Ori And The Will Of The Wisps Review

 

Love, Sweat, And Tears

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once famously opined that video games couldn't be art. Ebert later backtracked on this statement to a certain degree, but the cat had truly been set among the pigeons. Of course, it's an idiotic and redundant question; as a storytelling medium, video games absolutely can be (and usually are) artistic in nature. 2015's Ori and the Blind Forest is often cited as an example of this in practice. It's not perfect, but its visual style and cinematic approach to storytelling gives it some artistic integrity. Unlike some of its contemporaries, it didn't use mechanics and narrative in tandem often, but its presentation was impressive. When sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps was announced, the notion of a better version of Blind Forest was compelling indeed.
Your mileage will vary on whether or not this is disappointing, but Will of the Wisps is, broadly speaking, more of the same. That's not to say no improvements or changes have been made at all. Many of Blind Forest's more irritating or cumbersome systems have been overhauled. If you're looking for a huge leap in terms of tone or style, though, you won't find it here. This is very much a continuation of what Moon Studios was trying to accomplish with Blind Forest. That said, there are plenty of reasons to dig in if you never played the first game or if you're a Metroidvania lover in general.

Ori and the Beautiful Visuals

Ori comforts Ku in Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Will of the Wisps has a very effective opening scene.
Much like Blind ForestWill of the Wisps is a breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly adorable game. The opening sequence sees Ori and their family taking care of an owl child. It's not quite Pixar's Up, but this ten-minute sequence - which involves said owl child attempting to fly - is more emotionally involving than the entirety of many games can claim to be. Of course, it's not long until Ori gets separated from the family and must find a way back to them. So begins a second-verse-same-as-the-first odyssey through lots of scary forests and dark glades.
The architecture is a little different this time around. There are shades of Trine in the massive grinding gears and wooden machinery of the Wellspring, for example. Largely speaking, though, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is business as usual when it comes to level design. From an aesthetic perspective, the adherence to formula is a little disappointing. It would have been nice for Will of the Wisps to push the boat out a little more here. When games like Hollow Knight are bringing imaginative, creative level design ideas to the Metroidvania genre, Will of the Wisps' insistence on forest landscape after forest landscape does feel a touch regressive.
Will of the Wisps does have some well-crafted animation, but it's not quite enough to save Ori's latest adventure from repetition. After a while, the endless bloom lighting-inflected landscapes begin to get tiresome. This isn't helped by a self-serious tone that far too often sacrifices emotional nuance for big "wham" moments. Duality is important when trying to elicit an emotional response. Will of the Wisps never allows itself real moments of humor or brevity, so the lower and sadder moments don't land as hard. The constant emotive barrage - not helped by the constant winsome piano music - is more exhausting than affecting after a while.

Ori and the Much-Improved Combat

Ori battles an enemy in Ori and the Will of the WIsps
Combat in Ori and the Will of the Wisps feels much better than its predecessor.
It's a shame because there's no doubt Will of the Wisps has made some key gameplay improvements. The platforming is sharper than before and Ori has a host of new tools to get around. However, the most obvious area of improvement is the combat. Blind Forest's combat was a frustrating mess that got in the way of its smooth platforming, but Will of the Wisps offers much more in this area, perhaps to a fault. Instead of the indistinct sphere weapon from the first title, you've now got a sword that moves much more smoothly and offers more options in combat.

Fighting enemies this time around feels much better. There's an improved sense of weight and feedback to Ori's swings so you can feel how much damage you're doing. Enemies have predictable moves that take skill to dodge, although there is an over-reliance on tired tropes. When the beetle enemy appeared and I leaped over it, forcing it to charge into a wall and stun itself, my heart sank. There's also an over-reliance on bloom lighting, even on enemy models, that makes movements indistinct. Combat itself feels a whole lot better, but there's still a ways to go when it comes to enemy design. Far too often, Will of the Wisps simply presents corrupted animals as enemies and fails to do anything interesting or exciting with them.
There are a whole host of skills and upgrades you can get to make your journey through Niwen easier. Sadly, they're mostly useless. I managed to get through the vast majority of Will of the Wisps using only the skills necessary for traversal and unlocking new areas. Will of the Wisps feels overloaded, perhaps to compensate for Blind Forest's lack of combat options. If you'll forgive the pun, it feels like Moon Studios has missed the forest for the trees. Combat is absolutely not Will of the Wisps' strong suit, so adding so many options feels unnecessary and adds too much bloat.

Ori and the Thrilling Platforming

Ori grapples to a hook in Ori and the Will of the Wisps
It's hard to convey in still images how wonderful Ori and the Will of the Wisps' platforming feels.
Thankfully, the one thing Will of the Wisps needed to get right - to wit, the platforming - feels incredible. All the best platformers gently drip-feed concepts and skills to you as you play, and Will of the Wisps is no exception. As in Blind Forest, there are lengthy sequences of jumps, grapples, bounces, and other moves that feel just as satisfying to execute as they are to watch. The chase sequences from Blind Forest make a return, and with new movement mechanics including dashing through sand, they were still the highlight of my time with Will of the Wisps.
It's a shame that the landscapes are so repetitive and uninspired because moving through them is an absolute delight. When I got into a flow with Will of the Wisps, it felt like Ori was an extension of my hands and my brain. Watching the adorable little sprite cavort through platforming challenge after platforming challenge never gets old. This is helped to no end by the addition of Spirit Trials, time attack shrines that challenge you to get through a certain area as fast as possible. The only reward they offer is in-game currency, which is a shame because it's mostly useless, but they're great fun to execute in and of themselves.
Unfortunately, there's a clunkiness to Will of the Wisps' progression that undermines its satisfying core loop. You'll get new skills simply by examining glowing trees, and no attempt is made to explain why those trees give those particular skills. Occasionally, you'll need to collect keystone components. Collecting them is enjoyable because it facilitates more core gameplay. Still, it's just a key-hunting puzzle for doors that often feel like they shouldn't be in landscapes this organic. Will of the Wisps isn't interested in melding its mechanics with its story. It's a platformer that also happens to have a narrative, and never the twain shall meet.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps Review | Final Thoughts

Ori's family comfort one another in Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Despite meaning well, Ori and the Will of the Wisps can feel a little pretentious.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a worthy sequel to Blind Forest. It expands the scope of its predecessor, offering more platforming tools and a better combat system. When it's good, Will of the Wisps is a transcendent platforming experience. Unfortunately, the combat is bloated and unnecessarily packed full of options you will rarely need. There's also a pretentiousness to proceedings that feels unwarranted. Ori and the Will of the Wisps' story is not particularly fresh or compelling, but it's clear that the creators thought it was. If you love Metroidvania platformers, Will of the Wisps is more than diverting enough to hold your attention. Just don't expect a revolution.
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