Let’s have a look at one of the best Metroidvanias available on PC!
Genre: Metroidvania, Platformer
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release date: 11 March, 2015
For years I grieved that one of my favorite genres, the Metroidvania, was so little represented on PC. However, we have recently had a lot of good ones! Hollow Knight, Alwa’s Awakening, Ori and the Blind Forest, Salt & Sanctuary, Axiom Verge and so on. Even the future is looking bright, with Bloodstained by Koji Igarashi one of the minds behind the Castlevania series. Although the game is from 2015, I wanted to write a review for Ori that could serve as future reference of what works and doesn’t work in this genre, enriched with my thoughts on the games that followed (mainly Alwa and Hollow Knight).
The setting for Ori and The Blind Forest is a gorgeously animated forest and a little character that looks like a spirit version of Stitch from Lilo & Stitch. Ori’s dev team mentioned that they were inspired by Rayman, and it shows in the way the animation is seamless, the graphics are very sharp and the levels have been handcrafted in a way that the usual building blocks do not permit. However… however… I must say that despite how pretty and smooth it feels, I was never in awe at what I was seeing. Ori’s greatest sin is its bland universe and lack of a ‘wow’ factor in its artistic direction. While Rayman’s art can be hit and miss, it oozes creativity and originality. There are tons of cool monsters to behold and cute critters to encounter. The backgrounds can be hit or miss, but they are beautifully colored and they have a strong personality. Ori’s forest is… a forest? In a similar style of 2.5D, Trine was much more gorgeous at every turn. Ori is pretty, but it does not show anything remotely interesting except for a few rare areas. And if we look at the enemies on display, then it’s abysmally worse. Most enemies are shapeless blobs with a few spikes here and there. Yes, sure, they represent corruption, but they lack character and they are not visually pleasing or interesting.
The story is perhaps a strong point in favor of Ori relative to its Metroidvania competitors. Which is not exactly difficult, since stories are usually nothing more than serviceable. I did not find Ori’s story very engaging (it’s on me, it takes a lot for the story of a video game to catch my interest), but it was well presented with beautifully animated cutscenes and there was, surprisingly, a lot of sadness at every corner. That rampaging owl had a very compelling reason to become the antagonist and steal the light that our hero Ori is tasked to recover… My only gripe was with the Tree’s narration, a sort of unintelligible mumbling that I found particularly irritating.
I should start by mentioning the fighting system. Ori does not wield a sword or maul enemies, there is a little spirit that does the fighting for us. It constantly hovers around Ori, and at the press of a button, it sends electric arcs towards enemies in range. It feels a bit strange at first, but then it becomes natural and does not necessarily mean that the fights are easy. Ability points allow to upgrade this fighting system, but I never found it necessary. In any case, it means that the focus of Ori is rather on movements than on fights, which is sort of the opposite of Hollow Knight.
The movements are instantly a pure joy right from the beginning of the game. Ori responds magnificently to every command, there is a lot of great platforming with good level design and new abilities regularly come to boost the movement set and increase the pleasure. Those familiar with platformers will find the usual toolset here, with wall climbing, double jumps, and stomps. The one originality is the ability to dash from projectiles and enemies. When in range, time slows down to give the player just enough time to aim the dash in any direction. The brilliance of this is that from then on, the player can bait enemies to shoot in a certain direction so they can provide an incredibly useful step to jump higher and reach a new area. Amazing. I would say that until half-way or three-fourths, Ori was pure undistilled platforming pleasure. But then something changed.
The following levels did not really have new movement abilities to throw at you, so they started to twist the challenge in unwanted directions. A level in the dark? You have to carry a little light with you, which restricts your movement abilities. A level with burning platforms? You have to carry a little protection with you, which restricts your movement abilities. Even worse, walking on ceilings suddenly meant that if you moved to the right the character would move to the left and vice versa, and it can be very very very confusing. Finally, reaching the ending of some areas triggers an escape sequence in which the player has to quickly reach an exit and survive a ton of obstacles without checkpoints. I am not one to complain about difficulty, those that know me are fully aware that I am a masochist when it comes to difficult platformers. However, I enjoy fair difficulty, not difficulty based on learning in advance where the obstacle comes from so I know where to stir before it’s even on the screen. Everything was manageable within a few tries, but these parts were not fun. I guess their only advantage was to spice things up in terms of rhythm, as they temporarily changed the pacing of the game. Whereas the first half of my experience with Ori was absolute fun, the rest tainted a little my memories of the game.
