Forspoken review: A magical world with several cracks
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 start 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 fascinating array of spells, lots of intrigue and a great 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.
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.
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 great 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 environment playfully teases that all is not what it seems.
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 final bastion of humanity in Athia. She often interacts with Frey in the first and final few chapters of Forspoken – arguably she has more screen time than all but one of the Tantas. She’s also one of the main 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.
Minor characters are even rougher around the edges. This isn’t just a graphical problem either. It’s obvious 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 still 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 make 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 many open-world games of the last 10 years.
Do you enjoy chasing things 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 eventually accepted into the city, you’ll never get 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 get 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 weird relationship between Cuff and Frey: They both seem 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 final third of the game, and Frey’s sudden mood shifts never seem all that believable.
Outside of the main 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 things to a decent level.