Sequels are tricky. And odd. Movies, books, games, regardless of the medium, creators face a difficult situation. In games especially, a player may think they just want a repeat of the first game, but they really don’t. For the most part, I think game developers are aware of this, and have managed to trick players time and time again with what seems “the same”, but is usually bigger, bolder, and more expansive. Silent Hill 2. Resident Evil 2. Portal 2. I mean, the list of great sequels that dwarf (even just barely, in the case of Resident Evil) their predecessors is vast. There’s a reason no one really talks about the first Uncharted.
But there are also times when a developer can feel pressured to go bigger with everything but still feel empty, like Banjo-Tooie, or a developer can fail to understand exactly why the first game was so great, like Dark Souls II. Now, those aren’t necessarily bad games, but like the hive-mind of ranking websites put it, sequels like them can be a blemish on the first game.
For the follow-up to the acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest, Moon Studios managed to make both mistakes.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a very special game. A rare Microsoft Studios original IP with beautiful graphics in a hand-painted world. It’s fairly short – my most recent playthrough two weeks ago clocked in at five hours – and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Technically it is a Metroidvania – a large, interconnected map with regions locked off until you have a certain item or ability. But I’d prefer to call it a Metroidvania-lite. It’s hardly as vast and secretive as, say, Hollow Knight or Axiom Verge. In fact, it’s extremely straight forward. But where Blind Forest stands out from the rest is with its movement. By the mid-point of the game, Ori can dance around the environment, stringing together combos of jumps, dashes, and one of the best game mechanics ever – Bash. I’ll get into that last one later on.
A sequel to Blind Forest was announced at E3 2017. Moon Studios were going to address the two main critiques of the game – size and combat. Not that either are bad in Blind Forest, but people wanted more. Because they always want more.
Here’s what we got.
One thing I can’t stand in sequels is when abilities from the first game are removed. To a certain point, I get it. The developer wants to add new, exciting moves, and that’s fine, but it always feels limiting. Banjo-Tooie, actually, tackled this issue extremely well, keeping moves that the bear or bird could do naturally, like firing eggs, the talon trot for quick movement, and moves that used items, like Wonderwing or the Stilt Stride. Because it wouldn’t make sense to remove all of these abilities that I am so familiar with from the first game. Right? Right?
NOPE! Not for Will of the Wisps, which leaves Ori with only one move from the original game – the wall jump. All of the other moves, including Bash, are just gone. And, sure there may be story reasons for the removal – something with the Spirit Tree, and that’s fine. But the game gives them back to you later on. Which should be considered a high crime.
Let’s talk about why this is so bad, and also talk about Bash.
Bash is genius. Seriously. When I replayed Blind Forest last week, up until I got Bash, I felt inhibited. I couldn’t enjoy the game the same way. Here’s what the move does: when Ori is near a projectile or an enemy, press a button, time freezes, and you can use momentum to shoot off in a direction. The clever part is that the projectile or enemy is shot in the opposite direction. This means you can shoot things back at baddies, or even at each other. You can also chain this together with your other moves, and do some really interesting things. Here’s a video that shows off more of the move if my explanation wasn’t enough.
The move is so integral to Blind Forest that I don’t think the game would be as acclaimed without it. As soon as I booted up Will of the Wisps and realized that Bash was gone, I was worried. The game wouldn’t be the same without Bash. And as I moved through the world, and noticed certain items around the world, like lanterns that in the first game Ori could use for Bash, I started to get irritated. Because this meant that Bash was in the game. The developers had just decided to remove it for some reason. And when I finally got Bash, the seventh move in the game, I was really mad.
It’s like this. I love eating spaghetti. Let’s say I eat spaghetti every night. I’m happy. I never want to stop. But here you come, and you take away my spaghetti. Now I’m without my favorite food. This sucks. But maybe there’s a new, better food around the corner. So my hopes go up. But then I see hints that you’re making me spaghetti. I see a box of noodles. A jar of sauce. And when you finally give me spaghetti, I’m supposed to be happy? You were the one who took it away in the first place!
I cannot for the life of me justify or even rationalize Moon Studios’ decision here. It feels dirty, and it feels like they ran out of new ideas so they started to recycle old ones.
There are ten learnable movement skills in Will of the Wisps. Sure, that’s one more than in Blind Forest, but five of them are just recycled. It sucks, because so much of the game feels like just getting back to where we were in Blind Forest. Where we should have started to begin with.
Alright, that’s enough about the recycled stuff. Let’s talk about the new stuff. One of the main critiques I’ve seen around the Internet about the first game – one even cited by Moon Studios – is the combat. In Blind Forest, if Ori’s in range of an enemy, you press a button, and start shooting at it automatically. It’s nothing special, but it works. What I really like about it is the freedom it gives the player. It can be hard to avoid some enemies or projectiles, so flying around the area using all of Ori’s moves is a must. Combine that with staying in that range, and you have an interesting system that’s less about how cool the combat is and more about using it in tandem with the main gameplay loop. You know, like a good game does.
