Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Rating: E (Everyone)
When Ori and the Blind Forest released back in 2015, it established itself as a top-tier metroidvania title and a top-billed exclusive in Microsoft’s lineup. Naturally, then, anticipation was high for its sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Following up on such a hit was a tall order for developer Moon Studios, a studio that turned heads when people realized that all of its members worked from home (before it was cool and/or indefinitely mandated by local government). This abnormal setup remains, but the team has grown from twenty people to over eighty, allowing them the opportunity to make Will of the Wisps bigger and better than its predecessor. Do they succeed?
Action and violence in Will of the Wisps is relatively mild and kid-friendly. Both enemies and the player character dissolve into thin air upon death, and there is no blood or gore to be found. You do engage in combat on a regular basis, using “Spirit”-based weapons to defeat your foes (glowing weapons that materialize in your hand as you use them and disappear just as quickly). Death and reincarnation play a role in the game’s story, though they are not always labeled with those terms. The game’s overarching themes, however, are of the triumph of light over darkness, and the restoration of that which has been corrupted—simple positive concepts that all audiences can relate to.
The game begins with a series of cutscenes, as Ori, Naru, and Gumo take care of the late Kuro’s baby owl daughter, who they have named Ku. Ku starts to grow up and yearns to fly, but struggles to do so due to her damaged, underdeveloped wing. Ori comes up with the idea to take the feather of Kuro that he has stored away and strap it to Ku’s wing. It works, and Ori hops onto Ku’s back as the two of them soar across the forest in celebration. But as they make their way across a large lake to a new land, a storm kicks in, the feather detaches from Ku’s wing, and the two of them are separated and stranded in unfamiliar territory. Ori must now seek out his friend, but he soon finds that this land of Niwen is facing the same kind of blight and decay that once threatened his own homeland, and his adventure takes on greater significance. This premise is just as simple as that of Blind Forest, but the plot reveals a few poignant twists that keep you interested and invested in the narrative. This applies not only to the main quest, but also to some of the smaller stories told in the game’s side quests.
That’s right: Will of the Wisps features side quests—and a host of friendly NPCs who give them out! The game world is teeming with life, making Blind Forest appear bare in comparison. Not only do these characters give you more things to do, they also add bits of lore and flavor to the world, making it that much more engaging and giving your quests more weight. You get the sense that there is a community that will benefit from your assistance, which is an element I didn’t know I had been missing in the first game until I saw it in this one.
Oddly, for all the marketing time given to Ku and her importance in the story’s setup, you actually spend very little time with her in the game, which is disappointing. Still, the story we get in the finished product is enjoyable, so this is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.
As with its predecessor, the first thing that strikes you about Will of the Wisps is its incredible audio/visual presentation. Ori’s world is as colorful and vibrant as ever, with lighting and other graphical effects easily surpassing the already gorgeous Blind Forest. Numerous surfaces, especially wooden surfaces like branches, bridges, and piers, bounce slightly when you jump onto them, adding a delightfully playful vibe to the game’s world. The detailed environments and memorable character designs also showcase Moon Studio’s impeccable art design. Composer Gareth Corker returns as well, crafting another stirring soundtrack packed with the sense of wonder and emotion that fans of the first game expect.
The overall structure from the original game remains unchanged—this is still a Metroidvania-style game where you traverse a 2D environment, pick up combat and traversal abilities that let you unlock new parts of the map, and navigate tricky platforming segments. You still have a health meter and an energy meter, both of which can be replenished and expanded by finding items strewn and hidden throughout the environment. Spirit Wells return too, serving once again as a place where you can save your game, refill your meters, and as fast travel destinations—though you can now fast travel to a Spirit Well from anywhere, rather than just from Well to Well, which is a nice quality-of-life improvement. And of course, it wouldn’t be an Ori game without exhilarating, breathtaking chase sequences that test your platforming skills under high pressure.
Several core mechanics have been revamped for this sequel, however. Most significantly, Will of the Wisps has a proper combat system. Ori does not have any powerful ball of light to auto-target enemies while you spam the X button this time around; instead, you gradually gain access—either through finding them in the game world or receiving them from a particular NPC—to a series of combat skills and spirit weapons, such as a sword, hammer, and bow, forcing you to aim your attacks with a modicum of precision in order to inflict damage. The versatility on display is far more interesting than Blind Forest’s almost one-note combat, as your new arsenal can hit enemies both up-close and at range. Those weapons, combined with your traversal abilities, must be mapped to the B, X, and Y face buttons in order to be used; this means that only three of those weapons/abilities can be used at a time, although you can swap them out whenever you like. I typically stuck with a few select favorites and made brief changes whenever the situation required it, such as during certain boss fights—another previously absent feature that Will of the Wisps brings to the table, and which, along with the aforementioned chase sequences, serve as exciting and well-designed challenges/rewards for completing large stretches of the game.
Even more abilities can be accessed by acquiring and equipping Spirit Shards, which are reminiscent of Hollow Knight’s Charms. Some Shards are scattered throughout the game world, while others must be purchased from an NPC. At first you can only equip three of them at a time, but locating and completing special combat challenges will reward you with additional slots, increasing your total as high as eight. Like with the face button abilities, these Shards provide advantages for both combat and traversal and can be switched at your discretion, so experimentation is encouraged. All of this replaces the skill tree from the first game. In Blind Forest, the mystical Spirit Light that you receive from hidden capsules and fallen enemies would increase your character level, which granted new points for unlocking perks on the skill tree; now it serves as the currency with which you purchase your skills and abilities from NPCs. Completing Spirit Trials—time trial challenges that require you to speed through brief sections of the game world—will net large quantities of Spirit Light that are needed to unlock everything the game has to offer.
Will of the Wisps also features a typical autosaving system like you see in many other modern games. The energy-based manual save system of Blind Forest is gone, and that’s a good thing overall. While I appreciate the risk and reward element of the first game’s save system, it simply is not as intuitive or player-friendly as autosaves.
My only significant complaints with this game regard some technical issues, at least on the base Xbox One where I played for review. While Blind Forest sustains a high, buttery smooth framerate throughout the experience, Will of the Wisps’ framerate often dips noticeably below its target. More problematic are the intermittent loading and streaming issues. These appear in several different ways. Sometimes during quick traversal Ori will drift away from the center of the screen, hitting the edge that you are moving toward and getting stuck as if he is on a wall until the game can catch up and load the next part of the stage. Other times the game will freeze for several seconds; this happened at the beginning or ending of several cutscenes, and even at times during regular gameplay. There were moments when I was in the middle of a carefully timed jump, and found myself suspended in mid-air for no clear reason. Most of the time the game continues after those few seconds, but I also encountered several hard crashes in these moments as well. None of these technical issues are dealbreakers, but they are certainly distracting when they appear.
Aside from those technical hiccups, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is in every other way a superior game to Blind Forest—the world is more engaging, the storytelling more developed, and combat more varied, and it somehow looks even prettier. This is no small feat, as Blind Forest is a wonderful game in its own right. But Moon Studios has cleared the high bar it set for itself, and I can’t wait to see what other ideas they have cooking.
The Bottom Line
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is one of the finest Metroidvania games on the market, a phenomenal sequel that builds on everything that made its predecessor such a beloved title.