Ori and the Will of the Wisps: A big and beautiful world, with the gameplay to match it

By Heidi Nicholas,
One of the first things I noticed when playing through the first act of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, aside from the ridiculously beautiful world itself, was how big that world felt — and how Ori has grown to fill it. There are familiar elements from Ori and the Blind Forest — the spirit orbs, ancestral trees, and spirit wells — but nearly all of these features have been subtly adjusted for the sequel. There’s the same sense of mammoth scale, as Ori trips across the screen as the tiny centre of focus with colossal trees and landscapes playing behind them, but Ori no longer seems quite so vulnerable. In the first game, the sense of fragility was palpable; Ori’s arms sometimes shook as they lifted themselves over small logs and other obstacles. Now, Ori’s just as tiny, just as dwarfed by the world, but with more abilities and the confidence to use them.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

“It’s kind of a coming-of-age story”, says Daniel Smith, Senior Producer at Xbox Game Studios for Ori and the Will of the Wisps. “Ori was more or less a child at the end of Blind Forest...Ori’s growing up, and that’s the primary motive behind our storyline”. Anyone who’s been suffering since the heartrending ending of Blind Forest can breathe again; Will of the Wisps’s prologue is bursting with scenes of Ori’s family, happy and complete with tiny, too-cute-to-be-true baby owl Ku, as the Spirit Tree narrates once more in the background. Ori’s now in the role of older sibling, equipped with all of their experience from Blind Forest. But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to be peaceful. Just like Blind Forest, Will of the Wisps lures you in before throwing you right in the deep end with a sudden spike in difficulty and urgency.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps E3 screen 1

Ori’s journey is no longer so solitary. Straight away, the world feels more populated, and the stretches of exploration are broken up and interspersed with a wide variety of new characters. I met explorers, guardians, mapmakers, weaponsmiths, and builders. Some are lone wanderers, others have set themselves up in the Wellspring Glade, a sort of home hub. There’s also the Moki, small, mischievous creatures which look a little like Ori themselves. These pop up throughout to watch from afar, chattering amongst themselves, or to help Ori move through the levels.

In Blind Forest, there was a real sense of urgency as the forest was slowly devoured. In Will of the Wisps, everything feels more stable, as though the characters are permanent fixtures in the world. These new characters are reflected in the map, which now shows more detailed quest notifications and icons. Aside from the main story, Ori can be recruited for sidequests and explore “rumours”, both of which have individual icons on the map. There are new activities and goals for Ori to work towards, which makes the map feel alive and full, with more reasons to return to certain areas.

The world still feels enormous in comparison to your hero. You can zone out focusing on Ori and almost miss the skeleton of some colossal creature in the background. Straight away, it’s up to you where you want to go. In the prologue, I had the option to head straight towards the main quest, but there were so many branching passages, hidden areas, and secrets scattered about the map that I could have spent all the time just exploring that first area. What with all the different side quests and activities to do, it’s likely playthroughs will differ for each player straight away.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The new inventory menu is compartmentalised into different categories, and shows how much there is for Ori to do and find in the world: for instance, Goleck ore, a new resource, can be put towards repairing structures, with each completed repair showing up in your inventory menu. Even the settings menu reflects your progress through the game; key characters you’ve met and abilities you’ve unlocked grow up the side of the menu, like a little snapshot version of Arthur’s journal in Red Dead Redemption 2.

One big addition to the game are the new modes: Spirit Trials and Spirit Shrines. In a Spirit Shrine, I was locked in to face increasingly difficult waves of enemies in return for rewards. Instead of just more of the same enemies, sometimes I’d face three of one type, and then the next stage would have just one enemy, but with more dangerous and difficult attacks.

