Ori and the Blind Forest review
written 2023-07-23, last edited 2023-09-16
Ori and the Blind Forest is an action platformer that I found through its soundtrack many years ago but didn't decide to play until 2023/07, when I was craving new scarce games. Unfortunately I spoiled the story for myself before playing, but oh well. I wrote some parts of this review as I played, so that's why it sounds like that.
First of all, the game is incredibly beautiful, both visually and musically. I don't think I've *ever* complimented a game's graphics before. I've always said that I don't care about graphics and I've never complained about or praised them. But this game immediately made me feel that its graphics deserve special praise.
Probably trying to lean on this strength, it has a very cinematic opening, with interactive cutscenes and expecting you to move and jump without telling you the controls because I guess that would ruin the cinematic-ness or something. I was fine with this for a while, I get that games need time to set up the story and stuff, but this section overstays its welcome by a few minutes (I would have been more patient with pure cutscene instead of the shallow interactivity of having to hold a key for a character to keep crawling). I was quite grateful to see the HUD finally appear.
The first thing that jumped out at me once actual gameplay started is that the game's artstyle is *really* unclear about what's foreground and what's background, what's a wall and what isn't, and what's a hazard and what isn't. It's probably the worst case of this problem I've ever seen. I see that the devs looove their beautiful graphics, but this is a game and I'm playing on hard, so gameplay should come first.
The game is also really unclear about how it works early on. Some examples:
- I'm taught that I can spend "energy" to place a Soul Link, which saves the game (including my position) and lets me spend upgrade points. I notice one of the first upgrades says "lets you reuse Soul Links". Wait, does that mean these save points are only good for 1 death, and disappear after that? It turns out that's not the case, which left me totally confused what that upgrade does. I eventually had to look it up. It lets you save again at the same Soul Link. Without it, you can respawn at one infinitely, but can't return to it to save progress again. (There are other places in the game where you can save without making a Soul Link, but Soul Links let you place a checkpoint in the field.)
- When the game was teaching me how to attack, it said "repeatedly left-click to use the Spirit Flame". At first I was afraid to do that because the fact that Soul Link costed 1 energy (which was my entire energy meter) made me think that Spirit Flame would also be scarce, so I wanted to wait for the enemies to come. They didn't. Eventually I clicked. It's not scarce, but the attack seems to go in a random direction. Since you attack by clicking, I thought it would be something I'd aim with the mouse, but no. I stayed there for a while trying to figure out how to aim the Spirit Flame because why would I go into battle without knowing how to aim?? Eventually I just went into battle and it turns out it auto-targets when you're in range of enemies, *otherwise* it goes in a random direction. That's weird. Could've just told me that and it would've saved time.
I also think that auto-aiming attacks are a bit disappointing. It's a missed opportunity to make the combat more challenging in a good way. Instead, the combat is challenging in a lame way: everything kills me in 1 or 2 hits. I suspect things do more damage to me than normal because I'm playing on hard, but this is excessive. Like really, you designed a game where the player's health bar looks like it consists of discrete "hits" and *early-game* hazards do *6* damage on contact? Life pickups seem to only restore 1, so I'm like, "what's the point, it's won't give me enough to survive another hit".
Even after finishing the game, I'm not totally sure what I think of the save system. Aside from rare Spirit Wells that save the game for free and restore your life and energy, you have to spend energy to create a checkpoint. You can place them wherever you want but have to be sparing. On one hand, maybe letting players place the checkpoints is good because of the subjective nature of difficulty... but on the other hand, since you don't know when you'll find more energy or what's ahead, you can overspend and then be stuck going too long without one, or underspend and have a bad experience for no reason.
The abilities are badly balanced
In metroidvania style, you get more abilities throughout the game. The abilities usually pull double duty as combat and platforming tools or area unlockers. Shame that they're so badly balanced.
Stomp, which is like a ground pound that emits a shockwave, can be used to stunlock most enemies as soon as you get in range, obsoleting the entire rest of the combat system. The shockwave isn't even ground-bound like you'd expect, it's a circle and has a huge radius, so it even works on many aerial or ceiling-bound enemies, or even enemies on a floor below you! And it bounces projectiles away from you! And it has no cost or cooldown. Basically, every battle can be solved by just spamming this one move.
