Review: Forspoken

To reiterate on a point touched upon in the closing segments of one’s time with the public demo last month: no one wishes a game comes out bad. And while it’s easy to proclaim the figurative writing was on the wall for ill-fated projects in years past, caution should stand as an accompaniment rather than an overruling feeling going into any release. Would it shock you to hear I held out hope that something like Babylon’s Fall would prove such creeping pessimism wrong? Alas, there comes a time when even one’s lowered expectations created in part by the initial hands-on and glimpses of marketed material preceding it isn’t enough. You’ve probably figured it out already with where I’m going with this, so let’s get it out of the way: Forspoken isn’t good.

Notable enough as it is in one part to find a game that feels unfinished and yet paradoxically realized through, it’s another to somewhat confirm many’s fears regarding the performance. Both technically — so far as how Forspoken aims to render a brand new, presumably inviting, fantastical world to discover — and as has become the unwanted if not entirely unwarranted “star” of the lead-up: its writing. In its defense, Luminous Productions’ debut outing away from the established brand of Final Fantasy isn’t without momentary pluses. Moments that have you begging for further fleshing out but may well find themselves relegated to fleeting spots of “neat” from time to time. But that’s possibly the most crushing disappointment coming away from a game desiring little more than around 15 – 18 hours of your time to reach end credits, side-quests included

Forspoken is a game — a new IP on top — with glimpses of what could’ve been and in all likelihood should’ve been. It’s everything in-between that ends up souring the experience. One moment dull, the next uninspired. A slog (ironic given the type of traversal mechanics employed) capped off with a narrative and writing core that can only be described as tonal whiplash. Is this dramatic or comedic, am I to take these events seriously or not at all? Let’s get the elephant-in-the-room out of the way first by way of the writing; the means by which Forspoken aims to tell the story of main protagonist Frey Holland and her Alice in Wonderland-esque dive into the mythical world of Athia, the primary setting. While it may not throw up a continual barrage of similarly-intolerable lines like the infamous “…so let me get this straight…” sampling provided, to say Forspoken fairs any better thereafter would be misleading.

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While I won’t go into any specifics pertaining to spoilers, Forspoken‘s attempt at a gratifying revelation or twist — there are two instances where this is the case — falls short. The first I feel confident in saying 99% of players will see coming. To the point it almost seems like the game is screaming there’s a twist coming as if through some overhead loudspeaker. “The twist will be arriving at Platform 5,” Forspoken cries. “Watch out for the twist, stand clear of the twist, are you ready for the twist, here comes the twist and…there is the twist! Shocked? No?” The second of these, a little less predictable, while admirable in the way its structured, does almost manage to work. Were it not for some ridiculous scene-chewing and an ending that almost makes the entire ordeal seemingly pointless. But divorce yourself from even the plot alone — a plot that feels thread-bare throughout — and Forspoken finds itself filling players with dread at just what else Frey has in store so far as unnecessary one-liners, quips or general snark. Not helped on top by a continued reliance on curse words in some mistaken assumption that repetition breeds enjoyment.

Conceptually, the notion of swearing — when used sparingly and appropriately — can work wonders in any story (even when the response from players may not be what the developers were intending) but Forspoken, not for the first time, wants to have it both ways. It wants to be dramatic, grand, serious and heart-tugging all at once, while at the same time, comical, light-hearted and not at all serious to begin with. Yet it refuses to put the effort into making its writing, for all its directionless and muddled foundation, feel cohesive or relevant to the situation. Perhaps one of the worst culprits: towards the end of the tale during a moment of what should be emotional impact and reflection is then immediately ruined by Frey turning it into a joke. Not to exaggerate one’s reaction, but I couldn’t help but groan at said scene — in many ways, what felt like the decisive nail in the coffin that was this game’s failing to make me empathize with Frey and the struggles of Athia and its people. I quickly got immersed in Aionios and its main party. I especially got immersed in a ruinous Earth dominated by a proxy war between androids and machines and truly felt that emotional gut-punch in its climax. I’d go far as to say that while not the most expansive of worlds, something like Tales of Arise gave me reason to see the plot and its characters through to its end.

