A game that was easy to forget about until a couple of months back when Square Enix rolled out a surprise demo on the PlayStation 5, Forspoken is the first game from Luminous Productions, and only the second game to be released developed on SE’s proprietary Luminous Engine, the studios namesake. While it has been hard not to avoid the current sentiment around the game which one could describe as… “meh”, or under-optimised given the surprisingly high recommended and ideal PC specs. While I would certainly agree with some comments shared by other reviewers, I found Forspoken to be a competently designed albeit short-lived experience that was well tailored to my preferences and feels like a good display of what the technology could offer gamers in the future. But let me elaborate on this…
A Short Story Which is Slow-Paced but with a Few Gems
Forspoken is completely separate from other Square Enix franchises and is an isekai tale involving protagonist Alfre “Frey” Holland, an at-trouble youth in New York City who at her lowest point, finds herself transported into the fantasy-themed lands of Athia. The world has almost completely fallen to a miasma-like substance known as ‘The Break’ and four once-beloved matriarchs of the world, the Tantas. I enjoyed the beginning of Forspoken and trying to go into the game as blind as possible, was hoping there would be a bit of to-and-froing between the realistic and fantasy environments. Sadly you can pretty much forget everything that takes place in New York after the first half-hour, as despite the potential context-building, the focus is exclusively put on Frey-in-another-world. Instead, the game focuses on Frey and her sentient bracelet nicknamed “Cuff”, becoming acquainted with the injustices and troubles of this world, with the former experiencing events which poke and prod her towards completing her typical mission to save the world.
In some ways, Forspoken falls into many of the tropes your average RPG would fall back on – from the whole potentially world-ending event unless you beat the game’s big bad(s), to the protagonist who is orphaned but has a destiny to save the other world. However, I can appreciate the overarching narrative, combined with an approach to magic that is more “forbidden” and driven by parkour, and a genuinely interesting protagonist who starts mopey and disinterested in saving the world but is slowly but surely driven into taking a more proactive approach as events happen. On the more negative side, some of the story events feel half-assed when it came to combing them with gameplay mechanics – most notably one of recent gaming’s most underwhelming sneak levels. Overall game pacing also doesn’t match the delivery of narrative experiences, with quick-paced movement and combat being complemented by oft lengthy narrative-driven scenes which you can not skip over, save through or move any more than walking pace.
The combination of the miserable and unapproachable Frey and the snarkiness of Cuff works well, putting them to some level on par with other memorable duos, including Nier and Weiss from NieR, and Chell and Wheatley in Portal 2. Sure they quip one-liners a little too much, but their playing off one another, works well together. Additionally on the note of Frey, because of her nature, compounded with depression and a slightly warped view of humanity, she comes across as much more realistic to any regular human put in her situation. Being a more cinematic experience, the small cast of main and more extensive cast of incidental and recurring secondary characters work well at building the world, just that we need much, much more of it. With a standard non-completionist playthrough of about a dozen hours, I feel like they could have played up world and character-building a lot more to have doubled or tripled the experience length over a relatively linear tale being told.
Visual Quality (On the PS5)
With Forspoken purportedly being developed with the PlayStation 5 in mind, I would argue that this is the best platform to play the game on. Especially with the PC specs that have been made public and some in-game PC footage that has been shared around, performance and visual quality can vary quite a bit. On the PlayStation 5 side of things, the character models, world construction and VFX effects of the magic are all pleasant to the eye, although the expansive open world can feel a bit generic with minimal landmarks – though that tends to be an issue with many open world games nowadays, and the stylish parkour of Frey tends to make the empty world less noticeable. Outside of the grand bosses, enemy designs also tend to be cookie-cutter, and in turn, lack much gameplay variety. The PS5 version also has performance, quality and ray-tracing modes available, depending on whether you prefer stable frame rates, or want to view the world with a little bit of polish. During my playthrough, there were no noticeable bugs from start to finish in ray-tracing mode, although there was a rather uncommon glitch when traversing the plains of Athia where Frey could just not stand on obviously standable surfaces.
