While there are familiar themes to his previous output, I can’t imagine Hayao Miyazaki would approve of Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ methodology compared to its predecessor.
Ori and the Blind Forest may not have been styled like an anime, but its themes certainly evoked the films of Studio Ghibli like Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. This sequel transports us to a new setting, not so much a forest but rather a whole region in a state of decay.
As you’ll discover early on, when Ori picks up a torch, it’s not just for lighting the way in the dark but also for attacking enemies. Before long, you ditch this for the more durable and powerful Spirit Edge, an ethereal lightsaber with a surprisingly wide arc, all the better to swing at any threats.
And that’s just for starters, as Ori’s arsenal gradually expands to an enchanted hammer, a bow, even spirit bombs. While in the first game, Ori was a borderline pacifist, combat designated to your fairy companion doubling as a drone, you’ve graduated to becoming a Swiss Army killing machine.
It’s an evolution Moon Studios seems to relish seeing as your combat prowess is regularly tested by rooms gated until you eradicate a wave of enemies. The truth of the matter is that it all feels incredibly satisfying as well.
In fairness, these new weapon skills aren’t all in the name of violence. Taking inspiration from The Legend of Zelda, they’re just as important for solving puzzles and reaching previously inaccessible areas.
Ultimately, Wisps still excels when it’s challenging you to combine your traversal skills to leap to previously unimaginable heights as you unlock new tricks to keep Ori airborne. It’s why, even though there are some incredible set-piece boss fights, grand chase sequences are still part of its DNA.
There’s a dizzying amount of new skills to learn, not all of them mandatory for progression – indeed, as the latter half lets you tackle areas in a non-linear fashion, you’ll find the necessary upgrades in the same place. It would have been nice if Ori’s older skills were available from the beginning though, instead of pulling a Metroid and having you start from scratch (but without a plot excuse).
Ah yes, you were probably expecting that portmanteau to come up sooner or later. However, if anything, Wisps seems less keen on being bundled in as a Metroidvania, and more in taking notes from recent fellow indie darling Hollow Knight. A Hollow-like, if you will, much to creative director Thomas Mahler’s chagrin.
But even if Team Cherry’s game actually released three years after the first Ori title, there really are quite a lot of stark similarities. There’s the NPC who sells you maps of the area you’re lost in; collectable spirit shards that add modifiers to your skills; you even have a skill that lets you use your energy points to heal yourself.
By all means, the above are great ideas to pilfer, and Wisps wisely leaves the more Souls-y elements well alone. Some players will also be relieved that its predecessor’s manual save creation system has been ditched in favour of auto-save checkpoints, while you can also pick between three difficulty levels at the start (though this will be locked in for the duration of the game).
Whichever you choose, the platforming remains resolutely hardcore. It’s all the better to showcase the fantastic traversal abilities, though you’re also asked to combine a mixture of skills with all manner of twitch reflexes, with one mistake often leading to either instant death or else dropping you back to the bottom of the towering obstacle course.
Most pleasingly, Ori’s gorgeous visuals and evocative soundtrack remain as strong as ever, a grand antithesis to the usual photorealistic grimness of Microsoft’s other IP. Even if the story won’t have you reaching for your tissues as immediately as the first, it’s nonetheless a sweeping tale that’s both mournful in how its world is presented while your antagonists have tragic back-stories worth your sympathy.
It’s only a shame that at launch, some glaring technical issues have prevented Wisps from singing at the top of its range – and that’s even after installing a day-one patch. These include frame rate drops, sometimes amounting to a complete freeze, though the most woeful has been a bug that seemingly ignored my check-pointing progression, despite the icons and messages indicating the game had been saved, at worst setting my progress back by an hour.
Moon is aware of the issues and is working on them at the time of writing, but this is a review of what was in front of me at the time – and honestly, a save bug really does undermine the improvements made to the game’s progression system.
It’s to Moon Studios’ credit then that in spite of these hitches, Wisps is still a confident and mesmerising sequel, improving and expanding on its world and systems in many richly satisfying ways. For those not in a rush to reach the endgame, there’s also myriad side quests and secrets to discover, optional challenge trials in both combat and racing form also available from the title screen’s quick access if you’re into topping the leaderboards.
It’s a game that’s big on content then, but just as big on heart – and don’t let the death-dealing melee action make you think otherwise.
While the first Ori was a fairly lonely affair, you’ll encounter more characters throughout your time in Wisps. Most of them you’ll find gathered in Wellspring Glades, where you can also unlock fast travel. More interestingly, the majority of the quests in this hub involve little more than helping fix the place up to become more homely for its inhabitants, which is surely the best kind of reward.
A uniquely challenging and beautiful platformer that’s everything a great sequel should be.
Format: Xbox One (tested) / PC
Developer: Moon Studios
Release: Out now