Forspoken review: A magical world with several cracks

An adventure bloated with distractions.
Forspoken on PS5
Square Enix

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Mat Smith
Mat Smith|@thatmatsmith|January 24, 2023 9:00 AM

In Forspoken, you control the agile, angry Frey (voiced by Ella Balinska), slinging elemental attacks (and f-bombs) at multiple monsters before leaping off a cliff face and swinging from a molten outcrop. You keep moving, through the lands of Athia, through the adventure, because it’s really fun and satisfying, but also because when you slow down, you begin to see the cracks.

Running on Square Enix’s in-house Luminous Engine (the team that made the game is a newly-formed group called Luminous Productions), Forspoken gives some beautiful moments of magical pyrotechnics, but it’s not quite up to the consistent environmental beauty (and attention to detail) of games like Horizon Forbidden West or Returnal. Still, most of the elemental effects, Frey’s movements and a lot of the world of Athia is beautifully realized.

The matriarchs that control the world, the Tantas, are fearsome, with a interesting array of spells, lots of intrigue and a good wardrobe. Fighting, talking to and learning about the four leaders and their fall from grace are some of the highlights of Forspoken. Luminous Productions even said that the Tantas were a “labor of love” for the team, and that’s apparent.

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Take Tanta Prav, the water-wielding Tanta of judgment (they all have a handy job title to explain how they’ll probably rough you up): She is delightfully unhinged and argues with herself. Surrounded by her own watery creations, she’s judge, jury and executioner – except there’s no one left to judge. Until Frey kills one of her fellow Tantas.

Forspoken on PS5
Square Enix

Pretty soon after, she’s raving in Frey’s face and you immediately understand that you will have to stop her. The broader story has peaks and troughs, but most of the good moments and set-pieces across the middle-end of the game involve the Tantas’ machinations. Try sneaking (or just rushing) into the castle of the Tanta of Strength, with ballistas firing gobs of fire at you and minions surrounding you even as you dodge the hellfire. Later on, another Tanta pulls you ‘back’ into New York, and the surrounding playfully teases that all is not what it seems.

Forspoken on PS5
Square Enix

While most of the elemental effects, Frey’s movements and a lot of the desolate world of Athia is beautifully realized, other parts aren’t. The only populated region of the game, Cipal, is so underwhelming, relative to the antagonists and their fortresses. Take Auden, Frey’s first friend in Cipal, a city that’s the last bastion of humanity in Athia. She often interacts with Frey in the first and last few chapters of Forspoken – arguably she has more screen time than all but one of the Tantas. She’s also one of the leading sources of information about Athia, why the Tantas are now unhinged despots and well, just how bleak everything is. End of the world aside, why does she look such a mess? Similarly, Tanta Cinta, who’s pivotal to the plot, seemed to be modeled by whoever did the dirty to poor Auden.

This isn’t just a graphical problem either. It’s apparent where less effort’s been made. Open-world games with low-quality side quests (or game filler) are a regular occurrence – I’ve given up in the middle of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – but the majority of tasks in Forspoken are just too dull and unrewarding. I’m sowever chipping away at the game so if there are some pleasant surprises I will update this. But so far, it’s not looking good.

Following the primary story beats, while the magical parkour skills create dashing across land an effortless, speedy affair – and definitely faster than horses – there’s not a lot of impetus to explore too much. One of the major landmarks are giant bird cages indicating locked labyrinths. But so far as I’ve explored, they are simplistic junctions of monsters and corridors, with a sub-boss beastie at the end. Other sidequests – lots of them – are just like the fetch quests of Assassin’s Creed, Horizon, Ghost of Tsushima, Spider-Man and well, so numerous open-world games of the last 10 years.

Do you enjoy chasing matters for collectibles? Welcome to the cat-chasing sidequests. How about doing it without your speedy magical parkour skills? Because that’s the reality– even when Frey is finally accepted into the city, you’ll never obtain to dash across the city of Cipal, and leap up its walls. That means after you’ve traded with collectors, you will have to sprint like a normal human to the tavern. (Weirdly, the sprint button and the magical parkour button are not the same buttons, either.) The good thing is there’s not much to keep you in this town. Even if it’s the only populated area in the game, it’s the least interesting. Take the tavern: During celebrations, you will obtain to experience the most inconsequential, pointless, real-time event dance-off. The button presses and timings have little or nothing to do with the jigs and the moves. Thankfully, it seemed to be a one-off.