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Forspoken has none of this — a main protagonist who comes off more antagonistic and distracting than the supposed villains. The writing woes extend to the banter exchanged between Frey and Cuff — the sentient, inanimate object attached to Frey’s arm. Thankfully, you can alter the frequency and rate it pops up — even setting it to “Minimal” (or at least what the game deems minimal), but even then it throws up one or two tonally-questionable exchanges. Frey, to give one example of many, on the verge of falling in battle and lamenting how she’s about to collapse, for Cuff to respond with a seemingly assured and sarcastic: “well I hope that’s the only thing you do.” That’s not to say you can’t have back-and-forth banter between characters — is that not why the Xenoblade games are so endearing? — but with Forspoken, the reliance on such writing increasingly comes off as a crutch for other failings. Which ultimately comes off as forever at odds with the stakes and the scenarios presented. None of which gels particularly well — a bizarre unison that the game rarely, if ever, finds the right balance for. Made worse by the fact that voice-lines mid-combat or even out in the world at the moment of discovering something end up repeated one too many times in such a short span. Even with this respective setting tuned down to “Minimal.”

From here, you have a case of a game whose standalone components are at best pleasant enough to engage with, but not fleshed out to be deemed highlights in their own right. At worst: they’re little more than cookie-cutter, copy-pasted repetition. The former, easily Forspoken’s [only] major highlight, is in its combat. A real-time affair that’s fast, frantic, perhaps a little chaotic and unruly in its visual indulgence, but does provide credence to the idea this is Luminous expanding on the ideas presented in Final Fantasy XV. Admittedly enjoyable enough to work out and experiment with in early parts. Not least when the game provides a sufficient enough starting point and variety of long-range, close-range and AoE abilities. Helpful buffs and supports adding to the mix.

What’s more, Forspoken’s combat system as a whole is one that, by way of its upgrade paths and numerous skill trees, maintains some semblance of worthwhile investment. That one is always building towards something better and most importantly, that it’s one players will voluntarily and actively engage with. Whether that’s taking on optional challenges for certain abilities and magic skills that increase their effectiveness or simply hoovering up stray mana pools — Forspoken’s alternative to XP governing and how additional skills are unlocked — amid the open world in the pursuit of more abilities to wield. The means of switching between magic types mid-combat can be cumbersome at first, but it’s one that with time players will get accustomed to. One of Forspoken‘s smartest implementations is the idea that higher-level, harder-hitting magic requires you to hold down their respective button to power up. Thus leaving you vulnerable and open to getting hit. A minor risk:reward dilemma, given that Frey’s more powerful attacks — those governed by the combined L2+R2 configuration — are susceptible to being similarly wasted if an enemy can get a quick attack in. Or simply put: that players aren’t paying attention to positioning. It’s neither complex nor deep, but there are at least a few considerations that stop Forspoken’s combat from feeling overly button-mashing.

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It’s just a shame that for large stretches of the run-time, the first two magic sets are the only ones you’ll in all likelihood use. Forspoken providing access to the latter two too late into the story to warrant investment. Not least when the other means of player progression — upgrading one’s gear so that health, defense and magic values are a higher number — mean that by the time you acquire the other water and electric elemental-affiliated classes, the values for everything else are so high that reverting to weaker magic seems pointless. Made worse by the fact that despite the game attempting a semblance of resistance and weakness to certain magic on the enemy’s part, players can easily succeed by simply spamming attacks and staying on the move. It’s an understandable albeit flawed means to put the onus back on players to invest in the crafting/upgrading of one’s gear so as to get stronger. But in the end, it casts a critical light on how even at its seemingly best, Forspoken still doesn’t get it right.

That goes doubly so for its world design and the means by which Forspoken attempts to encourage players to utilize the “magic parkour” that is the primary traversal mechanics. And one would assume, its unique selling point. But aside from momentary sprinkling of sandbox-esque deduction and blatantly laid-out paths for players to tackle, there simply isn’t enough variety in the level design for players to invest that length of time in each of the locales. Locales which, laughably it has to be said, at times can be simplified to that of a mere switching up of a color filter. An occasional jutting-out of some differently-coloured crystal, a pitiable attempt to make Athia unique or stand-out from the ever-growing crop of other, more realized fantastical worlds to poke around in.

