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Forspoken Review: PS5 Gameplay Impressions, Videos and Speedrunning Tips

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 23, 2023

Square Enix

Forspoken from developer Luminous Productions is what feels like the increasingly rare attempt at a major new IP in the video game landscape.

An interesting blend of action RPG with all the familiar trappings from publisher Square Enix and western open-world influences, Forspoken presents what sounds like a can't-miss game on paper.

The journey of protagonist Frey Holland from the streets of New York to the fantasy-rich lands of Athia straddles that same line with an engrossing story, characters and an in-depth JRPG backbone that borders on intimidating.

Boasting all of the details needed to elbow successfully into the top tiers of a new console generation and leave other games taking notes, Forspoken understandably has droves of hype at launch.


Graphics and Gameplay

In what quickly becomes a theme, Forspoken starts off visually bland and limited.

Forspoken, unlike releases such as Returnal and God of War Ragnarök since the PlayStation 5's launch, is not exactly a looker or exemplary of what the next-generation hardware can do. At first, the world is mostly muddy with some spotty textures, draw distances aren't very far and different biomes don't fare much better.

It's one part of the reason the open world feels empty. There's a narrative reason for that too, but it doesn't help. Forspoken's looks and world will end up getting compared to Horizon Zero Dawn and that's downright unfair. Where Aloy's adventure had drop-dead gorgeous biomes and different cultures and a sci-fi twist to explore, Forspoken doesn't really have any of that going for it. And while the voice-acting performances feel top-notch, character models and especially the lip-synching just seem a little off, as if a little too on the plastic side of things.

Things do open up a little bit later on with interesting things like floating islands in the sky and the sense of scale is always impressive thanks to absolutely massive and stunning skyboxes. But it feels like the game intentionally tucks the interesting stuff out of the way instead of putting it up front to engross players.

Traversing the open world is a blast when it works right. It's an open-world navigation reminiscent of past super-hero-ish hits like the Infamous series. Players can scale walls, ride magical items with stunning speed and, let's just say it beats the heck out of hopping on a horse and plodding along. But it struggles at times too, leading to frustration as Frey gets caught on random things or a route simply isn't available (and she does a ton of extra flips, all the time!).

The same buts apply to combat. The game boasts an eye-popping number of spells and the actual number (in the triple digits) isn't exaggerated. Other things are a tad more basic, with Scatter, Burst, and Shield Shots available alongside support spells. Enemies carry the expected strengths and weaknesses to certain elements, something players can scan with their companion Cuff to figure out on the fly.

There's an impressive amount of tactical depth to the combat system, although it can feel very clunky needing to pop open a menu so often in what is otherwise fast-paced combat. Players can hop into the menus and turn on auto-swapping of support spells to help this, but the players shouldn't have to do that to help the game flow better.

Like its protagonist, the combat is very limited and almost off-putting at first. Players simply pick up rocks and throw them as attacks for what feels like a very extended tutorial. The elemental trees are a great example of what a slow-starter this game is. Players initially only have access to the Earth-based skills, with the other trees opening up in time and greatly increasing variety.

Every range of spell a player could imagine eventually reveals itself, whether it's an assist from nature to bind enemies or little turrets that add DPS. One memorable spell is a give-and-take gamble for the player, as they trap themselves and the enemy in a circle of flames, putting the player at risk but also giving them bonuses to fire-based spells.

Once Forspoken's gameplay really gets going and players get a hold of all the systems, it has some dopamine-riddled highs. Ripping off spells and traps while using the game's parkour system mid-fight is straight-up fun.

One place Forspoken battles really shine is with the grading system. It's not a new thing by any means, but receiving increased rewards for taking on fights in a skillful manner (ie good combos, amount of damage taken, etc.) is always a welcome feature.

Problem is, enemy A.I. isn't always the best. They're often the only thing out in the world to encounter and just sort of stand there waiting for a fight. Again, reminiscent of JRPGs more than western games.

Boss fights, at least, challenge and entertain by mixing up the pace with different stages and ask the player to think up creative ways to overcome them.

There are many JRPG influences dripping from the combat and presentation too. Big blocky words like resistant pop up to let players know they're being ineffective and the relentless banter from Cuff is similar to the meaningless banter in a JRPG where the player has four or five other people in a party, just quite a bit more annoying.

As a whole, the pacing of everything in this area just feels a little off. On one hand, players don't want everything thrown at them at once. On the other, it feels like Forspoken clutches its cards a little too close to its chest for too long.


Story and More

Forspoken tells the tale of Frey and her Alice in Wonderland (or isekai) sort of fall into a fantasy land, which starts by her finding a magical vambrace that she can't remove. She goes from flirting with her third strike with the law and near-homeless to being a savior-type who can endure a cataclysmic event that has ruined the land of Athia, pinning her as the lone hope of overcoming the big bad Tantas.

Frey isn't the most popular in Athia with all citizens—understandably—because of her powers and ability to survive outside in "The Break," the phenomenon responsible for the shattered, uninhabitable world and monsters.

