Ori And The Will Of The Wisps preview and interview – so good you could cry
The long-awaited sequel to Ori And The Blind Forest is finally almost finished and GameCentral has spoken to both the composer and producer.
With the release of Halo Infinite this Christmas, and rumours of a new Fable sometime after, Microsoft are poised to try and breathe new life into series which currently sit at a low ebb. But while many older franchises may have struggled this generation there have been important successes introducing new ones, most obviously with Ori And The Blind Forest.
At first, Ori looked to be just another in an endless line of indie Metroidvania games. But Xbox boss Phil Spencer took a personal interest in the game and Microsoft ended up buying the franchise and promoting the game as a major exclusive. And with good reason. Ori is not only one of the best Metroidvania games of the generation but it featured some of the best visual storytelling too, tugging on heartstrings with such force that it takes a hard-hearted soul to make it through the whole game without blubbing.
Having played the opening two or three hours of sequel Ori And The Will Of The Wisps it’s clear that developer Moon Studios is hoping to repeat that trick, although the new game doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the original. All you need to know is that you play as Ori, a small ferret-like critter and guardian spirt of the forest, whose best friend is a newly-hatched owl named Ku. The intro showcases the fairy tale like world the two inhabit, illustrating Ku’s struggles to achieve his first flight and the disaster that occurs when Ori goes along for the ride.
There’s a real ‘80s children’s movie vibe to Will Of The Wisps, as Ori finds himself in a highly dangerous wilderness where almost everything seems to be out to kill him and he’s forced to battle creatures many times his size. By default Ori has no means of defence beyond a prodigious leap, but in true Metroidvania style he collects a steady stream of upgrades that help with either combat or traversal and often enable you to reach areas that were previously inaccessible (requiring at least some back-tracking, although we didn’t get far enough to see if there’s any fast travel).
All of that is as you’d expect of any Metroidvania, although Will Of The Wisp is clearly a step above in terms of both its level design and the visuals and audio. We had a lengthy chat with senior producer Daniel Smith on the day, but we also had a phone chat with composer Gareth Coker, a Brit based in the US. He was also the composer on the first game, which picked up several awards for its score, at everything from the Golden Joysticks to the industry-voted DICE Awards.
‘One of the cool things about Moon Studios is they do like to have the composer on early, not just for scenes like the intro but also for the gameplay’, he told us when we asked about how he went about scoring the lengthy, but mostly gameplay-free, intro sequence.
‘We did a similar kind of thing with the opening of Ori And The Blind Forest, but doing it at the beginning allows us to set up the characters and set up the story. You could not put a sequence like that in the middle of the game, especially in a game which is generally fast flowing and is emphasising freedom of movement.
‘So we take the time at the beginning to build up the relationship between Ori and Ku. And putting together something like that, it has to feel pretty much like one continuous piece of music. But as you can imagine, with there being interactive elements coming in and out, you’ve got to take into account that stubborn player who is going to sit and look at the amazing art for three minutes straight. It’s kind of like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle, except you’re also creating the pieces.
‘But one of the things I do like about Moon is that every department is constantly talking to each other. So if I need more time to help sell a musical moment, I can ask for it. It’s not just the music and not just the art and not just the gameplay. It’s about how all the elements combine together. You cannot get that right if all the departments are not talking to each other. And that’s where the real benefit from coming in early helps, because I’m part of this prologue sequence from the planning stage rather than what a traditional composer might do, where it’d be like… well, here’s the footage – go figure it out.’
The Will Of The Wisps is over three times larger than the first game, which is obviously not something we got to test in our relatively short play test but considering the original took a good eight hours to beat that suggests a game of considerable length, despite still being priced at a modest £25 (and, of course, being free via Game Pass). But while Moon Studios are technically an indie studio Ori feels in every way like a triple-A production.
Beyond just being a Metroidvania, Smith is happy to reel off a number of other more specific influences – including an increased debt to Zelda in the sequel – but it’s the similarity of the game’s chase sequences to Rayman Origins and Legend’s musically-themed stages that interests us the most, and we bring it up with Coker as well.
‘It’s funny you mention that cause ’cause I do look at those chase sequences and I’m like, ‘Yeah those are really cool but they wouldn’t really fit. The thing about Rayman is it’s a very gamey game. Whereas Ori isn’t really about that. We’re all about emotion and keeping the player involved.
‘For example, I get a request to make a jingle sound, for when you get a pick-up, and they want this really over-the-top da-da-da-da. And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not doing that, because that’s not what this game is about. Zelda and all of those kinds of games, they can do that, but that’s not really the vibe we’re going for.
