“Ori and the Blind Forest” (Xbox One; $14.99; Rated E) wastes no time in getting you to feel something. It’s what comes after the emotional introduction that comes as a surprise.
Video games, and particularly the download-exclusive ones, are getting more and more creative at finding ways to draw people in. It is in these lower-priced, lower-stakes experiences that game studios tend to have a little more freedom to experiment, and that means experiences that look and feel nothing like anything else on the market. Sometimes these experiments hit – perhaps most famously with Mojang’s retro-LEGO game “Minecraft” – and sometimes they’re less successful, as in the confusing “Volgarr the Viking,” or thousands of other games on Steam that struggle to sell a thousand copies.
Rather than taking a purely visual approach, “Ori and the Blind Forest” draws you in with a story. Deftly told and beautifully illustrated, it’s a story of loss and promised redemption, the type of setup that actually provides motivation to continue. It’s a story you don’t want to ruin for anyone, even though it happens in the game’s first 10 minutes.
Light and power
Once that’s out of the way, though, “Ori and the Blind Forest” turns into something less about feelings and more about sheer will and determination. You play as the Ori of the title, a little four-legged something-or-other who is apparently made of light. You run and explore the forest in a way similar to games like the classic “Metroid” or, more recently, “Strider” and “Guacamelee,” uncovering bits and pieces little by little as the acquisition of new powers allows you to reach new areas.
The goal is to bring light to the forest while finally learning about your mysterious origins.
The game starts you off gently, but quickly picks up and turns into a very difficult platformer in terms of obstacles and combat. It’s downright common to die 10 or 20 (or more) times in some of the more difficult stretches. While “Ori” does throw you a bone in allowing you to save your game anywhere, choosing the wrong checkpoint could get you stuck for quite a while.
While environmental obstacles are responsible for some of that challenge, it’s the enemies that will block your path more often than not. Combat is typically a matter of hammering a button while dodging whatever the enemies dish out. But that dodging is tougher than it sounds, as even some of the easiest enemies will toss three projectiles at once at poor Ori. Enemies fly around, often unpredictably, forcing the player to plan routes and strategies before entering the room with these beasts.
It’s hard to see any of this coming when the opening of the game makes such an effort to bring a tear to your eye.
“Ori and the Blind Forest” is garnering some early game-of-the-year type buzz from many of the major gaming publications, and it earns those kudos through its beautiful visuals, its tight, responsive controls and a story that makes you want to do the work of getting through the tricky bits. The gaming landscape changes as players slowly drift away from the huge first-person war games and into ostensibly simpler experiences that work an entirely different set of reflexes.
If games like “Ori” are what we have to look forward to as a result, gaming has a bright future indeed.
New this week: “Battlefield Hardline” (multiplatform) takes the successful first-person shooter series to the streets, surely hoping that the controversy that surrounds creating a current game around a militarized police force (not to mention the bad timing of it) is swallowed by the excitement of actually playing it.