Forspoken is one of the most hit-and-miss games we've played in a long time. For everything it does well, it fumbles something else, resulting in a fantasy adventure that's full of ups and downs. It's a game that feels a bit confused in terms of what it actually wants to be, chasing a AAA-style 'cinematic' story one minute and encouraging you to explore hundreds of open world map markers the next.
But first, the basics. You play as Frey Holland, a 20-year-old New York City squatter who hits rock bottom in the game's prologue. Saddled with a criminal record and hunted by thugs, Frey's escape plan literally goes up in smoke as the abandoned building she calls home burns down. She's basically got nothing left, but then she stumbles across some, er, magical jewellery, and is transported to another world named Athia.
Most of the meme-sprouting dialogue you've probably seen online occurs when Frey first enters this new realm. She's obviously desperate for answers and the 'Cuff' that's now attached to her right forearm has started talking with a sarcastic English twang. At first, our heroine just wants to go home — even though the prologue gave us no reason to believe there's anything other than misery back there — but as Frey journeys across Athia, she predictably develops an attachment to its people and their struggles.
We're not really sure why, though. For as brash and awkwardly negative as Frey can be — topped off with her frequent overuse use of f-bombs — she at least has a spark of personality. The same can't be said of... Well, almost every other character in the game. Athia is populated by some of the dullest NPCs imaginable, both in and out of the main story; think Dragon's Dogma, but with none of that game's inherent charm. These peasants, merchants, quest-givers, nobles, and haughty council members will bore you to tears if you let them.
Sadly, 'boring' describes much of Forspoken's storytelling as well. The game's riddled with badly paced and questionably directed cutscenes, as characters drone on and on about Athia's generic fantasy lore in an attempt to make Frey care about their plight — it's no wonder she's always telling them to f*ck off. And that's the central plot, by the way, complete with motion capture and actual camera angles. The rest of the game relies on frankly mind-numbing scenes in which static character models just stand there flapping their mouths for minutes at a time, complete with some bafflingly long pauses between voice lines.
These dialogue exchanges are so badly presented that they honestly put you off side questing. Forspoken has a huge problem with scene transitions, in that it's always fading to black for every little thing. Talk to an NPC, fade to black. Finish the conversation, fade to black. Go talk to another NPC to continue the quest, fade to black, repeat. It's endless, and it makes the game feel seriously disjointed. Add all of these complaints together, and you start dreading your next trip into town — another chore-soaked slog through big empty streets, snore-inducing dialogue, and black screens.
It's a genuine shame that Forspoken suffers from these pitfalls, because outside of the city walls, this is a much, much better game. Despite being absolutely coated in by-the-numbers map markers — many of which are barely worth your time — the open world is where the action RPG comes to life. Frey is able to race across the countryside at speed and battle monsters with the help of her magical cuff. At its best, exploration is a delightfully fluid experience, while combat can hit some glorious highs later in the game.
Frey can climb and scamper over just about anything, although a stamina meter does stop you from dashing across the entire map. Frey's movement can feel a little unruly at first, but with a bit of practice, there's fun to be had in simply speeding from place to place. It's not quite Marvel's Spider-Man in terms of tactile satisfaction, but it's still enjoyably frenetic.
Combat tells a similar tale. Forspoken is, in essence, a kind of third-person shooter, as many of Frey's elemental spells can be slung from a distance. However, as the system opens up based on your progress through the campaign, you gain access to a variety of attacks and support abilities that push it above and beyond its aim-and-shoot foundations.
But again, the game finds ways to hamstring itself. The spells that Frey starts out with basically amount to you chucking rocks at your enemies. They're bland, lack impact, and you're stuck with them for far too long. Now, obviously, Forspoken can't just dump a library of spells on the player and expect miracles (as the game's divisive demo proves), but the initial repetition paints a bad picture of what is actually a fun and flashy combat system.
Needless to say, the later spells are a lot more interesting. By the end of the adventure, you'll be melting foes with meteor-like fireballs, tearing through opponents with wonderfully animated torrents of water, and turning creatures to dust with full-on lightning storms. It's all beautifully destructive, and makes you feel like a truly superpowered entity.
It takes too long to get to that point, though. To be fair, Forspoken does have a decent sense of progression as you work your way into harder areas of the open world and develop your abilities, but because of its other flaws, it's highly likely that some players will never see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's far too easy to get bogged down in dreary story beats and dire side quests that seem to drag on forever.
It also doesn't help that the game struggles to leave a lasting impression visually. The art direction is intriguing at times, but comes across as messy overall, with some odd colour palette choices. Textures can be muddy, character models are middling, and the lighting is disappointingly flat. Square Enix's Luminous Engine is clearly capable of delivering some lovely looking vistas, as Athia often proves, but it's badly optimised on PS5, as demonstrated by the fact that the game's dynamic resolution is all over the place. Particularly in big battles, the image quality can absolutely tank, making it difficult to pick targets out in the particle-filled mayhem.
Indeed, Forspoken is technically rough. Outside of its lightning fast load times (which are completely undermined by all of the cuts to black) and the aforementioned particle effects, it's far from what you'd call a PS5 showpiece. And, as you might expect, the frame rate can be shaky too, with noticeable dips across all three of the game's graphics settings (performance, quality, and ray-tracing).
But hey, the music's good. There are some stirring orchestral tracks on offer in Forspoken, but we wish that they kicked in more frequently. Many of the melodies that accompany exploration are nice and whimsical, but they'll often continue playing over battles and hectic moments, which is weird. We're tempted to think that this is some kind of bug, but again, when the music does rumble into existence, it definitely elevates the action.
Forspoken should and could have been a better game than it actually is. Its strengths lie in its core gameplay, which is fast, fluid, and great fun at its best. However, unnecessary open world clutter hampers exploration, and the combat system only begins to hit its stride hours into the adventure. If you can push through a poorly paced story, packed with desperately dull characters, then you might find enjoyment in Frey's fantastical abilities, which undoubtedly steal the show both in and out of battle. It's not quite the disaster that the memes would have you believe, but it's certainly not the PS5 showpiece that was once promised, either.Combat gets really fun, eventuallyEnjoyable traversalDecent sense of progressionSome good accessibility settingsInspired music at pointsLater spells look fantasticBig boss battles are a spectacleDreadfully dull charactersDisjointed, boring storytellingMind-numbing side questsOff-putting open world clutterTakes too long to open upTechnically roughDefault adaptive trigger settings will destroy your fingersNot Bad610Scoring Policy Review copy provided by Square Enix
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