For all of its external beauty, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a game dedicated to death. Mistime a leap or a dash? It’s curtains for you. Fail to evade a giant, oppressive beast? You’re heading straight back to that last checkpoint. For every moment of incredible, death-defying platforming or evasion that you achieve, Ori and the Will of the Wisps has fifty more ignominious deaths coming for you. Incredibly, and to Moon Studios’ eternal credit, there’s somehow still beauty, grace and an abundance of charm to be found.
Anyone that’s played the first Ori game knows the devastation and emotional impact of its opening, and that same penchant for tender, emotive storytelling spills over into its sequel. Death and decay cripple the distant lands of Niwen, and Ori and her adopted owlet sibling Ku inadvertently find themselves swept up in the centre of it.
If you’re coming into Will of the Wisps after playing the original, you will immediately feel a shift in Moon Studios’ direction. Combat is now more direct and impactful, with Ori gaining – for want of any other description – a spirit lightsaber to swipe at foes with. There’s an expanded line-up of upgrades and skills to unlock in a much more freeform and customisable fashion, and whether they’re found in the course of the game’s regular progression or by exploring the deepest depths of Niwen, Ori’s growth is both naturalistic and empowering.
The world itself feels deeper and more lived in, with an array of compelling additional characters to interact with on your adventure. Birdman Nook – an extra pinched from Disney’s Dumbo, or perhaps the animated Robin Hood – is the first of many to help you on your way, while also giving you even more to do by dropping in a side quest or two of his own.
Fans shouldn’t worry though, as Will of the Wisps retains everything that made Ori and the Blind Forest so successful. In an of that, it’s still teeth-grindingly hard. As Ori’s skills expand, so too do the obstacles put in your way. Ori may as well be a spirit ninja, and your fingers and thumbs his blades, as you chain together an inexplicably complicated route through a section that would have been completely impossible half an hour before.
It’s a perfectly crafted Metroidvania, opening up new areas as you gain the requisite skill. It’s organic in the way that it grows. I never found myself wondering what ability to use, instead it was always the means to implement it. You’re rewarded for further exploration with additional powerful skills, extra ability slots, or the means to revitalise and expand your hub village. Though they’re likely unnecessary for completing the game’s central narrative, this is the kind of world you’ll want to see in its entirety.
The game’s brutal difficulty extends into the incredible boss fights and escapes. Will of the Wisps throws huge set pieces into the mix, asking you for near perfect platforming runs to evade the enormous, terrifying creatures that are set on your destruction. Much like set pieces from the Uncharted series, such things can lead to some frustration, but Will of the Wisps manages to walk the line between dismay and success so well that you controller will stay in your hand. Probably.
The boss fights themselves are heart-pounding affairs as well. Evasion remains a key component to them, but Ori is far from unprepared to slice them up with his spirit sword or slug them with a spirit hammer. Giant wolves, spiders and beetles will throw everything at you, but the further you progress, the more options you have to deal with them.
That lightsabre might be the foundation of your arsenal, but by the end of the game you can have a bow that fires multiple bouncing arrows, a throwing star that returns to your hand and fire bombs. The game slows to a near pause while you switch between them too, giving you a moment’s grace within the fraught encounters and frantic button-mashing melees. It’s glorious stuff if you have the disposition for it.
Those boss encounters aren’t purely a battle between good and evil. The pervading Decay that’s corrupted Niwen extends to all of its denizens, and you’re given a vision of either how things came to be this way, or how they are once Ori releases them from its clutches. There’s tender moments throughout; a spider baby nuzzling up to its gigantic mother, a twisted owlet cast out by its elders, and whether involving the heroes or villains, Moon Studios visual storytelling is note perfect. Speaking about them in the same breath as Pixar or Studio Ghibli would not be out of place.
It’s impossible to discuss the emotional impact of Ori and the Will of the Wisps without including the stunning visuals and audio landscape. For every element of storytelling or exquisite moment-to-moment gameplay, your heart will be stuck in your mouth as the camera pans out to take in a decaying structure or a revitalised lagoon.
There’s some clear environmental messaging within Ori, and whether removing pollution from the water or helping Tuley – an adorable Groundhog-esque gardener – replant and revive the Wellspring Glades, it feels undeniably freeing to bring glory and beauty back to this eye-catching world.
Composer Gareth Coker returns to provide Ori and the Will of the Wisps with an orchestral soundtrack that can match the emotional impact of those visuals note for note. There’s delicacy to match Ori’s diminutive form, drama to carry the unfolding events, and bombast at the game’s most punishing moments. It’s haunting, memorable, and perfectly in tune with Moon Studios’ artistry and mechanics.