23 March 2015

Two weeks ago came out Ori and the Blind Forest. Reviews were glowing and the price tag was cheap, and since 2D metroidvania platformers have a special place in my heart, I figured I had to give it a try. After six hours and a few hundred generally unfortunate deaths, I finished it. The save files claims I’m at 86% completion, which I consider good enough. So, what do I think of Ori?

Let’s put a few things in perspective first. Many people classified Ori as a “metroidvania”, which is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, the two series of games which can be credited for inventing, improving on, and popularizing that particular genre. While Metroid is of course the original creator, the Castlevania series brought quite a lot of innovation on the basic formula starting with Symphony of the Night, which came out during the fifth generation when Metroid was on hiatus.

A metroidvania game has a somewhat open level design that encourages and rewards exploration by spreading upgrades and abilities across a large map. As a result, the player will need to backtrack through already visited locations as previously acquired skills enable him or her to reach new areas that were previously blocked off. This in turn has a deep impact not only on level design, but also pacing, character progression and overall combat. While most metroidvanias are 2D platformers for historical reasons, it is not mandatory: Metroid Prime is a first person shooter, for instance.

Metroid, this ain’t

Reading the reviews and the comments, many people were rather quick to call Ori a metroidvania. I have issues with that. For starters, there is little to no backtracking involved. The game is split into six major sections: three dungeons and three “preparatory segments” that serve to collect a key that you can use to access each of the dungeons, while in the middle of all six zones sits an additionnal “hub” area. The only backtracking done is through that hub: for each of the other locations, once you’re done, you don’t have to come back. In that regard, the structure is much more akin to Zelda than to Metroid. Many of them don’t even feature collectibles, and when they do, you can usually pick them up on your first visit. Some areas even close down after leaving them, preventing further exploration. And when you finish the game, the save file locks down and you can’t do anything else with it.

This makes Ori, despite what the map screen indicates, an highly linear experience. The corridor you are walking through might have a weird shape, it is still a corridor. In fact, progress is generally gated by story segments rather than with abilities. I never felt like I needed to go and wander around to find new areas to discover and items to collect. There is always one obvious path to follow, and everything is on that path. If you can’t get those items on your first visit, you’ll be able to do so on the way back. The more I was progressing, the more I realized how small the world actually is, and how little of it you’ll end up seeing. I wonder if people would have been so quick to call Ori a “metroidvania” if the game had sported a level select screen instead of a large connected world, or even a smaller central location with portals to other areas, like Super Mario 64?

So, is it good?

Now, you might think I disliked Ori and the Blind Forest, and you’d be wrong… mostly. Up until after finishing the first dungeon, I was seriously thinking it would be a GOTY contender. The art, the music, the tight controls, the difficulty curve, everything was so smooth and well designed. I’m thinking about making a metroidvania-style game (don’t get your hopes up), and Ori actually made me rethink several elements of my design. I especially like how you can create your own checkpoints: dying all the time doesn’t really matter when you respawn a few meters away from your point of death.

The combat is interesting in that it’s much more akin to a shoot ‘em up than a brawler. Because your main form of attack automatically acquires targets, you end up focusing more on dodging enemy attacks while mashing a button to damage them. The result is frantic and usually quite fun. Sometimes it becomes a bit frustrating when some enemies fire tiny projectiles that become hard to spot in all the action, and that becomes a real issue in the later levels, where monsters have the same color as the background and everything becomes cluttered.

Come to think of it, there are several things I can nitpick about. Like, for instance, how the second dungeon forces you to learn an entire new set of mechanics that you will never need ever again. Or how the hit detection isn’t alaways accurate, which is probably a side effect of the platforming being physics based and non deterministic. Or how the punishingly hard combat and low cost of death leads to trial-and-error gameplay. Or how you can technically climb on spikes even though that will kill you. Or how some new upgrades clash with older ones, which forces the designers to contrive some weird gimmicks to give you a reason to use it: remember the weird flower walls in the Misty Woods? Those are there to make sure you use your new wall running ability instead of the older wall jumping. Remember the hot stones in Mount Horu? They’re there to make sure you’re jumping instead of climbing.

But despite all that, I couldn’t help but grit my teeth, hold my controller tighter and and take another stab at it, no matter how many times I failed. And, in that regard, it must means Ori is doing something right. It is exactly the kind of difficulty I’m looking for in a game: one that is punishing but not frustrating.

Closing words

All those gripes are not really fair for Moon Studios, as I had unrealistic expectations to begin with. Not every game has to be like Metroid, and Ori is still a solid platformer with tight controls, crisp visuals, an excellent soundtrack and lots of gripping moments. It’s a great game that left me wanting more, and that probably means I liked it. That being said, I remember Ori more for its sights and its sounds than for its levels and its mechanics. It could have been so much more, but it also could have been so much less. As for its potential GOTY status, we’re still a quarter into the year, so who knows, maybe something will happen along the way.

Verdict: Buy it. It might not be the best game ever made, but it’s sure as hell worth twenty bucks. For what it’s worth, I’m interested in seeing what Moon Studios comes up with next.

As for my itch for an actual metroidvania, looks like I’ll need to dust off my copy of Metroid Prime again.