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Ori and the Will of the Wisps: Hands-on impressions from E3 2018

I teared up when I first saw Ori and the Will of the Wisps revealed at E3 2017, and I teared up again at E3 2018. Moon Studios’ masterpiece of a platformer was not only an emotional journey, but its Metroidvania adventure included some of the tightest, most enjoyable platforming I’ve ever played.

With the sequel, the studio is bringing back that same wonderful gameplay, but also is adding some new features that on their faces don’t seem to fit well with Ori. Side quests, NPCs with dialogue, and the removal of the old save system sound like they’d derail the adventure, but after going hands-on with the game at E3 2018, I’m convinced that Will of the Wisps can surpass Blind Forest both in beauty and fun.

One small favor

I began in a golden, sandy area where dunes were interspersed with spike traps and wall jump platforms crumbled the second I touched them. A few steps forward and a strange bird with a shovel implored me to help him out by digging into the sand, which I could do yet. Agreeing to help him opened up a sidequest marked on my map and logged on my menu, so I hopped off to find a way to get through the pile of sand he’d been digging.

A message said I could also trade skill points with certain NPCs for something I wanted. I never encountered any of these.

Though that first encounter was a bit of a surprise due to Blind Forest’s lack of NPCs or sidequests, I instantly felt at home with Ori. Ori moves, jumps, and attacks in very familiar ways. I could double jump and wall jump (though not climb), and though Sein was no longer with me to fire energy blasts, Ori used a strange ability like a light sword at close range that worked almost identically to his old basic attack.

In addition, Ori had several other abilities I could map to other buttons. One shot a powerful, glowing arrow of light at enemies; another used up some of his energy gauge to heal him. If I didn’t want to spend energy to replenish him, the familiar green flower pods and blue energy crystals were still interspersed throughout the level. Experience toward skill points still drops from enemies, too, though a message said I could also trade skill points with certain NPCs for something I wanted. I never encountered any of these, but it sounds like a different kind of resource management will be present in Will of the Wisps.

What a save!

It’s good that the controls feel familiar because I was immediately at home jumping and wall climbing my way through platforming puzzles, blasting enemies. Purple oozes were simple and familiar targets, but bigger sandworms were a new challenge. The first time I died, I groaned immediately, realizing I had forgotten to use my energy to save … but I was transported a short distance away to try again, instead.

Yes, the old save system of spending energy to create a save point is gone in favor of frequent, automatic checkpoints. This is a huge change to a system that many praised in the first Ori game, but I don’t think it’s a bad change. Although the old system limited (and occasionally frustrated) me in the early game, once I had enough energy, I almost always used it to create save points just before starting a new platforming puzzle. Now, with energy being spent on more types of attacks, I see why Moon Studios wanted to remove the requirement for saving. It allows energy to be used for more fun gameplay without adding unneeded stress to the jump challenges.

The sandy forest

As I progressed through the level, I passed multiple passages blocked off by sand. Eventually, I found a glowing orb that gave me a new ability: I could now dive and burrow through that very sand! True to Ori form, in order to escape the area where I found the ability, I had to use it correctly, and then I was left to retrace my steps and return to the places where sand had blocked me off previously. The map was an important guide, and this time around was given to me by an NPC I met instead of being pieced together via Map Shards.

This is where all my worry about new features making Ori a bit too bloated or confusing vanished because the same design principles behind the first game remain fully intact. With my new sand burrowing ability, the world was transformed. Not only could I traverse thick walls of sand, but those crumbling wall jump platforms I had used earlier to get a slight height boost could now be shot through, propelling me out the top and even higher up. The level I was in turned out to be densely packed with collectibles and passageways, all open to me once I had mastered my new ability.

Overall

My demo, unfortunately, timed out before I could help my bird friend from before, but I was sufficiently entranced by the game. The environments are gorgeous and at least the one I was in was different from anything I encountered in Blind Forest. Gareth Coker’s soundtrack is the perfect background to Ori’s curious climbing, and the desert theme it evoked was a just-subtle-enough departure from the lush forest sounds in the first game to distinguish it.

I’m still a bit wary about how questing will play out in the larger scope of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, but the small bits I’ve seen so far are a promising start. As long as Ori maintains its open Metroidvania world and keeps the challenges rolling with its platforming segments, I’m ready to roll with whatever other changes Moon Studios feels are necessary to polish and update the formula they’ve already set down. It’s far too long a wait until we can run and play with Ori once again.

When can you explore the forest again?

Ori and the Will of the Wisps should launch sometime in 2019 for Xbox One and Windows 10. Pricing information is not yet available.

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