Photo Credit: Square Enix
Major video games, like any other mass-market products in these times, are plagued by conservatism. A brief sift through significant releases of past few years will reveal an alarming conveyor belt of sequels, remakes, and remasters of varying degrees of merit. Smaller, independent games are probably the final garrison of innovation and art in the medium, with a few exceptions. Big publishers and developers, for understandable reasons, have to play it safe. The stakes are high and a new intellectual property that doesn't bear a recognisable name involves risks.
Forspoken, which came out January 24 on PlayStation 5 and PC, is exactly that. It is also not that. It is a completely new IP, unattached and unfamiliar to industry precedent. It is neither a sequel, nor a part of a pre-established universe with existing social capital. But then, it is also helmed by Square Enix, a behemoth of the industry, with a name as recognisable as names can get. And, at the same time, Forspoken is also treading conventional terrain. It is an open-world action RPG with an interminable map where points of interest dot every sliver of space like a particularly bad case of measles. Sound familiar?
Developed by Luminous Productions, a Square Enix subsidiary, Forspoken flits between many such contradictions, zig-zagging though the good and the bad, but — to its credit — it never flirts with the ugly. It's a game that often presents incredibly fun escapades, through its flashy combat and frenetic traversal. It is also, in many places, as far removed from the concept of fun as a dental exam. Forspoken's open world is a playground when you're whizzing through it on magic NOS. But, when you stop and take stock, it resembles a classroom.
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All the fun playground stuff lies in Forspoken's magic combat and parkour. Frey, the game's reluctant protagonist, stumbles upon elemental powers that let her perform feats of remarkable and otherworldly magic. With these abilities, Frey can run like the wind, skip like a gazelle, and shimmy like a figure skater, covering vast distances within minutes in the fantastical world of Athia. The same elemental magic that aids Frey's excursions also fuel her fighting abilities. Forspoken's magic combat, which might feel a little familiar to Final Fantasy fans, is surprisingly deep and well thought out. It offers a colourful platter of abilities that start off simple, but get wilder and wackier as you progress and unlock more moves.
While its core gameplay deserves attention, Forspoken's story is hard to get invested in. You've seen it all before: Frey Holland is the troubled underdog, abandoned as a baby, and living in the margins of society in New York as a young adult. She often finds herself on the wrong side of the law and is also in a particularly comical street gang's bad books. Her only friend, like her, is a stray — her cat, Homer. Of course, Frey wishes to escape her misfortunes and find a new life away from everything and everyone who has been cruel to her. At her lowest, she finds a magical sentient vambrace, nicknamed “Cuff,” and is sucked into a strange new world. Cuff informs Frey that she's in Athia, an ancient and formerly prosperous fantastical realm that now lies in ruin.
In addition to serving as Frey's talking companion and a vehicle for exposition, Cuff also imbues our plucky protagonist with magical powers that let her move through Athia at high speed and take on its dangers. Corrupted creatures and beasts roam the lands of Athia now. Once ruled by four powerful matriarchs, whose benevolent magic sustained its people, Athia fell apart when a mysterious corruption, “the Break,” took root. The Break drove the four divine mothers, the revered Tantas, to madness and rage. The Tantas' extraordinary powers, which once kept peace in Athia, now wreak havoc. After receiving her local history 101 lesson from Cuff and a crew of new Athian companions, Frey sets off on a quest to find the Tantas and restore Athia to its past glory.
All this while though, Frey is not driven by duty. She doesn't care about Athia or its people; she only wants to hop a ride back home to New York City. And if you're unsure about her motivations, she will remind you of this at every step of the game. In her back-and-forth dialogue with Cuff, she reiterates that all she wants is to get out of Dodge. The chatter between Frey and Cuff is intended to amuse, but only manages to annoy. Trying too hard to be quirky, the writing devolves into the two trying to outjerk and outjoke each other every step of the way. After initial novelty, you tune the bad quips out. It's not as bad as to bring the game down, but beyond banter it doesn't offer much. It's telling that the game even has a menu option to adjust how often Frey and Cuff chit-chat.
While Athia and its plight, surprisingly and also maybe refreshingly, doesn't give Frey any purpose, a revelation about her past does. Frey reluctantly gets involved in the Athian cause and employs her new-found magical abilities to fight the corruption that plagues the land. Despite a few twists, the story takes a predictable route and fails to deliver much dramatic heft or emotional tension.
Where the narrative falls short, Forspoken's magic combat and traversal shine through. These are the two pillars of its gameplay, and Cuff grants Frey an arsenal of offensive and defensive spells, with an additional brand of support spells to help her fight the corruption. As you explore Athia, you acquire new brands of magic, each based on a different element, adding new spell trees and unique abilities that complement the default ‘Frey's Magic' spell tree. The different classes of magic are colour-coded, with the default spells assigned in the purple magic tree. Each magic type provides a slightly different way to take on enemies. For example, purple magic focusses on ranged combat and taking down foes from a distance, while red magic, acquired a little later in the game, is melee-focussed, intended for head-on encounters with enemies.