But I think even more problematic is the "Bash" ability, because it's amazing at both attack and defense from any range and also amazing as a platforming tool. This ability lets you trade places with a nearby enemy, projectile, or certain environmental objects, and send both of you flying in opposite directions you choose (and it conveniently pauses time for a second, making it easy to take in the situation and pick the right direction). It also refills your double jump. So in combat, you can just wait for an enemy to shoot at you and then "Bash" their projectile to get close without being hit, or you can use it to hit them with their own projectiles while getting yourself to a safe distance, or knock enemies into spikes (which is always an instant kill). Bash is ridiculously flexible and powerful at every use case. Also has no cost or cooldown.
It's funny how terrible both of these abilities make Charge Flame look. Charge Flame is the first "special" combat ability you get, and it is the only one that costs energy. Honestly, I don't even know how powerful it is compared to Stomp, because I never use it, because no matter how powerful it is, I'd never be willing to spend on combat the same resource needed to create checkpoints. All the hardest parts of the game are platforming anyway. And as for non-combat use? All it does is break certain objects. A couple of these are area unlocks, the rest just give you some experience points.
A couple of comments on specific sections:
The escape from the Ginso Tree while being chased by the rising waters is probably my favorite section. It's right after Bash is introduced, so I hadn't had time to grow distaste for the ability for how overpowered it is, and the section makes you master it. It's frantic but not too long, and made me feel really good at the game. It was the first time after finishing a section I sat back and was like 'damn, that was good'.
The illusion forest was my least favorite section when I played it. It has some rules clarity issues: there's a type of surface, the glowing blue flowers, that's used with 4 differet rulesets all without explanation. Also, the first one of these rulesets is so unintuitive that it's not reasonable to expect the player to figure it out. They are:
- These surfaces toggles between being there and not being there whenever you jump from ground.
- You have to jump on the platforms in a fixed order, and only the current and next ones in order are ever there.
- They appear and disappear based on time so you have to run across them at the right speed.
I like the Forlorn Ruins overall. It is more puzzle-like than the other sections, with a mechanic that changes the direction of gravity. I liked the puzzles and they way they're mixed with platforming. Also, the "temple of technological marvels" theme stands out against the rest of the game nicely.
I don't like the escape sequence this time, because while its mechanic is fine, it's not explained well what you're even supposed to do - I died like 5 times in the beginning before I figured out you're supposed to float upward. After that, I had a ton of trial and error deaths. There's a lot of places where rocks fall that'll kill you in 1 hit and it's too fast to avoid if you don't know it's coming, and there are some spikes that didn't look like spikes to me.
Most of this level is fine, but the escape at the end displaced the illusion forest as my least favorite section. It's too long without checkpoints (even if you have energy you can't create checkpoints during the escape sequences), and also has a lot of problems with unclear hitboxes, unclear rules, and timing RNG. In the climb at the end I died like 3 times wondering where I was supposed to go before I realized you can Bash on the falling rocks. It's unfortunate that the end of the game is the worst part.
The story is too bare-bones to be very interesting, but it's not bad. What annoyed me was the way it's told. Instead of any dialogue, you get narration from the Spirit Tree telling you what's happening. Sometimes it's a summary of what you just saw, and I'm like "thanks, I can see, I don't need you to tell me what just happened onscreen". Other times it's a storytelling cheat: when you find the owl's egg, you get a flashback to how her other children were killed, and then the narrator is like "Ori learned why [the owl] was hunting them", but how did just finding the egg tell Ori that? I guess the writers couldn't come up with a real way for Ori to learn that information.
Is this game a metroidvania? It's a lot like one: the way you get new fundamental abilities throughout the game, the way those abilities let you get to places you couldn't before, and the way it has an open world divided into named areas with several connections that you can explore at will. I guess it technically is, but it's missing a lot of the metroidvania appeal that, say, Hollow Knight has, because the only actual progression is linear. The non-linear exploration is strictly optional and has nothing to do with the story. You have to visit all the places where "things happen" in strict order.
I have a phobia of spiderwebs. This has been a problem for me in many games before, including what I played just before Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight. Ori is much worse than Hollow Knight because the webs are much more often web-shaped, and they're much more common - in Hollow Knight they were confined to one area, but in Ori they're scattered throghout the world. Luckily, the game offers to un-fullscreen and make the window super small, which let me get through it all, but having to constantly switch between fullscreen and tiny window in almost every area sucked a lot of joy out of the game.
I think the game is decent but not great. There was a time in the middle - around the Ginso Tree - I thought it was great, but the illusion forest, realizing how bad the ability balance is, and the Mount Horu escape changed my mind. I probably won't play the sequel, but that's mostly because of the phobia problem.