What if metroidvanias dropped the action-sidescroller roots of its genre and instead were almost entirely about traversal? Rather than the signature mix of blasters and and puzzle keys, what if we combined a Meat Boy-like laser focus on *making jumping feel good* with the kind of sprawling two-dimensional world progression these games have always been known for? These are the questions Ori asks, or at least the questions it makes me ask.
Most entries in the genre split their attention pretty evenly between combat and traversal, and it is here Ori starts to divert from the predictable course. Though Ori is structurally a lot like Metroid, mechanically it shares more DNA with the likes of Super Meat Boy. Jumping from wall to wall, dodging spikes and other hazards feels so good it serves to highlight how basic these mechanics are in the likes of Metroid. Taken by itself as a platforming game, Ori would be a great one – if only they’d gone all the way.
The world swarms with enemies that break up the platforming. Early on the only option for dealing with these enemies is stopping near them and firing homing lasers for a few seconds. As is customary, more tools for dealing with combat unlock later on, but even then they merely manage to make combat less of a hassle, never actually fun. In fact, of all your abilities that interact with enemies, the only one I ever wanted to use was the late game addition that uses enemies as platforms. It makes me wonder why most of these combat mechanics are even in the game, when using them is the easiest way to break the flow. I find myself reminded of Mirror’s Edge and its gunplay, but while it is possible (and arguably the more enjoyable way) to play through Mirror’s Edge without firing a shot, you’d have to go to great lengths to achieve the same here.
If this was the only way in which Ori inexplicably gets in the way of its own flow, it might still be one of the best games of last year. Unfortunately, it is not. And not for any one big thing, but many small ones.
Early on play is frequently interrupted by brief cutscenes, where the game pairs its beautiful animation with some incredibly uninspired writing. It’s really a remarkable step down from everything else on display, and I can only assume they were trying to match the mystical fairy tale, almost Ghibli-esque, tone of the visuals. It doesn’t work, and ends up feeling like it’s there just because they wanted cutscenes, not because they had a story to tell.
Later on, these breaks get less common, and by the halfway point of my time with Ori, I had started to see past the problems. When Ori turns on the flow it does so for real, and sailing through the environments, chaining together different abilities and avoiding enemies feels fantastic, even effortless. Few games have such a tight grip on platforming mechanics, and even fewer delight in this particular smoothness of motion. It’s almost disgustingly pleasant at times, enough so to melt away most of my frustrations.
What a shame that it doesn’t last. After spending a good couple of hours exploring most of the corners of this world, it was time to go back to the critical path. Ori settles into an almost Zelda-like structure later on where there are themed dungeons in each corner of the map, culminating in new tools and powers. And here is where all that polish, and fantastic platforming mechanics completely break down.
Each of these dungeons have their own gimmicks and a lot of the time completely override the core skill-set and rules that the rest of the game establishes. Worst of all was the dungeon that sees Ori carrying around a big orb with the power to change gravity by walking on specific surfaces. Lugging this orb around, the flow of movement grinds to a crawl. It’s not that gravity inversion mechanics are a bad gimmick, but it feels like nobody stopped to ask if forcing this into this game is a good fit or adds anything. When carrying this orb, the large and fast leaping across cavernous gaps is replaced by tiny little precision jumps, which the rounded geometry and vibrant art style just does not cope with at all. Guess at when you’re supposed to make the jump, slip on the edge of a platform, fall, die and retry. There’s none of that effortless grace to be found here.
Quickly punishing with death becomes something of a theme in these parts. Beams of fire evaporate poor little Ori in one hit. Rocks fall suddenly, leaving the player to guess in which direction you’re supposed to escape. This is further hindered by how these dungeons are clearly intended to be the biggest visual showpieces of the game, showing off a distinct style heavy with special effects and animations. Frosty corridors where the difference between background details and deadly ice spikes are unclear at best trade off with volcanic rocks glowing so red that it takes at least a handful of deaths to be sure which red glowing rocks are safe to stand on.
As if all of this trial and error wasn’t bad enough… It’s time to talk about the way Ori and the Blind Forest handles saves and checkpoints. There are very few automatic checkpoints and while there are some permanent save stations scattered around the world, they are not nearly enough to traverse all the dangers present. So what Ori lets you do is spend one energy orb at any point to create a checkpoint. Early on, this serves as a punishing resource bottleneck. If you spend that energy fighting, you’re not gonna be able to save. Save too often, and you may not have the energy to open a door later on, demanding backtracking to find more energy.
Whatever the point of this was, it doesn’t even commit. A few hours in, Ori’s energy reserves are no longer limited enough for it to matter, and then it’s just a matter of stopping once in a while to save. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem in some games, but when the pleasure here is in mechanics of momentum and flow, stopping constantly to save just feels counter-intuitive.
This becomes pretty much mandatory in the later areas, for near-instant death is around every corner. Not only is it immensely frustrating to go back significant distances because you forgot to save, but the list of requirements for even being allowed to starts getting oppressive.
You can’t save if there’s an enemy near you. You can’t save if you’re on unstable ground. The save ability has a cooldown so you can only use it every so often (and there’s a talent you can pick to reduce that cooldown.) You can’t save if you’re in a “dangerous area,” which is very unclearly defined. In general, it means “any of the places where you’re actually sure that you want to save.” Oh, that platform you’re standing on counts as “unstable ground,” the game reminds you. You’re not sure why, since it’s not a moving or destructible surface. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the places this particular dungeon allows you to change gravity? In any case, finding a place where you’re even allowed to place a checkpoint frequently becomes a tedious exercise you only participate in to avoid future tedium when a rock is suddenly dropped on your head.
Top all of this off with the dramatic, linear sections that cap off these dungeons where you usually can’t save at all, the art design goes exponentially more wild, and there’s suddenly instant deaths absolutely everywhere. The end result is that all the levels that the visual language suggests as the high points are horrendously frustrating departures from the core rules and design of the game.
Earlier I described the questions that I think are being asked, and every one of my frustrations here is that the game doesn’t go in fully on answering them. What if a metroidvania dropped the combat for a laser focus on design? The result would probably look a lot like the best parts of Ori and the Blind Forest, and I sincerely hope someone else took notice because this is an idea I’d love to see explored further.