Rarely do we consider video games as being capable of bringing us to tears through the emotional journey we’re taken on as we play. While many studios have turned to photorealistic rendering and frankly outstanding visuals, as seen with the award-winning The Last of Us or Cyberpunk 2077, sometimes the more stylized games from smaller studios are where the magic is truly at.
Founded in 2010, Austrian-based game developer Moon Studios might be known for two games so far, but the absolute care and dedication they poured into crafting Ori and the Blind Forest and its sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, is clear in every pixel. When Ori and the Blind Forest was released in 2015, it was met with immediate critical and commercial success – recouping its development cost within a single week – thanks to the game’s unique hand-drawn art style, orchestral soundtrack, and emphasis on platforming and puzzle-solving over combat. Dialogue and story exposition is delivered through animated cutscenes that take full advantage of the player’s immersion, painting an emotionally devastating and rewarding tale of love overcoming hate.
Players are introduced to the vibrant forest of Nibel, watched over by the ancient Spirit Tree, as a small guardian spirit is lost during a particularly violent storm. This spirit is found and adopted by a motherly creature named Naru, who names them Ori and raises them as her own. The opening cutscene features a montage of Ori and Naru living a simple and peaceful life of building bridges across flowing rivers, picking fruit from the trees, without a care in the world… until a mysterious blight strikes the land. The rivers run dry, the fruit trees wither, and soon Naru dies of starvation. Orphaned, Ori sets off to explore the forest on their own and uncover the reason behind the blight. Over the course of the game, players meet a guiding light named Sein who gives Ori the backstory of the forest’s fall, the spider-like Gumo who also lost his home, and a hostile, shadowy owl named Kuro who hunts Ori for an unknown reason. Ori’s journey is punctuated by seeking out the Wind, Warmth, and Water elements to restore life to the forest, and players must solve a variety of puzzles, engage in high-stakes escape sequences, and explore a wonderfully diverse map of environments.
What really elevates Moon Studios’ two games is the obvious love for presenting a story above all else. Combat is present but not the central focus of the game. Players can gain abilities to make Ori more powerful, but there’s no pressure or drive to constantly level up in order to survive. Ori and the Blind Forest received a “definitive edition” remake in 2016 that added several new mechanics to the base game such as a fast travel system, additional locations to explore, and exposition into Naru’s history. Available on Windows, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, the Ori franchise is not one to miss for any gamer, seasoned or not.