Sometimes a game catches you by surprise with how wonderful it is. For me there tends to be at least one per year, usually an indie title that really digs its claws into me deep. Often it's a game that wasn't really on my radar before.
Ori and the Blind Forest, available on the Xbox One and PC, fits that description.
I knew it was coming. I knew it as "that game with the cool visuals they Microsoft has shown at press conferences a couple times." It wasn't something I was really anticipating. Heck, I didn't even really know what kind of game it was (it's a 2D action-adventure that feels similar to Metroid or Castlevania in structure, but more on that later).
But then I started playing it, and the first 10 minutes sold me on it faster than most games could ever hope to do. And it wasn't even because of the gameplay -- it was the story.
Ori's opening sequence feels like it could have been a lost Pixar short film. There's an enormous amount of character and emotion packed into a few minutes of gorgeous animation and beautiful music. I immediately cared about this world and the creatures in it. I laughed, I smiled, I nearly cried.
All within about 10 minutes.
The rest of the game isn't quite as emotionally resonate as that opening, but it's a charming fable nonetheless. The art remains fantastic throughout -- Ori and the Blind Forest is consistently a joy to look at in motion -- and the plot does feel a bit like an ancient myth retold as an animated film.
The game itself -- the part where you play it -- is a Metroidvania, and a good one at that (so if that's your criteria for a game purchase, you're probably good as sold). It's a 2D action game where you have free movement around a very large map, but many locations aren't available to you when you first stumble upon them. You'll gain a lot of new skills as you play (a double jump, for instance, and a charge attack to can break barriers or even get you to high places), and you will often need to go back to old areas with those skills if you want to collect every item and upgrade in the game.
Exploration is a joy, in part because of the speed and fluidity of your movement. You can get around the environment quickly and with relative ease, making it more fun to poke around in every nook and cranny looking for secrets.
It's not all running around, though. You'll also have to fight a lot of monsters of darkness, which is usually pretty simple. You're basic (but most essential) attack is a sort of electric bolt that can attack enemies close (but not necessarily next) to you. It works well and is satisfying to use, though it does mean that most of the basic enemy encounters you'll experience amount to "approach enemy. Mash X button. Dodge if needed. Repeat." Generally speaking, though, there aren't so many enemies in the game that this gets too repetitive.
There's also a simple upgrade system in Ori and the Blind Forest. By using experience points gathered around the world or collected from fallen enemies, you can acquire upgrades on three different paths that are focused on different types of skills. One path deals more with your attack power, for example, while another offers benefits such as allowing to to save without using as much energy.
Yes, while there are a handful of fixed save points throughout the world, you can actually save Ori and the Blind Forest at any point by simply holding a button. The catch is that this costs energy, so you can't simply save every five steps you take, but it's still something that offers nice flexibility. Want to save your game immediately after a series of tricky jumps? Go for it. The only thing that will stop you is energy management.
All of this is very simple to pick up, so even if you didn't have any clue what a "Metroidvania" is or you've never heard of an upgrade tree, that's OK. While there's depth here for those that want it, Ori and the Blind Forest is a fairly accessible game that can be enjoyed by a lot of different people.
It's early in the year, but Ori has surprised me by being one of my favorite games of the 2015 so far. You could call it an "indie darling" if you want, but what matters is that its art, music and gameplay all come together to form something beautiful. That's what makes it worth playing.