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Ori and the Blind Forest / 24th of March 2015

From the rather elusive Moon Studio, comes Ori and the Blind Forest, a Metroidvania-style delight that merges gorgeous, painterly-like visuals with a wonderful orchestral score and some severely rock hard gameplay to create one of the finest releases of the year, and an exclusive title for Microsoft that may just rank as being the very best thus far released on the Xbox One. Its hard-core gaming heritage belies the cutesy exterior to provide a challenging, often frustrating, yet never disappointing gaming experience, and whilst it certainly isn’t perfect, Microsoft have netted themselves a sublime exclusive title that not only enhances the quality of the Xbox One’s current library, but expands its already broad reach with a platformer good enough to rival the very best work that Nintendo has to offer, it really is that good. You may very well be wondering how this is even possible, if so, read on and find out…

Ori isn’t your typical, run of the mill exclusive, it hasn’t been developed by a massive AAA developer with over two hundred mouths to feed, it’s a very low key affair created by what is effectively a virtual company, a gathering of industry pros from across the world brought together to create the kind of games that they themselves wish to play. This small team, supported by Microsoft studios and a few other companies have effectively eschewed the high media exposure that is usually flung upon such eagerly anticipated releases, yet Moon Studios have managed to keep Ori well under wraps, to let the game do the talking, and the selling, and this it manages to do with aplomb.

When the game begins, players assume control of the character of Naru as she meets Ori on a rather dark and stormy night, embracing her light, and caring for her as though one of her own children. This is soon supplemented by scenes in which we see the two gaily playing together, feeding upon nature’s bounty and building a bridge in a gorgeous montage that speeds the proceedings along until the fateful night upon which the two were separated. This is all backed up, as is the game as a whole, by a thoroughly moving, utterly brilliant orchestral score, and it sets the scene perfectly for Ori’s journey into the dark and decaying world to restore life to it once again. The story seems to nod knowingly in the direction of Hayao Miyazaki’s environmentally conscious cinematic masterpieces, such as Nausica and Princess Mononoke, yet the connection seems to extend beyond this to the game’s visual design.

In terms of Ori’s visuals, there simply aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to throw at the game, it’s a mesmerisingly beautiful adventure that is simply bustling with life; from the leaves carried precariously upon a light breeze, to the rolling hills and forest laden backdrops, or the silhouettes of obscure creatures hobbling to and fro within the foreground that seemingly tower above all else. There is an incredible sensation of depth to be found here, much like Ubisoft Montreal’s brilliant Child of Light, there are numerous layers that stretch from near to far, it’s hard to describe the look of the game without simply gushing over the sterling work that the developer and their art team have somehow managed to achieve, and perhaps it’s even more remarkable that they have done this with the Unity Engine, which again proves that it might just be the best, and most flexible solution available to the many indies out there. The effect is perhaps most pronounced throughout the opening which truly feels as though one is controlling the flow of an animated feature as opposed to a videogame. There’s such fluidity to the animation, and a warmth – as much as a depth – to be found within the expansive colour palette that ranges from the deep hues of the darkest woods to the bright, almost fluorescent tinges of a raging volcano. Simply put, Ori is by far the best looking game that I have seen so far this year, and in terms of its aesthetic style, it is highly unlikely to be topped in this regard.

The sound design is also thoroughly magnificent; the narrator’s voice booms and echoes above all else, the streams of magma roar and the wind howls hauntingly through the withered, decaying trees. The score, as mentioned is a marvellous mix of elegant piano, strings and woodwinds, with each composition expertly capturing the mood of the scene so effortlessly, the composer, Gareth Coker, should surely be looking at some awards for his outstanding efforts here, for there can be no denying that Ori and the Blind Forest has one of the best and most varied original soundtracks in recent memory. The very fact that the music manages to stand out against the divine artistry of the visuals is proof enough of its impeccable quality, savour it.

Ori and the Blind Forest essentially plays out like the majority of platform-puzzle games, players must work their way through obstacle strewn levels in an attempt to work their way from beginning to end, simple right? It’s difficult to put my finger on why these games generally hold so much appeal, what is it that keeps us playing despite the many setbacks, and there will be many, hundreds even on your first playthrough of this particular gem. Now whilst the story certainly isn’t without its charm, it’s the overall beauty of the game and the refined platforming that will keep players entertained from start to finish, even when the game isn’t being especially nice. As part of the campaign, Ori must reunite the three elements of light that the Spirit Tree once protected, these being wind, water and warmth, they are essentially housed in what one could describe loosely as dungeons, and upon liberating each element players are subjected to a highly frustrating escape from an onslaught of hazards that must be avoided. Every encountered hurdle brings instant death and there are no checkpoints to speak of, meaning that players must perform the task expected of them faultlessly, regardless of the number of attempts that it takes. Needless to say, Ori becomes fraught with vexation, yet surprisingly, its appeal never once wains, even in the face of broken knuckles and controllers.

There is an RPG-like skill tree that gives players access to enhanced abilities, such as a quicker rate of fire, more powerful attacks, or even more mundane enhancements such as additional health – though this is essential in surviving. There are three paths that offer different boosts, the middle of these being one focused upon the improvement of pickups, and more importantly, the discovery of Ori’s many secrets. The story may not be especially long, it can be bested in less than three hours, though certainly not on a first attempt, and the search for these secrets - along with 100% world traversal – could see Ori last well over ten hours or so, and let’s not forget, Ori and the Blind Forest only costs about £15.

Now, that probably all sounds absolutely perfect, right? Well, as I said earlier, the game has its flaws, though not very many, I must add. There have been some technical problems with Ori, it can clash with the console’s “instant on” feature, causing the game to repeatedly flash as it cycles between it and a solid black screen (Microsoft are currently working on a patch for this now) and sadly, it will also crash quite frequently. There were times during the game when I found the controls to be not quite as tight as they perhaps needed to be, usually when I was fleeing for my life, which made those few moments all the more irritating. Worst of all though, upon completing Ori, players can no longer continue on their journey as they seek to find the remaining collectibles or traverse every inch of the map, and nor is there a new game plus option, which will considerably limit the title’s replay value.

Having said all of that, there can simply be no denying that Ori and the Blind Forest is an incredible work of art; it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, it’s complimented by a truly wonderful score and to top it off, it is undoubtedly the best and most addictive piece of platforming action this side of the Wii-U. I feel that anybody that had already seen this game running knew fine well that it was going to be rather special, but we just didn’t know that it was going to be this extraordinary, and mark my words, come the end of the year, this is one release that we will all still be talking about as a pivotal moment in the development of the gaming industry. You simply must experience this masterpiece now.

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