“Ori and the Blind Forest” is an action game that feels like a tear-jerker. While it uses old video game conventions – run, jump, fire at things – its main character is an orphan whose adventures in a dying forest are backlighted by spare piano notes and a weepy violin.
Even when punishing the player – and make no mistake, “Ori and the Blind Forest” is not an easy game – it does so with a gentle melancholy. It’s a dynamic that renders this indie title by Moon Studios a reflex test with an emotional core.
The above is set in a world that’s so appealing, getting lost in it doesn’t seem all that bad of an outcome. The universe here appears lighted by glow sticks, its deep lush vistas shimmering in magical shades of purple, green and orange. Its forest looks like a coral reef, but sounds like chamber hall.
The developers of “Ori and the Blind forest,” out today (March 11) for Xbox One and PC (it’ll be released later for Xbox 360), haven’t been shy about the game’s influence. Nintendo classic “Metroid” is where this all started, as Ori’s forest is one that will need to be traversed multiple times as new abilities are mastered. Something’s lurking in that pond or sitting atop that cliff – you’ll see it glowing – but it takes time for Ori to learn to swim or jump great heights.
Though an old Nintendo game is cited as inspiration, it’s important to note that this game doesn’t feel retro. It’s not just the next-gen graphics and mournful orchestrations by Gareth Coker – “Ori and the Blind Forest” is the first great game of 2015 – it’s the thoughtful ambiance that feels of-the-moment.
Let’s talk about Ori. He’s a forest spirit; a tiny white sprite that looks sort of like a crystal rabbit, albeit with crazier hair. Ori appears weightless and fragile. Often, Ori jumped, and I ran him right into a pit of reddish spikes. He yelps before he dies, and then makes a sound akin to glass shattering when he finally succumbs.
At every instance, Ori feels otherworldly.
He also has a back story. In the tradition of the best Disney films, Ori lost a parent. An extended opening sequence – one of the few moments of the game not controlled by the player – shows how Ori was cast away from home at a young age. He was raised by a heavyset gorilla-like creature named Naru, whose round oval body and vague resemblance to forest critters makes her look lifted straight from a Hayao Miyazaki film.
When Naru dies, Ori must learn to fend for himself. Ori soon discovers his home forest is being ravaged, overcome with gelatinous, spiked creatures and purple-flame-shooting spiders. The light, the greenery and the water is disappearing, but indie developer Moon Studios hasn’t created a dire-looking universe. Even the brittle branches are exquisite, intertwined with markings or sprouting neon mushrooms.
Though drying, it’s a luminous world, creating the sensation that just the right amount of bibbiting, bobbiting and booing will spring it back to life. Only it’s never as easy as waving a wand. One scene, which requires Ori to jolt upward from light to light or drown, is harrowing. It’s a race against fast-rising water, and as Ori glides through the air it’s a challenge not to be distracted by the sparkling world around him.
At any moment in “Ori and the Blind Forest” there’s an entire canvas waiting to be explored. To the left is a glowing blue passageway. Where does it go? Jump in. To the right is a radiant green, life-replenishing plant. Up above is a slinky lavender salamander-like enemy. Down below is a giant spiderweb. Maybe there’s a way to drop that on the cavernous-blanketing thorns for safe passage?
The soundtrack is full of wistful strings and sparse orchestration, adding a sense of seriousness to Ori’s quest without so much as a word being spoken.
This mix, a downtrodden tone with a likable little character who performs flights of fancy, all sounds simple enough, but it’s a clever trick. When a frightful violin accompanies Ori jumping off the walls of a cliff, dodging pulsating slimy monsters and spinning his way out of a forest mist, the quest appears important. It’s not that an enemy was averted; it’s that a young orphan grew up.
Ori himself is a joy to watch. Walk him to the edge of cliff, and he waves his little arms wildly. Instruct him to jump, and he just rewards you with a triple back-flip off the wall. With the help of a glowing sentient orb named Sein (it’ll make sense in the game), Ori can shoot energy-like bolts at those who stand in his path, each enemy a brightly colored dare to come closer and see how it reacts.
Ori, unfortunately, will die a lot. In seven hours with the game, I have killed Ori just under 600 times, and I still have a ways to go. That’s OK, “Ori and the Blind Forest” is the rare game that I don’t want to end – it’s enough simply to bask in its mood. Blessedly, the game allows you to save it almost anywhere, so those who fail at coordination (hand raised) are never too far behind. And I can’t wait to see what Ori will conquer next.
RECENT AND RELATED