Ori and the Blind Forest
Developed by: Moon Studios
Published by: Microsoft Studios
Available on: PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One

From the early ’80s, when kids flocked around arcade cabinets bustling with 2-D characters like Donkey Kong and Q*bert, until the mid-’90s when “Mario 64” revolutionized console gaming with its 3-D environments, platformers were all the rage. At the time, it seemed like most of the major stakeholders in the industry rallied behind their platforming mascots: Mario (Nintendo), Sonic (Sega), Bonk (TurboGrafx-16) and Crash Bandicoot (PlayStation). By the late ’90s and early 2000s, though, it was impossible to miss that winds were blowing in a different direction. The bright color palettes associated with the industry’s former standard bearers were giving way to the muted colors and gloomy characters that came along when “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” became household brands.

As the old saying goes, “just wait 20 years and it’ll be back in style,” so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 2-D platforming genre has enjoyed a mini-renaissance for a while, driven largely by smaller studios. Although many have banked on nostalgia, a few have engaged by broadening the genre’s emotional reach. “Braid” (2008) showed how platforming games could broach adult preoccupations like regret, while “Limbo” (2010), with its black-and-white aesthetic, demonstrated how seductively morbid a platformer could look –  like a Carl Th. Dreyer film.

Moon Studio’s “Ori and the Blind Forest,” which was recently released on Xbox and PC, is a sumptuously animated 2-D puzzle-platformer. If you’d asked me back in the Super Nintendo days what video games would look like in the future, I imagine that I might have pictured something just like it. That is to say, something with the visual resonance of a masterfully animated film. In fact, the developers cite the work of the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki as an inspiration. (One of the stages in the game is named Valley of the Wind, a tip of the hat to Miyazaki’s superb movie, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.”)

“Ori and the Blind Forest” generally holds to the florid colors typical of the genre, but its narrative gives them a decidedly melancholy glint. At the beginning of the game, a sonorous voice describes how a forest spirit named Ori went astray on the night of a great storm. As Ori floats through the air, in the guise of an incandescent leaf, an exotic looking biped named Naru is sitting on a log seemingly indifferent to the rain, with her arms folded over her belly; an image at once suggestive of pregnancy and sad resignation, and an image partially re-enacted on her deathbed.

After Naru stumbles upon the forest spirit, she adopts him for her own. Just before the player first takes control, Ori has the appearance of a peacefully slumbering cat. Guiding him outside of Naru’s home reveals sunlit fields that abut a bountiful forest. A series of dissolves shows the two merrily gathering food, rejoicing in each other’s company, and sleeping.

Their idyll comes to an end when a cataclysmic event — the blinding of the forest — desolates their surroundings. Naru seemingly passes away, and Ori draws his last breath after embarking on a fruitless journey. However a spirit breathes new life into Ori after which a panorama sweeps into view disclosing a twinkling landscape, which the narrator links to the dawn of a new age. Watching this, I couldn’t help but notice how deeply the developers have internalized the emotional shorthand of popular animated films.

The game starts off deceptively easy and adheres to a Metroidvania vein. That portmanteau is used to describe games inspired by the 2-D classics in the “Metroid” and “Castlevania” series. Similar to those games, “Ori and the Blind Forest” leads players on a crisscrossing trail through its environments on a search for the requisite power-ups to access new portions of the map. One of my favorite upgrades is the Bash Attack, whereby Ori essentially hijacks the velocity of enemy projectiles to propel him on his way. This ingenious game mechanic flips how one approaches the game. By thrusting enemies outside of a purely adversarial posture into the role of inadvertent helpmates, such ambiguity reinforces the game’s narrative –  ultimately painting a sympathetic portrait of  Ori’s arch-nemesis, a gigantic owl named Kuro.

A generous save function allows players to record their progress at any time if Ori is standing on solid ground, away from enemies, with a full energy cell at his disposal (one of those blue dots to the center-left of the screen.) This does away with much of the tedium that comes from repeating large sections when one can’t get a tiny part just right, and that’s easy to get used to. But then, about 20 percent into the game, you encounter an area where Ori must escape from surging water nipping at his heels. It’s the first of several dig-in or go-home moments when the safety net of incremental saving is held in abeyance.

“Ori and the Blind Forest” will tax the dexterity of just about anyone who doesn’t eat games like “Super Meat Boy” or “I Wanna Be the Guy” for breakfast. If that disclaimer doesn’t give you pause, know that this is a game that made me want to hug the developers.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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