Forspoken suffers with presentation and execution despite promising an intriguing universe with a complex magic battle system.
Forspoken, the first game from Square Enix’s Luminous Productions and a game initially under the pseudonym Project Athia, has a lot of DNA with Square’s earlier JRPG creations, albeit with Western twists. Forspoken, which Allison Rymer and Todd Stashwick wrote, is based on a concept created by video game writing veterans Gary Whitta and Amy Hennig. This makes sense, given that the Luminous team includes many former Final Fantasy 15 developers. Forspoken, however, devolves into a generic open-world game whose battle system is its only real point of distinction in an attempt to present something fresh yet familiar.
Forspoken’s literature and Frey Holland’s persona have received much criticism. When players first encounter Frey, she is on trial for theft and tends to use vulgar language. But as the first prologue goes on, it becomes evident that Frey is a victim of her circumstances because the Holland Tunnel abandoned her as a newborn and left her to fend for herself.
Frey is magically transported from the modern world of New York to the world of Athia after discovering a curious vambrace. After a mysterious airborne substance known as “The Break” seized control and turned whatever living beings it came into contact with into terrible monsters, Athia, formerly a thriving kingdom with all the trappings of a Final Fantasy-esque medieval setting, has fallen into ruin. The four Tantas of Athia, corrupted former aristocratic monarchs, are considered the Break’s source. Frey seeks to aid the citizens of Athia by conquering the Tantas and eradicating The Break after learning that the vambrace (named Cuff), in addition to giving her all the exposition, quips, and comic relief she could ever need, also grants her the power to use element-based magic.
Forspoken’s plot follows a hesitant hero’s journey in many well-known ways. The game’s narrative does nothing to emphasize how fascinating the planet and lore of Athia are, and the more intriguing passages from Athian history are consigned to text-based collectibles. The tale is predictable, but Forspoken also only does a little to surprise. The presentation further deflates the whole affair.
With random fades to black in between several of the game’s plot scenes, awkward cutscenes, and line delivery are probably the game’s worst storytelling flaws. In open-world games, exploration usually comes first, but everything still feels disconnected after the player gets into the main plot. Most of the voice actors’ line delivery is flat and emotionless, compounding worse by the editing, which frames situations as characters waiting for scenes rather than actual talks.
Although Frey, Cuff, and several supporting cast members perform significantly better, it is not enough to elevate the writing or evoke a strong emotional reaction. And other people could find Frey’s portrayal offensive. Athia is a fun place to spend time in, but that’s large because of the magic-based fighting in the game. Forspoken excels in combat and exploration, even though the magic system and traversal mechanisms have drawbacks. Frey must use a constantly expanding arsenal of abilities to battle the numerous monsters, humanoids, and animals that The Break has corrupted.
Frey’s three types of magic are attack, support, and an ultimate accumulating attack. The player can prepare one of three distinct charged strikes by holding R2, some of which are good for single target damage and others of which can thin out large groups; for each of the elements that Frey wields—she begins with earth and gains more after fighting the Tantas. Support magic can also be used to create large fire arenas that damage any opponents that enter them or vines that grow out of the ground to hold adversaries in place. The objective is to continue attacking with attacks while employing support magics to control large groups or limit/debuff more vital targets.
Frey will run through the open world with a quick parkour movement while charging up large balls of water or throwing small rocks to cause damage. Any formidable foe or foes must be avoided, so the holding circle sends Frey “skating” around or tapping the process will prevent an enemy’s telegraphed attack. A unique combination of third-person shooter, melee action, and active combat from Final Fantasy 7 Remake is created when magic and parkour are combined.
However, managing the battle system is just as challenging as explaining it. Most of the time, players will stick with the elemental magic their target or targets are vulnerable to and will only use support when it is no longer on cooldown. However, the action grinds to a halt due to the extensive radial menu management needed to utilize Frey’s abilities fully. There is too much to jump between, and there is no graceful way to do so, with each offensive elemental magic typically having three charge attacks and each element having at least five support magics. Concentrating on and staying with the strategy that appears to be most productive is preferable.
At first glance, players might be combining elements, switching between various spells, and quickly dispatching the enemies near Athia. Luminous Productions had that in mind, and to its credit, the company made sure that everything appeared excellent on screen. With the technologies developed, however, there is just no way to achieve that. Players will enjoy Forspoken’s combat once they acknowledge the power fantasy’s severe limitations.