Will of the Wisps decided to take a different approach. They removed dedicated buttons, so you have three buttons that can be equipped to various moves – of which you get a ton of. Spirit Arc, Spirit Edge, Spirit Star, Sentry, Blaze, Spirit Smash, Spike, Flash, and more. And each has an upgrade to make it bigger and more flashy and more effective. Spirit Edge is probably gonna be your main combat tool – it’s a sword, basically. It’s got a fairly long range, though it doesn’t do a ton of damage. You could also use Spirit Smash, a large hammer that does way more damage and requires way less accuracy.
So, cool, Will of the Wisps adds a bunch of combat options. That’s good, right? That’s what the people wanted? Well, that may be, but the combat feels so incredibly sloppy, and splits the game right down the middle. See an enemy? Now you’re in combat. Enemy gone? Back to movement. It changes fighting from a dance of avoidance to a dance of engagement. And it’s not a very good dance.
If you can’t tell, I hated the combat. I guarantee people will disagree with me (what else is new?) but it feels so antithetical to what made Blind Forest so great. In their desperation to address the criticism of Blind Forest, Moon Studios didn’t do what they should have done – improve upon Blind Forest’s auto-aim – they instead changed everything for the worse.
Will of the Wisps has a cool idea of proper bosses. Blind Forest didn’t have bosses. Like the combat, the “boss” encounters were running from giant monsters that could kill you in one hit. It was fun, and it coupled that flashy movement with speed. Changing that up, for this new, more offense-driven Ori, isn’t the worst idea. The problem is with execution.
And now I’m going to talk about Dark Souls. Because I can’t do a game review on this site without talking about Dark Souls.
The best bosses in Dark Souls can be beaten without taking damage. Their moves, while ranging in speed, are always pretty obvious. And you have two options to avoid it – dodge, or shield. Either work, and the game is very clear about telling you this.
So Will of the Wisps put in Dark Souls bosses. The problem? Will of the Wisps is not Dark Souls.
I’m not talking about difficulty, I’m talking about clarity. When bosses in Will of the Wisps attack you, it’s pretty clear. The problem is, for the boss fights, you have to play like it’s Dark Souls. Bide your time, wait for the opening. Otherwise you’ll be getting hit. A lot.
And, okay, I guess changing up my style isn’t the worst thing in the world. But the game doesn’t punish you nearly enough for playing the way they clearly don’t want you to. The bosses do so little damage that I didn’t die to a single one. I got hit time and time again, trying to pull of in-air combos, but so what? I’d just go off into a corner, heal, and hop right back in. It’s like trying to surf on calm water. I know this isn’t the best way to enjoy a day at the beach, but goddammit I surfed every day this week and I want to keep surfing!
Another stupid thing about these bosses is that they hurt you if you touch them. I hate when games do this. It’s not a problem for the regular enemies in Ori games, because there’s so many ways to avoid them. But when a giant frog is moving around randomly and I’m trying to attack them with my thin-ass sword, I get hit. A lot. This counteracts the clarity of the boss’ moves. In Dark Souls (I know, sorry), you can press up against a boss, and unless they’re actively attacking you, you’ll be fine. This is a GREAT. This means the only danger you need to worry about is a sword or giant hammer coming down to smash you. Not keeping clear of the boss.
Will of the Wisps tries to have it both ways and utterly fails.
But it’s not good to critique without offering alternatives. So my suggestion would be this: make the bosses more like the newer Donkey Kong bosses. A lot more of an avoidance game, with clear opportunities to strike. Hell, you could remove that last part, just have it be avoidance. Couple that with the auto-aim combat, and you just have a large version of regular enemy encounters. Dancing around them, watching out for projectiles or, in this case, obvious moves. Challenging without being frustrating.
Combat aside, Will of the Wisps adds some really interesting moves, though none as innovative as what we saw in Blind Forest. The Grapple move, which is now mandatory in every video game since Uncharted 4, is slick and fairly easy to understand, though I never felt like I mastered it. There is an equippable skill that lets you grapple towards enemies, but that seemed like more trouble than it was worth, so I never really used grapple aside from when I absolutely needed to.
Burrow, which can only be used in sand, feels fantastic. I’m glad that Moon Studios also added a swim dash move so water movement became just as effortless. Being able to dash in and out of sandy pillars or pools during chase sequences feels so cool.
The last skill learned in the game is Launch, where you can basically use Bash on Ori. It’s cool and could have some interesting movement potential, but it feels wasted, since you only get it in the last area of the game.
All in all, the skills in Will of the Wisps lack the vast utility of Blind Forest’s. Now, you only use them at specific points, not stringing them together for beautiful movement. It never felt inhibiting, but only like there was a lack of potential.
I’ve read that Will of the Wisps’ world is bigger than Blind Forest’s, but that’s so arbitrary that I don’t know what it means. To me, they felt about the same. In addition, Will of the Wisps’ levels seemed to be a lot more straightforward. Straight up, straight over, with little deviations here and there. Blind Forest wasn’t really huge on giant explorations, either, so I won’t criticize Will of the Wisps here too much.
