The Xbox One's most beautiful game is wonderfully old school
Ori and the Blind Forest is a retro game in a modern wrapper50
When I was a kid, I used to imagine what video games in the future might look like — and I was completely wrong. I never foresaw the advent of 3D graphics or huge open worlds, and I certainly didn't imagine how the internet would fundamentally change the way games are played. Instead, I thought of prettier versions of the 2D classics I was already playing: a new Final Fantasy as gorgeous as Castle in the Sky, or a Legend of Zelda game that looked just like a Disney cartoon. That obviously never happened, and outside of a few rare titles, hand-drawn animation never really became a big part of gaming. But I still sometimes wonder how great it might be to live in that alternative universe.
It turns out, Ori and the Blind Forest is exactly the game I dreamed about.
Out today on Xbox One and Steam, Ori is perhaps the most beautiful game I've ever played. It takes place in a sprawling, fantastical forest, one beset with a darkness that you're attempting to destroy. And it's all rendered in astonishing detail, from the animation to the wonderfully painted backgrounds. You’ll explore areas including dark caverns and colorful woods, and they all feel full of life and movement. You play as Ori, a sort of ghostly cat-like creature, who has recently been taken from his adopted parent, a strange animal that looks like a bear wearing a mask. All of this story is told not with words, but charming animations that show the two characters caring for each other. When Ori first ventures out in the forest on his own, you can see his despair in the way he barely lifts his head as he walks.
The game itself is fairly straightforward, reminiscent of Metroid and later Castlevania titles. It’s a combination of an action game and a platformer, and it’s just as challenging as the games you remember from the NES. Just like the alien planets in Metroid, the forest is actually one huge, interconnected world, and as you progress and earn new abilities, you'll open up new areas to explore. For example, once you get the ability to double jump, you can hop over gaps you previously couldn't. You can see many of these unreachable areas early on, but it's not until you learn the right ability that you can actually explore them. Much like in Metroid, this makes the act of backtracking through old areas actually fun and exciting; when you unlock a new skill, it can often completely change the way the game plays.
Outside of its structure, Ori is also decidedly old-school when it comes to the difficulty: this is a hard game. You'll often come across regular enemies that can defeat you in just a few hits, so there's really never a time when you can relax. Likewise, the platforming sections can sometimes resemble something out of Super Meat Boy: death traps filled with spikes, laser beams, and other hazards that appear to be impossible to traverse at first glance. This is the kind of game where it'll often take dozens of attempts to get past a single perilous jump. But it’s also the kind of game that’s so good that you’ll keep trying instead of shutting the console off in frustration.
Things get even more challenging when you factor in the often unforgiving checkpoint system. Regular save points are spaced out pretty far apart, though the game features a somewhat unique system where you can use magic energy — also used for special moves like an explosive attack — to create temporary save points wherever you want. This can be really useful when you're in between check points, but it also means that you have to constantly think about saving at all times, which can be hard when you're so focused on the actual game. If you forget, you can lose a lot of progress instantly. Death in Ori and the Blind Forest can come very suddenly, and if you forgot to save, it’s immensely frustrating.
This is all to say that, aside from a few modern concessions, Ori plays just like the side-scrolling classics that used to keep me up all night drawing maps on graph paper. Because of this, it's also a great example of how much presentation can change a game. With a chiptune soundtrack and pixel art graphics, Ori would've been another retro homage, a game like Shovel Knight that feels like a long-lost classic. But with 2D graphics that rival the best of hand-drawn animation and a haunting soundtrack that can make constantly dying seem peaceful, Ori is something different altogether. It blends modern and retro in a way that feels almost seamless, blending some of the best from both worlds.
It is, quite literally, the game of my dreams.