Review: Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest cover art

Ori and the Blind Forest cover art

I’m a sucker for platformers. Ever since my early NES gaming days, I’ve adored them. From Super Mario Bros. (the gold standard for game design) to Mega Man to Metroid and Castlevania and more. There’s something I find uniquely satisfying about jumping safely from one platform to the next while dodging enemies and maneuvering around obstacles.

The other thing I’m a sucker for? Zelda games. A lone hero gaining the tools and experience to overcome impossible odds to save the world from unspeakable evil. Navigating temples (or dungeons) by solving puzzles, acquiring unique weapons and skills all in an effort to ensure you’re well equipped to handle increasingly difficult scenarios and menacing enemies.

So a Zelda platformer could perfectly scratch a very powerful itch in my gaming life. Luckily, I just experienced one by the name of Ori and the Blind Forest. No, Nintendo isn’t responsible, and no, we don’t play as Link (or the Hero of Time, or any other of his monikers), but the themes and elements that make up Zelda games are present and satisfyingly combined with a platformer. And I loved nearly every minute of it.

All about Ori

Ori and the Blind Forest is the story of forest spirit who, after being lost in a great windstorm, was cared for by a forest creature named Naru. One day when out scavenging for food, a catastrophe happens and most life within the forest dies, including Naru. Ori barely survives and begins a journey of discovery – both about his role in the world and what has happened to it. To do so, Ori locates old forest spirits who have bestowed their stories and powers within certain trees located throughout the forest. By listening to these stories, Ori gains their power which equips him for his journey. Ori is accompanied on this journey by Sein, a small fairy-like being who serves as a guide. Eventually, Ori must acquire the essence of the three main elements (water, wind and warmth) by navigating increasingly treacherous territories. Throughout the world are scattered life and energy stones which increase the amount of health and energy Ori can store. Ori also collects the equivalent of experience points which can be used to unlock new or improved abilities.

Fans of the Legend of Zelda franchise will immediately recognize some commonalities between Ori and the Blind Forest and Zelda: a lone hero accompanied by a helpful guide, an extinction-level event which must be overcome, nature-themed temples, and light RPG elements which include health and skill upgrades.

Of course combining light RPG elements with platforming principles immediately evokes images of Castlevania and Metroid – which would also be a spot-on comparison. There’s no doubt that Ori and the Blind Forest falls directly within the Metroidvania game category. In fact, when I finished the game I finally visited developer Moon Studio’s website and wasn’t surprised to see that these franchises served as a major influence in the game’s development:

We’ve been taking lessons from games like Super Metroid and A Link to the Past in order to really bring back this sensation you had when you played the games Nintendo was building in the early 90s. The level of polish and the execution of design in these games – we feel – was extraordinary. We felt strongly that children and adults today should get that same feeling again. Remember the first time you played Zelda or Metroid when you were a child? We hope that years from now people will also remember the first time they got to play Ori and the Blind Forest.

About that Nintendo Feel

Ori and the Blind Forest before the flood

Freeing that glowing orb unleashes a flood that the player must use precision and timing to escape

As I played Ori and the Blind Forest I came across a few points that caused me quite a bit of frustration. At the end of each temple, there’s a sequence where the player must escape imminent danger by using all of Ori’s current powers. One time Ori must escape rising flood waters, another time it’s cascading lava. In one instance, Ori is attacked by a large bird known as Kuro (who could be considered the antagonist, but I’d argue not – more on that later). Each of these escapes requires excellent timing and precision from the player – a short jump or extra pause and Ori is swallowed by death.

I can’t tell you how many times I was forced to play those particular scenes over again because of a slight misstep or miscalculation. Each time, they became a frustrating endeavor which provoked lots of swearing and declarations that the game was somehow unfair. My wife has seen me play more than her fair share of games, and as a gamer herself we have agreed on many occasions that “there is no frustration like video game frustration.” But even she was shocked at how frustrated these sequences made me (or maybe it was the colorful strings of swear words that shocked her); smartly she waited until I took a break from the game to inquire about what was so frustrating, which is when I said “you know that saying ‘Nintendo hard?’ This game has moments almost like that.”

