Friday, May 19, 2017

Ori and the Blind Forest: The Dark Souls of Platforming

Since getting back into gaming (my undergraduate years in the '90s were followed by a long gap), I've mostly been  hooked on RPGs, so I decided to branch out into other genres, such as platform-based games.

It seemed to make sense to play the most acclaimed ones, and from consensus, as well as recommendation of a friend, I restarted with Mario Galaxy.

Aside from the negative stereotype characterization of Mario, the icon doesn't have a personality and it's unclear why he wants to save Princess Peach, as there's no discernible relationship between the two whatsoever.  I would even be happy with a cliched opening cutscene of how they were childhood best friends, so it would make sense that he'd want to save her.  However, there is no such background story, nor any hint of emotional connection between the two.

As I don't find platforming elements as intrinsically rewarding or fun as melee/range combat mechanics, exploring, leveling up characters, and similar activity, I never finished Mario Galaxy, as I didn't feel emotionally invested in saving Peach nor her kingdom.  Of course, those who find platforming fun, Mario Galaxy is incredible, with its variety of set-pieces and the level design of the huge, albeit separated, worlds.

Another acclaimed series that I looked into is the Rayman series. Although Rayman does have kind of a personality, being a very goofy, lanky character, we are not given much reason why he does what he does, so again, the platforming elements not being as innately fun for me, I never finished a Rayman game either.

As a PSN member, Duck Tales: Remastered was free,  and I wanted to play out of nostalgia and love of the comics and cartoon in my youth.  Additionally, according to HowLongToBeat, it should only take 3.5 hours to complete, and thus would be a quick addition to my list of completed games. Finally, a platform game that I might love.

Duck Tales does have a story: treasure is stolen by his rival, and he realizes his missing nephews' lives are more important to him than money. However, the platforming is very repetitive, as gameplay revolves around bouncing on a pogo stick, and I had to force myself to finish the game. It didn't have the sliding, racing, and wide variety of action of the Mario or Rayman games.  I believe it took me eight hours, as a beginner in platforming, but it felt like hundreds of hours.

Fortuitously, I chanced upon Ori and The Blind Forest, which is on both the Xbox 1 and PC. I loved the graphics and animation of the trailer. Reviewers noted a compelling story, as well as pinpoint accuracy in gameplay, which seemed promising: could this be the first platformer that I'd love rather than tolerate?

It lived up to its promise. Within the first minute of the game, I was emotionally connected to Ori and his adoptive mother, Naru, who finds him, an orphan, out in the woods during a terrible storm, and takes him in. The woods are dying, famine is setting in, and seeing Naru saving food for Ori brought me to tears, despite her starving to death, moving slower and slower through the game, finally collapsing near her bed.

Meanwhile Ori risks his life climbing precarious thin, brittle branches to get a piece of fruit for his mother. As he's finally able to bring her some food, she dies--please note, this is the opening cutscene, so this is not really a spoiler. On my second and third playthroughs, I hit the skip button to avoid seeing such sadness again.

Ori is a character you love, root for and care about, and it makes perfect sense whey he's out on a quest to save the dying forest in his world. With emotional investment in Ori and his quest, I was surprised to find the platforming elements great fun, and, of course, I love the combat elements.

Despite dying hundreds of times (there's a death counter), I was so emotionally invested that I had to press on. The game's challenge is such that I wanted to master each section of the world, despite the platform elements, and the sense of accomplishment at each level was equal to beating a Dark Souls boss. One of my most memorable gaming moments was escaping from the Ginso Tree, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the platforming of this task.

Ori controls brilliantly and tightly; the way he twists, turns and bounces off walls is fun and seamless. It's a dream to control him. The game is Metroidvania in style, so there are shooting and puzzle elements. You gain power boosts from finding spirit trees, which give you upgrades. The world is so absolutely gorgeous I actually wanted to explore it, as it is not sectioned off in separate areas like Mario or Rayman games, thus the semi-open world is organic.  

The diversity of the challenging but fair gameplay, the handsomeness of the graphics and animations, and the emotional impact are all comparable to that of the Dark Souls series. No wonder Ori is often called the Dark Souls of Platforming, as it's one of the greatest (if not, the greatest) of its genre.

Rating: A+, Masterpiece

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