Map, checkpoints, saves, teleports
Most Metroidvanias have one huge solitary problem: fast travel. Most developers do not seem to be able to grasp that sometimes, you just want to quickly go back to an area for a secret you can now access with your fancy new power, or because there was a shop you need to visit (no shops in Ori), or because you think there was an area hidden in that direction and you want to revisit the location. To most people, going through the same areas over and over is an absolute waste of time. I understand that the fundamental feature of Metroidvanias is a big map with areas that can only be accessed once you acquire a specific power, however, that is only fun when it is designed in a way that you feel like you are always making progress. If there is an area that you have already cleared and it is redundant to go through it again, then there needs to be fast travel. The reason why is that every time that you have to walk through an area, there needs to be a pay-off. Something new to keep you engaged with the game. If there is no fast travel and revisiting an area does not yield novelty, then it’s a waste of time. Let’s not even talk about the stupid placement of the rare teleporters in Hollow Knight. To me, the best Metroidvania in terms of teleporters was Castlevania – Portraits of Ruin. There were teleporters before each key area, before each boss, in the middle and end of each area, and these teleporters were always paired with a health/save point. It was perfect and I loved moving through the bowels of that castle.That is why the definitive edition of Ori had to add teleporters to the game. There could be a little more teleporters but it’s not too big of a deal because the map is fairly easy to navigate. It’s a beautiful huge map with a lot of details, unlike the poor map of Hollow Knight. Points to Ori, best Metroidvania map I have seen in recent memory. Also, the game has objective markers to the areas that need to be visited, which is too rare in these games and was hugely appreciated in Ori.
Another interesting detail in favor of Ori was the save system. There are fixed save points, but also a resource that the player can spend to create a temporary save point anywhere safe. This great system allows the player to decide when to take risks, and can still induce dangerous situations when the player is running low on the resource and pondering whether they should have used the resources better. It’s always possible to grab some more of the resource in the levels, I never felt that the game was unfair in that regard.
What does the definitive edition have over the base game? Two new areas to explore, the awful one with the light to carry in the dark, and one of the best with traps focused on the new dash ability that also adds a little bit of backstory. There are also a few secrets that can only be unlocked with the “light grenade” power obtained in the dark area, and these secrets take the form of a locked door that opens once specific targets have been lit by the light grenade. This was bloody awful, as during my first run I was utterly confused by these locked doors and I was looking everywhere for a hidden switch I could have missed. Then when I acquired the power late in the game, I had to revisit some areas just to find that stupid target and unlock that one little bonus behind the door. If there was a full area to explore behind the door it would have softened the blow, but having to go all the way back just for a few (at that point) useless ability points, no thanks.
Technique and length
The game runs very well, no major bugs to report. Only on Windows and not on Mac/Linux although the game was made with Unity, you can thank the publisher Microsoft for that. Apart from that, my only negative point was that it is not possible to rebind keys and buttons, which can be annoying when you like to have attack with a specific button.
There are several difficulty levels, and I completed the game at 100% on normal difficulty in about 10-12 hours. Thus it is shorter than Hollow Knight, and I am thankful for that because I do not like when a game drags on for too long. If you prefer when a game lasts for longer, then Hollow Knight might be your best pick. Or Salt & Sanctuary, that game was not very accessible as it was almost Dark Souls in 2D, but it was a worthy Metroidvania.
Ori is a great Metroidvania, but not a perfect one. Up to a certain point, it was an absolute joy, but then there were a few sections that tainted my experience with it because they were just not fun. Apart from that, overall Ori benefits from a strong level design (take that, Hollow Knight), a useful map (take that, Hollow Knight) and a wonderful move set (take that, Hollow Knight). The combat was not the focus of the game, but it does not detract from the experience either. I mostly regret a pretty but bland art direction, however, the story was emotional and sad. If you are into puzzle-platforming, Alwa’s Awakening is the best pick. If you are into pure platforming, Ori is great. If you are into combat and a lengthy adventure, Hollow Knight is the best. If you only swear by Dark Souls, Salt & Sanctuary is a great 2D rendition. There is something for everyone! And among the contenders, Ori might be my favorite but that might be because I am biased towards good platforming and level design over the rest.