Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest released in 2015, initiating the Metroidvania revival that’s still ongoing. You can tell Ori started it, because it had to bridge the gap between the current dominant indie archetype, the Metroidvania in a ruined world, and the previous dominante indie archetype, the platformer about a tiny cute thing in a big scary world. Hollow Knight, the genre’s current reigning champion, also had a tiny cute protagonist, but even then, the Knight comes across as far more capable than they appear, rather than being a small vulnerable thing in a dangerous world like Ori (and the protagonists of Limbo and etc.), and Blasphemous, the Bloodstained series, Crowsworn, and so on don’t have tiny cute protagonists at all.

You can also tell Ori is the first in the Metroidvania revival because it’s not as good as basically any of its follow-ups. Ori has lots of skill in execution, especially in its art and music, but it lacks a lot of quality of life features that have become standard as the indie Metroidvania scene has developed. It had no fast travel system until its Definitive Edition rerelease in 2016, its combat is pretty perfunctory for how central it is to gameplay, and it has almost no branching paths at all. It follows a pretty standard Metroidvania structure where you have a prologue area that sets up the main quest, three MacGuffins you need to get, and then a final confrontation with the bad guy at the end, but instead of setting you loose in the map like other Metroidvanias of the modern era, Ori takes you through one MacGuffin after the other in strict order (something which more closely resembles older Metroidvanias like Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid).

Ori also has some major missteps in its most climactic moments due to ludonarrative dissonance, that is, the feeling communicated by gameplay not matching the feeling communicated by the story. At the end of each of the three MacGuffin dungeons, the reactivation of one of the elements of the forest (water, wind, and warmth) causes some manner of Metroid-style escape-the-lava, with the most fast-paced and intense music and visuals in the game. The mood of the rest of the game is much slower, exploratory, sometimes tense or dread-inducing, but not frantic like the escapes. Punctuating the ends of the dungeons with such fast-paced escape sequences is a good idea, but they’re way too hard to serve their purpose. The escape sequence isn’t usually even the hardest part of the dungeon, but it’s hard enough to require multiple attempts, which sucks the momentum right out of them.

The first one, in the Ginso Tree, isn’t so bad, although dying even once robs the sequence of a lot of its momentum. The second and third escape sequences, however, lose all their excitement because you can’t actually race through them in a blind panic the way the game’s atmosphere wants to imply. You have to methodically pick your way through, learning and adapting to each obstacle until you can run the entire gauntlet from beginning to end. It might seem like the added challenge would increase the tension, but the opposite is true: Being repeatedly confronted with the reality that nothing worse than being sent to the automatic save point at the start of the escape makes it inescapable that actually I have plenty of time to escape. Hours, really. What stands between me and success is not the need to go fast and escape danger, but to repeat the same obstacle course over and over again until I have it memorized. The third and final escape sequence is especially egregious, since nearly every obstacle is an instant kill no matter how much health you have left, meaning the escape can only either be so easy that you complete it flawlessly on your first try, or else it must confront you with the reality that the stakes could scarcely be any lower.

The sequence following the Forlorn Ruins escape works much better. Kuro, the evil (ish) owl, is hunting for Ori, who must hide behind various rocks and logs to escape her, so the challenge is in platforming around the area while staying hidden. The mood in this scene is tense instead of frantic. Dying over and over still confronts you with how low the stakes really are, but at least the pace of the narrative and the pace of the gameplay are in sync.

The story aims for a bit of nuance, and falls apart in doing so. It turns out Kuro, the main antagonist owl, hates the tree Ori is trying to revive because the tree killed Kuro’s babies. That’s not an implication or hyperbole or anything, in the prologue the tree does a big light show to try and signal the lost Ori to come home (it doesn’t work), and it is later revealed that this directly and unambiguously killed the owl’s babies, so the owl takes revenge on the tree to protect her remaining (unhatched) child.

Ori wasn’t even in any kind of danger, and had no way of signaling back to the spirit tree if they were. The only way the distress signal can work is if Ori sees it and is able to follow the light show back home (it doesn’t work – Ori’s adoptive mother Naru dissuades them from following the lights). It’s only after Kuro’s children are killed by the light show that Kuro goes after the tree for revenge, causing the forest to wither and become dangerous, at which point Ori ends up re-orphaned and wandering through the now much more deadly forest looking for food. The spirit tree couldn’t reasonably have predicted all the dominoes that would lead to the distress signal putting Ori in mortal danger, but you’d think it would be aware that it would kill any owls in range and that Ori wouldn’t benefit from the light unless they were in a safe and stable enough position to follow it home.

At the end, Ori sets the forest on fire (Ori themselves may or may not have intended this, but it was an inevitable side effect of the main quest to revive the tree and pretty easy to see coming – the previous two dungeons caused a flood and a windstorm, and the last dungeon is a volcano, so it’s not hard to guess what kind of storm its restoration is going to cause), threatening to cook Kuro’s remaining child alive, so Kuro has to sacrifice herself to restore the tree that killed her children, so the spirit tree can use its power to put out the fires. This doesn’t kill Kuro’s remaining child, even though it kills the owl herself – maybe it’s because the remaining child (unlike the others) is still an egg.

So on the one side we have Ori, who’s trying to revive the tree that used its baby-killing distress signal to let Ori know dinner was ready and it’s time to come home, and who sets the forest on fire to the point where an egg halfway across the map is in mortal peril not as an accident or a result of outside interference, but as an expected consequence of the quest. On the other side we have Kuro, an owl who was minding her own business when the spirit tree killed all her children save one, who attacked the spirit tree to protect the remaining egg, and who ultimately sacrifices her life to revive the spirit tree (her most hated enemy!) once it becomes clear that this is the only way to save her remaining child.

I think Ori is the villain.

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