However, what exploration Blind Forest did have, in the form of life and energy cells, are now completely arbitrary with Will of the Wisps’ inclusion of a minimap that shows where everything is. Looking for Gorlek Ore? Seeds? Don’t worry, the minimap will tell you if you’ve even gotten close to them.
Interesting level mechanics, though, are at a minimum. Most areas just rely on those context-sensitive moves, like Grapple or Burrow, and don’t really push your platforming or puzzle skills. One of the better areas is Mouldwood Depths, where you have to stick as closely to light as possible. If you’re in the dark too long, you die. It forces you to optimize your movement from lantern to fireflies to spring pad, all which give off light, even if dim. So it’s more of a maze, trying to figure out the best way to go a direction without dying.
Other than that, however, you don’t see too much matching Blind Forest’s best levels like Gumo’s Hideout, the Forlorn Ruins, or the Misty Woods, all which have really fun area-specific mechanics. I’m not sure if this was an intentional choice to focus on combat more or if Moon Studios just ran out of ideas, but I honestly can’t say there are many areas in Will of the Wisps I remember.
By far the best place in the game is the Wellspring Glades. It’s similar to Colony 6 in Xenoblade Chronicles, or, kinda, Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls. It’s a main hub where all the NPCs you meet along the way gather. In addition, you can upgrade the town, adding homes, removing dangers, and overall making it a better place to live. There’s something I love about being able to improve places in games. Plus, the upgrades lead to some good loot and new sidequests.
Oh yeah, there are also now sidequests in Ori. Blind Forest was straightforward. Go here. Then go here. Explore if you want to, but you don’t have to. Now, there’s a ton of varied NPCs who need all sorts of things taken care of for them. Adding NPCs to Ori is a great move, and it really fleshes out what would otherwise have been a somewhat dull world.
Will of the Wisps and Hollow Knight
So, between Blind Forest and Will of the Wisps came a little game called Hollow Knight. Hollow Knight set a new standard for Metroidvanias, and it’s pretty obvious that Will of the Wisps took (stole?) a ton of mechanics from Hollow Knight. Here’s a list!
- Equipable Badges
- Buyable Maps from a vendor who shows up in various locations around the world
- A Down-Air attack that bounces Ori up
- NPCs who makes fake talking noises very similar to Hollow Knight’s NPCs
- A Heal Ability where you stand still and use “energy”
- Main Hub where all the NPCs meet up
- Fighting Bosses
I can’t say for sure if other Metroidvanias use Hollow Knight’s mechanics. And there’s nothing wrong with using these, it’s just a bit obvious. Like, come on, can we be more subtle with it?
When Will of the Wisps’ review embargo lifted a few weeks back, Polygon.com didn’t post a review. Instead, they said they wouldn’t be reviewing the game since it isn’t done. I’m assuming they meant the seemingly billions of glitches, performance errors, and other bugs that wormed all through my time with Will of the Wisps. Like, I never experiences glitches. Maybe I’m just lucky, but 99% of games I play run perfectly fine. Will of the Wisps, on the other hand, needed another few months in QA and testing to make sure this game was ready to ship. Which, I don’t think it was.
I played on PC, so I can’t say whether the issues were the same on Xbox, but looking at the Polygon review, they sure sound the same. It’s hard to describe, because the game is for sure polished from a gameplay perspective, and it’s finished, as in, it has a beginning, middle, and end with clear paths, unlike, say, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But it’s unrefined. When the game works, it’s great. But when it doesn’t, it’s horrible. I couldn’t even access the world map half the time, as my cursor would be forced into the bottom left corner for some reason.
I wonder if there was a lot of pressure to ship the game out so soon, before the big rush late March / early April games launch. They’re patching out the bugs out, I’m sure. Either way, it’s an interesting thought: should you pay for an unfinished, unrefined game with the hope that the developer will fix it? I know what another writer on this site would say, and I tend to agree with him on this point. It’s one of the reasons I don’t often buy brand new games unless they’re from developers I trust. Which, really, is only FromSoftware and Nintendo at this point. Why would I want to pay $30 – $60 to wait a few weeks or even months when the developer finally gets around to doing what they should have done in the first place? Doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s an unfortunate mark on one of Microsoft’s best and most original studios.
The Pressure to Innovate
Finally, I want to talk about how you follow up to a great game. Like I wrote in the beginning, it’s not easy. Games flounder around and fail all the time at making a sequel that lives up to the first game. My theory for Will of the Wisps is that Moon Studios felt pressured to create it. It doesn’t feel as lovingly crafted as Blind Forest. It’s a little colder, a little less personal, and I think all of the new mechanics (mostly for the worse) aid that. Moon Studios read the criticism about Blind Forest and thought not how to improve the foundation, but how to do new things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I think in this case it didn’t work. A lot of these things felt like “oh, well Blind Forest did it, we’ve got to go bigger!” or “shoot, well Hollow Knight did it! People love Hollow Knight!” What’s original isn’t original enough, and what’s reused only feels like an unappreciated copy. I wish I had the answer on how to make a great sequel. I really do. And I bet Moon Studios does, too.