January 24, 2023
Forspoken is a game not without controversy, largely since the demo that released towards the end of 2022 didn’t put its best foot forward. The weight of expectation is also strong considering the pedigree of its developers Luminous Productions, a team assembled from folk who worked on Final Fantasy XV. It’s a big bold swing at a fantasy title, with a gigantic open world to explore with parkour and fancy magical abilities, and in some ways it’s an energetic and enticing experience. A prickly duo of main characters and a slow start however means it fails to gain momentum early, but eventually it comes around into an adventure that isn’t anywhere near as bad as what dialogue snippets on Twitter will lead you to believe.
Forspoken is a classic Alice in Wonderland story, featuring Frey Holland, a young New Yorker who is consistently finding herself on the wrong side of the law, running with the wrong people and doing whatever she can to “get by” in the harsh city. She loves her cat and cats in general (relatable), and before you know it she is whisked away to the cruel world of Athia, forced to bond with a sentient speaking cuff wrapped around her arm (that she calls… Cuff), and save the world. Basically.
The story hits a lot of the familiar beats that you’d expect, which isn’t egregiously bad in and of itself, but the way it’s presented is quite slow and meandering throughout. Long cut-scenes with heavy exposition dumps, lore with lots of writing that has to be read, conversations between Frey and Cuff (that literally force you to stand there and listen, rather than have them take place while exploring). It often slows things to a crawl, particularly when spending time in the main hub town, which takes away from the fun you could be having parkouring around the map like a badass.
“Somewhere within the obvious story path and cringey dialogue is a story about self-discovery and female empowerment that is actually kind of lovely…”
Worse still, Frey is not likable, at least at first, and neither is Cuff. I can see that they’re going for a fun “unlikely pairing” vibe, but the jabs at each other don’t feel playful, and Frey swears to an extreme degree that is quite off-putting. To be fair, you can dial down the dialogue that plays while exploring via a slider, but you can’t avoid it in cutscenes. It makes the first few hours of Forspoken feel like a bit of a slog, with too much story, angry and unlikeable main characters, and only one set of magic abilities limiting your combat options.
Once you’ve hit a certain point in the story though, things take a turn for the better. Frey starts to soften and lean into being the savior she really doesn’t want to be, and the aggression between her and Cuff isn’t so off-putting. I wouldn’t say I grew to actively like either of them, but I found them more tolerable during the second half. Somewhere within the obvious story path and cringey dialogue is a story about self-discovery and female empowerment that is actually kind of lovely, and by the time the credits rolled I left my time with Forspoken more positive than where I began, so it’s worth at least sticking with.
Where Forspoken has moments of brilliance is within its various parkour and combat systems, which improve and become more satisfying the deeper into the game you go. Parkour is free-flowing and fun, simply holding a button and moving in a direction to have Frey easily zipping across the map at high speeds. There isn’t much to do on the map itself between all the various waypoints of activities, but I think that’s a design choice given you really wouldn’t want to have to slow down and stop constantly. Blitzing through Athia is enjoyable, and fast-travel is everywhere if you really want to skip the traversal entirely.
Frey’s abilities take a bit too long to get fun, which is a shame. Her core “earth”-based abilities allow her to fire rocks as projectiles and summon large rock spikes in the ground to disable foes. It’s fun for a bit, but it isn’t until a good five hours in when you unlock a melee attack, through her unlocked fire abilities. Her fire sword and ability to bring flames from the ground an a large inferno makes for a fun time, and even later on you’ll unlock a water based skill tree (where you can summon a watery vortex to suck enemies into) and then electric based abilities that have you shooting lightning arrows before detonating them in satisfying fashion.
This is all to say that, when all of these moving parts eventually come together, Forspoken’s combat is actually enjoyable. Enemies aren’t super varied, but you quickly learn that they have their weaknesses that can be capitalised on with the right magical abilities at your disposal. When you’re flinging giant rocks, sparking large electricity fields, dropping Frey decoys and then lighting up baddies with a volcanic, fiery death all in quick succession, it feels good, and visually looks impressive with particle effects flying all over the place. It’s a shame that so many of these abilities aren’t unlocked until later in the game, and you’re stuck with one ranged rock attack for a little too long.
The open world itself has your standard bits and pieces to unlock and explore, including pillars that allow you to mark other points of interest on your map. The trouble is that a lot of these points of interest just aren’t that interesting, and they become repetitive over time. They amount to either going somewhere and activating a statue (to get increased stats) or jumping into a pond (to learn a new skill), or going somewhere to kill a bunch of enemies so that you can get new loot in the form of a cape or necklace that can be upgraded with resource materials.
“…I found myself skipping over the rewards with diminishing returns about half way through.”
There are some underground labyrinths which mostly serve as challenge rooms for you to fight through with a reward at the end as well, but I couldn’t help but feel unmotivated to tick off tasks on this open world shopping list. Athia itself doesn’t look that nice, with a lot of greys and greens that blend into one another, and while I’m sure some people will enjoy combing through its various nooks and crannies for secrets and unlockables, I found myself skipping over the rewards with diminishing returns about half way through.
Beyond the open world exploration components of Forspoken, there’s also a range of detours (side quests) in the grey town of Cipal, the main hub you keep returning to, that you can take on to gain experience, but these distractions are rarely worth it and often drag. An early one sees you simply exploring the town and then feeding sheep, while another simply has you taking photos in the world to share with the curious children who idolise you as a hero.
Characters themselves are also lacking and feel lifeless in that dead-behind-the-eyes kind of way, which makes interacting with them feel stilted. It feels unpolished. The only times they held my attention was when there were cats involved (yes, there are lots of cats in Athia), adding some much needed levity to the dark and broody proceedings. The detours at least progress and become available or unavailable depending on where you’re at in the story, but the slow pace of most of them is in stark contrast to the fast parkour and combat you can find in the rest of Athia. I wish they held my attention for longer.
- Parkour is a lot of breezy fun
- Combat eventually becomes a good time with lots of variety
- Story turns a corner and isn't that bad, actually
- Gameplay takes a little too long to impress
- Cringey dialogue and boring detours are a pain
- Pacing issues mean the opening hours are a real slog
It’s a shame that the early pacing issues with Forspoken and the slow-burn drip-feeding of abilities will likely put off a lot of players and prevent them from seeing how fun the game can actually be when it’s firing on all cylinders. Bland and boring environments with some awkward visual choices and lifeless character models give an unfortunate first impression that is saved by its enjoyable parkour and versatile combat during the later stages of the game, along with a surprisingly heartfelt story. Forspoken might not be the savior we were all hoping for, but it’s a decent adventure with enough soul that it shouldn’t be cast aside entirely.