A forest spirit in a strange, new land.
The critically-acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest was a stellar and imaginative Metroidvania that focused heavily on an element of the sub-genre often left unexpressed: isolation. Following its tragic opening that set the stage for a lone forest spirit's journey into a dangerous world, the game connected you with its beautiful melancholic world and pushed you to face its hidden dangers head-on.
With the upcoming follow-up from Moon Studios, that lush world and humbling sense of scale from the original is expanding in scope. Ori and the Will of the Wisps leans further into the titular character's introspective journey, yet it feels much less lonely this time around. Instead of a small cast of characters struggling to survive in a crumbling world, Will of the Wisps has you connecting with inhabitants outside of Nibel forest and learning how Ori fits into the larger world. I got to spend some time playing the opening hours of Ori's next adventure while also speaking with Moon Studio about how the surprise success of the original game paved the way for the next adventure.
Picking up almost immediately after the original game, Will of the Wisps sees Ori and friends, including the guardian Naru and the spider-like scavenger Gumo, come together to raise Kuro's owl hatchling--the previous antagonist's sole heir. As their collective bond grows, Ori and the young owl are unexpectedly separated from their home and find themselves in a new land beyond the Nibel forest. Lost in a foreign land, Ori will have to gain new powers and friends to help them defeat a growing evil force, and reunite with their family.
From Will of the Wisps' opening hours, it was clear that the sequel sticks close to the original's style and tone. That sense of whimsy and wanderlust that's akin to animated films like The Secret of NIMH and Princess Mononoke is back in full force in Will of the Wisps, and its atmosphere feels much more pronounced with more varied and colorful environments to explore. There's also a more significant attention to detail when it comes to establishing lore and introducing new characters, including the monkey-like Moki tribe that help Ori along the way. The original game took a subdued approach to its storytelling, but with the sequel, there's more time spent on introducing new allies and establishing the larger world, of which Nibel forest is only a small part.
According to Moon Studios senior producer Daniel Smith, the team wanted to stick close to what worked, while also gradually getting players ready for the larger adventure ahead.
"It's really interesting that we were able to capture so much emotion in the first game with just four characters," said Smith. "We decided to go much deeper in terms of the cast of characters. Not only are there a lot more in the game that also have more context, but they also have their own stories to tell. In every way we can think of possible, we're trying to expand and give people much more of Ori. Will of the Wisps, in particular, is three times the size and scale compared to the original. It's a much bigger game, and I think that's one of the things people will be excited about."
In familiar Metroidvania-fashion, you'll start with a limited skill-set. This lack of power, or the removal of said power, is a common trope associated with the sub-genre, wherein the ascension of strength is what ultimately makes exploring the world so satisfying. Will of the Wisps quickly gets you back up to speed, and within the first hour, I acquired the double jump, several combat skills, and even the original game's most iconic skill--the Bash--relatively quickly. Will of the Wisps maintains that familiar loop of combat, platforming, and exploration that the original possessed. Still, the sequel now places more emphasis on letting you form your own playstyle with Ori, especially when it comes to combat.
With the sequel, the core combat has been entirely overhauled, which now feels less repetitive and more satisfying. Instead of a single dedicated attack and a set of support moves, the sequel gives you a larger ability pool to outfit the forest spirit. With the larger scope of Will of the Wisps, there are additional ways to develop and tinker with your own power growth, which includes a variety of shops to purchase new skills and upgrades to boost Ori's abilities. You'll eventually acquire skills that let you conjure up energy swords, a bow, guardian sentries that attack nearby enemies, and other support moves that can be customized at any time. Alongside this is a Hollow Knight-style upgrade system that focuses on equippable perks and stat-boosting charms, which complement Ori's cornerstone abilities focusing on combat, traversal, and exploration.
While Ori and the Blind Forest featured a smattering of auto-saves at critical moments, saving your progress was left mainly in the player's hands at the few dedicated save points or with Soul Link. Forgetting to leave a Soul Link after extended play could often result in a lengthy trip back to a previous save. It was an unusually Souls-like approach to checkpointing that added to the ethereal tone of the original, but in my experiences, it left me feeling frustrated with how easy it was to forget about saving given the game's pace and scale. Will of the Wisps, however, features a more traditional save and auto-save system, which removes the worry of having to keep track of saves and Ori's precious energy.
What I enjoyed so much from the original game was getting to know its colorful and exotic world. That feels especially present in Will of the Wisps' greater diversity of locales to visit and events to uncover. One of my favorite moments from the opening hours was exploring the Wellspring, a large tower-like dungeon that rotates from the inside--reaching the top requires you dodge projectiles and complete its treacherous, constantly shifting platforming. It was an exciting set-piece, and a lot of what made it so fun to take part in was the game's presentation. According to Will of the Wisps composer Gareth Coker, the visuals and music had a hand in conveying the sense of growth you'll experience throughout the adventure.
"The challenge of doing a soundtrack for something this large is that you don't want to have the music feel like it's repeating itself," said Coker. "In a game this big, you need to make sure that the player constantly feels like they're making progress. We've given you new abilities and new things to look at, cut scenes to make you feel like you're progressing--so why can't music do that too? A tendency in these kinds of games is to have one track per environment, maybe two if you're lucky. All across the game, there are these little things that help the player feel like they're making progress. You never feel like the music is just completely random, there's a familiarity to it. What I would say is each environment is like a suite of different music tracks that all feel like they are together."
While there is still an element of loneliness to the game, which is inherent to the Metroidvania-design, I was surprised and pleased to see that you are, in fact, not alone in your journey. As Ori is more capable of facing off with the new world's threats, he'll come to know and rely upon the forest's tribes. This storybook approach to unraveling its story and the world was such a delight to see, and I'm excited to see where it goes after its fantastic opening hours.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is set for release on March 11 for Xbox One and PC.