While combat is engaging and enough new tricks are added over time to keep things fresh, enemy variety is lacking. Aside from the few unique bosses, Frey mostly encounters a rotating selection of corrupted humans, beasts, and monsters. Even when combat is fun, it's rarely challenging. Forspoken provides Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulty settings. On Hard, enemies basically become spell sponges, taking longer to kill rather than requiring any tactical adjustments. The core combat loop includes switching between different magic types, using your arsenal of offensive and defensive spells plus support spells, and dodging or parkouring out of the way of an enemy's attack. The dodge window remains forgiving across all difficulty settings, making combat a little less tense than it could have been. When you use a combo of spells, you charge up a ‘Surge' spell attack. The Surge spells, when fully charged, are activated by pressing both triggers on the controller to release a devastating area-of-effect attack.
Traversal ties into active gameplay too. You can't just hold down the Circle button and cut straight through the terrain to your objective. Athia is topographically diverse, with towering cliffs, massive plateaus, and dense valleys marking the map. Much like Death Stranding, you often need to solve little navigational puzzles on the fly to weave through natural obstacles in the landscape. For this, your magic parkour abilities include a set of traversal-based skills. Later in the game, you also get a magical whip that pulls you to pre-existing anchor points littered across Athia.
The novelty of magic parkour fades over time as often your main quest objectives are marked far apart on the map. Each time you take on a main quest to progress the story, you have to run long distances, which gets repetitive. Fast travel points open up along the way only after you've covered that particular area on foot, which makes returning to older locations for side quests and further exploration easier. A long trek to each main objective inevitably leads to distractions, too. A quick tap up on the D-pad scans your surroundings, highlighting points of interests, dungeons, and treasures, some of which require meaningless drudgery. The familiar flaws of open-world design surface as mindless markers begin dotting your path to the main quest. It doesn't help that the resources you find as you explore the open world are only in the service of an undercooked crafting system. Aside from health potions, all other crafting only results in minor upgrades and buffs to your magical abilities. You should be on the lookout for new traversal spells though, most of which are found in springs spread across the map.
If you enjoy the kind of exploration grind pioneered by Ubisoft games, you'll have no trouble digesting Forspoken's diversions. If however, like me, you are a little jaded, you can choose to focus on the main story, which takes around 20 hours to finish, with some side quests peppered in. To its credit, the game never overstays its welcome and the story is well paced, even if it hits familiar beats.
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Visually, Forspoken hits similar highs and lows as its gameplay and story. When it wants, it can look good, but it's missing the jaw-dropping open-world vistas of Elden Ring or Horizon Forbidden West. Enemy design, barring the main boss encounters, suffers from a lack of imagination. The main central city in Athia, Cipal, never feels alive or lived-in and is marked by a dour colour palette of greys and browns. For a fantastical world full of magic and myth, Athia often looks monotone. Character models for Frey and the majority of the support cast are good, but the quality drops off drastically lower down the food chain.
As for performance, I played Forspoken on PS5, on which it offers three image quality settings — Performance, Quality, and Ray-tracing. I played using the Performance setting, which delivers mostly steady 60fps gameplay. I'd recommend console players do the same, unless you prefer a crisper image and don't mind a reduced framerate. In my playthrough, I didn't encounter any major bugs or glitches, except one time when a mini-boss got stuck in the terrain. The game utilises advanced haptics and adaptive trigger functions on the DualSense controller, but it often goes overboard with the feedback, gorging into the controller's battery at an alarming rate. Oh, and Forspoken probably features the quickest loads on PS5 I have yet seen. I think that crown earlier belonged to Spider-Man: Miles Morales, but Forspoken takes it to ridiculous, blink-and-you-miss-it territory.
Forspoken takes its time to reach the fun part, but once you're decked out with spells and supplies, its combat and traversal mechanics can keep you hooked. New magic types and the corresponding abilities that you collect over time split combat into a four-course meal, bringing something new to the table each time. Its less-than-stellar story, despite high-profile names in the writing team, failed to pull me in or make me care about its characters. It's almost hard to believe that the story concept was created by industry veteran Amy Hennig, who helmed the Uncharted series. None of Uncharted's charm, or wit, or the complex interpersonal dynamic of its characters, are present here. Because those meaty narrative moments fail to land, the evocative score by God of War composer Bear McCreary only carries the hollow emotional stakes of its story so far.
When the excellent parkour and spirited combat mechanics work together as intended, they raise the game above its mundane peripherals. But, more often than not, Forspoken is bogged down by its by-the-numbers open-world design, its predictable story, and just a broader lack of imagination. By the end of its near-20-hour campaign, Forspoken hangs firmly in limbo, somewhere between fresh and stale.
Rating (out of 10): 7
Forspoken released January 24 on PC and PS5.
Pricing starts at Rs. 4,799 for the Standard Edition on Steam and Epic Games Store for PC, and on PlayStation Store for PS5.
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