‘That’s not to say we don’t have music that’s appropriate for the chases, but the music in the chases, and actually the boss fights, is more reflective of what Ori’s emotional state is at that point. And bearing in mind the Ori in this game is grown up. He’s already experienced the chases in the first game and my approach for this is he’s thinking, ‘Oh, I’m doing this again’. Whereas in the first game it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is terrifying!’
‘Now the boss fights, that is the first time that Ori has experienced that, so we get to really dial up his emotional state. So the music is designed to reflect his emotions throughout the game. I like to take a point of view with my soundtracks. It’s very easy to do that in this one, ’cause you’re only playing as one character. But that’s generally my approach.
‘You select the levels in Rayman but there aren’t any levels in Ori. And that’s by design, because we don’t want to ever break the player’s immersion. It should all feel continuous. If you play the game from start to finish, it really should feel like this one giant long ballet symphony, Wagner Ring Cycle, whatever you want to call it…
‘But it should feel like a continuous thing rather than here is level one, here is level two… And I think that’s actually what differentiates Ori from a lot of the other similar platformers in this style. The only other game that does it really in this style, but doesn’t really have a score, is Inside and Limbo. There is a continuous story which never breaks immersion, but they’re using sound and music in a completely different way to what we’re doing. We’re doing it in a more Disney-esque way, but not breaking the immersion.’
The Metroidvania genre is not one known for great evolutionary leaps, but as we discussed with Smith, there are important differences between Will Of The Wisps and its predecessor. For a start, the soul link save system has been completely removed, replaced simply with auto-saves. That may worry some that the game, and in particular its difficulty, has been dumbed down but we saw no evidence of that in anything we played, in terms of the combat, puzzles, or platforming.
There’s also a stronger role-playing game element, with more characters and side quests, as well as more customisable powers. As well as major new abilities you’re also constantly picking up ‘spirit shards’ which offer smaller but still useful abilities, from being able to stick to walls or draw collectibles towards you, to increasing both the damage you deal out and take from enemies. You can only have a small number of them active at any one time though, which creates important decisions in terms of the build of your character and what that implies about the difficulty of the game as a whole.
Everything we saw and played of the game suggests that Ori And The Will Of The Wisps will be just as accomplished, and successful, as its predecessor. It’s not the sort of game you’d normally think of as an Xbox exclusive but that’s almost part of the appeal. As such, it’s a vitally important game for Microsoft, in proving the variety and diversity of their exclusives, but the most important factor is simply that it looks to be one of the best Metroidvania games of the current generation.
Formats: PC (previewed) and Xbox One
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Moon Studios
Release Date: 11th March 2020
DS: So you’ve had some time to play it. What do you think?
GC: It was good. I liked how tactile it all felt, after playing a spate of games recently with rather spongy controls it felt great to play something this precise.
DS: That’s good to hear. I think that Moon Studios has a very unique philosophy in how they create new content for Ori. It’s always been, aesthetically, very pretty but actually, when we go about creating new content, it all begins with the accuracy of the controls; how good it feels and how fun the content is. And we always start with this very ugly, blue block-out levels, and it starts there. And it’s only when the puzzles feel fun and engaging, and the content feels good, and the controls feel good that artists come in and start layering in the background, foreground, and set dressing and everything else like that. And hopefully it comes across like the game is as fun as it is beautiful.
GC: Moon are one in a literal sense, but do you consider them an indie developer?
DS: Yes and no. The big thing about Moon is that Blind Forest, with contractors, took about 20 people. Now Moon Studios is about up to 80. So 80 people… it’s not really independent anymore. But… Moon has maintained its very unique environment in that it’s still a globally distributed studio. So even with 80 people, everybody is working from their own home, spread throughout the world. And we just use virtual tools to compile things together to communicate and have meetings.
And there’s some huge benefits with that. Blind Forest, when it was released, it attracted a lot of attention from some very talented people in the industry. And since then, Moon has been able to very organically grow and add some of those people simply by saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to uproot your family. You can stay where you are in your own environment and work out of your own home office, work in your pyjamas.’
I think there’s just a lot of benefit there. From a publishing perspective, I think it’s great. There’s always somebody awake. There’s always someone up working. So if you need something, there’s always someone available.
GC: I would find it very hard to believe that when Microsoft were out buying up developers last year they didn’t approach Moon. Because Ori is one of their biggest exclusives now…
DS: Yeah. I mean, Microsoft does own the Ori IP. In terms of the trend of Microsoft sort of scooping up a lot of studios and making these purchases… I can’t necessarily comment on that. But all I can say is that it is a long-standing partnership. Moon has been in the Microsoft family for eight years and, really, it’s grown and developed over time. I think we learn a lot from each other.
