The highly anticipated sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an emotional, technical, and artistic masterpiece.
Thunder echoes in the distance, as torrential rain cascades down blue-lit trees covered in hanging moss. Flashes of lightning illuminate thickets of glowing mushrooms and flowers that thrash in the violent wind, while somber strings play. Amidst all this, a small glowing spirit walks cautiously to the edge of a fallen tree and calls out for his friend.
The world of Ori is magical. It pulls you in with breathtaking visuals, delightful music, and small characters that you instinctively want to protect. Everything feels appropriate and harmonious. This is a game that elevates its industry and shines as a beacon for ambitious developers and artists to follow. It's the first thing I put in front of anyone who would argue that video games aren't worth their time.
Will of the Wisp's narrative is a direct continuation from Blind Forest. While it isn’t necessary to play the first game, you will appreciate the many references and relationships even more if you do.
Ori and his newly adopted sibling Ku find themselves stranded in a new forest (Niwen) that is slowly dying after the loss of its spirit tree. What starts as a simple quest to return home becomes an epic adventure to find Ku and restore a dying land.
The primary antagonist, Shriek, is a winged abomination that hates life... for a good reason. Like the villain from the first game, Shriek is a nuanced character with justifications for its behavior and outlook.
Unlike the previous game, Will of the Wisps is brimming with secondary characters that bring the forest to life. Some provide side-quests, remark at your accomplishments, or even point you in the right direction. The forest of Niwen feels more alive and the resulting experience less solitary. My favorite addition is a massive frog Kwolok, a gentle giant who resides over a verdant marsh and protects the meerkat-like Moki.
The storytelling in Will of the Wisps is less linear, due to its larger open world. The game is punctuated with poignant cutscenes and character development that kept me progressing towards a climactic and metaphorically charged finale.
I can only attempt to describe how spectacular this game looks. Pictures, or better yet video footage is required to fully appreciate it. If you played Blind Forest, it shares the classic Disney/Studio Ghibli/fantasy aesthetic. Will of the Wisps increases the attention to detail to an astonishingly high level. The easiest way to understand this is by comparing it to the first game.
But first, watch this trailer:
Ori and the Blind forest used parallax animations on layered environments to convey depth, with enough movement in foliage to be convincing. In Will of the Wisps EVERYTHING moves. By choosing to make the entire mid-ground 3D, Moon Studios not only adds more passive animation but also makes almost every single object interactive. Bushes shake as you walk by, trees sway as they drop leaves and occlude the sun behind them, branches and leaves flex under your weight, and waterfalls part around you with a splash. The forest is more tangible thanks to this incredible motion design. Double, the number of environment layers helps them extend far into the background. The only thing that feels 2-dimensional is the gameplay.
One of the best animation details I noticed was the spikes in an underground spider lair, which are actually living insects that flutter their wings if you get too close! Sick!
The increased level of animation in the environment is also used for weather effects. When you start in the first area it’s stormy, with trees and bushes thrashing in the wind. Later, when you pass through again it is calm and illuminated with warm light.
Lighting and effects
Dynamic lighting aids weather effects and time of day. As you progress, the designers are able to transform areas, making the game itself feel larger and more dynamic without the need for entirely new spaces.
Studio Head Thomas Mahler mentioned in an interview that every single asset in the game has seven light masks. This permits lighting changes on a smaller scale. Ori emits a blue light, which is absorbed and reflected by his immediate environment. This is especially noticeable in dark places, where you are the dominant light source. Particle effects add density and realism to materials with splashes and sparks that produce light and sand that pours realistically through cracks in the Windswept Wastes.
The spectrum of light and color used across the game world is immense. Each environment has a strong primary palette, often peppered with rainbows of secondary details. In particular, Luma Pools impressed me with pinks, blues, and greens. Every frame is gorgeous.
Ori’s score is part of its very soul. Gareth Coker returns with over 3 hours of original orchestral brilliance. The music complements every second of gameplay and story, rising intensely during stressful moments and fading into serene ambience for more relaxed sequences. This time around Coker was given access to a full choir and the top-notch Air Studios in London, all of which he takes full advantage of to create a truly transcendent soundscape.
