Review: Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an Essential, Extraordinary Sequel

It’s impressive when the follow-up to a great game in a new franchise transcends every standard set by the original.

Despite my exceedingly lofty expectations, Ori and the Will of the Wisps did just that.

The sequel to 2015’s Xbox darling Ori and the Blind Forest is a special experience for plenty of the same reasons. Its platforming prowess, beautiful art direction and heartwarming soundtrack. And now, add more to the list: Snappy combat, friendly characters, a better sense of progression and an entire quest system that has both tangible and emotional payoffs. While its overall story is predictable and not every new feature is created equal, Will of the Wisps is the type of memorable, instant classic that defines the last year of a console generation.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio. There’s even elements of town-building and garden growing, allowing for progression outside of any skill tree or upgrade path. All of these enhance the experience without detracting from what made the original special: narrative, movement and aesthetic.

There’s so much new to cover, it’s tough to know where to start.

Let’s begin right after the events of Blind Forest, to set the story in motion. The playable character is again a whimsical forest spirit named Ori, who alongside mother figure Naru and long-legged buddy Gumo nurture an egg then hatch an owlet named Ku. As the young owl grows, she literally wants to spread her wings. With the help of her mother’s feather, Ku takes flight with Ori along for the ride.

All is well until a nasty storm separates the friends in a new land called Niwen. The first act is spent searching for Ku. There’s also a broader narrative about a forest willow perishing due to the spread of decay in this new land, scattering ghostly “wisps” throughout each locale that Ori must collect. It’s really a means by which the development team can show off how beautiful they can make different areas, and build more and more challenging platforming elements as the story progresses. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll leave it here.

Part of what makes Will of the Wisps a broader, epic adventure is the expanded cast of characters. Some are merchants. Others offer quests. A couple are there for comic relief. There’s Tokk the birdlike wanderer. The adorable Moki species, who look like lemurs and talk in cute phrases. Lupo, a map-making insect. Opher, the well-read weapon master baboon. A giant toad guardian named Kwolok. Wise old badger slash gardener Tuley. Grom, the strong, grizzled builder and town leader. Ori has help this time, and it feels more grand when others are at stake.

The standout element of this Xbox Game Studios production is, of course, its mechanics. The movement is familiar. Ori is light and quick, dashing around the forest in search of a lost friend. What stands out immediately is: Combat! Where the original was generally about traversal, Will of the Wisps applies a healthy dose of fighting action akin to a Hollow Knight or Guacamelee!

It totally changes the game.

What starts with a simple torch turns into a selection of “Spirit” weapons, as the player amasses everything from a Spirit Edge sword to the fiery Blaze blast, from a Spirit Arc bow to the Sentry turret. Which is actually *not* a turret. It’s really a butterfly. So that’s right, one might call it bullets with butterfly wings.

These map to the face buttons X, Y and B so one could have up to three equipped at a time. Ori faces various hostile forest creatures on which to use this arsenal, from rambunctious dung beetles to buzzing “skeetos.” Fighting is surprisingly and satisfyingly snappy. There’s even boss fights with bespoke mechanics and damage phases, such as an early game battle against a ravenous, gargantuan wolf.

The genius of these spirit weapons is they aren’t strictly combative. There’s all sorts of applications, from environmental puzzles to advanced movement capabilities. Fire does damage over time and can destroy wooden barriers. Sniping a target will open a new pathway. The team at Moon Studios didn’t just introduce combat for the sake of it, they did so to make the player more capable in Will of the Wisps for platforming too. Thus making it that much more fun.

Speaking of movement, it’s even more of a treat here than in Blind Forest. The player earns abilities much more rapidly in the sequel. Namely, one that I maintain every game should have, and that’s a double jump (which can eventually become a triple jump because who cares just keep giving me jumps). There’s Bash, which allows launching off enemies and projectiles. Dash, which is self-explanatory. Wall climbing. Feather parachuting. Shoot, even a grappling hook! It’s like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Rayman except way cuter. A smorgasbord of sweet movement options.

These combine to make even the most casual players feel like a competent platforming artist if not a novice speed-runner. There’s always a way to move through an area, or bail oneself out of a jam. Not only that, they blend seamlessly with spirit weapons. Light Burst, which is a fireball, combines with Bash to allow nifty traversal options that are only now fully realized with this new level of flexibility. Burrow has Ori cutting through sand then launching out to reach new heights or smash into baddies.

