A Duel of Extremes
Square Enix and Luminous Productions’ action RPG Forspoken was released in January of this year. Now, almost nine full months later, this review is finally complete. However, this lengthy review cycle isn’t a testament to the game‘s breadth of content, but simply the effort needed to dive back in to reach its end credits. As the title of this review suggests, Forspoken is a paradox of soaring highs and abysmal lows
Forspoken‘s plot will be familiar to anime fans as it follows the currently popular, albeit overused, isekai trope where a person residing in the real world is transported to a magical one, often through reincarnation. The story opens with a young African-American woman named Frey Holland standing trial for theft. It appears that it isn’t her first offense, as the judge treats her with more motherly disappointment than contempt. Shortly after leaving the courthouse, Frey is chased by a gang through the streets of New York City, which introduces the player to the basic locomotion mechanics. After a narrow escape, Frey reveals a somewhat relatable motive of stealing money to escape her less-than-stellar living conditions.
After a short respite, Frey’s apartment burns down along with the cash she was stashing, and she’s back to square one. In despair over the setback, she gives away her cat and heads to a bridge that holds major significance to her. After a pensive moment, she notices a light fluttering around and is drawn to a glowing bracelet. She picks it up, and the isekai trope kicks in as she is whisked away to the magical world of Athia. Frey quickly learns that the bracelet she picked up is sentient and can talk, that she can wield supernatural powers, and that there is a blight named The Break sucking the land of Athia dry of its life force.
The story and worldbuilding of Forspoken hold a lot of potential that is quickly undone by inconsistent story beats and dialogue decisions. Every populated city the player explores in Athia is a rich mix of representation, with plenty of different skin colors, traditional gender role reversals, and beyond. The Tantas, four women rulers who saved the world of Athia before the game’s events, and Frey herself, are solid representatives for a world where the matriarchy is in charge and one that could have been explored a whole lot more.
The failures of Forspoken‘s story come not from a lack of competent plot but from the pacing of its narrative. One moment, the game will weave a heart-wrenching scene that will bring some players to tears following a well-timed build-up, and then just a few minutes later Frey lets out another Marvel-style quip that destroys any immersion and gravitas built up till then. This would be fine if it wasn’t fourth-wall-breaking, instead, Frey seems to quip to the person playing the game rather than to the residents of the world around her. What makes matters worse is Cuff, Frey’s sentient magical bracelet, lets out audible groans of disgust at just about every quip that Frey oozes out. It’s almost like the writers knew no one would enjoy the jokes and wrote in the audience’s negative response as they went along.
Even with the narrative’s shortcomings, gameplay is what will make or break the game for many. Forspoken features an excellent magic traversal system aptly named Magic Parkour. Frey can float from huge heights using wind, run super fast thanks to the power of fire, and even ride the waves with a surfboard made of water. Initially, traversal is rather fun. Being able to run full speed at a building, scale its side, throw a whip over a nearby branch, and then use the momentum to rocket off it is quite a good time. However, the world of Athia is full of mostly empty, large stretches of wasteland that Frey is forced to trek across. The honeymoon phase quickly wears off and turns what was otherwise a fun, unique mechanic into more of a chore.
Forspoken‘s battles are all action-packed affairs where players will use basic attacks, charged attacks, and a few super moves that run on cooldowns or require a gauge to be filled before executing. The real meat of the combat is the multitude of elemental magic schools to pick from including fire, earth, air, and water. In battle, Frey can freely swap between each element and use spells from its related school. As she levels up and completes activities in the world, Frey will earn points to improve or learn new spells. On paper, this sounds great, but battles become very repetitive very quickly. Enemy types are typically reskins or slightly stronger variants, with most battles coming down to picking the element the enemies are weak to and only using that for the rest of the battle. Some battles can even be won just by using basic attacks. It doesn’t help that earning additional schools of magic takes forever, so unless players rush through the story, they’ll be stuck with the starting magic school long enough for combat to become rather dull.
Speaking of boring things, there are plenty of bland activities to do in Forspoken‘s open world. These activities include eradicating monster dens, magic parkour time trials, and other generic open-world activities. There were very few original activities, and, unfortunately, the rewards players can receive are lackluster. Most activities provide a few bumps in stat points and the occasional mana boost which allows players to improve their magic. Some fun could be had in collecting all the cloaks and nail polish that are pretty to look at and boost stats, but each of these activities is essentially the same. Towards the second half, avoiding these activities altogether may become preferable to clearing the map of the sheer hundreds out there. They’re just not a lot of fun.
Not discussing the presentation of Forspoken would be a mistake, especially as it was built in the same engine as Final Fantasy XV. The animations during combat, especially spell effects, are a spectacle to see in action. However, high levels of motion blur, variable refresh rate methods, and more cause an inconsistent level of visual fidelity. Frey and the world’s inhabitants look stunning during some of the in-game cutscenes. In others, their faces and animations look far below par. It’s a shame as there are times when the game truly impresses with its fantasy locations, then renders a cat that looks like it was made with an unfinished texture pack.
Forspoken has plenty of other glaring issues like its occasionally janky platforming that results in Frey falling off buildings or its less than memorable soundtrack. It also has a number of additional points to praise like the scale of its cities and the cast of cute cat chimeras that Frey can lay down and cuddle with. This duality of fantastic ideas with less-than-stellar execution places Forspoken in a place where very few games end up — smack dab in the middle. It’s not so bad that it should be burned by fire, but not nearly good enough to make anyone’s game of the year list.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
The story, at times, becomes surprisingly touching and relatable
Traversal powers are a lot of fun to use
The matriarchal world is an original setting not often seen in RPGs
Battles become dull very quickly
Sidequests are wastes of time
Quippy dialogue falls flat