As for Spirit Trials, a multiplayer racing mode, you first have to find the start and end points, hidden at different points on the map, to unlock the race. Then, when it starts, you race the ghosts of other players in a bid to beat their times. These are intended to be highly replayable, with a new challenge each time you go back to try and get a better time, as you’ll be given a new bracket of ghost players which are just slightly faster than your current record. It almost doesn’t seem right, at first, to have a multiplayer component in a game which is so focused on one individual journey, but having the other players as “ghosts” to race against will help to keep that distance, and to keep Ori as a personal story. The Spirit Shrines, too, could at first seem like an odd distraction for Ori, but it does match the theme of a larger and more populated world. Now that the forest is saved, Ori has time to take detours and test their skill against new enemies.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The game is incredibly, stunningly beautiful. I knew I should probably get moving on the quests when I started, but I just had to stop and look around for a bit. Now that the Forest of Nibel has been saved, it’s more gorgeous than ever; golden sunsets, purple forests, soft green riverlands. I spent a good few minutes just having Ori trotting slowly through the level so I could have a good look. “That’s how I play”, said Smith. “There’s so much more physicality we can do, so all the environments sway and breathe.” I saw hints of this during my playthrough, of how the world reacts to Ori moving through it. Just having Ori jump through a waterfall caused the water to break and splash around them, and I immediately went back to jump back and forth a few times, much to the irritation of the dangling spider waiting to attack me when I got through. “If I go back and play Blind Forest,” Smith says, “I’m amazed that like, wow, the mushrooms have no physics, they’re just like rigid; where now if I jump on things they bend and sway. Everything's just much more alive.”

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

So if all’s right in the world, what are we going to be doing in the sequel? That’s where the enormous, skeletal boss enemies shown in the trailers come in. I briefly met two — Howl and Shriek — and their appearances were enough to make my heart rate spike. Smith mentioned that the boss fights are multi-phased, combining combat with the game's famous escape sequences. I experienced a mini version of this with one of the massive monsters, where I got in a few desperate hits and, just when it became clear that I wasn’t going to win against it, the game switched rapidly to a short escape sequence, with a terrified Ori galloping away in front.

And how are we going to be fighting these enormous creatures? In Will of the Wisps, Spirit Orbs are now a currency to be traded for items and upgrades (which immediately made me want to hoard them), while Spirit Shards can be equipped for different abilities. Whereas before you’d get your powers and stick with them, now you can alternate, and choose your favourites to equip. One of the first skills I unlocked was Spirit Sword, an immensely satisfying tool to use. Whereas Sein — Ori’s guide and companion in Blind Forest — had the combat abilities in the first game, it’s now Ori who’s in charge of these abilities, turning them into a deadly little ninja. Finding new abilities still feels well-paced, with enough time to learn the new skill and become reliant on it before you move on to the next, but Will of the Wisps has enough new enemies that you’ll never really feel complacent. Skeetos and Spittle-Slugs, for instance, will always bring you close to tearing your hair out. Each ability arrives just in time, and graduating to double jump feels like a massive accomplishment. I often found myself swapping out the weapons I had equipped as I moved through the game, as there’s a good balance for how often you might want to use each one.

“We’re just extremely passionate about trying to make the best video game we can all possibly make," says Smith. "We’re trying to pay a lot of tribute to the games that you and I grew up with...and we’re really trying to create something that’s not just a videogame; we’re really trying to create art. Games after all should be an interactive art medium, and we just want people to love this thing just as much as they loved Blind Forest, if not more, and we’re making this one for our fans.”

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Blind Forest was such a unique game. Breathtakingly beautiful, with a real challenge backed up by a profound story which somehow happened to resonate throughout the game, despite the fact that none of the characters really spoke. The sequel feels like the next natural progression of that. Will of the Wisps is incredibly gorgeous. It’s taken the best elements of the first game and has run with them. Players will most likely find the years since Blind Forest worth the wait.
Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Hey, I'm Heidi! I've just finished studying a Masters in English Literature, but I've been obsessed with gaming since long before then. I began on the PS2 with Spyro, before graduating to the Xbox 360 and disappearing into Skyrim. I'm now a loyal RPG fan, but I still like to explore other genres — when I'm not playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, or being lured back into Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3!