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Forspoken Is Frustratingly Flawed But Fine Overall

Forspoken is a graphical showcase for the PS5, but a lack of focus, substance, and polish brings down its interesting world.



Forspoken Square Enix Frey

Forspoken PlayStation 5 Review

Developer: Luminous Productions | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Action RPG
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PC |  Reviewed on: PlayStation 5

Forspoken is a baffling game.

A high-fantasy melodrama from the perspective of a jaded New Yorker who finds herself far from home, Forspoken is both rife with cliches and bursting with unique worldbuilding. The game emphasizes fashion and self-expression through its equipment and extensive list of magic spells, yet forces repetitive gameplay on the player at every turn. It is frequently gorgeous, with incredible-looking particle effects and a seamless open world, and just as frequently washed-out and empty as can be. The plot, writing, and characters are paper-thin, but every so often hit upon something heart-wrenching and true. It will be loved; it will be hated. It will be met with a collective shrug and perhaps revisited in years to come in a clickbait article titled “Five Former (Almost) PlayStation 5 Exclusives That Are Better Than You Think”. Somehow both under and overambitious, Forspoken has elements of a great game trapped in the form of a mediocre one.

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Image: Square Enix

Curiouser and Curiouser

Credit where it’s due: mega-publisher Square Enix making an effort to procure new IP in an age where remakes, remasters, an updated ports are the norm is worth celebrating. While not every new IP is a home run, the company’s willingness to throw capital behind an untested franchise is a net good. It’s a shame, then, that Forspoken doesn’t reach the heights of Horizon Zero Dawn or other big-budget titles. Instead, Luminous Productions has created a title with some incredible mechanics and interesting worldbuilding hampered by the conventions of its bog-standard AAA open-world design.

Forspoken introduces players to the fantasy world of Athia through the eyes of jaded New Yorker Alfre “Frey” Holland. Frey is an orphan and an outsider, scraping by in NYC with only her cat, Homer, for company. Days before Christmas, a well-meaning judge lets her out of a potential prison sentence under the condition that Frey turns her life around. Frey, on the verge of skipping town, promises to do so, but is instead driven to the brink by a gang of thugs she used to associate with. Out of options, and on the verge of doing something drastic, Frey is suddenly drawn to a mysterious bracelet languishing in an abandoned antiques shop. She puts it on and is instantly whisked through a portal into a mysterious and magical land.

In Athia, Frey is a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land, someone who fell down the rabbit hole and emerged on the other side both fearful and fascinated at what she found. It’s a well-worn but intriguing premise. Athia, once verdant and lush, is being slowly subsumed by the Break, an ever-encroaching magical storm that turns humans into zombies and animals into horrifying mutants. The rulers of the land, powerful matriarchs known as Tantas, are either missing in action or have been driven mad and are abusing their power. But Frey’s arrival in Athia is a sign of hope for many of its residents. Undaunted and unfazed by the Break, Frey uses her newfound magical powers and the help of her companion Cuff to explore Athia and attempt to bring the Tantas to heel.

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Tantas Olas, Sila, and Prav. Image: Square Enix

The environments themselves are stunning, provided the player takes the time to tinker with their graphical settings. Each Tanta rules over a different corner of Athia, and each area is visually distinct. The deserts and canyons of Praenost are easily distinguishable from the ponds and forests of Avoalet. Frey’s main method of movement is her signature magical parkour, and once she builds up some momentum and masters a few skills, can tear through miles of landscape without breaking a sweat. Parkouring through fields, towns, up and over walls, and eventually slinging her way across vast gaps and up sheer mountainsides is thrilling, but the player may find their attention wandering over time. Notable is that the game often feels blindingly bright; mileage may vary depending on HDR capabilities, but it is worth messing around with brightness and contrast for a more enjoyable visual experience.

Forspoken suffers from what trips up many other games of its type: its world is beautiful, but there isn’t much to do as time goes on. The in-game reason for the world’s emptiness tracks, but doesn’t make it any more fun to explore. Athia’s landscape is dotted with crumbling ruins, towering guild halls, and bridges hundreds of feet long, but despite there being dozens of landmarks to visit, the activities the player engages in are simply unfulfilling. There are chests to find, where the player can find crafting materials to improve Frey’s cloaks and necklaces, and sunken labyrinths that recall the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne. There are combat challenges and hidden caves and Tanta monuments that improve Frey’s stats, but nothing feels like a must-see. Despite the overall landscape being beautiful, locations lack an identity.

There are some exceptions. Pilgrim’s Refuges, safehouses that Frey can fast-travel to, are a must-visit. In a Refuge, Frey can craft healing potions, improve her gear, and crack open up a book to upgrade her spells. She can also rest and recover her health, and, if she’s visited the requisite location, can cuddle up with a catlike familiar. Also essential to visit are fountains of power, generally in the furthest-flung corners of the map. Everyone that Frey visits unlocks a special spell, granting Frey a new ability that she couldn’t normally learn via her usual skill tree.

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Image: Square Enix

Character designs are also a highlight, for the most part. Frey’s capes, necklaces, and nail art feel unique and inspired. She even rocks her jeans, flannel shirt, and sneakers underneath her more fantastical garb. NPC designs are more uneven, either way too flamboyant or overly muted. To be an NPC in Athia, you’re either wearing beige or dressed like an Alexander McQueen model.

