There was a time when a platform holder publishing games for a rival format would have been completely unheard of. Unthinkable, even! Yet, a bizarre chain of events has seen Microsoft Studios release a handful of games for our beloved Switch, including the likes of Minecraft and, surprisingly, even Cuphead. While Microsoft has since played down the possibility of future titles making the leap, we’re delighted to see that 2015’s acclaimed Ori and the Blind Forest has made the journey to Nintendo’s hybrid device. Let’s see if it has survived the trip.
Ori and the Blind Forest has a slightly unusual history. A non-linear platformer (or ‘Metroidvania’, as the kids say) from Austrian-based Moon Studios. Initial development was led by team members scattered across the globe, many of whom hadn’t even met each other until E3 2014. Despite this, their work impressed Microsoft from an early stage and it didn’t hesitate in signing a publishing deal. Despite a long and unique development, the game was well-received when it was initially released on the Xbox One in 2015, with the only casualty along the way being a mooted Xbox 360 version. The team has spoken of how much the likes of The Lion King and The Iron Giant were huge inspirations, but there are definite shades of Team Ico’s best in the way the game places emphasis on the development of its main character and the player’s relationship with them; it is the focus on Ori which makes this game so special.
Being a Metroidvania, the structure of the game should be familiar to most people. Players are presented with a complete world which is fundamentally non-linear, yet it is mostly locked off and requires the player to obtain various abilities throughout the game in a linear fashion. These abilities range from the more traditional sets of skills such a 'double jump' to reach places too high to jump to normally, to the ‘charge flame’ which can be used to blast down barriers so players can progress.
These become more varied as players progress through the game, and also more tricky to pull off. The game is free of loading screens, instead presenting the world as a continuous whole. Even the warp points are carefully designed to not make the player feel like they have actually left the game world. Players can return to previous areas once they have obtained new abilities in order to access parts which were previously inaccessible, with the game keeping track of how much of each area has been completed for those who want that vital 100% rating.
So far, so Metroidvania, then. What makes Ori and the Blind Forest so special is its presentation. Unveiling a world which is dark in colour scheme yet much lighter in tone, this game is a candidate for the prettiest 2D platformer of all time. When us grumpy old folk complain that the mainstream of 2D gaming ended a generation or two too early, this game is exactly what we are talking about. Not only is there a dense, borderline obsessive amount of detail to the world, but all this is backed up by extremely fluid animation.
One really nice touch is the foreground layer which is occasionally used in front of the main playfield, obscured using a depth-of-field effect. It’s not always there and is used occasionally to draw the player's attention without Ori themselves noticing what is happening. This serves to not only emphasise that the player isn’t actually Ori but is instead watching Ori, but also that the player is not alone in viewing the events as curious shadows appear in front of the player, unseen by the protagonist, foreboding what is yet to come.
This care and consideration given to exactly how the story is presented to the player is key to enchanting people and drawing them into the world, and is a huge contrast to the way that story exposition can be thrust awkwardly upon the player in similar games. This is backed up by a fantastic musical score, which is as atmospheric as you might expect from this type of game, but also responds to the events of the game. On occasions when disaster happens and Ori must run for their life, the music picks up the pace and adds to the sense of panic and impending danger. It is clear that there was close collaboration between the entire development team; the music never simply feels layered on top of the game, but an integral part of it.
This would be for nought if the gameplay wasn’t up to snuff, but Ori And The Blind Forest certainly isn’t all style, no substance – the game is also a joy to play. Taking its inspiration from Ubisoft’s more recent Rayman outings, everything feels smooth and fluid, yet also precise and intricate. The game can certainly be challenging, but it never feels like you’re fighting with the controls to make Ori do what you want them to do. This sense of having full control over the character is critical to ensuring the game’s challenge never becomes frustrating, as Ori And The Blind Forest always makes sure the player feels that they CAN do it; it’s just within grasp, they just have to try one more time.
The game has a save system seemingly designed to accommodate this. Ori And The Blind Forest's generous save system consists of fixed saved points in conjunction with the player being able to create a custom save point (called a ‘soul link’) at any point provided they have enough energy cells. Naturally, players will create a new soul link before any potentially difficult area. Perhaps the only real issue here is the seeming lack of quick load feature, meaning players may find it easier to kill Ori themselves after making a mistimed jump rather than traverse back to the save point on foot. This is a strange oversight given what the developers are trying to do, though not a dealbreaker. The game never feels like it is making players replay sections just to pad out the length. Instead, Ori and the Blind Forest challenges players to keep trying and get better without this ever feeling like forced repetition. The sense of reward is palpable.
On the technical side, this seems to be an utterly flawless conversion from its Xbox One big brother. In fact, while we cannot verify this ourselves, reports suggest that the animation has actually been improved over the original version. It may not seem like a big deal that even the Switch manages to handle a fundamentally 2D game, but there is a little more to consider. Ori and the Blind Forest runs on the Unity engine, which has a history of performance issues on Nintendo’s device. It was one of the reasons why Yooka-Laylee took so long to arrive, and also why RiME didn’t turn out quite so well. With that in mind, the team have done an excellent job getting the game to run flawlessly with no notable dips in performance.
Ori and the Blind Forest will even log into your Microsoft account – the same one used on the Xbox, and it can be strange seeing your Xbox icon on the title screen. This doesn’t translate into Xbox achievements, though the game does have its own built-in achievement system. The only real technical issue is actually the Joy-Con themselves. Not only is this a 2D game, but it's one which requires a fair bit of precision jumping. Neither the analogue stick nor the cluster of buttons in place of a D-Pad feel ideal. This could be an excuse to pick up Hori’s excellent D-Pad Joy-Con for people who intend to play in portable mode on an original Switch, or a proper controller if you are a docked player (or even the Switch Lite, which also rocks a proper D-Pad). The Switch in its portable mode of play is arguably the perfect way to play Ori, being so easy to pick up and play in quick bursts and never looking compromised on the small screen, but something better than the default input device is recommended.
What we have here is a flawless port of a game which absolutely deserves all of the praise it has received. From start to finish, Ori and the Blind Forest is a real joy to play. Challenging yet never feeling unfair or discouraging, and almost relaxing to control. The mesmerising art style and musical score are the icing on the cake that makes the player actually care about the protagonist and want to keep playing to the game’s conclusion. It is a bit of a surprise to see this game make its way to the Nintendo Switch, but we’re glad that it has. The only shame is that the sequel seems unlikely to make the same journey, but this original outing is still an unmissable experience.