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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Luminous Productions
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2023


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PS5 Review - 'Forspoken'

by Redmond Carolipio on Jan. 23, 2023 @ 6:00 a.m. PST

Forspoken transports players to a world filled with beauty and dismay as they set upon a thrilling story-led, action-packed adventure which can be twisted, tempestuous and forbidding.

Buy Forspoken

What is this game trying to be?

I spent more than a dozen hours trying to answer that question while diving into Forspoken — magically sprinting across visually rich landscapes, hurling powerful magic at elaborate boss characters, talking to cats — and while I arrived at that answer, it took me a little bit to get there.

Once called "Project Athia," the debut of Luminous Productions appeared to have all the pieces needed to make a serious impact: an experienced writing team compiling the narrative, design concepts from people who worked on Final Fantasy XV, an engine poised to tap into the PS5's power, and even music from top-end composers.

However, pooling a bunch of top-tier ingredients together doesn't guarantee success — or in this case, magic — on the screen, and while Forspoken certainly has plenty of enjoyable pieces, it's also an inconsistent experience that felt both like the sum of its parts as well as the victim of them, touching on a variety of styles and tones that clash as often as they cooperate.

Some of that clashing pockmarks the story, which is built around a relatively uncomplicated main character, and that's fine. Not every protagonist needs miles of depth at the start. You're placed in the worn-down sneakers of young Frey Holland, a New York City street thief who has spent considerable time on the wrong side of the law, squats in an abandoned apartment with her cat and was one benevolent judge's ruling away from becoming a third-striker.

While evading thugs, Frey (her full name is Alfre), finds a strange-looking bracelet that wraps around her arm. Then she gets whipped through a suddenly opened portal into the faraway magical land of Athia, which, as you might have guessed, has its own problems. An inexorable force called The Break has polluted the land, killed or mutated almost every living thing, and turned Athia's quartet of sorceress leaders, called the Tantas, into insane tyrants. Frey, still trying to figure out what the hell is happening, discovers that her new bracelet is actually some kind of sentient being who talks and helps her discover magical abilities, which then sets her on a path of eventually becoming a hero to the good people of Athia.

For me, the way Frey's path narratively unfolded occasionally carried the tone of Ryu Ga Gotoku (makers of Yakuza and Judgment) and other Japanese studios, especially during cinematic screens, where characters are introduced with a graphic of their name splashing on the screen, with occasionally their title/role underneath. The dialogue throughout carried a different weight and tone, with characters talking to themselves, conversations occasionally hit with a sort of staccato rhythm, the main character stubbornly sticking to her predetermined character mindset of "I'm a loner! I want to go home! None of this is my problem!" If you're a veteran gamer going in, this might not bother you, but it didn't seem to fit all the way here.  It occasionally made me think of "Rumble in the Bronx," a kung-fu movie with Jackie Chan that carried a dated Eastern perception of what New York (and really, the West) was like. Frey's dialogue can be cringey at times — I'm no prude, but she likes to say the f-word a lot, and she does it like she's trying to meet some kind of requirement. Her ongoing chatter with her magical bracelet, dubbed Cuff, has some trouble finding its footing as far as banter chemistry goes in comparison to, say, Joel and Ellie. Both started as uneasy alliances, but there's a nuance that's generally missing, and many often-repeated lines of conversation don't help.

That said, there are also moments when the game's narrative elements display incredible self-awareness, humor and gravity. During a bonding moment with Cuff, Frey mutters something to the effect of, "I didn't spend all this time developing this tough street girl persona," which made me chuckle. There's a very well-executed conversation about responsibility for others between Frey and Cuff, as well as between Frey and a local healer, Auden Keen, who becomes Frey's BFF of sorts. The conversations and storytelling improved the deeper I got into the game, especially when I started meeting and learning about the Tantas. There's a solid-to-good, if not slightly predictable, YA adventure story in there that could have used just a little more fine-tuning: Was I really supposed to buy that at any point, Frey still wanted to go back to being a friendless, homeless vagrant in New York instead of a freaking sorceress?

In terms of gameplay, Forspoken mostly features a greatest-hits list of open-world, action/RPG elements, with a much greater emphasis on the "action" part. A core chunk of the story involves Frey tracking down and defeating each of the crazed Tantas in their respective kingdoms. The confrontations with the Tantas (and the end boss) were easily my favorite parts of the experience because they fall into that classic gang-of-freaks, one-against-all confrontational arc that's been a hallmark of Japanese design, hearkening back to at least the days of Igarashi and now in crushing form in most soulslikes. Each Tanta has a theme (strength, wisdom, justice, love) as well as powers oriented around individual elements. As Frey meets and defeats the Tantas, she gains access to their sets of spells that can be upgraded along with her own inherent magic.

The sheer amount of combat systems and magical firepower available to Frey is staggering and a little overwhelming. With each set of spells comes a growable skill tree, and each enemy is vulnerable to different types of magic. Each shoulder button is responsible for bringing up an on-screen menu of either attack or support magic, which slows down the screen to give you enough time to then select a spell of your choice with either the right or left thumbstick. You can also use the cross pad to "flip" though spell sets on the fly.

Frey can mix and match spells to her liking. If she wants to envelop creatures in a ring of fire and then spring up a death-dealing waterspout or a collection of stabbing, jagged rocks in the middle, she can do that. That is objectively cool. There's also great haptics used with the right trigger, as a simple pull lets loose with a small "bolt" of magic, while holding it down charges and unlocks your choses spell's power.

The real magic is that, somehow, all of this became somewhat intuitive to me once I started viewing Combat Frey as a sort of magic-spewing battle mech, complete with an occasionally effective lock-on system and not-always-reliable camera. The game occasionally chucks hordes of enemies at you, and while the combat at its best can echo games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta (there are even grades that pop up after each confrontation), it doesn't have enough of that crispness and precision of movement. Frey also has an array of discoverable cloaks, necklaces and even nail paint, all of which can be upgraded at crafting tables to boost her health and other attributes.

Another item that might throw off people is that the game has the appearance of an open-world title, but it's much more linear. The story progresses you and funnels you into each confrontation with the Tantas and a definite ending; you can't just roll up to any one of them, tell them to bring it, and see what you've got. While Athia is beautiful and at times evokes memories of the Lands Between from Elden Ring, you're not going to get that type of mystery. You don't have to worry about stumbling into a whole-ass dimension or an invincible dragon that can kill you with one hit. This is a very accessible title by comparison. However, I was a little put off by the dearth of deeper side-quests. There's a solid endgame one, but others I experienced weren't as rich, as they felt mostly like errands and busywork.

It might not seem like it right now, but Forspoken had some very good ideas, and I ended up still having some fun with it. It feels like it needed a little more time to figure out its real identity instead of its disjointed little-of-this, little-of-that experience. I think it's true form, which it hinted at, is as a young-adult, Bayonetta-adjacent ass-kicker, that needs to pick a tone and lean into it. If that's what it had been, we'd be onto something.

Score: 6.9/10


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