Forspoken Is Shaping Up to Be 2023’s Most Fascinating Mess

Forspoken is one of the biggest early releases in a truly stacked year, but is this game really ready for its 2023 debut?

Photo: Square Enix

Though I’ve been following Forspoken pretty closely these last few months, I’d be lying if I told you I had a great idea of what, exactly, the game was aside from the latest RPG from legendary RPG publisher, Square Enix. That’s part of the reason why I was so excited to play the game for a few hours at a recent press preview event. I was sure that I would come away from that event with a little better idea of what the game is and what to make of it. 

However, that’s not exactly what happened. As it turns out, Forspoken is a lot of things. Some of those things are good, others are bad, and most are, in some way, pretty interesting. All of it comes together to form a game that may end up falling on its face a bit, but will only do so from a great height reached by virtue of its incredible ambition. 

Forspoken’s Attitude and Humor Get In the Way of Its Incredible Worldbuilding

Forspoken follows a young New Yorker named Frey Holland who is mysteriously transported to the magical world of Athia. Aided only by a mysterious sentient bracelet that prefers to be called Vanguard, she must navigate this strange new world to not only find a way back home but learn of the role she must play in Athia’s uncertain future.

On paper, there’s nothing wrong with that basic setup. We’ve been treated to countless great “fish-out-of-water” fantasy stories over the years. However, most of those stories depend on a protagonist that is likable in a way that allows us to see a bit of ourselves in their incredible situation and accompanying actions. Unfortunately, that’s one thing that Forspoken does not have. 

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Frey is an odd character. She’s officially described as a reluctant hero, though her reluctance often comes in the form of quips, awkward curse-filled tirades, and other reminders that she doesn’t especially want to be in this place or with these people. While she naturally warms up to both a bit over the course of the handful of chapters I got to play, her sometimes seemingly faux-tough demeanor and desire to turn nearly everything that happens into some kind of comedy bit remained all too present. 

Some have speculated that the problems with Frey may be attributed to Forspoken developer Luminous Productions’ (a studio that largely consists of former Final Fantasy XV team members) attempts to capture very specific ideas of Western culture. Others have speculated that the team may simply be struggling to write a female protagonist. Maybe there’s some truth to some of that, but when you get down to it, the biggest problems with Frey come down to her role in this game and her dialog.

Look, humor is subjective, but Frey and her companion’s constant series of quips quickly become grating. 90% of their dialog (at the very least) consists of rapid-fire jokes of varying quality and an almost unfathomable amount of curse words. I can’t emphasize how jarring that last aspect is. The only people who have previously been exposed to this many ill-advised uses of the word “fuck” are pre-teen boys who just learned about the word “fuck” and can’t wait to use it at every possible opportunity. 

Frey is sometimes one of those “too cool for all of this” protagonists that we see more and more of in genre works. I’m not sure why there are suddenly so many people who are hesitant to embrace and enjoy a fantasy world, but I would much rather have a character who is impressed by magic than one who feels the need to comment about how tired and cliche that magic is. Frey occasionally brushes aside the armor of her aggressively street-smart persona to allow herself to get swept up in the majesty of the mystical, but her enthusiasm too often fuels some kind of “let’s show them how we do it in New York” (not an actual line) bit of dialog. 

The biggest problem with that approach is that Athia’s lore, history, and world-building are all genuinely fascinating. While I didn’t have time to participate in many of the side activities the game offers, the storylines I did get to participate in were all engaging. Athia clearly has a rich history that we gradually begin to uncover via side activities, environmental details, and traditional story sequences. Most of the side characters also feel fully developed and often steal the show. Of course, that makes it even more annoying that many of those characters and stories are presented through Frey’s “whatever” filter.

Again, I only saw a relatively small portion of Forspoken (this game feels massive), so I can’t fairly comment on whether or not the Frey issues remain a problem throughout the game. For what it’s worth, Frey certainly seemed to warm up a bit in the later portions of the demo. At the very least, the lore and side stories of Athia started to come into focus a bit more clearly as the game progressed, which is really when I found myself compelled to see what will happen next.

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What I will say, though, is that I walked away from the demo wishing that Forspoken was either a more straightforward fantasy game that focused on the world of Athia or that it starred an outsider protagonist who felt as interested in that world as I was. At the very least, I was certainly left wishing that both Frey and Vanguard wouldn’t feel the need to constantly make joking comments about pretty much every single thing that happened, especially when the jokes themselves so often miss. 

Ideally, Forspoken’s gameplay would carry the weight and make those storytelling struggles more of an aside in the grand scheme of the adventure. However, that’s another area where the game struggles to make all its great ideas work together.

