There's a thin line to tread, when creating any piece of art, when taking inspiration. In games, when it comes to modes of gameplay, and genre tropes, almost any degree of imitation is generally forgiven, especially where a game's quality earns that kindness.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps feels like such a case: it has clearly taken huge lessons from 2017's superlative Hollow Knight, and implements these learnings cannily. Yet that slight failure of total originality might just have prevented it from taking a seat at gaming's top table.
An expansive sequel
Will of the Wisps is a direct follow-up to 2015's Ori and the Blind Forest, picking up just where that game ended. Ori, the titular little glowing spirit, has repaired an island torn apart by decay and darkness, and been reunited with delightful, rotund parental figure Naru and their gangly helper Gumo.
After vanquising the terrifying owl, Kuro, they have taken in her last egg as a family, and as Will of the Wisps opens, that egg hatches to produce Ku, an adorable little owlet. You'll watch Ku grow through a light, delightful introduction, before she is helped by Ori to take flight for the first time, and venture to another nearby island.
There, a storm grounds Ori and swirls Ku away, and the game begins proper. You'll explore this new island to locate your new friend, fairly quickly establishing that this realm is just as troubled as the one you left behind had been. It's a hard narrative reset, make no mistake, the first of only a few small missteps that Will of the Wisps takes.
Again, you'll explore a (significantly larger) island, meeting a selection of its residents and learning of the tragedy that has mired it in murky darkness. Again, you'll be stalked by an evil owl, this time named Shriek, who will be humanised gradually, and again you'll work to restore light to a central tree to save the island's life. Of course, it's important to say that all of this is also again animated and expounded with real care.
At times Ori's short cut-scenes can feel like watching a unique animated film, with well-drawn and characterful protagonists who mime and mumble their way towards profound feelings about the importance of familial love and selfless sacrifice. It's well-meaning and undeniably lovely.
However, we get the feeling that Will of the Wisps exists not because there was much more story to tell after Blind Forest, but because there was much more game to make.
That game is another mixture of platforming exploration and combat, skewing more towards the former, but with some boss encounters that will still test your fighting skills, alternating with others that will have you running for safety.
In terms of navigation, Will of the Wisps is about as smooth and responsive as a platformer gets. Right from the off you'll be scampering around the slowly expanding world with ease, but as you progress you'll regularly unlock more options - whether that means a double jump, a mid-air boost or the ability to use enemy projectiles as points to swing off and boost through.
Many of the game's stiffest challenges, offering up expanded capacity for your life and energy pools, will have you trying to reach a seemingly impossible height, or working out how to plunge into a spike-filled crevasse and get back out again without perishing. It's a supremely responsive system that, by the game's conclusion, will have you feeling nimble and inspired - much like the first game.
Ori's signature escape sequences return, one-off moments that require you to use all your movement abilities to escape from collapsing structures or onrushing monsters, but are thankfully less frustratingly lengthy compared to the previous game. That's a welcome smoothing-out of difficulty spikes that were misjudged in Blind Forest.
Another improvement over Blind Forest is offered up by the sequel's expanded combat system, encompassing a range of weapons to let you fight critters with more control over your playstyle.
Whether you want to shoot them from afar with a spirit bow or fireballs, or slam them with a heavier attacks up close, you can choose a loadout of skills to suit your style, and purchasing upgrades for these skills will even further differentiate your fighting options.
This is a great upgrade, with more freedom to choose, but it must be said that Will of the Wisps, like Blind Forest before it, can still be absolutely tough as nails, especially if you don't root around for health and energy upgrades much.
This is compounded by the fact that whichever of the three difficulty modes you choose at the outset is what you're locked into. This really feels like a bizarre decision, especially given that only the combat is a major variable, since most of the platforming is unaffected by your difficulty level. Thankfully, autosaves are present here, unlike in Blind Forest, making for much more generous resets when you do perish.
In the context of its tone and genre, though, expecting people to pick a difficulty before they've played any of a game is a design choice that belongs in the history books. Moon Studios, the game's developer, should know better, or now patch in the ability to change it. Getting stuck on a bossfight feels appropriate in Bloodborne - despite it still making us want to cry or tear out our hair - but can get closer to pure frustration in game that is otherwise so lovely as Will of the Wisps.
It really is gorgeous, too. We played Will of the Wisps on an Xbox One S, the least impressive hardware possible for it, and it still impressed us hugely with its lush environments and sense of depth. It's a 2D game in movement terms, but evokes three-dimensional spaces with superimposed elements, along with often cavernous spaces behind Ori's central on-screen position.
Whether you're exploring a parched desert, the echoing halls of a stopped water-wheel, the chittering depths of dank caves, or the bubbling pools of a swamp, Will of the Wisps is simply beautiful to look at.
More than that, its soundtrack picks up from Blind Forest to offer up more delightful tinkling piano tunes as you explore, and crashing orchestral swells when moments of high drama and danger rear their heads.
It's a visual and acoustic package of the highest quality, but it's also clear that the Xbox One S, at least, can barely cope with it. We experienced frequent performance issues playing through the game on the current, patched consumer version. At times this meant significant hangups when moving quickly through areas, and at others it meant complete crashes (though progress was never lost, thankfully).
In one late bossfight certain layers of sound were entirely missing, sapping away most of its impact. Even when running smoothly, certain bigger characters and background details were always blurry, we assume to limit their drain on the console's resources.
These glitches are a real shame, detracting from the stellar work done elsewhere. While performance might be smoother on an Xbox One X or PC, it's something to bear in mind, depending on your platform.
Imitation as flattery
While Will of the Wisps at its best is a fluid and challenging piece of design that'll leave you gently moved and exhilarated, it also has a noticeable debt in its ledgers. Hollow Knight is, for our money, possibly the greatest game in this genre ever made. And there's more than a hint of homage to that in Will of the Wisps.
We were struck first of all by the new addition of a Spirit Shard system that lets you add certain modifiers to your loadout of abilities, from extra health to enemies that hit harder but have less health themselves. This is exactly how Hollow Knight's Charm system works, too.
We were struck again by the addition of a new, adorably bumbling cartographer - Lupo, with his humming, whimsical voice - who you can find in nooks and crannies around the world, selling you maps to areas you might not have fully explored yet. Lupo feels somewhat familiar to Hollow Knight's memorable mapping expert, Cornifer.
All this is no crime in and of itself, rather an acknowledgement of how gamers' expectations shape play styles. The mixture of these proven design points with Ori's pre-existing platforming excellence makes for a stronger whole, there's no doubting that. Yet, compared to the startling originality of Hollow Knight - or, peering further back, something like Symphony of the Night - Will of the Wisps' undeniable successes correspondingly feels slightly less earned.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is simply lovely. It's a delightful platformer that expands on the previous game with verve.
You'll have a blast while zipping around its intricate levels, exploring and discovering secrets and hidden nooks, fighting all the way. Plus, you'll do so while enjoying a gentle, kind-hearted story that's painted with beautiful visuals and music.
That said, the fact that some of its key changes come second-hand is a slight shame, as are performance niggles. Still, it's without doubt a journey worth taking, especially for Game Pass subscribers, who can play for free already.