One of the greatest debates in both art circles and the gaming community has been one about the nature of a potential art form: video games. Scholars across a wide range of artistic disciplines, such as the late Roger Ebert, have made the argument that video games are not a form of art. They’ve taken issue with interactivity, with authorial intent and with the influence of corporate stakeholders over games – although the same can be argued for all art forms. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel under the orders of the church. The Godfather was financed and released by Paramount Pictures. I digress.
Meanwhile, various members of the gaming community have advocated for years that video games are indeed a form of art. Much like cinema encompasses a wide variety of individual artistic components (writing, music, photography, performance, etc.), so too do video games, albeit only with the added element of interactivity.
So what does this all of this have to do with Ori and the Will of the Wisps? Well, frankly, if this doesn’t silence some of the staunchest detractors of video games as an art form, I honestly don’t know what will. However, let’s back up a bit and take a deeper dive into the game, shall we?
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the, five years in the making, sequel to the beloved Metroidvania Ori and the Blind Forest. Picking up right where that game left off, a new member has joined Ori’s family: a baby Owl known as Ku. Ori immediately takes a shining to this avian friend, and with the help of Gumo and Nabu our protagonist raises her. One day, as is often the case, little Ku has to leave the nest and venture on her own. However, the poor bloke cannot fly.
The always crafty Ori fits the young Ku with a feather belonging to her late mother, and to Ku’s surprise it works. Setting off on a new adventure of their own, Ori and Ku take to the skies. However, much like the mythical Icarus, they fly too close to the sun (or should I say, a giant bolt of lightning), and a storm separates the two. Now it’s up to Ori to set off, find Ku, and maybe find more about their place in this big, wide world.
The story, although predominantly told without dialogue, packs an emotional wallop. This probably comes as no surprise for those who played Blind Forest, but this game not only matches, but arguably exceeds, the emotional impact its predecessor had. The ending I wouldn’t dare spoil, but let’s just say prepare for even the toughest of gamers to sniffle (and I’m not talking about the Coronavirus).
The presentation of the game is top-notch. Whereas many games these days try to eliminate the barrier between game aesthetics and reality, Ori jumps headfirst into its unique, stylized world with fully hand-drawn graphics. The end result is one of the most beautiful games to have ever graced the Xbox One. It looks like a painting come to life, and honestly if you were to remove the Heads Up Display and print a still from this game on canvas, I would certainly be fooled.
The music, from returning composer Gareth Coker, is just as amazing as it was in Blind Forest. Ori’s theme continues to be re-arranged in unique and interesting ways, and the new tracks fit each section of the map they correspond to perfectly. The title theme, in particular, is enchanting.
However, aesthetics are just one part of the package. Gameplay, it can be argued, is the most important aspect of any game out there. As such, I am extremely happy to report that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an improvement on Blind Forest’s gameplay in pretty much every conceivable way.
Beginning with the combat, what was easily the weakest element of Blind Forest’s gameplay is one of Will of the Wisps’ strongest. Whereas combat in Blind Forest mainly consisted of button mashing with a lock-on attack, Will of the Wisps has a number of different weapons each with different ranges, energy consumption levels, etc. For example, the sword is best suited for short-range combat and uses no energy, the spear does massive damage but costs a ton of energy, and the bow helps in long-range combat at the cost of only a small amount of energy. In practice, this means that that different weapons better suit different situations, so switching up on the fly is common.
Moving on to platforming, Will of the Wisps features all moves from the prior game, barring climb, which is replaced with the optional ability to stick to walls. New to the equation is the ability to grapple on to surfaces, and a late-game ability I won’t dare spoil. However, moves aren’t all there is to Ori’s platforming. Ori has a bit more weight to their manoeuvres now, making them easier to control. Most importantly, however, are the platforming challenges, which are as tough and satisfying as ever.
On the topic of difficulty, one of the best aspects of Will of the Wisps is the flexibility it provides the player. Whereas the original Ori’s progression system was fairly simplistic, Will of the Wisps increases the number of options, encouraging players to play the way they want to play. Want Ori to be a glass cannon who dies in a few hits but can fell most enemies in one? You can do that. Want Ori to be a tank who deals normal amounts of damage? You can do that too. All you need to do is find various shards hidden across the map, many of which can be real challenges to earn. You can then equip these shards to Ori. You start with three slots but can earn more by completing Combat Shrines, which encompass a series of difficult battles.
Speaking of difficult battles, new to Will of the Wisps are boss fights. Whereas Blind Forest only had you face platforming challenges, this game features both those escape segments as well as a number of boss fights. These baddies are tough, ruthless and unpredictable, but beating them is so incredibly satisfying, and they really showcase how great the new combat system is.
Also new are NPCs. Throughout the wide and expansive map, Ori will have the chance to interact with a number of different people. Some of them, such as Mokis, offer funny factoids. Others offer tantalizing rewards in exchange for some spirit, such as maps or new moves. Some offer hints on where to go next, and some offer sidequests, another new addition to Ori. While these aren’t as involved as the main quests, they are still incredibly fun to pursue and add hours of additional content to the game.
Needless to say, my experience with Ori has been incredibly positive. That said, there is one rather notable issue with the game: performance. At least three times the game crashed and 10 times the game froze. In one instance, it wouldn’t even start properly. This could just be because I am playing on the One S instead of the One X or a high-end PC, but this may mean that a Switch port might not be feasible in the near future. It is also worth noting that Moon Studios is aware of the issues, and has already patched out a number of them. As such, these issues have not affected my overall score in a significant way.
All in all, Ori and the Will of the Wisps on Xbox One is an amazing work of art that happens to double as a truly fantastic game. Moon Studios have outdone themselves here with an emotional, engaging, difficult but above all enjoyable game that should delight gamers everywhere. I cannot wait to see what Moon Studios have up their sleeves next – if my recollection is correct it’s an action RPG. I know it’s only March, but it’s going to be pretty hard to top this for Game of the Year 2020. Now, why are you sitting around here reading this? Go play it!