For all its fancy bells and whistles, Will of the Wisps is at its heart still a speedy side-scroller. It has everything a lover of the genre could want. Which is essential, because it ramps up the difficulty as it progresses and throws different scenarios together within increasingly crowded areas. That’s part of the charm.

Moon Studios’ 2D action platformer is more robust in nearly every respect, from systems and mechanics to abilities and combat. It’s refined, resembling the conclusion of a long-running series rather than the second game from an independent studio.

On the topic of platforming, the team gets creative in how they implement environmental hazards and puzzle applications. Areas have their own aesthetics of course, though with that comes fun variation in individual elements.

One destination has a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Water Temple feel, as Ori must shift sea level to traverse different vertical slices. Another has the player shooting targets with Spirit Arc to create different pathways. There’s a spooky zone requiring lightning bugs to guide in darkness. Fire causes upward wind drafts upon which Ori can soar.

There’s even later areas with enemy types embedded in the scenery. Vines that are really monster tongues. Dangerous Venus fly traps that will chomp away at any bystander slow enough to get caught. These enhance the aesthetic and platforming trickiness, plus prove that Moon Studios was having a good time brainstorming new ways to challenge the player.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the dreaded escape sequences.. Which are SO much better this time. Legitimately. These action-packed scripted moments were among my least favorite parts of the original. Dying constantly during what’s supposed to be a cathartic series of events killed any momentum. Not this time around. These are much less technical while still incorporating much of the game’s fabled movement tech. The result are memorable, epic arrangements that are much more memorable for being exhilarating as opposed to frustrating.

Then, we’ve got quests!

Will of the Wisps is much more structured in this regard, offering a menu of main missions and optional content. There’s the overarching campaign quest then stuff like side objectives, character stories, rumors pointing to areas of interest, combat arenas and even timed races called Spirit Trials. Most of these augment the experience, especially for those that love the feeling of crossing off checklists. The combat areas are particularly worthwhile, unlocking upgrade slots.

While compact, there are super impactful side quests that tell their own stories within the forest world of Niwen. The standout for me is about a family of Moki reuniting, which literally forced me to step away due to the emotional resonance. After the first game, it’s clear that story is part of what makes Moon Studios’ work so memorable. I didn’t expect to be hit so hard by an optional mini mission about a family of lemurs.

To keep everything organized, there’s a robust menu offering. There’s the map, a tab for upgrades and even for inventory. Helps keep quests and items organized. Albeit the menu pages are cumbersome, especially inventory. Luckily it’s solely supplementary.

A byproduct of the quest system combined with its Metroidvania roots means revisiting areas satisfies the crave for exploration. Especially when experimenting with new abilities. It doesn’t feel like padding, either. The map isn’t daunting and there’s multiple fast travel points in each area. The designers make it easy to search the nooks and crannies, then return to base to use materials or currency.

That reminds me I haven’t yet discussed base building. Now that the series has so many characters, it needs a place for everyone to hang! That, friends, is Wellspring Glades.

Town leader Grom is descends from an ancient race of miners and builders. He’s set up shop and requests help from Ori to make Wellspring Glades comfortable enough for people to live there, safe from the decay that’s enveloping the land. It’s nowhere near the level of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, yet it offers a reason to check out different locations or follow-up on character leads plus provides a sense of camaraderie with the various characters.

As the player helps Grom with building, new areas of the town open up for exploration. It’s quaint, and nowhere near essential, though I welcome this sort of centralized location for merchants. Especially if it means I can buy cool new stuff!

Along with the new combat mechanics and weapon system are, naturally, upgrades. In the form of Spirit Shards, for which Spirit Light is the trading currency. In another homage to a game like Hollow Knight, this system allows for a set number of slots to be filled with various buffs or debuffs. Want to do more damage at the expense of lower health? Do you prefer more ability energy or more health?

There are always trade-offs with this level of customization, which can make for some sweet builds. I opted for a tanky approach, maxing both health and resistence to damage, with one slot dedicated to making sure that enemies dropped more Spirit Light each time so that I could reinvest those earnings. It supports plenty of playstyles, and really makes a difference against later game enemies.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

The backdrop to all of these new elements is a staple of the series: Its art design. Which is truly incredible. Pleasing. Pastoral. Picturesque. Plenty of ways to describe the game’s general aesthetic. Its most striking feature yet again.

