Ori and the Blind Forest: played at E3 2014

One of the biggest surprises from the Microsoft conference was the introduction of Ori and the Blind Forest from Moon Studios. In the midst of high-profile, hardware-pushing games primarily about war or racing, Ori felt like a peaceful little reprieve. After getting hands-on, I'm even more convinced that this is one to keep an eye on.

The influences range from Disney to Nintendo to Hayao Miyazaki. Our look so far implies a somber story, but that certainly hasn't come at the expense of the mechanics. The most remarkable part may be that such a smooth and cohesive experience is coming from such a small and disparate team.

Moon Studios has fewer than a dozen members, and they aren't even centralized in a single office. It's an international group of developers, all chipping in from their respective homes. The buttery animation that showcased one emotional moment at the end of the trailer is apparently the work of just one animator. It makes the entire experience feel that much more a labor of love.

The demo showcased our protagonist, a snowy white creature monkey-cat hybrid, learning of its destiny to save the forest. It had a certain Zelda tone, with talk of Guardian Spirits and a great evil casting over nature. The traversal takes liberal tones from another piece of Nintendo royalty: Metroid. It's an unabashed "Metroidvania," according to Moon's Thomas Mahler, but most copycats don't pull it off this well.

Movement feels sharp and dynamic, even before the demo gave a wall-climb mechanic. This was a power-up attained about midway through the demo, and served as a good test case of how progress would be gated behind abilities. I never felt too restricted before I attained the extra power, but once I had it, the game immediately ramped up the challenges accordingly.

An ability tree also lets Ori upgrade abilities, but Moon is being careful not to let these break the stage-gating. Though Mahler says that certain abilities might make it easier for you to get from place to place, the critical path is all defined by the story-based abilities you earn by accessing different areas. The ability upgrade was a definite help in combat, though, since Ori's main attack is an seeking shot that barely pings most of the enemies roaming the forest. With a single upgrade point, it became a triple-shot and made short work of them.

Mechanically, it feels as fluid as the most classic of adventure games, and the glimpses of story and setting really make it stand out from the crowd. Moon appears to be putting together quite a journey, and I can't wait to see the rest of it through.