Ori and the Will of the Wisps Review (Switch)
Release Date: September 17, 2021
File Size: 4.3 GB
Developer: Moon Studios
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I should begin this review with full disclosure: Metroidvania-style games are, generally speaking, not among my preferred genre of games to play. That being said, of the four that I had completed on the Nintendo Switch prior to playing through Ori and the Will of the Wisps, I found much to appreciate and enjoy in each (the others being its predecessor, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Super Metroid—aye, I had only finally completed the latter SNES classic during these last couple of years when Nintendo brought it over to the Nintendo Switch Online SNES library). Hollow Knight remains in my ‘Top 20’ of all games that I have beaten on the Switch, which isn’t too bad considering that I’ve reached the end credits in seventy-five different titles up to this point.
That is to say, despite there being certain aspects of Metroidvanias that I both love and hate (which I will elaborate on further down), I’m still open to them. I can appreciate their greatness and, moreover, I can easily recommend them even if some of the elements that occasionally annoy me are the sorts of things that I think others may find bothersome as well. Of course, if you prefer Metroidvanias over other types of games, then more power to you. I cannot recommend the aforementioned software enough and Will of the Wisps is certainly no exception.
Before I jump into the substance of my critique, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the truly unique and unexpected circumstance of playing an Xbox Game Studios-published title on a Nintendo platform. While the prospects of owning Will of the Wisps on the Switch perhaps became significantly greater and less surprising after the 2019 ports of previous Xbox-exclusives Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest, I for one did not expect that we would receive Moon Studios’ highly anticipated follow-up to Blind Forest in the same year as its Xbox One release.
However many Baby Marios had to be sacrificed to the gaming gods to pull off this remarkable happening one can only speculate, but I’d happily lobby for the addition of some Baby Luigis, Baby Donkey Kongs, and Baby Bowsers to be cast to the flames if only for the chance to produce similar results from this seemingly dark magic (Halo on Switch… please? Or, better yet, what kind of blood offering does Rockstar Games require? Okay, okay, now I am just being greedy and this is… getting weird, so, back to the review).
The story in Wisps picks up right where Blind Forest left off. While there’s nothing exceptional in the tale it tells, I’ll refrain from being too specific or divulging too much as I recognize there may be some among you who have yet to play or finish Blind Forest. If you do find yourself in this camp, then I strongly suggest playing that first before you jump into Wisps. It is not that there is anything in the story that you will be unable to follow or understand, but you will be missing some context that for me added to the emotional pull that the narrative conveys. For example, the ragtag group of friends that surround Ori at the beginning of Wisps will already be familiar to players who have completed its predecessor, which largely showed how their relationships with Ori began or evolved. The sequel begins with Ori and the gang helping the troupe’s newest member come into her own when Ori and the latter are separated as the result of a thunderstorm.
At this point, Ori finds him/herself outside of the forest of Nibel (the setting for Blind Forest) and in new, uncharted territory: Niwen, described by a gigantic toad you meet named Kwolok to be a ‘perilous place’… which is surely an understatement judging from the number of times I died. Hence, it is up to Ori – or rather you, the player – to slog your way through submerged caves, windy air, icy snow, and truly icky spider webs (probably the coolest section of any game that I have played in its design) to find your poor, lost friend and re-unite with the others back home. This is, at least, the premise of the game at the outset. What happens between then and the final moments of screen time is up to you to discover. But all of this is only the backdrop to give way for the game’s more compelling moments.
The various ways that Wisp’s approaches combat, platforming, exploration, and its progression system lend themselves to these ‘more compelling moments’ of which I speak. These four components are arguably the most important ingredients of any solid video game (at least the ones that are aiming to be fun, and to quote one famous, er, philosopher, ‘if it’s not fun, why bother?’), and this is especially true of Metroidvanias. While the combat in both Ori’s have never felt particularly satisfying, the developers wisely borrowed a page or two from the preeminent Hollow Knight in revamping the underlying battle mechanics, implementing a finite number of ‘Shard Slots’ which allow Ori to experiment with a variety of different ‘Spirit Shard’ combinations, the Shards being abilities and passive upgrades that can be equipped during any given enemy encounter (think Hollow Knight’s Charms and Charm Notches).