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It shouldn’t go ignored just how bland the world of Forspoken feels. Open fields with barely anything to pique one’s interest over. A scale and size which, in hindsight, is a consequence of Luminous perhaps painting themselves into a corner they can’t get out of. A world that should be built to justify the mechanics of how you move about, but in doing so — and a by-product of what little the game offers up — makes Athia feel more empty and devoid of substance than it should. A new area that may lead to some deviation in how you tackle it, inevitably fizzling out. Side activities and means for respite whose visual and structural appearance is literally duplicated throughout — safe-houses are always the exact same model, regardless of environment or locale. There’s one point you enter a domain that’s described as being ruled over by one who can manipulate reality and naturally your first thought is to wonder if that will lead to some surreal or at the very least intriguing use of geometry, right? Nope, more empty fields slathered with a green filter. And to top it off: the point where Forspoken as a game seemingly gives up the charade that what it’s providing is anything other than the most bog-standard of open-world game design.

The only genuine moment of time sufficiently spent coming in the form of mini-dungeons that end with some manner of a unique boss to take down. Your reward often coming in the form of a unique garment or loot — accompanied by passive buffs you can even apply to other gear once unlocked. Another small but welcome addition to the player-progression and one that at least encourages players to hunt down such additional challenges. The problem is that these excursions aren’t level-gated or at least don’t offer any indication on a recommended level. Meaning players may in all likelihood enter one unknowingly under-leveled or over-leveled. But as satisfactory as these generally are, it doesn’t take long for even that luster to wane, to eventually return back to the main quest and find that, again, by the two-thirds mark, Forspoken itself just about gives up when it comes to making the journey forth meaningful.

Eventually resorting to simply padding out the run-time with meaninglessly stop-start objectives, enemies you’ve fought in early parts — that still show up without any change in design or combat prowess — and quite simply, a lack of a reason to engage with Athia as a world on its own. Even with a late-game chapter that messily drops a hefty amount of lore and plot in a short span of time. Pick any random Assassin’s Creed game over the last five years and you’ll likely find a setting with more diversity than what Forspoken provides. This isn’t simply “Ubisoft-brand” check-list, open world design, but worse.

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A sentiment that isn’t helped by Forspoken’s bizarre and similarly-disappointing technical performance. Prior to release (and prior to any and all patches that may or may not aim to rectify such issues), everything from pop-in even on close-range foliage, poor draw distance, low-quality textures nestling alongside higher-res equivalents on other objects. Worse still: NPC animations running at varied frame-rates the closer/further you get to them. Be this during play and/or cutscenes alike. Even one of the very first cutscenes — set inside a New York court-room — has Frey standing alongside NPCs of varying quality on both texture and resolution ends. So far as rendering and having any amount of animations running on-screen, Forspoken is a mess. An experience whose variety of performance modes feel inconsequential as to their intended aims and benefits. Want to play this at 60FPS with the trade-off of lower resolution? Forspoken struggles to maintain that, with frame dips going as low as the 40s range by way of traversal and combat alike. So what’s the point? Whatever the Luminous Engine is doing on the back-end, it’s clear — even for those not exactly tech-savvy or clued up on the intricate details — that Forspoken struggles to maintain a semblance of consistency or implied benefit, regardless of your preferred mode.

The silver lining to all these cascading problems, most likely coming in the form of the load-times running on PS5. And for all its faults, to the its credit — another surprise fact some may not immediately believe — Forspoken may well be one of the fastest loading games on the console at present. A game that takes little more than a few seconds to boot up from home screen to the main menu and better still, is almost instantaneous when either loading up a save file or fast-traveling across the world. By comparison, it may sound like an ultimately fruitless accomplishment, but much like the technical aspects of a game like The Callisto Protocol, those at Luminous responsible for such a feat should at least take some pride away from seeing it in action.

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Closing Comments:

Where Forspoken should’ve been a striking and appealing fresh start for Luminous Productions, the end result sadly is a game not only bland and unpolished, but deprived of a reason to care for its unfolding mystery. A bevvy of technical inconsistencies, lackluster open world design and most disappointing of all, a handful of systems with genuine enjoyment at times that don’t see their potential fully realized. Bad enough that both the plot and the writing barely fashions anything remotely interesting or easy on the ears, it’s what excuse Luminous have for a world to explore that ends up the true let-down across a sub-twenty hour adventure. Underwhelming, at times shockingly so, for all its emphasis on parkour, traversal and the brisk pace magical abilities can bring, Forspoken seems stuck in a kind of regressive, backward-thinking form of game design that ultimately it has no answer to.