Ori and the Will of the Wisps feels familiar, but finds the extraordinary in the ordinary

My first hour or so with Ori and the Will of the Wisps felt familiar. Too much so, if we’re honest. Ori and the Blind Forest released in 2015, on the leading edge of the “It’s Metroid, but—“ trend. There were a few harbingers of the flood to come, in Guacamelee and Axiom Verge and Dust: An Elysian Tail. But Ori and the Blind Forest entered a scene that was relatively empty.

Will of the Wisps, not so much. And as I dutifully gathered my double-jump and my air dash, flitting through a lush forest scene in the same old ways, I felt worried—or rather, wearied. Developers don’t need to reinvent the wheel with every game, but the Metroid tires are looking pretty worn after the last few years.

Then I saw the bear, and my concerns vanished.

A long winter’s nap

The bear was sleeping—or rather, hibernating. I was on my way to The Wellspring when I came to the classic fork-in-the-road situation. To my left, a grim swamp full of murky water and spikes. To the right, the road to Baur’s Reach, covered in snow.

It was a cozy snow though, like you’d see on a warmer-than-usual day in February. Cold, but juuuuust on the verge of melting, a sign of an early spring. Faced with the nightmare marsh or this late-winter wonderland, I chose the latter. Up and up I climbed, Ori kicking up plumes of snow with each hop, and on into a cave.

That’s where I met the bear, his head filling the entire cave from floor to ceiling. And his head was pretty much all I could see. The bulk of the bear stretched off-screen, too large to comprehend. Beyond him? I can’t say. I didn’t get past him during the demo.

Still, it’s all I can think about, that first encounter with the bear. If I’m excited for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, it’s because developer Moon Studios has a knack for finding the magical in otherwise routine aspects of the so-called Metroidvania school of design. Because what is the bear? A gate. A door. An obstacle you encounter a million times in every game of this genre. You know the routine: Find the door, then find the tool that lets you open it and progress.

But Moon Studios consistently reimagines these ordinary hurdles as extraordinary. They have a flair for the cinematic that many either don’t possess or at the very least can’t pull off with limited resources.

Granted, Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes time to get to that point. A little too much time, I think. The first hour or so sets up the story of the sequel. Having vanquished Kuro, the giant owl from Blind Forest, Ori has befriended Kuro’s hatchling. This hatchling owl has a weakened wing and struggles to fly, but a storm whisks both fledgling owl and Ori off to a new forest, Niwen, menaced by another oversized bird. I only saw her once from afar, as she flew overhead, but I gather from the name “Shriek” that she’s probably a screech owl.

In any case, Niwen is gorgeous but lacks the immediate punch of the E3 demo we saw in 2018. There, the red desert sands of the Windswept Wastes held a unique appeal—both in the context of Ori and in general. It was desolate but stunning, a mysterious new landscape full of crumbling ruins for Ori to explore.

I have no idea how late in the game those Windswept Wastes were, but the opening of Will of the Wisps is less mysterious, more Metroid-as-usual. It’s…a forest. Not a blind forest, apparently, but still not the most inspiring place to start this new adventure. And it’s made worse because Ori and the Will of the Wisps is content to retread so much familiar territory. You get the double jump, as I said. You get the air dash. And Ori’s combat is still pretty finicky in those early hours, mostly requiring you spam the attack button faster than the enemy can react, occasionally jumping out of the way of a charging beetle.

Even the parts that are new to Ori feel borrowed. Will of the Wisps leans heavily into customization with a “Spirit Shards” system. You unlock new modifiers as you go, and can slot in three at a time to create unique builds. Most have an upside and a downside, i.e. “Increase damage dealt and taken by 15%” or “Swap maximum Life and Energy.”

Spirit Shards should give Ori some additional depth, and I can already see the potential upside to the speedrunning community, allowing people to shave seconds off runs with risky builds, exchanging safety for utility.

You can see the genesis of Spirit Shards in Hollow Knight’s Charms though. That’s not necessarily a knock against Ori. It’s a smart system to borrow. And yet…familiar.

If those early hours have a saving grace, it’s that Moon Studios at least rushes through the first few unlocks. You know how to double-jump? Of course you know how to double-jump. Will of the Wisps gets you its most basic upgrades in the first 30 or 40 minutes. Still too long for what’s essentially a disguised tutorial, but it’s accelerated compared to Blind Forest.

And when it does finally turn you loose, it’s worth it. You meet the bear, and a bunch of other characters besides. When I demoed Will of the Wisps at E3 2018 I wrote that “Ori and the Blind Forest didn’t go into great detail about its lore, didn’t have pages and pages of dialogue to read.” Not so, here! Will of the Wisps leans into its story.

There’s a giant moss-covered toad, Kwolok the Guardian of the Marsh, who asks you to please restart a watermill and let the cleansing river flow again. There’s Grom, an ape-like “Gorlek,” who works the ancient forge that helps upgrade your home base in the Glades. There’s a traveling heron, Tokk, who wanders Niwen on a parallel path to your own.

Wherever you go, you meet characters who hint at a world-in-transition, a changing of the guard that centers on your actions. And they do so at length. This change from implied story to explicit story also feels reminiscent of Hollow Knight—a comparison I’m loath to make too often, but there are certainly aspects of Will of the Wisps that feel bolstered by Team Cherry’s success. Or perhaps it’s simply to be expected of a sequel with a larger budget and a more confident team.

Regardless, Will of the Wisps is much livelier than Blind Forest. I miss the wordless pantomiming of the original, which pretty much disappears after the introduction. Charades can only convey so much though, and there’s definitely more personality to Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and more potential for storytelling as a result.

“The thing we’re most proud of is all the community stories that came out of Blind Forest. We had a lot of people directly identify with the characters and then tell their own stories about maybe a lost loved one in their own life, and that was beautiful and touching. That’s what I really hope we capture again with Will of the Wisps,” said Daniel Smith, Senior Producer on the game.

Hard to argue with that sentiment.

Bottom line

We’ll know soon whether the wait’s been worth it. Ori and the Will of the Wisps releases at long last on March 11, 2020, three years after its unveiling and five after Blind Forest. I worry the sequel can’t possibly feel as refreshing and capital-i Important—but then I remember the bear, its bulk shoved into that tiny cave opening, and I’m hopeful again.

Familiar forms aren’t necessarily a problem so long as there’s enough creativity elsewhere to prop them up, and even in this crowded space Ori still has the benefit of a certain je ne sais quoi, a magic that’s more than the sum of its hand-painted art and stirring soundtrack.

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