And one of my favourite things about working with Moon is just how receptive they are to feedback. Every piece of feedback matters. Every build I play, I’m actually doing video recordings of myself playing while I’m doing voiceover. And it’s all the way down to like, ‘Hey, this particular jump is just a couple of pixels too hard or this shard feels slightly imbalanced for this reason and that reason. And it’s all very receptive and very collaborative.
GC: Whose idea was the Switch version, because that did seem to come out of nowhere? Microsoft have always got on well with Nintendo, but it still seemed odd.
DS: To be truthful, I can’t really remember. It was more of, I think, a mutual, ‘Let’s do this!’ kind of thing. Microsoft had had a previous title, which was Minecraft, on the Switch and there was interest in a growing partnership with Nintendo. And so the opportunity came up and we struck and it worked out. And I think one of the best parts of releasing Blind Forest on Switch is that platforms can sometimes be a barrier.
Like for a power gamer, you or I, we might own every single piece of hardware there is. And so it doesn’t really make a difference if a game is an exclusive. But many gamers have only one piece of hardware. And so I think in Blind Forest releasing on Switch, we sort of broadened our family a little bit and probably welcomed a lot of that crowd of gamer, and I’m proud of the fact that we were able to really nail our performance. It’s 60 frames per second everywhere. And so just broadening the family of gamers has been really positive.
GC: So is Will Of The Wisps coming to Switch as well?
DS: That’s kind of no comment in that regards. We haven’t officially announced anything.
GC: But you wouldn’t rule it out at this point?
DS: All of us are very big Switch fans, that’s all I can really say. I’ve got mine in my hotel room now and was playing Witcher last night…
GC: I always ask this of anyone making a Metroidvania but why do you think they’re so common as indie games but almost unknown in terms of mainstream releases?
DS: That’s a good question. When Blind Forest launched, I feel like the timing was right. We were just at the cusp of a resurgence of Metroidvania games. Our formula with Blind Forest was to go out and pay tribute, actually, to a lot of our favourite games of our childhood, that were Metroidvania titles. And since then I think there’s been a boom and I think all of us are really big fans of all the great things that have come out recently: Hollow Knight and Dead Cells and Celeste and Bloodstained… there’s so many great games. I really hope that Will Of The Wisps is a proud contribution to that genre, because I want to see that genre elevated.
And as you say, there’s something about it that gets people excited, but what is it? And I think it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly but for me the two-dimensional open world exploration, it’s kind of a broad palette in terms of, visually, how you want to create your space. But there’s also something to be said in terms of how certain pieces of content are gated without necessarily strong explanation. And then when you find the right ability, it clicks in your head – ‘That one place that’s far away I can get to now!’
And so it just has this magical Eureka moment to it. But, again, it’s a broad palette. And our approach with Ori has always been, let’s include the best gameplay we can and the best music we can and the best visuals; I think what makes Ori unique in this space is that we also try to create moments that really resonate with people emotionally. And so I’m quite proud of the fact that in Blind Forest people really identified with the characters of the game and really shared a lot of their personal stories.
We saw many YouTubers cry, both, I guess, in sadness and in joy! And I think people will have to break out their tissues again for Will Of The Wisps. We’re gonna take people on an emotional journey once again. And the game now is three times the size and scope and scale of Blind Forest. So I think it’ll be a longer experience. We’re also… when a lot of people would finish Blind Forest, they loved it, but there was not a lot of draw to go back in and play more.
This time around we have a couple of new modes, that really celebrate player retention and reasons for people to come back into the forest. And so we introduced spirit trials, so if you find a starting marker and an ending marker, you’ve more or less unlocked a spirit trial race. This mode was deeply inspired by Trials Evolution and Super Meat Boy and it’s an asynchronous multiplayer mode. So as you race, you’ll see other Ori racing along with you; It’s sort of these iridescent Ori. And after you place a time, if you try again, it’s going to always put a bracket of ghosts for you to race against that are just a little better than you are. So you’ll always have a challenge in front of you.
And then the new mode that we’re talking about during this press tour is called spirit shrines. So if you find a spirit shrine and you enable it, you’ll be faced with waves of enemies that become increasingly difficult. And if you defeat the last wave, you’ll be given these really powerful rewards. And so we think some of those modes will be a great addition to the Ori universe and will keep people coming back for more.
