“So let me get this straight. I’m somewhere that’s not what I would call Earth. I’m seeing freaking dragons. And…oh yeah, I’m talking to a cuff. Yeah, OK, that is something that I do now.”
This quote from a small 30 second ad released on August 8th, 2022, has really come to define Forspoken, the new, timed PlayStation 5 and PC exclusive from Square Enix and their beleaguered Luminous Productions team. Originally announced as “Project Athia” back at the PlayStation 5 reveal event in 2020 (and positioned as one of the key titles for the console), Forspoken became a game easily mockable thanks to its fantasy trappings mixed with its seemingly out of touch “How Do You Do Fellow Kids?” try-hard tone. Coupled with visuals that didn’t seem to take advantage of its position as a major exclusive tent-pole title for the PlayStation 5 (with an amazing 2-year exclusivity contract locking it in on top of that), it’s easy to write off Forspoken as a whiff, specially in the crazy week it ended up releasing in.
However, like the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” After a good 29 hours of playtime, amidst the rubble that makes Forspoken seem rubbish, is a game that, when all is said and done, has a ton of charm. It manages to transcend some of its bland trappings to deliver a mostly satisfying power fantasy which hearkens back to the Infamous and Prototype games of old. All while delivering a coming of age story with heart not too dissimilar from what people see in something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In Forspoken, you play as Alfre Holland, aka “Frey,” a down on her luck young adult barely scraping by in New York City as she tries to find a way to better herself to find a better life with her cat Homer. After an early incident forces her to separate from Homer, by a twist of fate she finds a magical cuff which, as soon as she wears it, teleports her immediately to the fantasy dimension of Athia, a land ravaged by a mist plague called “The Break” which turns many people and creatures into zombies with rock-like growth formations. Frey begrudgingly takes it upon herself to find a way to stop/get rid of this “Break” plague as a means to an end to go back to her home in New York and to Homer.
The story by itself is not too dissimilar from classic “fish outta water” tropes or a classic Japanese Isekai, but it does a decent job of mining some fun out of the scenario. The contrast between Frey being this foul mouthed New Yorker juxtaposes hilariously with all the people from Athia who speak in the most medieval fantasy way possible. It’s hilarious seeing Frey sometimes try to explain her slang/f-bombs to them with a straight face. And while some of the so-called “cringy” dialogue from that 30 second ad is still present, when presented in context of a back and forth, the dialogue is not as bad as it seemed going in and, at times, got some great chuckles out of me.
However, it certainly can be said that a lot of this humor seems at odds with the visual style Forspoken has going for it. Using the beleaguered Luminous Tools that powered Final Fantasy XV, the at times quirky fantasy tones from Forspoken seem quite at odds with how bland the game can sometimes look. It’s even stranger considering how photo-realistic the game attempts to be with its visuals, yet the technical chops of the engine makes the game feel very blurry and old.
On the PlayStation 5 version I played for review, running the game on its relatively smooth performance mode with few framerate dips, when standing still, the game could look relatively sharp and detailed. Yet, as soon as I started moving, the game could sometimes become a mess of image reconstruction, always uglying the look when the game was at its most kinetic. While the game does offer its resolution and ray traced shadow modes at 30fps, which does make the game look better, it’s still not a looker. While some environments stand out with their design and the lightning can impress in certain scenarios (especially when your powers are on the screen), considering it’s a current generation exclusive, it’s shocking how weak the game is visually. And if you are planning on brute forcing more beauty out of this game on a PC version, buckle up with those insane PC specs to get much of it.
If the visuals underwhelm, the sound of this game at least carries its side of the bargain. Voice actress Ella Balinska manages to make the most out of her lines, sometimes providing some great intonation within the game’s dialogue that helps sell her fish outta water situation. Square Enix games tend to have a stellar soundtrack most of the time, and while I don’t think Forspoken is a high watermark for them, it still provides the sense of epic fantasy that makes you feel like you have been transported to a magical place (even as bland as this place can look at times). Credit to composer Bear McReary, as some of the later pieces of this game’s music absolutely bang (even if, at times, it feels like they took a few cues from the James Bond theme).
With all of this said, the real star of Forspoken is the gameplay. I’m a long believer that an open world game can sometimes be made or broken depending on how fun it is to move around its world, and, in this case, the magical slant of Forspoken provides a certain level of kinetic movement that reminds me a bit of playing Infamous: Second Son with the neon powers unlocked. While not unlocked immediately, as soon as Frey gets her boost powers, moving through the world of Athia is a joy, allowing you to vault and climb up the environments with haste. If you remember the addictive nature of orb collecting in the original Crackdown game, collecting Mana (the game’s upgrade currency) scattered around the world has that same addictive quality to it, which makes playing through the game’s cookie cutter checklist open world design entertaining.
But it’s not just about the movement. The combat kit Frey unlocks throughout her journey in Athia is very satisfying. Using a combination of elemental powers, including earth, wind, fire (save those “September” jokes for another day) and water, being able to find an enemy’s weakness and exploit said weakness with a combination of your attack moves and your support moves creates the right kind of pandemonium. While the power unlocks are gated behind story progression, it provides a smooth upgrade curve the more you progress through the story and unlock said powers after defeating the game’s Tanta bosses. And with a simple to understand upgrade tree that requires Mana to unlock powers and challenges to further upgrade said unlocked powers, the gameplay loop is satisfying enough on the combat side alone.
And a satisfying combat is the one carrying the entire package, because the open-world itself is nothing to write home about. With some few bland side quests called “Detours,” a litany of base camp clearing, combat challenges, some monster hunting, and some photo taking, the open world activities are as cookie cutter as an open world can get in 2023. I enjoyed clearing out some enemy camps on my way to the main story moments, as it tied to the gameplay loop of improving your powers to become an all-powerful magician. But these activities are so quick to do, and the world is literally so LITTERED with them, that I can’t imagine trying to 100% the game without eventually getting bored, especially since it’s not that visually appealing of a world to explore and interact with outside of some very selective parts.
After 29 hours of play, I was at 40% completion of everything in the world, but outside of some tough monster hunts that take challenges to the next level, I don’t see myself pursuing 100% completion with such a small list of activities to accomplish. But, hey, credit for the game being one of those few open world adventures where it’s relatively easy to just mainline and finish without any gating preventing you from doing so. It at least has the dignity of respecting your time.
In a year that’s looking quite stacked and exciting for gamers, I think of Forspoken as a decent entree for the big meals coming later in 2023. Granted, it’s a rather expensive entree at a $70 cost, and while the inner stuffing may be delicious, the outer bread may not look fully cooked. Forspoken feels like the kind of B-movie/middle market game where a lot of fun can be had without being a prestige piece, but its positioning as one of the big console sellers at its price definitely undermines what it actually is. As someone who loves his games to feel very kinetic and fun, the magic combat of Forspoken did propel the package overall, even when the rest of it could seem from a different era. If that sounds appealing, I definitely recommend it, even if it’s nothing special.
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