For all its bombast and melodrama, the story in Ori and the Will of the Wisps is not very good. It’s awkwardly shaped and not often well told, unable to cope with a tonal shift towards true darkness compared to the original’s delicate balance (also not handled perfectly, but better than here). The game lurches its way through a hackneyed Legend of Zelda-style collect-a-thon of Wisps - most of which involve beating the crap out of some great forest creature that has become infected with the Decay that covers the world in gooey baddies and ever-present spikes - and also fumbles Ori’s adopted owl brother from the first game, who is playable for one level after being rescued before being fridged for the rest of the story. This is to say nothing of the shadow-shrouded fearsome bird de rigueur who stands in your way sometimes1.
All of this was especially disappointing because the best part of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the part that is completely optional but shouldn’t be, because it’s a much more suitable heart for a game that wants you to care so much.
Once out of the starting area Ori enters Wellspring Glades, which serves as the hub for the rest of the game. Most of the game’s NPCs are here, with upgrades and skills to buy or side quests to give. Moki, the incredibly cute cat creatures that are throughout Will of the Wisps’ new world, are all over the place, most of them remarking how Wellspring Glades is the only truly safe place for them - and that’s before you buy one of the first upgrades for the Glades that removes beds of blood-red thorns. Once said thorns are removed there are no hazards at all, giving a purposeful and peaceful spot of respite from Will of the Wisps’ tight, intense platforming challenges or clever puzzles.
The player also receives multiple sidequests from characters in this area, most of which become game-long goals involving using the truly incredible platforming moveset to find hidden resources in every level: seeds for the hamster-gardener Tuley to plant and rebuild the ecosystem of Glades; Gorlek Ore for Grom, who can use it to at first build improvements for the player but later builds treehouses for the Moki; and a chain of charming baubles to trade with Moki everywhere in the game to help them. A bowl of hot soup for a Moki in the frosty mountains; silk for a Moki to make a net to go fishing to feed his family; a lantern so a Moki can make its way through the dark. This lengthy chain of trades earns you mostly only the gratitude of the individual Moki, because the final reward is not terribly helpful, and can be outright bought from an NPC separately.
But that reward wasn’t the reason I did the quest, and I didn’t 99% the game2 because I wanted the tangible rewards - I did it because it was the right thing to do.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps, exactly like it’s predecessor, is about restoring light to a dark and blighted world. In developing Will of the Wisps, developer Moon Studios clearly took heavy cues from 2017 indie hit Hollow Knight (Team Cherry) and really leaned into the “dark and blighted”. (The game features an entire level made of desiccated bug corpses held together with spider webs. It’s gross.) Therefore the sidequests to rebuild Wellspring Glades are the most thematically resonant parts of the game - they are the ultimate manifestation of Ori braving the darkness to bring light, by rebuilding a community for innocent creatures to thrive in, to become whole, to rejoin as family. Ori is the only one who can venture out to get these resources, and we the player are given the power fantasy of being able to single-handedly revitalize a safe haven, to give the characters we care about a place to stay safe.
As we continue to have conversations about new primary verbs in games I hope there begins to be room for games about building and maintaining communities and networks, which I would argue can be just as epic and engaging as any boss battle, as well as comforting and hopeful. That was the game I took away from my time with Will of the Wisps and enjoyed immensely, but it was optional, and taking the text in its primary, golden-path form leaves a bad taste in my mouth and feels hollow. But me, I’ll always have Wellspring Glades.