Ori is even given the option of using a light sword this time around, not unlike the Knight’s Nail, which belongs to a group of core skills that Ori can acquire in addition to the Shards, three of which can always be easily accessed by opening up an ‘Ability Wheel’ and assigning them to the Y, X, and A buttons. Though I still felt that the action involved a bit too much button-mashing for my tastes, the sheer number of tools and techniques at Ori’s disposal do ensure that the action is never dull, and the welcome return of Bash, a move that enables Ori to launch off enemies and send projectiles in the opposite direction, is a feature of both Ori games that I simply find intrinsically enjoyable to employ. Wisps also adds variety to the gameplay in the form of Shrine Trials: minigame-esque challenges that consist of ‘combat trials’ (these, as the name implies, require defeating a slew of enemies and proved to be some of the more difficult moments during my journey) and ‘time trials’, wherein you must race against Ori’s ghost—and the times of other real-life players via an online Leaderboard—from point A to B within a given time. These side tasks, though entirely optional, always reward your endurance appropriately and offer a nice respite from the game’s primary objectives.
This briefly touches upon two of the other ‘important ingredients’ that Wisps excels at: its progression system and platforming. There are a ton of upgrades and secrets to discover in the world of Niwen, and anyone who seeks to 100% the game will be pleased to learn that Wisps offers around 10 hours of extra content than its forerunner: this game is bigger (and better) than Blind Forest in virtually every way. There is your main hub, a village called Wellspring Glades (to cite Hollow Knight again, think Dirtmouth) that is bustling with NPCs and shops, and which itself can be upgraded in the construction of additional buildings and infrastructure by completing different side quests, these also leading to more rewards. Aside from the main story, there is a lot to do in Niwen and this makes it a pleasure to explore, every nook and cranny teeming not only with life (and death) but secrets that often prove invaluable in furthering Ori’s quest to locate and reunite with his friends. Of course, exploration is immensely benefited when the environments are as beautifully stitched together and beaming with recompense as they are in Niwen, but it’s far superior when the platforming is done well. And how does it fare in Wisps?
If you have played Blind Forest, you’ll know that the platforming in the Ori games is, in a word, very tight. The controls are fluid and responsive, and the level designs are near perfectly constructed for seamless running, jumping, swimming, and wall-climbing through dangerous obstacles that include enemies shooting poisonous chemical cocktails, wall spikes, and stone block death contraptions. However, I do have one major complaint here, and this is probably my biggest gripe with Wisps (I have a few). Ori, especially with his Dash ability, tends to move rather quickly across the screen—so quickly that on numerous occasions the camera couldn’t keep up and I would find myself off-screen taking damage from an enemy or from having launched myself into one of the many hazardous surfaces you encounter.
A couple of seconds later, the camera would move to center Ori on-screen once again but not before I had already found myself penalized, sometimes earning a trip back to my previous checkpoint (which are fortunately very frequent) via death. The fact that the camera occasionally just fails to keep up with the character, and occurs often enough to be fairly obnoxious, is in my humble opinion, inexcusable, and more so because it seems to be a performance issue that (I would think) could be easily remedied by way of a downloadable update. This is not the only performance issue with Wisps but it is the one that I found most baffling and disagreeable. It also detracted from the excellency of the platforming which in-of-itself ranks among the best of any Metroidvanias I have hitherto played.
Finally, there is the experience of exploring the world of Niwen. I’ll have more to say about the graphics in the ‘Presentation’ section below but suffice to say it is a real joy to traverse the many different terrains that are present in Wisps (ranging from icy forests to sandy temples). The attention paid to detail in every area that you find yourself in is testament to the team of talented artists that worked on Wisps, having somehow outshone their previous efforts that rightly earned Blind Forest endless heaps of praise. My favorite area has to be the aforementioned Mouldwood Depths (i.e. home of the icky spider webs and one ghastly boss fight which I found to be the only really challenging encounter in the game, having played on Normal difficulty), that is, after the area was illuminated, as it is initially shrouded in darkness—which almost instantly kills you, forcing you to stay near sources of light—and was a total pain in my ass. The world design in Wisps is at the top of its class and offers all of the initial bewilderment (how do I reach that section there, you’ll find yourself asking more than once) and eventual satisfaction (ah-ha!) that bestow upon the best games in this genre the widespread acclaim they have come to earn.