For those of you who may have missed the “Nintendo hard” gaming era, think of games designed to eat your quarters that had limited or no save functionality due to severe hardware limitations – those were Nintendo games, and a lot of them were brutally hard because of it. Of course Ori and the Blind Forest isn’t “Nintendo hard” – there are saves after all (though no checkpoints within these frustrating escapes) and no limit to your number of lives or punishment for dying other than restarting at the last save point. But what I realized in talking to my wife is that most studios don’t make games like this anymore – gamers today (myself included) have come to expect checkpoints mixed into difficult situations and therefore have become accustomed to being able to forget previous segments to focus on the one immediately ahead.

A quick look at New Super Mario Bros. U confirms that challenge isn’t en vogue these days and only a few games are carrying that torch forward (here’s looking at you Super Meat Boy). But does that mean the approach employed by Moon Studios is flawed? Absolutely not. Eventually, I overcame the challenges and managed to escape the impending danger, and I was a better player for it. Not to mention, the satisfaction of beating those segments isn’t something I’ve experienced in a while, and it was deeply satisfying. Moon Studios managed to invoke the feeling and sensations I had when playing those old Nintendo games, which is quite a feat.

A Story-Driven Approach with few Words

Ori and the Blind Forest Naru

Without a word spoken between them, it’s clear how much Ori and Naru love eachother

We’ve written quite a bit on Theory of Gaming about the value of story in video games. I pleaded with Bethesda to incorporate more story into their games. We’ve covered the majority of Telltale’s games which rely on story instead of game play or heavy action. We’ve examined the value of textural stories and the value of voice actors in telling a compelling story. But Moon Studios took a completely different patch with Ori and the Blind Forest. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the Nintendo titles which inspired the game: Ori is a silent hero in much the same way the Link or Mario are. The story is narrated by Nibel, the Spirit Tree, but only at the most important junctures, such as when Ori listens to the stories of the old forest spirits. While these moments reveal the key plot points in Ori’s journey, much of the remaining story is told without words.

Naru, the creature who takes Ori in and cares for him in the beginning, is a largely featureless creature with a round moon face. Yet, Naru’s feelings and emotions are clearly expressed to the player through her actions – the way that she lifts Ori in the air to more easily gather fruit, the way that she shelters Ori to the best of her ability from the event that destroys the forest, and most importantly how she embraces Ori when they’re reunited.

Naru isn’t alone in this regard though. There are very few non-enemy characters in the game. Other than Nibel, who is a large tree, they’re limited to Ori, Naru, Sein, Gumo (the lone survivor of a spider-like race) and Kuro (the large black bird). The only character other than Nibel to speak is Sein, Ori’s guide, and her dialogue is limited to simple timely tips like “this rock seems unstable” or a brief summary of the old forest spirits’ abilities. But just like Naru’s expressions convey her emotions, so to do the other characters’. Gumo, who was fueled by hate following the destruction of his race, overhears Sein’s explanation to Ori on how he can revive the world through and is so moved, that he takes a powerful light and revives Naru who perished when the world was destroyed. Similarly, Kuro, who prompted the cataclysmic event that killed the forest (a light emanated by Nibel to try and find Ori killed Koru’s babies) finally understands that without the forest, her last unborn baby has no chance at survival and helps Ori restore the Nibel’s power, an act that costs her her life.

Though there is very little dialogue in the game, and very few characters, the actions of those characters are what tell the tale, and they do so in a meaningful way – a truly impressive feat.

A Memorable Experience

On their website for Ori and the Blind Forest, Moon Studios wrote:

“Remember the first time you played Zelda or Metroid when you were a child? We hope that years from now people will also remember the first time they got to play Ori and the Blind Forest.”

I can definitely say that I’ll remember the first time I played Ori and the Blind Forest, just like the first times I played a Zelda or Metroid game; it was that memorable of an experience. It struck all of the right chords for me, and I imagine that it will for many other players as well. But more than creating a great experience for players, Moon Studios has created lasting lessons for developers. Ori and the Blind Forest shows:

  1. Just because the gaming industry has trended away from it, there’s still room for a Nintendo-style experience in modern video games
  2. Video games can be focused on story without being overly reliant on characters and dialogue
  3. Zelda could have been a damn fine platformer