Additionally, the game’s lock-on system frequently jumps between enemies at random and needs help to give players a consistent target. Despite seeming so simple, dodging is also tricky. Players must press circle at the proper time or parkour away to clear the danger zone, as enemies will telegraph either a dodgeable or un-dodgeable attack. The timing, however, is erratic, and hits from off-screen might instantly stop the momentum. Not to add that each encounter has a scoring system that favors avoidance of damage. Fighting is a lot of fun when everything “works,” but several restrictions make it impossible.
Forspoken’s skill trees always present a delicious carrot on a stick to keep players continuing, regardless of whether they develop their favorite magic or choose to try everything. Players can unlock new support spells and enhance attack magic or ultimates as they gain Mana, which functions as upgrade points. By successfully fulfilling challenges associated with each episode, such as eliminating 15 opponents with one spell or striking three adversaries simultaneously 15 times with another, they can also boost the potency of Frey’s strikes. It’s a system that pushes Frey to use her resources to increase her overall power and her enjoyment of the magic’s spectacular particle effects.
Players can customize their playstyle through the gear and crafting systems in Forspoken. Players can acquire cloaks and necklaces with special bonuses for Frey by completing side quests in the open world. Others are more situational, like a cloaking ability that increases close-range damage, while some directly enhance magic strikes. Similar advantages are provided by necklaces, which can help Frey survive a battle or become even more vital. Additionally, any cloak or necklace with an inherent trait will unlock that trait so that it can be added to another cover or chain for a fee (there are a ton of materials spread throughout the open world).
The open world of Athia is divided into various regions sprinkled with a wide variety of side quests and landmarks, all of which are inspired by the Tanta’s elemental magic. These include forts with several foes within, safe rooms for crafting and resting, mini-dungeons with a unique boss at the end, time trials, and defenses. Players’ fundamental composition rarely changes after they have witnessed one of these events. Forspoken is terrible with open-world content that feels like fluff, and there is a general lack of variety. The promise of more chances to wield the magic and prizes that make it stronger is the only things that drive participation in these side pursuits.
Fast-paced parkour, in which Frey “flows” across the ground, makes it easier to move about the open world. If the player holds a circle and the stamina meter is filled with energy, she can leap over obstacles and instantly climb minor cliffs. As Frey gains access to more magic, she will also gain new skills that enhance the traversal, such as a maneuver that enables her to grip ledges and particular items on cliffsides. When the geometry is more complex, everything is pretty intuitive, albeit a little clunky, but when there are buildings or more hard things around, it gets messy. Usually, the player will lose their bearings and turn around more frequently than they would like. It’s simpler to slow down and avoid using parkour in these situations.
The enemy designs in Forspoken are pretty impressive, even though most of the surroundings are standard open-world fare. Forspoken contains various evil characters, including mutant alligators, a giant dragon, and unsettling zombie-like humans. As the plot progresses, more of the open environment will become accessible. There is little to fighting each enemy, though; patterns grow easy to predict, and the difficulty mainly comes from avoiding the lock-on and dodging. The foes it presents need to be more vital to the magic type Frey has just unlocked, and it also follows a typical pattern of not progressing much further.
Though they offer the most visually appealing battle settings, fighting Tantas and mini-dungeon bosses could be more thrilling. The player will typically merely pelt each opponent with their best magic attack of that element, calling up support magic in between, depending on each boss’s weakness. The bosses are neither difficult nor original, except for one late-game boss battle that radically flips the script and then does little with the new arrangement. For example, defeating the dungeon bosses can uncover a new element from the Tantas or a new piece of equipment from the monsters.
The appearance of Forspoken features a lot of rough edges, which is a feature of the design as a whole. The methods of the main characters and enemies can be rather beautiful, but many of the surroundings and NPCs, particularly in the open world, are uninteresting and lack personality. Some even have an unsightly appearance. Much care was put into making Frey look amazing and for her powers to be impressive, but everything else was completed quickly.
Forspoken’s diverse components hold a lot of promise, but most of its systems, plot, and architecture could use fine-tuning. The ability to use magic is a significant highlight, but changing between every type and element is awkward and laborious. The narrative’s presentation is clumsy and obvious, but the story’s core is intriguing. The open environment of Forspoken needs to be more varied to inspire the kind of exploration that would make the game feel genuinely substantial, which is probably the worst aspect of all.
The design of Forspoken uses starting templates so frequently that doing anything is motivated primarily by the desire to develop the magic. After 15 hours of the plot (and a good number of side activities), there were no compelling reasons to continue playing and completing the checklist when the credits rolled. It felt better to focus on the positive aspects of Forspoken and let the harmful elements alone.
Forspoken debuts for PC and PS5 on January 24, 2023.