Feel. For me, that's what a great platform game is all about. If a character in a platformer comes across as inert, its jump lacks an organic, natural trajectory and is instead too linear and mathematical, or it doesn't switch direction with just the right amount of change in momentum, it doesn't matter how good the game might be, I have difficulty playing and enjoying it.
It's rather like driving a car along a weaving, serpentine country road. If you can't sense the surface and camber of the road through the steering wheel, or adjust the nuances of the car as it traverses corners and bumps, the journey just becomes an exercise in point-to-point travel. But when the wheel feels alive, and you can control every aspect of what the car is doing as it darts from apex to apex, the journey becomes exciting, involving, and perhaps even thrilling.
I'm telling you this because Ori and the Blind Forest is a positively delightful platformer whose feel is spot-on. From the moment you start playing, it has that innate feedback to movement that feels slightly familiar – invoking classic platformers like Metroid, Aladdin, and Super Mario Bros – and yet also feels natural and unique unto itself. Ultimately, it has that certain je ne sais quoi that turns an ordinary platformer into something special. Because special is what Ori and the Blind Forest is.
Moon Studios' upcoming title is a Metroidvania game – what in the olden days used to be called a platform adventure – a 2D side-scrolling game that features elements of discovery and progression. The player takes control of Ori, an orphan guardian spirit who's been raised by a strange bear-like creature. Kuro, an evil spirit, takes Ori's mother from him, and he's left to fend for himself. Fortunately as he explores his surroundings, Ori meets Sein, a guide who begins to teach him abilities that enable him to hold his own against the dangers of the forest. And so begins Ori's adventure – which ultimately turns into a grander mission that involves bringing health and vitality back to his leafy domain.
Being a Metroidvania game, there are classic elements of discovery and backtracking. Power-ups are located along the "golden path" of the game that endow Ori with additional abilities, perhaps enabling him to leap higher, so he can gain access to an area that was off-limits beforehand. Advancement can also be garnered from a trio of skill trees that let you invest experience points to boost Ori's capabilities. More offensively minded players can choose to boost Ori's shooting and destructive skills. There's a defensively oriented skill tree that lets you invest in power-ups that essentially toughen Ori up. Thirdly, there's an abilities tree that lets you do things like turn a double-jump into a triple jump, or gain more life from a life power-up.
The point of the skill trees is to help smooth out the difficulty level a little. Different players find different aspects of games challenging, so depending on how you choose to improve Ori, you can either augment your playstyle, or enhance Ori's abilities to help compensate for your lack of skill in a certain area. It's like an extra little personal boost that lets you enhance very specific areas of the game to your advantage. When I played, being a very offensively oriented player, I ended up boosting Ori's shooting abilities, which let me smash my way through enemies and barriers more quickly - although I had to be careful not to get hit because I was relatively more fragile.
The real standout feature of Ori is its map. It's rendered as one massive, unique piece of contiguous art. It's organic, non-repetitive and absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. You can obviously tell that by looking at the screenshots here, but what you can't see is the game in motion. The way light falls on objects, and the subtle parallax detailing is just phenomenal. The Rayman series has certainly raised the bar for platform graphics over the years, but I think Ori has upped the stakes once again: I can't think of a better-looking platformer than this.
Xbox producer Mark Coates explained to me, "There is very little, if any tiling. That's one of the design pillars of the game. In some ways there are elements that Moon Studios really wanted to recreate from games of yore – the idea of pixel perfect platform jumps. But in terms of the graphics, we felt there was the opportunity for us to use modern techniques to create a very vibrant and beautiful graphical treatment."
Mark continues about the size of the game. "Roughly speaking, and following the most direct path, the game is about 10 hours in length, although probably far higher for most people who won't take the optimal, most direct route."
Ori and the Blind Forest will also cater for those interested in specific challenges by tracking the player's performance throughout the game for inclusion on community leaderboards. So, for example, there might be a speedrunning leaderboard, or one that tracks how many lives were used during a game.
Speaking of lives (or in this case, saving them), a really useful feature is an on-the-fly save mode that lets Ori create a restart point at any time during the game. To stop this being abused, Ori needs to have a certain amount of power to save, and once used, it's depleted and recharges slowly. It's definitely a great idea – while things start fairly straightforwardly (in many respects reminding me of the early levels of the classic Jungle Book platformer) things soon get challenging, requiring a difficult series of perfect jumps, or even running upside down across a hazard-packed ceiling (complete with reversed controls).
It's here that Ori's feel really comes into full effect. It's so natural and perfectly balanced, and even though jumps are often really tricky – such as making a platform swing back and forth so you can do a pin-point jump to a higher plane – when you make a mistake, it feels like your mistake, and not that you fell foul of the game. That to me is the mark of a perfect platformer, and one of the big reasons why I'm so excited about this game.
After playing for an hour and a half, I had to be torn away from Ori and the Blind Forest. It's a classic Metroidvania game with all the right trappings, and gameplay that feels tuned to perfection. I can't think of a better platformer I've played in years. Keep watching this space!