With a diverse cast of characters, so too is the English-language voice cast of Forspoken, featuring many talented actors from film and television, who have minimal if any voice acting roles in the past. It is sort of refreshing to enjoy a game where every voice sounds fresh, complemented by the voice acting itself being top-notch. Ella Balinska and Jonathan Cake nail their roles as Frey and Cuff respectively, with Anthony Skordi perfectly befitting the break-ridden old man role of Robian, and Monica Barbaro giving off much charm as Audeen Keen. Again though, it would have been nice to see more of them in their roles, were the game to have been longer.
Parkour-Style Magic is Simple But Fun to Use
Being a normal human from the outset, Frey has pretty much no means of defending herself from the creatures big or small that means her harm. Fortunately, with Cuff now securely on her wrist, she can tap into his power to wield a range of earth-elemental attacks and abilities, from spawning protective and devastating shields to being able to traverse extended distances at a rapid pace. Fast-paced combat tends to work better in action-oriented games such as Bayonetta rather than in RPG games which typically favour more calculated, strategic approaches to completing missions. Forspoken doesn’t change my sentiment on this, and while it is flashy and pretty fun in short bursts, I found myself never really feeling comfortable or adept in combat. This is in no small part due to your reliance on magical abilities, with nothing remotely close to a weapon being available until more than halfway through the game. However, the progression in unlocking new abilities is good, and up until the final chapter you will incrementally unlock new abilities and different elements, which can be upgraded with mana through a rudimentary levelling up / experience system and discovering deposits around the open world.
What about things to do not directly related to the main scenario? The open world contains activities randomly scattered around it, such as timed missions with rewards depending on your score, labyrinths to explore containing some difficult boss fights, and some activities such as taking smartphone pictures that are tied to side-quests. Nothing revolutionary to erk out many more hours of playtime unless you were a completionist, but somewhat justifies having such a large world to explore. On the note of side-quests, there are quite a few story-driven activities as you progress through Fray’s tale, but many are situational and become unavailable once you complete the chapter(s) they are available in. It is nice to have side events take place in the moment, but I can understand it irking some who may wish to go back and do them later.
One thing I do appreciate is that players are not locked into any form of grind, especially with the combat system, while enjoyable, not lending itself to long-term grinding. Unlike some of Square Enix’s flagship RPGs, there are minimal equipment types (just cloaks, nail designs and necklaces), a simplified crafting/upgrade system, and no levelling system with stat boosts for each level. It may not help the game’s already short playtime, but you can opt to give yourself small perks by collecting crafting items or go YOLO and challenge battles one after the other.
There are three “difficulty” settings prompted to players as they commence Forspoken, whittling down to whether they are looking to experience the story, experience the open world, or experience more difficult combat. Even as someone who would usually choose the middle-of-the-road difficulty for playtesting, I chose the highest setting, and it was more of an experience than being “difficult” – outside of major boss battles or being swarmed by enemies, it felt like you would have to purposefully try to lower your health to zero, complemented by a forgiving dodge system and ample defensive abilities.
For those in-game snappers, there is also a Photo Mode which is available at most moments in-game and offers a satisfying number of options and tools to capture that perfect screenshot. You may see some shots captured from Forsaken shared here soon.
Final Words on Forspoken
I think Forspoken is a great framework for a game, which offers many interesting narrative concepts (and some excellent talent), a fun combat system, and showcases a competently built engine which I am curious to see where it goes next. But with it currently being priced between $114.95 AUD and $152.95 AUD on the PlayStation Store as of writing and depending on whether you buy the Standard Edition or Digital Deluxe Edition, it goes up against older games with better price points and arguably much more to do. But with prequel DLC on the way titled ‘Forspoken: In Tanta We Trust’, perhaps we will see the development team dedicate the time and resources to make Forspoken the game it could, and very much deserves to be.
This review was conducted on a PlayStation 5 review copy of Forspoken, provided by the Australian distributor on behalf of Square Enix
Forspoken is now available to purchase on the PC and PlayStation 5 only.