What I noticed more in this follow-up is a specific attention to detail in animations and character nuances. Ori’s arms swooping and swinging. Doing a handstand while on top of a vine. Flailing while flinging off a spinning wheel. These subtleties are not insignificant, each of them proves how sound the design philosophy is when it comes to art and animation direction.

All this said, arguably my favorite part of Blind Forest and now Will of the Wisps is the music. It’s as good as ever here. Gareth Coker’s score is dynamic, shifting from haunting pianos to suspenseful strings as effortlessly as Ori traverses early game areas. The title track is especially moving, like a remastered version of the first. It’s a soundtrack that works as well within the context of the game as it does while casually listening. That’s proof of an amazing score.

What I notice all this time while singing the game’s praises, it’s tough to find major complaints with Will of the Wisps. I’d be lying if my upcoming comments didn’t feel like nitpicks.

The introduction of combat mechanics does have its downside, especially depending on difficulty level. There’s just a lot of it, and enemies can be relentless when traversing Niwen since they respawn constantly. It didn’t happen a lot to me, but there were times it messed with pacing and flow of movement. I’d imagine this is exasperated the higher the difficulty. I tried both Easy and Normal. During the latter, I occasionally wished for less foes when trying to get through a daunting platforming section.

While I personally adore introducing quests to the game, there are a good amount of optional ones that might annoy those going for the critical path. I don’t want to criticize a game for offering more content, so it’s less a complaint and more an observation. Spirit Trials in particular, the mini races against the clock scattered around the world, are superfluous and target a slice of the player base. I ran one of them and was uninterested after that.

Experienced random, minor quality of life hiccups. I mentioned the inventory menu before, cumbersome and difficult to follow. During gameplay, item pick ups stop the action a la The Legend of Zelda. Even later in the game. This is a pet peeve of mine. And I know I’m not the only one.

At this point, I’ll briefly address performance and stability by not actually saying much about it temporarily. I played through the entirety of the game on a pre-release build. Which means I’ll update this section after spending time with it now that an early patch is available.

Co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol run a unique outfit at Moon Studios, where the team is mostly worldwide rather than in a centralized location. This is reflected in a game that’s so varied, yet has a cohesive thematic approach. It’s fun to move around, to slash and fight, to reach places previously unattainable, to search behind a wall and be rewarded for trying, to find out a character’s background and help them with a task. To accomplish all this within a world as gorgeous as Niwen is breathtaking.

Blind Forest was great. However, a mostly lonely experience in a world devoid of friendly life. Will of the Wisps is the opposite, their team crafting an artistic masterwork that takes the best kind of inspiration from peers to form an unforgettable game where most everything works in harmony.

The highest praise I could give a game is that I didn’t want it to end. That was the case here, even after 20 plus hours of uptime.

What’s magic about Will of the Wisps is that it’s expertly layered in its systems without being overwhelming. It coaxes experimentation with a suite of new abilities, gives good reason to invest in upgrades plus entices backtracking and seeking out secrets to bolster the experience. When I feel an incentive to engage with everything, that’s proof of sound game design.

When it comes to narrative, it’s bold in where it goes with its character arcs. Unafraid. For a game with little dialogue, it says so much. When the world is suffering, rebuilding still has its sacrifices.

As I wrap here on my latest critical piece, I always make it a point to challenge myself on areas that didn’t work for me. I have to be critical. No game is perfect. Even the ones I love.

Knowing this, I stand by my sentiment that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the closest thing to an essential Xbox and PC game this year, even this console generation, and it’s a treat to experience the level of artistic vision that it takes to create such a momentous work.

Title: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Release Date: March 11, 2020

Developer: Moon Studios

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios.

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, Windows 10 PC, Steam.

Recommendation: Unequivocally, it’s an essential part of the Xbox catalog and a treat to play for anyone with access to any of its platforms. You, hm.. Will not be disappointed!

Sources: Screenshots and Key Art courtesy of Xbox Wire.

Note: Review code provided courtesy of Microsoft.

-Dom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *