During my junior year, I took a course called Applied Ludology which required a semester-long research project into an aspect of game design that I wanted to dive deep into. What I ended up looking into over the course of four months was how unique movement options and a focus on traversal fit extremely well into the Metroidvania formula. I’m planning on eventually transcribing my three presentations to this blog in some form down the line, but I bring it up because there was a single game that was the perfect example that I’d always tie back to. Ori and the Blind Forest is one of my top Metroidvania games because its movement is satisfying and engaging in every moment of playing. The game isn’t just a showcase of animation, composing, and art direction; it gets to the core of Metroidvania design. With Ori and the Will of the Wisps, it’s clear that Moon Studios understood what made the original so enticing and capitalized upon it to yet again keep the entire Metroidvania experience cohesive.
Like I said, I spent a semester and three major presentations discussing why a focus on traversal works so well in Metroidvanias, so it’s impossible to boil it all down. However, I obviously need to for this piece to work. In essence, the Metroidvania subgenre sells itself on a large interconnected world and a feeling of slowly building in strength. Traversing this large world is a key part of each Metroidvania game. Backtracking is common and exploration is essential. These games hit their target experience most when upgrades are not only about gating and combat, but also world traversal and making your time exploring more efficient. That’s why games with such heavy focus on movement like Ori and the Blind Forest fit so well into the genre; movement is the most common action that a player is performing, so making that constantly feel stronger and allowing players to avoid or speed through encounters will yield a high sense of satisfaction to the core audience.
In the original Ori and the Blind Forest, it was evident that movement was the game’s pride and joy. It made sense, seeing as the Bash ability is cool enough to carry an entire game on its own. Bash allows Ori to shoot off of projectiles and enemies in one direction while throwing that projectile or enemy the other way. What that allows for is some really interesting platforming and puzzle options. The game encourages you to use the many powers you find like the feather, double jump, and climb to avoid encounters, with the combat severely limited to mashing a single attack. There aren’t even boss battles; each dungeon ends in a climactic “chase” sequence that puts the player’s platforming and mastery of their new mechanic to the test. Some found these sections frustrating, as they’re essentially requiring players to perform a “perfect run” through trial and error. However, I found them to be an effective way to keep that movement focus while still properly challenging the player.
So how does the sequel fit even better into my research thesis? Let’s look at the major changes with the game. The most important is that the team understands that movement is their selling point, and they made sure to highlight it as much as possible. Many moves from the previous game return, such as the feather glide, climb, and the all-powerful Bash. However, you get the sense while playing Will of the Wisps that Moon Studios planned the new additions well in advance, as they fit so naturally into the “flow state”, which is when you’re traveling to a part of the map and using your movement capabilities to speed through. Remember: the best upgrades in Metroidvania games aren’t just ones that make you more powerful or open up more paths, but ones that make things easier on you.
The Dash returns from the upgraded version of the original game, and this move on its own adds a ton of utility. Metroidvania maps are very horizontal, so a move that increases your movement side-to-side is insanely helpful at getting places faster and avoiding attacks. The Grapple can be used in combat later with a Skill, but it ends up more as a utility ability. The player can skip over difficult platforming sections when a grapple point is available, but the ability also unintentionally became a safety net of sorts in certain areas where I’d fall and use the Grapple to grab right back on. Burrow is probably the least versatile movement ability because you can only use it in specific places, and the team was less generous about how often it allows you to skip sections using it. However, it feels incredible to swim around in the sand at top speeds and shoot out to higher platforms, so I’ll give it a pass.
Bash remains the most interesting move to look at, simply because the game allowed a “progression” of sorts with the ability. You gain Bash early on in the game, and for the most part platforming and puzzles remain similar to the first game: use it to reach new heights, redirect energy shots to break walls, and throw enemies to then Bash off of them again. It still feels great to use, but you’re locked to using it where the game wants you to. That changes once you get Light Burst which allows Ori to lob an energy orb that deals a lot of damage. The fun comes where Ori can also Bash off of the orb as long as it was thrown from a standing position. Now the player doesn’t have to rely on the devs to set up cool Bash scenarios; they can make their own. The game is well designed to not become fully exploitable with this newfound power, but it does give a lot of agency to players who want to explore and experiment. Then, right near the end, the devs say “screw it” and give the Launch ability. Think of this as Bash without the projectile. The player can now just launch themselves wherever the heck they want. The game’s final moments test this ability, but it’s really for after the game, where players might be cleaning up around the map to 100% complete the game. It’s essentially another jump, alongside the double jump (which can become triple with a Skill) and Bash.
Going from move to move, never touching the ground as I maneuver around the world feels incredible and truly tests my skills with the variety of abilities given to me. Moon Studios knows this, and so they when a step further and even included a mechanic to let players test each other. Spirit Trial is a new feature in Will of the Wisps which is essentially a short race mode. Players have to get from one shrine to another, sometimes with keys to pick up along the way, as fast as possible. Routes are weaved into the areas of the game naturally, and players will see ghosts of other players as they race. It’s an incredibly neat and competitive feature for those who feel the game doesn’t challenge them quite enough (which may be many, since the game is fairly easy overall).
Now I don’t want to end this without looking at the changes to combat that Will of the Wisps made, because they’re pretty substantial. Ori now has a slew of options, from fast or heavy attacks to shooting arrows and having an automatic sentry around Ori. Each move has its uses and allows players to figure out what works best with their playstyle, which is always good and empowering. Unfortunately, improving the combat puts more attention on it, and therefore makes it still feel half-baked when it’s clear that the focus is on traversal. The few boss fights in the game are really enjoyable, but the combat never becomes too challenging about halfway through the game. I certainly felt like the combat added way more to the experience than it took away, but if you’re coming into the game looking for a tough fight around every corner, you’ll be a bit disappointed.
What Moon Studios offers in this game is truly impressive, and really shows off what I love about Metroidvanias: how I interact with the world. The world is its own beast in these types of games and that in itself deserves its own topic later on, but I love to move around in games. Games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Spider-Man (PS4) wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have this inherent draw towards fluid traversal. I hope more games take note of why Ori succeeds at this.