Amidst the many shooters and racing games at the Microsoft E3 briefing, an odd little game stood out. It was a beautifully animated and rather melancholy title about a small creature in a dismal and mysterious forest world. The first glimpse at Ori and the Blind Forest would make it easy to write off as an artsy game with an emphasis on atmosphere and story and a light focus on gameplay. It seems that the exact opposite is true. According to the developers, Ori is a love letter to the classic SNES and PSX-era Metroidvania-style games. After spending some hands-on time with Ori, it's easy to see how that's an accurate depiction. Ori isn't just great to look at; it has the potential to be the best Metroidvania in years.
Unfortunately, the developers were not able to give us much information about Ori and the Blind Forest's story. What little we were able to puzzle out seemed to be pretty interesting. Ori is a forest spirit who awakens in a dark and damaged forest filled with terrible monsters. With the assistant of the fairy-like Sein, the two must find a way to restore the forest. To avoid spoilers, we weren't told much else, but we know the story will take about 10 hours to finish and longer to find all of the collectibles.
The core gameplay in Ori and the Blind Forest is refreshingly simple. You've got basic jump and attack moves, and they're delightfully smooth. The gameplay is remarkably easy to pick up and play, and I was able to perform pixel-perfect jumps within moments of starting the game. Jumping is pretty familiar, but combat is different. Unlike Metroid or Castlevania, you don't have to directly aim at the enemy. Instead, Ori's pal Sein auto-locks onto an enemy, signified by a glowing red aura, and fires a homing bolt of Spirit Fire when you hit the attack button. The range for this attack is short, at least at the outset. In addition, enemies are quite fast. The focus seems to be on dodging while staying close enough to initiate attacks. It's difficult to gauge how hard or easy combat will be, but the brief demo made it feel fast-paced and exciting.
One unusual feature about Ori and the Blind Forest is how saving works. Most Metroidvania-style games have designated save points, but Ori does things a little differently. Ori has an energy meter, and as long as this meter is full, he can plant a Spirit Link, which is a save point. This can be planted anywhere and at any time, and we were told it is basically impossible to end up in a situation from which you can't recover. This allows you to save before a difficult challenge or before backtracking if you desire. The trick is that you need energy to save, and while energy is reasonably plentiful, you'll need it for other things, such as opening locked doors in the environment. You have to decide if saving is worth the risk of not having the necessary energy to open a locked door later on.
There are two ways to gain new abilities in Ori and the Blind Forest. One is by defeating enemies and collecting items in the environment to gain experience points. Earn enough, and you'll level up and gain an ability point, which can be spent to upgrade one of your three ability paths. One allows you to have three Spirit Fire shots on-screen at once instead of only one. Another lets you reuse a Spirit Link after you set it down, turning your save into a permanent checkpoint. Another causes power-ups to float closer, making it easier to grab items. Higher-level abilities include the power to hit multiple enemies with Spirit Fire at once. The developers have promised that they only included useful abilities. The focus is on making every ability feel cool and powerful instead of having a tree with a lot of prerequisites just to get to the fun stuff. The other way to get upgrades is by finding them in the environment, Metroid-style. These upgrades look to be more dynamic and active compared to the more passive ability trees. The one we got in the demo was the wall jump, which allowed Ori to access new areas by bounding up or side to side. There are also collectible shards that can increase your energy or health, much like Metroid's missile containers.
The striking visuals in Ori and the Blind Forest might be the first thing anyone notices about the package, but our hands-on time really drives home that it isn't just about the looks. Ori and the Blind Forest is a labor of love made by a developer who focuses on gameplay as the central core of the experience. It's even more impressive when you realize that Moon Studios is a small studio built around the idea of remote development, with various members living all around the globe and telecommuting their work. Ori and the Blind Forest is due out this fall on Xbox One and PC.
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