What is it? An open-world RPG steeped in isekai tropes.
Expect to pay: £64.99 / $69.99
Developer: Luminous Productions
Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewed on: Nvidia GeForce RTX3070, AMD Ryzen 7 2700X, 16GB RAM
Link: https://forspoken.square-enix-games.com/en-gb/ (opens in new tab)
On paper, Forspoken is a game that should have resonated with me. It's a Luminous Productions/Square Enix venture, a developer I remain deathly loyal to despite its poor track record in recent years. It features some of my absolute favourite things in life: nail art, cats, parkour, and badass matriarchal rulers.
Yet, Forspoken is let down by its sheer unwillingness to break the mould. In many ways, it's the exact type of game you've seen countless times across the last 15 years. An open world RPG with superpowers, mystical creatures, and a terrifying world-ending threat. It does play into some isekai tropes, with protagonist Frey Holland whisked away from her New York home and plonked into a fantastical world. Along with her talking bracelet companion Cuff, she navigates the world of Athia and the Break which threatens to consume the land and everyone in it.
A-Frey'd to evolve
It's a pedestrian premise, one that never goes anywhere particularly exciting. Its twists and turns feel predictable. Game stories don't necessarily have to have Bioshock or Nier: Automata levels of clever plot twists, but Forspoken too often fails to have fun with its premise. For what it's worth, though, I enjoyed the latter half of the narrative. The beginning of the game is mired by some rather choice story beats, like making Frey a petty criminal who squats in an abandoned apartment and has some troubling run-ins with a local gang. Once it stops focusing so heavily on who New York Frey is and puts more emphasis on Athia Frey, it becomes a much more enjoyable story.
Despite a cringeworthy trailer (opens in new tab) that showcased some toe-curling dialogue, Forspoken isn't really filled with many moments that made me recoil in embarrassment. The dialogue from the infamous trailer—which came from an early cutscene—is by far the worst offender. Everything else was fairly standard, though that may be my long-developed immunity to Square Enix dialogue a la Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy.
It's made better by the fact that I really enjoyed Frey as a character. As a woman who also has some potty mouth tendencies and struggled to fit in as a young adult, I found her wonderfully relatable. Sure she says "fuck" way too much, but so do I! She's one of the more relatable heroes I've played in games recently, and I really wish she'd been in a game that did her more justice. I also thoroughly enjoyed the rapport between her and Cuff, even if the frequency of their back-and-forth is a lot. Mercifully, it can be tweaked in the settings or turned off entirely.
The most fun I had in Forspoken was when I ignored the story and explored Athia instead. Combat and movement is the best thing about this game, with Frey able to parkour at lightning speed around the world and fling spells of different elements at the enemies who inhabit it. Dashing across the map, flipping up cliffs and zipping around feels really good. But bring things a little more close quarters and it becomes finicky, with Frey regularly bouncing off walls and short platforms. I'm left to sit there waiting for her to calm down and come back down to Earth, which really broke my flow at times. Parkour is also bound to left Ctrl by default, which is a horribly inconvenient location for a button that's used for both traversing the world and dancing around enemies. I ended up rebinding it around 15 hours in, my poor wrist buckling under the constant twisting.
Forspoken's magic covers the four basic elements—earth, fire, water and air—with support and damage-based spells at Frey's fingertips. I had a great time sidestepping or flipping over enemies, shooting a huge spikey boulder into their back or lifting them up into a bubble which, when shot, caused a huge area attack to any of their buddies unlucky enough to be nearby. I would've loved to see the elements play together and react with each other more, but the most frustrating thing of all is that you don't get your hands on the full toolkit until the very end of the game.
Now, I can hardly fault a game for failing to come into its own until the very end—-I’m a regular defender of Final Fantasy 14’s slow start and I’ve tallied up a number of JRPGs in my lifetime. But Forspoken could have been so much better if it took where you end up 25 hours into the game and fed it to you 15 hours sooner. You don't get your final set of spells until right before the final boss, which feels like a huge oversight to me. The way your moves are fed to you makes sense within the narrative, but it feels horrible for keeping the game engaging across its entire run.
