When the Forest Was Blind, and Sad, and Very Hard to Climb Through

WTF is Ori and the Blind Forest?

Ori and the Blind Forest is an award-winning indie platformer in which you play as Ori, a forest spirit separated from his or her tree, and orphaned when the forest starts to die. Ori must journey back to the tree and restore light to the forest with the help of a blue fairy-like guide named Sein. Along the way, s/he faces off against two different villains, and – in a story that’s like a grenade to the heart – learns about love and the power of empathy.

As Ori travels through the forest s/he gains an increasingly complex set of powers, and gameplay mostly involves mastering and chaining special moves and jumps to navigate increasingly treacherous terrain. There’s a small amount of combat with minor enemies, and a small amount of puzzle solving, but, mostly, Ori and the Blind Forest is a technical skills challenge. At the end of each major stage, there’s a brutally hard timed sequence where you have to outrun something before it kills you.

It’s hard, but it’s fucking awesome

On my first play, last year, I actually quit a quarter of the way through, because I was so discouraged. This game is like nothing I’ve ever seen – the graphics are beautiful, the interface is unique and inventive, the story jerked tears out of me like no tear-jerker has – but it’s also difficult and unforgiving. Success depends on quick reaction times and doggedly running the same sequences over and over until you perform perfectly.

It’s worth it, though.

Part of what I loved about this game was being surprised by the richness of the story and its characters – their unexpected acts of kindness; the poignant way the animators capture things like grief and courage – I don’t want to ruin it by rehashing everything that happens, here, but I will say that I was happy to run the water level over and over and over again if passing it eventually meant I got to see the rest of this story.

Like a lot of platformers, there isn’t much dialogue in Ori and the Blind Forest, so a lot of what’s happening is communicated through music, animation, and sparse voice-over narration from an important-sounding tree. Rather than being a limitation, though, that actually adds to the game’s epic feeling. The most heartbreaking scenes are burned into my memory forever.

It’s also insanely unique

Which is part of what makes it both hard and awesome. You can basically forget anything you know about platformers, including which direction you should run. Ori and the Blind Forest involves looping back through the same areas from different directions multiple times. There’s a map that tells you if you’re basically trying to go up, down, left, or right, but finding a route is a challenge in itself. (In the time since I first played, they’ve released another edition of the game where you can fast travel between locations, and I balk at the very notion).

The mechanics are also completely different than usual. Ori has a spirit power s/he can use to attack enemies, but most of his/her skills involve special jumps and, in the later levels, you basically have to fling yourself from place to place without ever touching the ground. It’s pretty intense.

The game forces you to master each power as you learn it – there’s none of this Legend of Zelda use-it-once-then-pray-you-don’t-forget stuff. You’re immediately thrust into a situation where you die and die and die until you get good at doing whatever you’ve just learned to do. (In the time since I first played, they’ve released another edition of the game with an easier difficulty setting, AND I BALK AT THE VERY NOTION.)

You also can’t save your game unless you’re reasonably good at playing. That’s maybe the cruellest and most delicious insult of all. There are a couple of designated save locations, and a few auto-saves after important turning points, but in order to save in any other place or at any other time, you need to accumulate blue orbs to store up power for a save. Meaning, if you get yourself trapped somewhere and can’t play well enough to find some blue orbs before you die again, fuck you.

As I mentioned earlier, the major breaking points in the story aren’t punctuated with boss battles – appropriately enough, jumping really hard is your boss battle. You have to jump away from water. You have to jump away from wind. You have to jump away from lava. And you have to do it really fucking fast. As if it knows you’re going to fail, the game doesn’t even have a die-and-reload screen. It auto-saves at the start of the race sequence and seamlessly boots you back there again each time you die. You don’t even have time to flex your hands and scream in between.

Even so, the particularity of this game is part of what makes it so special. And, although I found the mechanics unforgiving in some situations, the weird interface works pretty seamlessly, and I didn’t run into any glitches along the way.

The most important thing, though, is that you’re openly weeping at the end

Because you are. I guarantee it. There’s death and love and triumph and sacrifice and compassion and empathy and kindness and regret and sorrow and music and birds and fire and light and trees and some weird other creature that I don’t know what he was except he learned a lesson about caring – it’s wonderful.

Also, you’re openly weeping at the beginning, because it’s like the first ten minutes of Up! except sadder because the characters are cute and one of them sort of looks like a cat and it’s not about somebody’s marriage or something.

The tear-jerker opening sets us up to cheer for Ori, and to care about what happens. It’s hard to be mad, even when you die and die and die, if it’s in service of helping a sad, cute thing find its way home. Maybe if Super Mario Bros. 3 had had more cute things, I would not have given up after the desert world.

In conclusion

This was a fabulous game. I’m very happy I played it. Kids today have it too easy; in my day, we didn’t have warp points. I suppose that, if using the easy difficulty setting lets you see the fabulous story without having to break all your fingers, that might be okay.

Image: Ori and the Blind Forest; Moon Studios | November 13, 2016