly old hardware on top), Moon Studios’ back-end framework is just as commendable as their front-end spectacle.

None of the above could not have had the sheer level of impact it brings without the return of composer Gareth Coker whom once more does an outstanding job on the soundtrack side of things. Offering up hard-hitting after hard-hitting hooks and melodies that undoubtedly vouch for Ori‘s more intoxicating emotional influences. The use of timbre and dynamics especially — an assembly of woodwind, string, piano and vocal efforts, knowing all too well when and how to tug at the heartstrings. Much like what Mick Gordon has done for DOOM, Coker’s mix of aspiring, curious, uplifting and tragic passages serve as a kind of musical mirror to what Will of the Wisps presents on a visual front, without ever feeling cliched or that its more dynamic shifts aren’t deserving.

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Closing Comments:

There are times when you feel obliged to find faults no matter how minor, but in the ten-plus hours spent with Moon Studios’ latest, there are none. It’s a feat few studios can rightfully claim to accomplish in recent times but such a claim is more than merited for a game that nails all departments. From visuals, tone, storytelling and soundtrack, to level design and the glue that holds it all together in gameplay, Ori and the Will of the Wisps‘ brilliant synergy across all fields is matched only by the humble attitude Moon Studios clearly present. Their refusal to let the short-term spectacles outweigh the long-term experience and of their trust in player willingness to succeed no matter the hurdle. Where one may fear the ambitious scale of its world or the emphatic soundtrack is compensation for something. Its steady incline of difficulty, bound to cap off eventually; early, leap-of-faith platforming sure to lose its pull or appeal in the latter half. All these concerns quickly dissipate in what is a game that continues again and again to increase in its stakes. To find new ways to impress, to shake things up in ways that will test even the most veteran of Metroidvania and precision-platformer players. An incredible unison of sub-genres and seemingly conflicted elements alike, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an absolute triumph of game design through-and-through.