Onlookers won't have to look far to find the word abrasive used to describe protagonist Frey Holland and it's, unfortunately, spot on. Especially early, nearly every other word seems to be vulgar for the sake of, well, just because, and it's a small portion of her dismissive approach to events. And hey, one can sympathize with her situation very much while also feeling like the writing is a bit overdone.

While Frey does experience some nice character growth out of this rough early shell, the writing is going to make some cringe. Paired with a quippy talking bracelet, it feels like the writing goes for a messy Marvel movie dialogue, with Frey the Iron Man throwing out blasts while Cuff, the J.A.R.V.I.S, quips left and right about, well, stuff, when he's not throwing out exposition for everything at the player.

Like pretty much everything else here, the story is a slow-starter and the dialogue does the game a disservice and risks it losing players early. But there are some genuinely funny moments between Frey and Cuff and some heartfelt story beats that eventually redeem things. But again, a portion of players will have to grit teeth through some groan-inducing stuff, both with general chatter checklist-type story points.

Non-story things to do in the world feel very Ubisoft-meets-Final-Fantasy in most cases. Players can run around collecting stuff and yes, finding towers of a kind that scan the surrounding area, indeed, marking things on the map of this newfound area.

The game is a nice balancing act in this exploration area, though. The collect-a-thon stuff again feels like padding as always. But there are some genuinely fun traversal puzzles and way-out-of-the-way secrets to discover. It doesn't stop the world from totally feeling empty, but it's rewarding enough to sniff around the far reaches of the map looking for puzzles, dungeons and whatever else.

And yes, players can Breath of the Wild their way into encounters they aren't actually strong enough for just yet, potentially enabling the skipping of certain fights for fast completions. Not a necessary thing, but a nice option to have, if not a bit immersive, too.

This might sound a little strange, but one of the fun things Forspoken does besides the usual skill and gear upgrades is the painting of arcane patterns on Frey's nails. It's no less silly than say, a magic belt-buckle in other RPGs, but rather narratively immersive given the lore and another small way the game separates itself from similar offerings.

Further down the checklist of expected items, players will stumble upon tons of lore entries that end up helpfully stored in the menus for deep reading.

Forspoken is another great example of PS5 DualSense's haptic feedback. From simply walking around to charging up spells, the vibrations and feedback are never not interesting. Cuff's dialogue coming from the controller was a little too quiet at times, but players can change that setting in the options menu.

Speaking of options, Forspoken has a handful of difficulty levels that should be enough for most players. There are also nice accessibility options, including the helpful ability to toggle the highlighting of enemies out in the world and the always-amazing auto-collect loot.

If there's a noticeable issue, it's the performance, especially when lots of particle effects occur in combat and the FPS seems to dip. It sits in an interesting space where the game obviously wouldn't run on last-generation systems, but the optimization feels like it needed more time in the oven.

Also an issue is a confusing, clunky user interface (U.I.) and menus system that has this weird oval look to it while trying to navigate skill trees. It makes an already-complex thing more difficult to wade through with any sort of efficiency.

Some of these problems can easily wind up addressed via future support, at least. Players otherwise yet again get an à la carte sort of open-world offering beyond the main story, picking and choosing what to do in a game that feels rewarding and can create some intimidating time-to-finish times for completionists.


Speedrunning Tips

It's always interesting to watch new IPs in the speedrunning realm.

On paper, Forspoken could develop a pretty healthy community in this area because of the many different spells and ways to tackle the game pathing, never mind the skill it takes to weave said spells while in the middle of parkour.

It could take would-be speedrunners a long time to figure out the most efficient pathing through the game. And given that no builds really feel weak or even overpowered, the real focus will simply be on the memorization of specific enemies' weaknesses.

Runners probably won't have to go well out of their way to unlock non-story items. More important might be resource management. Most of the crafting investment should go to healing draughts, the rest to inventory capacity increasing. Finding and crafting the immune-to-poison upgrade is probably a nice quality-of-life thing that will trim down completion times, too.

Pathing and memorization will take the chunk of the game's early lifecycle to figure out. From there, it's all about the execution as the leaderboards start to form.


Conclusion

Forspoken is a very slow-starting game. The writing and pacing feel just a tad off, to the point it might turn some players away.

But once Forspoken finds its footing and starts to run, it's a rather unique blend of ideas that continues to show growth alongside the main character.

None of Forspoken's missteps are completely unforgivable and the most important part of the game—the combat—is fun and engrossing. There's just enough proverbial meat on the bone to hope things go well enough for the new franchise that all involved get another shot at a sequel.

As it stands at launch, Forspoken is rough around the edges but eventually blossoms into one of the most robust instances of magic-wielding we've seen in a game. It's not the world-beating, industry-resetting hit it could be by any means, but players who invest the time will find what certainly classifies as an under-the-radar gem that becomes a blast to explore for the length of its rather extensive runtime.