GC: Another game I always assumed was an influence was Rayman Origins and Legends, the chase sequences in particular.
DS: Yeah. We’re all huge fans of the Rayman franchise. Both in terms of the gameplay and visual aesthetic. Moon has picked up some talent that worked on the Rayman franchise.
DS: So yes, you may be feeling some of some of that influence. And I think a lot of people love the escape sequences in Blind Forest. So those are back in a very big way. And I think having some of the talent pool from Rayman has really made strong contributions to make some of our escape sequences just even better than they were in Blind Forest.
Not only that, but there’s now the addition of large boss fights. A lot of these large boss fights have multiple phases and some of those phases even incorporate an escape. So you’re finding the boss, you’ve gotten them down to a point, all of a sudden run for your life and they’re just crashing and smashing after you!
GC: I think the only general criticism of the first game is that it didn’t really do anything particularly new in terms of the Metroidvania genre, at least in gameplay terms. But that’s a criticism you could level at most Metroidvanias, it’s not a genre that’s ever evolved drastically from its origins. Did you struggle with that as an issue at all?
DS: I think overall our formula in Blind Forest was: ‘Let’s create the best design and gameplay experience we can, the best visuals, the best music. So we’re trying to really carry that formula forward, but just elevate it. Like, let’s really improve upon all of the best aspects of Blind Forest. I think one of the things that really improves upon our original formula is that Blind Forest, although being an open world, was more or less linear; you always had one quest in front of you to do.
This time we’re really incorporating many more RPG elements, not just in terms of character progression, because that is very unique, but equipping these different shards and especially your combat – it’s very fresh to this IP. But even then we’ve got an all-new quest system in the map…
GC: I saw a bit of that, it almost seemed to be a Zelda style trade quest.
DS: Yes! There’s a heavy influence from Zelda this time around. And so not only are the golden path quests a little bit more non-linear, you can choose to go get one particular wisp instead of another. Now there’s optional quests and we’ve tried to put a lot of personality into the optional quests. We’ve greatly expanded the cast of characters and so a lot of even the optional quests have emotional weight to them.
And I feel like that quality, that emotional quality, is really how Ori is trying to really celebrate the Metroidvania genre and push it further, to really be differentiated. Before Blind Forest, I wasn’t aware of many other Metroidvanias that made people cry…
GC: You didn’t play some of the bad ones.
GC: And just finally, it seems the soul link system isn’t in the game at all now?
DS: Soul link, which was the old save system that you’re aware of, was tied to the ‘B’ button. You had to manually say, ‘Hmm, I want to save here’ and spend energy. And we did celebrate soul link by having certain skills in the skill tree tagged to soul-linking and giving you a little bit of health, things like that.
I think, for all the people that really loved soul link we did receive comments that there was some level of frustration there as well. Both experienced and new players found themselves dying and thinking, ‘Oh, I soul-linked half an hour ago!’ And so you got frustrated. We’ve really more or less completely eliminated that frustration by auto-checkpointing absolutely everywhere.
GC: I’m 50/50 on soul link, but the first game was quite hard and it seemed to me that probably the reason you felt confident in making it that way is because you knew that you had soul link to fall back on. But if you’ve removed it do you lose that confidence and end up with a game that’s maybe a bit easier, overall?
DS: Not necessarily. We took on the huge challenge of making the game both challenging and forgiving. And that really means that now we auto-checkpoint everywhere that also means that we’re giving people the option to pick a level of difficulty – easy, normal, hard – and then also the shard system greatly plays into the customisation offering to players: ‘Do you want a challenging experience or do you want a more forgiving experience?’ You can equip yourself with shards that give you much more offensive capability, but you take more damage, for example.
GC: But in terms of things like pixel perfect jumps, you haven’t been more cautious because you haven’t got soul link?
DS: Again, there’s shards and other mechanics and abilities that actually put these options in the player’s hands. One of the first shards you might’ve picked up is called Sticky. And if you mess around with that, like there are people who loved Ori but felt like some of the traversal and platforming was really challenging for them. This Sticky shard allows Ori to just jump and Velcro himself to walls and give players a breath, a moment.
For other players who are experienced platformers and liked the whole, ‘I want to hit a wall and slide because then I want to go that way more quickly’. You can disable those things. So with Blind Forest we were more or less kind of dictating the experience that we wanted people to have, this time around, with all the customised options and difficulty and everything, we really want to put that more into the players’ hands. You decide how difficult you want the game to be, you decide the experience you want to have.
GC: Okay, that’s great.
DS: Awesome, yeah thanks very much.
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