Enemies are interesting enough, with some being weak to certain types or magic or susceptible to status ailments. When they're not dotted around the world, they're plonked inside very bland repeatable dungeons or fortresses scattered around the map in a Ubisoft-style range of objective-based pit stops. These at least offer rewards in the form of cloaks, necklaces and different nail art, which Frey can equip to bolster her health, magic and defence. But the dungeons are all samey, rarely offering up much challenge. Hop into an instanced area, run down a corridor to a room of enemies and batter them. Rinse and repeat. Fortresses are much the same, simply taking place in the overworld instead.
Mutants were my favourite bits of combat in Forspoken—giant, ultra-strong beasts dotted around the overworld. They're the toughest foes I faced throughout my playthrough, but I also found them a great way to get in the habit of memorising patterns and honing my evade timing. At least, when I could even figure out what was going on between the stutters.
I had an absolute mission trying to get Forspoken to run well on my PC, resulting in severe frame drops every time I entered combat. I don't have a terrible rig by any means, my biggest shortcoming being the lack of RAM versus the game's bizarre system requirements. It plonked me on Standard graphic settings by default, but I could barely pull anything above 12 fps during combat or while in the main capital city.
In fact, a significant early portion of my 32-hour playthrough was spent tirelessly tinkering with the settings. Forspoken's PC port is horrifically optimised, and it felt like nothing I did was making it run any better. There are some pretty severe texture rendering issues, made even worse when attempting to play in my usual 1440p.
Stones blinked in and out of existence, and doors warped behind characters as they spoke. I was regularly working with sub-20fps and stutters that made me feel nauseous at the beginning of my playthrough. It really squandered my early hours with the game, especially when combat was so heavily affected. In the end, I had to give up on making Forspoken look nice and go all-in on making it play nice. If my screenshots here look like ass, that's why.
Forspoken could have been so much more. I wish Luminous Productions had taken notes from their other game, Final Fantasy 15, and created fewer but more elaborate dungeons for me to explore. Instead, too much of the gameplay feels like a generic objective collectathon. If I wasn't getting distracted by grabbing new gear between Point A and Point B of my story objective, I was making a quick detour to grab a stat increase at a monument or quickly exploring a derelict building, wiping out its enemies and gaining a new nugget of lore for my archive. Occasionally if I went really out of my way, I could find a handful of spells that were locked behind specific objective markers around the map.
The one filler objective I genuinely enjoyed—and went out of my way to do—were the cat monuments. They offer nothing for the gameplay, simply existing as companions who greet Frey when she enters a respite to recover health and upgrade her gear. But I'm a bit cat lady, and as I write this review my own feline friend Luna is next to me. I adored the slightly weird looking fur babies, all with their own little fantastical twist. One black cat in particular stole my heart, adorned with gold bangles and horns. The only part of Forspoken's story that tugged at my heartstrings also centres around a cat, and their inclusion is much welcomed.
The biggest mistake I made during my time with Forspoken was doing so much of my exploration early on. If you're going to play it—and it's a game I do think is worth picking up on sale… and also potentially on console depending on your rig—blitz through the story. The true enjoyment comes once you're in the post-game, with Frey's full kit at your disposal. When I spent several hours flinging around my one or two spells, I lamented how painfully basic its combat was. Had I been handed more elements earlier on, or simply ignored side tasks in favour of getting access to those, I think my time with Forspoken would've been more enjoyable.
It's a game most fun when you're not following its orders. Free of sudden stops for a fade-to-black cutscene, or the game randomly rooting you in place while you initiate dialogue that could have easily happened while on the move. Once the shackles of its limp narrative came off, I finally felt like I was playing the game Forspoken was trying to be. Don't get me wrong, freedom can't cover up vapid gameplay objectives. But hey, it sure does help.
A game shouldn't have to end to feel like it's just starting. Unfortunately for Forspoken, that's exactly what happens.