The only ‘criticism’ I have really is one that generally applies to all Metroidvanias: I like that the world is vast, and mazy, and that you never know how one room will lead to the next or loop back around once you’ve uncovered a new ability. Nay, I love that. But what I really don’t like is having to backtrack through the same section for the hundredth time because I am lost and need to make sure that I didn’t miss something in that one room all the way over there. Wisps does, thankfully, offer an upgrade that makes fast travel easier, but that there is no mini-map option also forced me to continually break the flow of my game, having to access the menu to see if I was still heading in the intended direction. I feel that my ask is somewhat obvious, and simple: Why can’t Metroidvania games offer a GPS feature that allows you to place a target on your map (in areas you have already visited at least once), including a line to follow either on a mini-map or on-screen, such as is all but expected in numerous open-world games wherein it is super easy to get lost (like Grand Theft Auto)? Perhaps you will say that I am being nit-picky, that this is not a problem with Ori or with Metroidvanias, but a problem that rests squarely with me and my expectations for a game that contains a map of this size and the potentiality for misdirection. Fair enough. I still find it annoying. But beyond that minor complaint, Niwen’s world is gorgeous, vast, and a delight to explore, at least for the first dozen or so times.
One of the first things that immediately stood out to me within the initial 15-20 minutes of Wisps is how much more cinematic it is than Blind Forest. I felt enraptured as the opening cutscenes literally swooped me away to the game’s enchanted realm. For a brief instance I forgot that I was playing a game – the fully rendered 3D character models and environments that Moon Studios designed this time around so vividly colored and delicately crafted that a passerby would be forgiven to think that he or she was catching a glimpse of a new Pixar film. Wisps is nothing short of gorgeous and is arguably as visually impressive as anything else that the Switch currently has to offer. I often found myself pausing the action to soak in the beautifully-styled backgrounds that grace every shot, offering a sense of immersion in the world of Niwen that few side-scrolling platformers manage to achieve.
The musical score is no less imposing; composer Gareth Coker was brought back to expand upon the haunting, melodic, piano-driven, completely orchestrated soundtrack that won over so many fans of the original game. I loved the music in Blind Forest and Wisps only takes it to the next level with the addition of its ambitious, spectacular boss fights that Coker perfectly compliments with accompaniments no less epic.
One final word on the overall presentation of Wisps: While the visuals and audio deserve the highest of accolades, Ori does suffer from some unfortunate performance issues. The one that most affected my enjoyment of the game was the laggy camera that I already discussed in the section above. I also regularly experienced frame rate drops that would cause everything to slow down for a moment or two. This never seriously dampened the pleasure that I derived from playing Wisps but it occurred frequently enough, and was always noticeable, that I did find myself becoming somewhat annoyed. There was also an occasion when the game even became glitchy, and I got stuck in a wall, only to fall through the floor into a dead space before immediately being reset back to my most recent checkpoint (as if it registered the event as a death).
This only happened a single time during the 30 hours that I spent in Ori’s magical world, but coupled with the performance and camera issues, none of which I encountered in Blind Forest, I couldn’t help but wonder if the game would perhaps have benefited from an extra month or two in development to work out any final kinks before launching on the Switch (I am unaware if the Xbox version shares similar faults). All that being said, these issues mostly amounted to minor headaches that I was able and willing to overlook due to how well everything else—from the visuals and audio to the platforming and progression system—is implemented.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is, like Blind Forest, an instant classic and represents a step forward not only for Moon Studios, independent developers, or the Metroidvania genre, but video games as a whole and particularly as an interactive art form. It improves upon its forebear in just about every respect, revamping the way in which combat abilities are acquired and utilized and overall creating a more enthralling and enjoyable experience. It adds a wealth of new elements: epic boss fights, well-written NPCs, and a deluge of items to collect and exchange for satisfying upgrades.
While the game is not perfect (its performance being my main criticism), and probably doesn’t top Hollow Knight insofar as my favorite title within the genre is concerned, it is easily in the same conversation as any of the other great adventure games currently available on the Switch, or any console for that matter. Put simply, if you were a fan of the first Ori, then I’m willing to bet that you will love this sequel; if you couldn’t get into the original, then nothing here is likely going to change your mind. And if you have yet to play either, then you’re in for a real treat.