Forspoken may offer an open world, but you won’t be able to confront the Tantas outside of the order the plot demands. Don’t worry, the sassy bangle Cuff is around to offer a bit of banter between story beats. It’s a bizarre relationship between Cuff and Frey: They both appear to dislike each other, but not in an endearing way. Frey may be able to traverse, well, pretty much everything with amazing ease, but despite Square Enix pulling in TV writing talent for Forspoken, there isn’t much depth or even much of a character arc to enjoy. Many major plot points are shoehorned in the last third of the game, and Frey’s sudden temper shifts never appear all that believable.

Outside of the leading campaign, Forspoken offers plenty of opportunities for exploration, but the rewards don’t feel worth the time. When I unlocked a new cloak or accessory, they’d typically be specced way below my current equipment. I’d have to go for another magical 5K run to collect herbs and other materials to upgrade matters to a decent level.

Square Enix
Square Enix

The sheer breadth of magical attacks meant I finally fell into a pattern of using my favorites – until I picked up yet another tree of spells from another fallen Tanta. (It’s a disgrace you don’t obtain access to the last set of spells until just before the closing chapters of the game.)

The battles, when the skills come together and the camera and lock-on mechanism is consistent, are a delight. You shift between support spells, summoning two lava soldiers while raining down water attacks, throwing a reality-shifting charm over a few other enemies so they begin tearing each other apart. You line up multiple enemies and cast your super-spell, sending a carpet of poisoned earth spikes across the battlefield.

Coming across a especially difficult foe, usually glowing enemies classified as mutants, often meant waiting to unlock a family of elemental attacks that were more effective. Or, simply, a matter of mopping them up on your way back from another part of the map once stronger. The rewards for beating these often never seemed worth the effort of a challenging battle (or remembering to circle back to that location).

At other times, an invisible enemy would slam into me from behind the camera. The worst fight was during one of the later boss battles with an electric bird beast. It will circle above a city, seemingly forever. Steering Frey, I struggled to land even the most straightforward long-distance attacks. I even made myself dizzy. As the camera continued to swing around and around and around. What should have been a slick showcase for Frey’s agility and parkour talents turned into a war of attrition with bonus motion sickness.

My quests and exploration would regularly be interrupted by breakstorms. These usually random blue-hued storms send a barrage of monsters at you – monsters that wouldn’t drop loot, sadly. At other times, breakstorms end if you killed the monsters in particular areas – or if you bested the super bosses that breakstorms would often spawn. Still working on that challenge, myself.

A lot of the lore and worldbuilding is rooted in text snippets you’ll pick up in dungeons or rest spots – I wish more was communicated through the characters. Without spoiling things, there are other ‘twists’ that come across as cheap shortcuts, escaping the need for another lavish boss battle.

The core story will take between 30 and 40 hours, with some diversions. You can explore a handful of new areas post-game, but nothing so far is especially captivating. I’m avoiding spoilers again, but a wrinkle at the very end of the post-game leads to a very lazy solution for the conclusions of the story, to ensure Frey can sowever live her best magical life after the credits roll.

Forspoken, running on a PS5, is smooth enough, but it will sowever buckle under a wave of enemies and enough magical pyrotechnics. Cranking up the graphical fidelity with either ray tracing or 4K makes for a very choppy kind of a game, especially during frenetic battles.

Like me before the last chapter, Forspoken doesn’t feel quite ready. Originally meant to launch in May 2022, this game’s already been pushed back a good nine months. Could it have done with a little longer? The leading story is intriguing but too short, and the open-world distractions aren’t distracting enough. At one point, opening a pretty simplistic puzzle treasure chest – there are lots of them – Frey exclaims “Boring!”. Same, Frey, same.

Fortunately, the battle system is solid and fun, offering enough for gamers looking for an adventure, and hard mode is suitably hard enough to stretch anybody looking for a proper challenge. Frey references Alice in Wonderland several times, but after 30 hours the wonder had unfortunately dried up. If you enjoy the combat, however, and there’s a demo to try out, you might forgive the dullness, and be willing to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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Forspoken review: A magical world with several cracks