Ori and the Blind Forest was a delight in 2015--a tough-as-nails combination of a metroidvania structure and Meat Boy-like demands with a surprising amount of heartfelt heft. Five years later, Moon Studios' followup, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, is every bit as graceful and lovely as its predecessor, even if some of the emotional beats and exploration feel a little less novel the second time around.
Will of the Wisps picks up almost immediately where Blind Forest left off, with Ori's patchwork family unit welcoming a new member, the owlet Ku. The family is happy and loving, but Ku wants to fly and Ori wants to help her. Soon the two are swept off in a gale to a new forest deep with rot, which begins the adventure in earnest.
Because this setting is disconnected from the one in Blind Forest, the geography is new, yet familiar. The painterly imagery is comforting, especially in the opening hours as you explore similar biomes. They're beautifully rendered again, but a little samey if you've played the first game. After a while, Will of the Wisps opens up to more varied locales, like an almost pitch-black spider's den or a windswept desert. The theme throughout the story is the encroachment of the Decay, a creeping evil that overtook this neighboring forest after its own magical life tree withered. But if it's meant to be ugly, you wouldn't know it from many of the lush backgrounds--especially in the case of a vibrant underwater section. Ori is often swallowed up by these sweeping environments, emphasizing just how small the little forest spirit is compared to their massive surroundings.
Ori's suite of acrobatic moves makes delving into new areas a thrilling treat. Exploration becomes especially engaging as you unlock more abilities and become increasingly adept. Some of them are lifted directly from the first game, which can be disappointing next to the excitement of discovering a shiny new ability. Still, those old standbys still work well and make the improvisational leaps and bounds feel as great as ever.
The picturesque vistas seem to be pushing the hardware hard, however. Playing on an Xbox One X, I encountered visual glitches like screen freezes on a semi-regular basis, and the map would stutter. Usually these were a simple nuisance, but once in a while it would come mid-leap and throw off my sense of momentum and direction. A day-one patch significantly reduced the freezing and fixed the map issue altogether.
While Ori is ostensibly a metroidvania, Will of the Wisps is less focused on exploration and backtracking than is typical for the genre. Your objectives are usually clear, straight lines, and shortcuts littered throughout the environments get you back to the main path quickly. Most of the wanderlust comes in the form of plentiful sidequests, like delivering a message or finding a knick-knack for a critter. There's even a trading chain. Eventually you open up a hub area that can be built into a small community for the forest denizens. These upgrades are largely cosmetic, so it's mostly a visual showcase of having collected the specialized items used for it. The sidequests are almost entirely optional. I was glad for the freedom to pursue the critical path without artificial barriers, but I also plan to go back and plumb the depths simply to spend more time in the world.
The reduced emphasis on exploration seems to have been replaced by a major expansion of combat. Rather than the passing nuisance of the occasional enemy, Will of the Wisps introduces myriad threats that are a near-constant presence. Thankfully, the combat system has been overhauled to match the elegance of the platforming. The story progress provides a sword and bow, with other optional weapons for purchase, and you can map any combat moves to X, Y, or B. The combat does take some getting used to, though, in part because it's built to work in conjunction with Ori's nimble moves. While I felt awkward and imprecise in combat at the start, slashing my sword wildly at even the mildest of monsters, my comfort level grew as I gained new platforming skills. Around the mid-game I realized I had become adept at stringing together platforming and combat skills, air-dashing and bounding between threats with balletic rhythm and barely touching the ground until the screen had been cleared.
That level of finesse is necessary, because Ori and the Will of the Wisps introduces a series of massive boss battles, each more complex than anything in Blind Forest. Their attack patterns are often signaled by barely perceptible tells. Most of the time, the boss fills up a significant portion of the interactable foreground, and even more of the background--but this can make it frustratingly difficult to tell what is and isn't vulnerable to your attacks, or what parts will do crash damage. This all makes defeating them feel like a relief and accomplishment, though sometimes more of the former than the latter.
Likewise, tension-filled escape sequences dot the map, requiring almost perfect precision and execution of your tool set to survive a gauntlet of threats. The game offers occasional checkpoints in these sections, as well as a more generous checkpointing feature around the overworld.
The sprawling bosses and climactic escapes are ways to express a larger, more operatic feel for Will of the Wisps. Blind Forest was a humble little game that told an intimate, relatable fable. Wisps has a grander, sweeping scope, and in the process it loses some of that intimacy. It still has moments with emotional heft, both exhilarating and heartbreaking, and Moon Studios still has a way of expressing an incredible degree of wordless emotion with subtle moments of body language.
The story in Will of the Wisps is often darker, and even its touching moments are more bittersweet. The chief antagonist, an owl named Shriek, is similar to the first game's Kuro in having suffered a tragedy in the past. But how the story addresses that tragedy is significantly sadder, and stands as a moment of haunting animation that will stay with me more than any other single image from the game. Even the moments of finality that end the story, while appropriately heroic and hopeful, are tinged with quiet sadness and inevitability--the sense that everything ends.
That finality could signal that this is the last Ori game, a farewell to the fantastical world and memorable characters that made Moon Studios such a standout developer from its very first effort. If that is the case, you could hardly ask for a better send-off. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a remarkable synthesis of artful design and beautiful moments.