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Every so often rare circumstances come together and give birth to something extraordinary. Be it the alignment of the stars or the direction of the wind, it is an occurrence so uncommon that its manifestation is measured in years.
Ori and the Blind Forest is one such extraordinary phenomenon. No matter from what angle you look at it, this title excels on all fronts.
It is a game so good I even dare say it is close to perfect.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a magical side-scrolling adventure created by an international collective of indie developers operating under the name Moon Studios.
It was formed by Thomas Mahler (former Blizzard Entertainment artist) and Gennadiy Korol (former Senior Graphics Engineer at Animation Lab) but comprises of a team that is spread across the planet, many of them who have never even met before.
The first five minutes of Ori and the Blind Forest is probably both the most heart warming and saddest introduction I’ve experienced in storytelling, regardless of medium. I can’t remember the last time something resonated so deep within me, plucking the dusty strings of my heart to once again sing their almost forgotten notes. The intro is followed by an epic eight-hour saga for reconciliation and rebirth that will lead you through the mystical and enchanting landscape of the Blind Forest of Nibel.
You play as Ori (a Hebrew name that means “My Light”), a child of the Spirit Tree and a white guardian spirit of the forest of Nibel. But on one fateful night a great storm separates you from your home and family, and you find yourself alone somewhere deep in the forest. Fortunately you are discovered by Naru, a pure and peaceful dweller of Nibel, who takes and raises you as her own. You become an inseparable pair, mother and child, and together you create a perfect life within the magical forest of Nibel.
Then tragedy strikes again. The forest suddenly starts to decay and soon after Naru sadly dies of starvation. Ori is an orphan once again and now has to survive on his own. But as devastated as Ori is, something seems to push him forward. Deep inside his heart he can hear a call, a call that sends him on an epic adventure to save the forest and find his home.
Ori and the Blind Forest boasts a powerful and potent narrative that will stir emotions deep inside of you. I quickly found myself caring for and relating to Ori, transported back to my childhood where magic was real and where both fear and hope was abundant.
Just as we learn to grow up by facing our fears, so Ori has to find his courage face the darkness that has taken hold of his home.
Ori soon finds out he has many friends in the forest including Sein, a floating orb spirit of the nature. For the rest of the game Sein guides Ori through Nibel, lending him his powers and knowledge of the forest. Together they face the creatures corrupted by the darkness, hoping to restore their home of Nibel to its former wonder.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a story of love and sacrifice and finding the courage to face and conquer your fears. It is a remarkable achievement as a story and a testament to what the gaming world is sorely lacking, deeply emotional tales that do not rely on shallow themes such as violence and dominance. But plot is not the only thing Ori and the Blind Forest masterfully executes…
Magic surrealism vs. stark realism
Ori and the Blind Forest is among a string of games I’ve played lately (Amphora, Tormentum) that feature refreshingly surrealistic and vividly beautiful in-game worlds. It is a trend that I wholly accept in comparison to the stark realism most high-end games aim for in recent years.
The stunning aesthetic appeal is thanks to Max Degen and Johannes Figlhuber under the experienced direction or former Blizzard Entertainment cinematic artist, Thomas Mahler.
Its characters and environment immediately reminded me of the work of Studio Ghibli, with its distinctive fantasy world and unique characters. This was further confirmed when Figlhuber said that from early on the were inspired by classic hand-drawn animated movies such as Studio Ghibli’s “Princess Mononoke”.
“I just loved what they created, and it’s depth. The prince in an outsider in this world, and he’s not really wanted there – we kinda wanted to get this feeling over for Ori. We want you to feel like a visitor in our strange world,” noted Degen.
“We wanted the player to feel very small in this world – we wanted Ori to be very small on the screen. This was a very conscious decision, both for gameplay reasons – you can see further ahead, and have more time to react to what’s coming toward you – and to show the insignificance of the character, who’s very small in this huge and intimidating world.”
Although four extra artists came on board in the final year of production, Degen and Figlhuber were the two sole artists that produced the art for Ori and the Blind Forest. They created over 90 unique tree graphics, along with leaf and branch graphics, which all had to be eventually combined within the game.
“On top of that, we can give each graphic different lighting, colour, and movement sets, so the possibilities are really endless,” continued Degen.
“The overall style of trees, and the graphics in general, change multiple times throughout the game. Generally speaking, we have over 7,000 hand-painted graphics in the game.”
Let me just start by saying that for how innocent Ori and the Blind Forest might seem, it is one tough bastard of a game. At its core, it plays like your typical action side-scroller but it incorporates loads of different elements and features that result in a very fresh and unique game play experience.
Like most side-scrollers, you will be doing a lot of jumping and traversing across the gaming landscape, which will severely test your coordination.
At the start of the game you will merely be able to jump but as you progress through the game you will unlock many new powers that don’t only enhance the gameplay but are a necessity to progress further into the story.
Your new skills will be acquired as you discover the hidden magical trees of Nibel. Each of them will provide you with a specific skill that will either allow you to access other parts of the map or further your combat ability. One will give you the ability to climb up vertical surfaces while another one will give you the power to double jump. These are but a few of the many abilities you will be gaining and using in the game.
The first ability you will gain (or meet rather) will be Sein, an orb-like spirit that will accompany you throughout the game. Sein wil provide you with much insight into the history and nature of the Blind Forest and help you to understand the new powers you gain. More importantly, though, Sein will also provide you with your attacking skills.
With Sein at your side you will be able to fire Spirit Flame fireballs at your enemies and create saved points, among other things. Your spirit flame ability is limitless but other powers such as creating a soul link (a save point). These exhaustible abilities are powered by blue crystals that you will find throughout the game, which mean you will have to save your game sparingly. Fortunately there are also spirit wells that give you the same result without any cost. They are quite scarce though.
Your soul links or the spirit wells can also be used to access your ability tree, which is surprisingly in-depth for a game of this genre. Here you will be able to enhance your abilities such as adding damage to your Spirit Flame.
You will be encountering a generous variety of enemies along your journey, each with its own specific behaviour and form of attack. Some of them like the jumping monkey-frog-thing and the charging-metallic-looking-rhino damage you by making direct contact.
Others like spiders and porcupines will fire projectiles at you, which you will have to dodge. Later on in the game you will receive an ability where you can fire their own projectiles back at them.
It is important to note that most of these creatures aren’t inherently evil but are corrupted by the darkness invading the forest. But then there are a few that are born from evil, like massive rock demons that will shoot some form of spirit lasers at you. Nasty indeed.
Verdict: Ori and the Blind Forest is a true gaming masterpiece. It is an achievement in so many respects and it deserves all the positive attention it gets, perhaps even more. Its narrative was incredibly powerful and moving, its sound design masterfully executed and its gameplay smooth and challenging. It is everything a game should aim to be. I honestly don’t have anything bad to say about this title other than why it took so long to arrive, and perhaps the grave lack of a PlayStation version. No one should be deprived of the excellence that is Ori and the Blind Forest.