Originally unveiled in June 2020 under the provisional name Project Athia, the ambitious and mysterious Forspoken has been a title I’ve been following for years at this point. Announced as a PlayStation 5 exclusive, Luminous Productions’ project offers a new magical world with the potential to become a new franchise. Sadly, it is at a point where the hype has been replaced by doubt and a general feeling of apathy. Does Forspoken deserve this and are we talking about a hidden gem? Sadly no, but it is a title filled with flair.
I was aware that the contents of the demo did not at all reflect the quality of the final product, but upon Forspoken’s launch, I felt better about the final game. The demo itself doesn’t offer you enough hints and tips to truly appreciate the systems you’ll encounter as you explore Athia and it became a major talking point online. This led to people being disappointed and ready to move on to other games. I’m glad I held off and while I found myself enjoying the magical parkour and battle systems, not everything presented lands.
Isekai Of The Mill
The protagonist of the story is Frey Holland, a down-on-her-luck 20-something-year-old who was abandoned when she was still a child and grew up on the streets of New York City without the love of family, friends or anyone who could look after her and support her. Her situation forces her to, at times, commit a few crimes on behalf of a local gang to survive, leading to several run-ins with the law, but thanks to the intervention of a magnanimous judge aware of her situation, she has always managed to keep herself out of jail.
Frey as a character has a lot of potential thanks to the work put in by Ella Balinska. It’s so rare to see a strong black female character who is also voiced by a black female. Looking at Balinska’s social channels shows her love for not only the character she’s playing but for the industry itself.
The opening moments begin inside a courtroom where Frey is tried for attempting to steal a car and is released one last time on the condition that she completes community service. Now running out of options and forced to take responsibility, the girl who has been severely bullied dreams of leaving the chaotic and somewhat oppressive city that never sleeps behind her, which is why she has painstakingly saved up money that should allow her to start fresh in a new city. The day after her long-awaited departure, however, she is confronted by a group of local thugs intent on getting even with Frey for not delivering the requested car and sets fire to the abandoned flat where she and her cat Homer reside. Waking up amid the flames, Frey, fortunately, manages to leave the building unharmed along with her cat but at the cost of her life savings.
Forspoken’s Athia is filled with untapped potential
One of the crucial elements of Forspoken is its combat, which is to be expected considering it’s an action RPG. Luminous Productions delivers an entertaining combat system with good ideas but it’ll take time to get to the good stuff. I generally liked Final Fantasy XV despite the clear issues it faced throughout development and I can say with confidence Forspoken feels like an evolution of those mechanics.
Within the first six hours of Forspoken, a lot of the combat mechanics will begin opening up but it isn’t until about a third of the way in doing things begin to click. Frey has long-range spells that you use to defeat all enemies that get in your way, so it’s all about keeping your distance, attacking, and dodging when an attack is close.
Much of the magic you’ll encounter and weaponize is nothing less than bombastic and it certainly looks and feels impressive to use in battle. However, it quickly becomes a point where you need to combine offensive and support powers to create combos that amaze you. Then you get to a point where you unlock new kinds of spells that add an extra dimension to the combat system and that’s where it shows its true potential.
The problem is that the way its combat system is easy to exploit in some situations but further into the story, you begin to encounter sponge enemies who require you to actively change magic spells. I didn’t mind it too much but it can be grating. There is also a grading system that rewards you for dodging, combining your attacks, and exploiting enemy weaknesses, so the correct way to play the game should be self-evident.
What I didn’t end up enjoying much is the grading system is good in theory but I don’t feel enough direction into maximizing its potential is given the to player. Rather it has to do with simplistic enemy design that rarely demands anything more from you than the basics. On normal difficulty you can use just one spell to defeat most enemies; some will require a bit of patience, but few are difficult enough to force you to rethink your strategy. Moreover, the scoring system is not a sufficiently exciting incentive, and so Forspoken ends up tossing one of its features to the wayside.
Forspoken has good ideas but the problem is in the execution. Some concepts run counter to everything that should be its pillars. It’s as if the team lost the plot halfway through. It’s as if there were too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough plates to dish out the full meal.
Take the parkour system, for example. This is a talking point and it is. I’ve been impressed and invested in this system since its first appearance. An open-world RPG with a fast-paced, stylish exploration system has a lot of potential to be great but exploring Athia is filled with untapped potential.
There is a point in the story where Frey gets the ability to use fire magic to pull out a kind of lasso that allows you to latch onto objects and use momentum to continue moving. To use it you have to press a button that slows down time, allowing you to aim at the object you want to use as a point to lasso. The problem is that it’s a clumsy process that slows down the action and throws away a mechanic that should be fun. On top of that, we have to add a fall damage system that makes you think twice before venturing a jump.
My problem is that the traversal feels great and it has a lot of room to grow but as it is now, it can come across as mindless since you hold down the Circle button to get around. I think with some improvement to the mechanics, it could be one of the better traversal systems in years.
The world of Forspoken is also far from the most engaging. Athia has a striking context and is going through a pivotal moment. Despite that, it’s hard to find reasons to feel excited about exploring it. The Rift forced the population to take shelter behind walls, so travelling in the outside world should be like exploring the forbidden and unknown; like going where no one has ever set foot. Instead, we are presented with a world with many points of interest, but nothing to discover. Athia is a world filled with magic but it lacks the wonder needed to make it memorable.
Forspoken is the first big game of 2023 and has the structure to thrive but not just yet. The core exists to build out a stronger sequel and while I believe a sequel would address the issues I have with Luminous Productions’ Forspoken, I hope Square Enix sees it as necessary. At times, you’re left with the feeling that Forspoken simply doesn’t trust itself or the player. Like it’s afraid to give itself fully immerse the player and the mechanics, leaving a lot of room for you to figure things out on your own.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5