This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
The usual indie arty platformer theme of "small, innocent child in big, scary world" is like the missionary position: there's nothing inherently wrong with it, some interesting things have been done with it, but when it's all you fucking do, you'll swiftly be desperately hankering to break the monotony with just one suck-job or nipple-clamp. The thing about "small child, scary world", though, is that it rarely does sequels, because the underlying theme of "small child, scary world" is coming of age and/or loss of innocence, and you can't lose your innocence twice. Well, I suppose you could lose it in stages; say, lose half when you find out that Santa isn't real, lose the other half the first time you take it up the arse.
And speaking of comfort zones, we come to Ori and the Will of the Wisps, sequel to "small glowing child-cat-rabbit-thing in scary world" Metroidvania title Ori and the Blind Forest, and the direction it's apparently chosen to go in for this sequel is a U-turn. See, it doesn't take long into Ori and the Walkers of the Crisps to realize that the story is hitting the exact same beats as the last game, except at the montage of deliriously peaceful family life at the start before everything goes to shit, they've added a baby owl with a nice, fresh virginal innocence to ruin instead of Ori's this time. Missionary position again, is it, darling? Okay, I'll get the sheet with the hole in and the picture of Jesus.
You might reasonably think from looking at the promotional art - I almost said "box art" there, but come on; like anyone buys games in boxes, from shops, like a twat. And incidentally, I think the world owes me and every other gamer a debt of gratitude for being way ahead on the whole "self-isolation" thing - that the owl is some kind of sidekick or co-op partner, but that's the case for all of half a level, and the rest of the time, it's Ori on their own again, and the owl is mere feathered MacGuffin. "MacGriffin", perhaps. Again, Ori finds themselves lost in a scary Metroidvania world full of hostile balls of glowing snot. Not the same scary Metroidvania world; a new, if hauntingly similar, one that was next door to the first one the whole time. And again, the big villain is a giant, scary owl. Not the same giant, scary owl; a new, slightly scarier owl that the other giant, scary owls didn't want anything to do with. So I guess this is how we're ramping up the stakes for the sequel: new, never-before-seen depths of owl antisocial-ness. No, but seriously now.
In the fullness of time, I felt bad about my very huffy review of the first Ori and the Last Crusade; I mean, you could hardly call the games lazy. They're beautifully drawn and animated, with a lovely soundtrack; the core gameplay is smooth and satisfying, and the emotional moments hit the right emotion. I couldn't remember what had rubbed me up the wrong way about it, so I eagerly started Ori and the Way of the Wank and shortly afterwards said, "Oh, I remember now." It's not that it's bad; it's very stylish, I just don't think there's much substance to it.
Once again, the nebulous negative force we're up against is "the darkness", which has no agenda beyond making all the nice people sad and the local boss monsters bastards, requiring that we help out through therapeutic "beating the glowing snot out of them". Look, I know this isn't Tinker Tailor Soldier Cat-Rabbit-Thing, and I shouldn't expect complex plotting from my fantasy animal platformers, but the mythic tone and sweeping soundtrack makes me think that it thinks its story is epic and profound when it's actually kind of shallow. "Drive out the darkness and restore the light"? Ooh, good idea; maybe I wouldn't bump into things so much.
The game's backed by Microsoft, and there's a vibe of corporate committee thinking around it; it reminds me of how Hollywood pumps its most crassly gigantic budgets into movies with no more profound message than "it's bad to murder everyone with explosions", because any more controversial statement would offend the Chinese government. The first game had one original thought in the form of having you manually plonk down your save points, which was slightly wobbly in execution, so naturally, it's been kicked to the curb in favor of making a game that's more like Hollow Knight, because Hollow Knight was popular and did well and has therefore gained the favor of the giant money machine, all praise its benevolent wisdom.
So it's got a similar badge system and a similar emphasis on NPCs; it's even got the one mapmaker dude you keep running into in the world who sells you a map for the current area, except in Hollow Knight, you flat out wouldn't have a map until you did that as a deliberate design choice to make the player really think about their new environment without hand-holding for a while, and Ori and the Will of the Smiths auto-maps for you regardless. Maybe orienteering offends the Chinese government, too.
And of course, there's the spectacular boss fights: all three-and-a-half of them, one of which is a giant spider, and giant spider bosses in Metroidvania games are like turret sections in shooters in that they're officially the point where the designers ran out of ideas. But let's not be too churlish, because the boss fights where there's actually a boss and you're actually fighting it are a rare treat when, half the time, the game will have a cinematic chase sequence instead, which are about as much fun as working a seed out of your teeth while listening to the Uncharted soundtrack. Inevitably, these involve having to perfectly carry out a strict sequence of movements and starting all over again at the slightest pause or mistake, where all the impact is lost after the first two or three restarts, and it's only "cinematic" if you're in a cinema where the projectionist has advanced Parkinson's disease. As I've said before, such things aren't precisely the same as "press X to not die" QTE sequences, but they certainly share a bathroom and use the same electric pube-trimmer.
"Oh, hark at Mr. Grumpy Pants reaching for things to complain about because it's easier than changing into a pair of trousers that's more positive-spirited!" All right; it's still a beautiful game, and when it isn't pausing to very cinematically wank the budget off onscreen, the core platforming gameplay is fun and skillful. Although, I hate how we only have three ability slots mapped to three of the face buttons, 'cos one of those abilities is your standard attack, which you will never un-equip, and at least one of them needs to be whatever traversal power gets you through the current area, so really, you've only got one free slot. And I've got all this money, and the merchant's children are starving and eating each other's toenail clippings to survive, but I don't want to fucking buy any of the merchant's fancy combat abilities because I only have one slot, and I don't want to have to keep pausing the game to remap my controls mid-combat like I'm trying to drive a car with a starving Tamagotchi on the passenger seat because someone's never heard of button combinations. "Oh dear, Grumpy Pants is back from the dry cleaners!"
Sorry, I'm still not sure why Ori games affect me this way. I see a perfectly playable game about a cute little animal thing, and I instantly get suspicious; it's probably lingering trauma from looking at Sonic the Hedgehog fan art.
- Creature of the forest: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Grumpy Pants now on sale at all good emotion-based clothiers alongside the thinking caps and the ambivalent bras
- If only I was still capable of shame