Coker developed the score in tandem with the game, which explains why it pairs so well. Each location has its own musical suite built around a core theme that evolves as you progress. Character themes are echoed whenever they are present and resonate during emotional cutscenes. Ori’s memorable theme is joined by new ones for Ku, Shriek, and Kwolok to name a few.
The finer texture of the game’s audio is created through sound effects. Environments are filled with subtle noises of wind, creaking wood, crumbling rocks, and brittle ice. Characters have distinct audio signatures that make them identifiable before they're visible. All audio is modified with appropriate echo and post-processing to make it feel integral to its location and situation.
Gameplay & Progression
Can you imagine if this game didn’t play well? Thankfully you’ll have to because Will of the Wisps gameplay is sublime. Ori handles with precise, responsive movements that allow even the toughest sequences to be navigated confidently. If you die, it’s probably your fault.
Ori is still predominantly a Metroidvania puzzle/platformer. Will of the Wisps adds a large dose of combat and several excellent boss battles. The nail-biting escape sequences are still here too, though none as memorable as the Ginso tree climb from Blind Forest.
The diverse traversal mechanics from the first game are joined by a slew of new abilities, including grapple, which lets you zip towards certain environmental objects, and burrow, which propels you through sand or water then catapults you through its surface like a dolphin.
Bash, a move that freezes time then launches Ori away from projectiles and enemies makes a triumphant return early in the game. With so many new abilities the control scheme was adjusted. The decision to attach both grapple and bash to the same button had me worried about accidental responses in areas that allow both. Thankfully the levels are designed well enough that this is almost never happened.
Previously tied to Y, bash is relocated to make room for new attacks! Unlike Blind forest, which had one passive "spirit flame" attack that aimed for you and didn’t require much skill, Will of the Wisps adds an arsenal of ranged and melee attacks that can be unlocked as you progress. If you’ve played Hollow Knight, you’ll feel right at home with the spirit edge sword. I found a soft spot for the spirit hammer, which also provides your ground pound ability. Since there are more attacks than buttons on the controller, the developers use the right thumbstick as a selector to quickly swap active attacks on the ABXY buttons. While this takes getting used to, it opens up the game for experimentation in multiple play-throughs.
Some new abilities are acquired from spirit trees scattered in each location, new to this game are upgrades and abilities that build on foundational ones. Often you will be forced to precariously navigate an environment without a key ability, only to zip back out with newfound skills. The level designers are geniuses in this way, crafting each sequence to test your ever-growing abilities. In doing so, the levels actively teach you how to play without any tutorials. They strike the perfect balance of difficulty, such that I was rarely stumped by what to do next, but was still challenged to execute correctly. The result is you constantly feel like a ninja; pirouetting through the air, bouncing off of enemies, and flying across the screen like a rocket! At its best Ori reaches a state of flow that is the ultimate accomplishment for any game.
Ori and the Blind Forest featured a forked upgrade tree that could be linearly unlocked as the game progressed. WotW instead splits its progression between discoverable items and MPC vendors who can be found in the Wellspring Glades, the game’s in-world hub. Other collectibles include maps and pieces of ore than can be used to upgrade your hangout.
In spite of my ridiculously high expectations, Will of the Wisps is one of the greatest game experiences I've had since the first game. Ori and Will of the Wisps builds on a stellar formula in every conceivable way, drawing from platforming history’s greatest hits. It offers fluid gameplay, a magical world, and a compelling narrative, all wrapped in the most vivid audio/visual presentation the industry has to offer. I absolutely love this game. If you can play it, you should. If you don’t play games, give this one a try, or watch someone else play it and soak it in.
*I played Will of the Wisps on my original Xbox One and did experience some occasional performance hitches and glitches on my first play-through. Moon Studios since released several patches that have ironed out these problems. Today the game runs at an almost perfect 60fps on my seven-year-old console.
*I purchased this game with my own money and was not paid to write this review.
About Moon Studios
Founded by ex Blizzard designers Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Carrol, Moon Studios is a distributed company with elite talent contributing from around the globe. It’s an unusual setup for a game developer and makes the quality of their products all the more impressive. It allowed them to (relatively) smoothly launch their game in spite of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.
Thanks for reading, stay tuned for future reviews!