Frey’s abilities are tied to the primal elements, with each skill tree reflecting the powers of a Tanta. When Frey first arrives in Athia, she and Cuff are limited to the element of earth, flinging rocks at foes and rooting them to the ground with powerful vines. Before long, she’ll battle the fearsome Sila, unlocking the power of the Tanta of Strength’s fire magic. Each skill tree instantly adds a half dozen spells to Frey’s repertoire, with dozens to learn and upgrade by the end of the adventure. There are support spells and attack magic, and swapping between them builds up powerful Surge abilities. The magic and combat of Forspoken is a high point, unfortunately undone by a pretty steep learning curve and a lack of real incentive to learn its intricacies on lower difficulty settings.

Slinging spells and parkouring around a battlefield is an adrenaline rush. Every battle is graded, and watching the grade improve feels empowering. Ranks can be increased by a number of factors: variety of spells used, curing or causing status effects, hitting an enemy’s elemental weak point, dodging an attack using parkour, and hitting a foe from behind are all essential to ranking up and earning more experience points and items. Combat challenges ask the player to make use of every trick in the book, though boss battles are less demanding than might be expected, at least on the Normal difficulty setting.

Strangely though, the game never really pushes players to improve. The player can choose to engage as much or as little with combat as they like. In fact, Forspoken doesn’t ask much of the player at all; while the freedom to choose what to do next and where to go is welcome, there simply isn’t much incentive to engage in most of the systems at hand. Moreover, even when they do decide to go deep, the player is rewarded with some of the least engaging, slow-paced side content imaginable, strung together by performances and voice acting that range from unintentionally hilarious to unfortunately bad.

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Prav looks straight outta Bloodborne. Image: Square Enix

We’re All Mad Here

Much has been made about the dialogue in Forspoken, particularly that between Frey and her sentient bracelet partner, Cuff. Some find it cringe-inducing, some think it’s overwrought, and some think there is simply too much of it. Amazingly, there is an in-game reason for Cuff’s frequent chatter, but the real problem lies not in how much or how little dialogue there is, but in what is being said in the first place.

Athia is a magical land, to be sure, but the residents of the central hub city of Cipal speak as if they’re extras at a renaissance faire. The “ye olde english” performances are distractingly annoying, as is the choice to have adults voice children. It becomes difficult to take the self-serious tone of the game at face value when every minor side character’s acting is as stilted as can be. Some major players, like Auden, Robian, and the Tantas themselves, fare better, but for the most part conversations suffer from awkward pacing.

As for Frey and Cuff, players will either be on board, or find themselves changing the language in the “settings” menu. Frey, voiced by Ella Balinksa, does an admirable job conveying the fear and wonder of finding herself in an entirely new environment. She is at turns crass, caring, and compassionate, though some may find the script to have a few too many “fucks” to give. Frey is a New Yorker through and through, and gleefully cusses out everyone she meets throughout the entire adventure. She feels relatable and alienating at the same time, someone who be great to grab a drink with and a nightmare to ask to babysit. Frey utters the phrase “batshit crazy” much more often than can be reasonably expected. Though her performance is solid, the writing can feel exhausting.

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Image: Square Enix

Cuff’s banter with Frey is not as bad as trailers have made it seem; the real crime is the repetitive nature of their commentary. Upon entering a refuge, Cuff will almost assuredly quip that they “can’t wait to take a load off”, and Frey will always reply, “…take a load off what?” Funny the first time, not so much the twentieth.

This speaks to a larger problem of Forspoken as a whole: though there an abundance of activities and a variety of characters, the player cannot shake the feeling that all of this has been done before. Forspoken‘s structure means the late game arrives in a rush, dumping exposition and new spells on the player in a deluge where previously things felt like more of a trickle. The player can pace themselves for the most part, but the novelty of exploration wears thin after racing through a few areas in search of yet more crafting material or another fabulous cape.

Though Forspoken‘s gameplay can be delightful, and is rewarding in its own right, it is at odds with a structure that lets the player parkour past anything resembling a challenge on their way to the next waypoint. There is real fun to be had, especially if the player invests time and energy in learning how to best use their magical spells to be an effective combatant. But after battling mutants, nightmares, and Tantas galore, there just isn’t much in the way of satisfying storytelling. Forspoken features a well-realized world, but players are stuck finding out about it by reading journal entries found in a side dungeon or being locked in place as stiffly-animated characters exchange dialogue. For all the ray tracing, particle effects, and complete lack of loading screens afforded by the power of the PlayStation 5 and up-to-date PCs, Forspoken feels stuck in game design conventions from over a decade ago.

It is not enough to have a large map with dozens of Points of Interest to visit; there must be a compelling reason to do so. Crafting materials and occasionally well-written archive entries are not enough. As much fun as the journey from A to B can be in Forspoken, arriving at a given destination is rarely more satisfying than a slight stat increase. Forspoken is not a bad game overall, but it is lacking in substance. It is a shame that a game that runs this smoothly on modern hardware lacks the polish to be considered a classic.

Cameron Daxon is a video game evangelist and enthusiastic reader. He lives in Los Angeles, California and once nearly collided with Shigeru Miyamoto during E3. His favorite game is Bloodborne, but only when he’s not revisiting Super Mario World. He’s also in the writer’s room for YouTube personality The Completionist and other places on the internet.