Forspoken’s Thrilling Combat Is Limited by Control and Camera Problems

The heart of Forspoken’s gameplay is its free-running “parkour” moment system. If you’ve played a title like Dying Light or Mirror’s Edge, you’ll be familiar with the basics of that system. Forspoken encourages you to run around at incredible speeds, mount over objects, run along walls, and get from “Point A” to “Point B” as quickly as possible. Forspoken’s movement system isn’t quite as deep as parkour systems in other games (you don’t have to master complicated maneuvers, based on what I saw), but the speed and spirit of those systems are certainly here. It almost feels like a Sonic the Hedgehog game at times in a strangely good way.

Interestingly, that movement system also plays a big part in Forspoken’s combat. Most of Forspoken’s battles ask you to bounce around fairly open areas while firing various spells at well-designed enemies. You’re encouraged to utilize your stamina-based movement skills as often as possible to avoid incoming attacks and put yourself in optimal attack positions. If you’re interested, you can also use them to earn style points in the game’s Devil May Cry-like battle grading system. 

When all of those concepts are working in harmony, they form one of the most compelling combat systems I’ve seen in an ARPG in quite some time. Again, I really only got to see a small part of Forspoken’s combat system, which mostly means that I really only got to use a small selection of Frey’s basic moves and magic abilities. Even then, the thrill of dodging an incoming attack only to put myself in the perfect position to unleash some elaborate spell remained reason enough to participate in every battle I could. By the time I reached the demo’s exceptional final boss battle, I was narrowly avoiding elaborate incoming magical attacks while firing off my own mystical missiles without ever slowing down. It was exhilarating.

Combat in Forspoken rarely boils down to standing still and gradually wearing down an enemy via basic attacks. Even when it does, the option to activate even basic attacks’ secondary abilities encourages you to constantly hone your technique. There’s almost always something to be mindful of in the heat of battle, and even the basic skill rotation clearly encouraged experimentation.

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You’ll certainly need to hone your technique as even simple Forspoken battles see you face off against capable enemies who cause a surprising amount of trouble if you’re not always on your toes. Unfortunately, the biggest threats in Forspoken tend to be the game’s controls and camera. 

For a game that relies so much on quick movements and precision attacks, it’s a shame that Forspoken’s controls sometimes feel like they belong to a much more methodical game. For instance, the fact that your targeting and movement system share key input commands make it incredibly difficult to keep enemies in check during multi-target fights while utilizing your most complex movement abilities. That means that you’re sometimes forced to slow down simply to land basic attacks. You can eventually learn to deal with the controls and create a rhythm for yourself, but that sometimes feels like a compromise rather than an instance of you feeling like you’re fully enjoying the intended combat experience. 

The camera is arguably a bigger problem. It’s incredibly difficult to keep track of your position within a larger environment, which really becomes an issue when you have to avoid (and occasionally utilize) objects in the immediate area. 

For example, an early boss fight against a dragon asked me to hide behind walls in the corners of the arena when the dragon was preparing to unleash a big breath attack. The problem was that the camera (which often resorted to an awkwardly zoomed-in position)made it difficult to keep track of which walls were still up during the midst of the battle. Even when I did track a wall, the movement systems context sensitivity would sometimes cause me to hop over the wall and put myself in an exposed position or miss the wall entirely. Other, more closed-in arenas would occasionally see you battle that age-old 3D gaming problem of watching the camera ride up the wall and settle into a thoroughly unhelpful position. 

Again, those problems are amplified by the fact that Forspoken’s combat is a ton of fun when it works right or even when you’re able to make it work well enough for yourself. Mind you, I didn’t even get to fully explore the game’s crafting, equipment, and build options. What I did get to experience of those mechanics suggests that Forspoken will allow you to create an incredibly powerful character who has access to various kinds of viable strategies and abilities. The depth of the thing is clearly there and feels so much more substantial than the window service features you get with other RPG-like experiences. It’s just a shame that the game’s uneven basics make it difficult to fully appreciate its higher-end potential.

That’s ultimately where I’m at with Forspoken at this time. The game’s potential isn’t just obvious; it’s something you get to experience for yourself during those glorious moments when everything comes together. The talent that crafted this experience is as apparent as the potential that talent saw in Forspoken’s biggest ideas. A parkour-fuelled journey through a fascinating magical world filled with adventures great and small as well as genuinely challenging fights that make you feel like a master of magic? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes to all of that. 

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Yet, much like another Square Enix game (2022’s Stranger of Paradise), I find myself wondering whether anyone without slightly higher tolerance levels for jank and cringe will be able or willing to handle Forspoken at its worst to see the game at its best.

Forspoken is currently scheduled to be released on January 24, 2023, for PS5 and Windows PC.