Forspoken review: Square-Enix’s risky new IP arrives half-baked

Everyone is excited for Final Fantasy XVI, but in an age of endless sequels the fresh and original action RPG Forspoken has gamers hoping that a fun new franchise is being minted. Unfortunately, Square-Enix’s risky bet doesn’t quite pay off: it’s an ambitious but disjointed experience that feels for all the world like none of its developers played it.

Forspoken (for PC and PS5) follows the popular isekai trope, in which someone from our world is suddenly and inexplicably transported to another, usually a fantasy one in which their modern knowledge and sensibilities work to both their advantage and detriment.

In this case, Frey, a young woman from Manhattan with a mysterious origin (but more pressing legal and money troubles) is sent to Athia, a once beautiful land ravaged by a corruptive force and lorded over by four mad, magical matriarchs. Frey must figure out what’s happening and save the world, etc, etc, with the help of a sassy sentient vambrace (Cuff) whose voice only she can hear.

The player guides Frey through the world, battling monsters and collecting new gear, and scampering over the landscape using a “magical parkour” system that, while a bit imprecise, does impart a nice sense of speed and agility. Further traversal abilities, like a magical grappling hook, are acquired over time.

Combat has Frey swapping between several spell types and eventually elements, peppering monsters from afar or slashing them up close, dancing around them and dodging their attacks. These are upgraded with gear or by completing various challenges, like doing a certain amount of damage to enemies from behind.

This is genuinely awesome, but…

Stand on a cliff’s edge and gaze out at the dramatic landscape, ripe with points of interest to raise stats and collect materials and items, and you could well think you’ve got a good time ahead of you. And in some ways, you’d be right. It’s fun to bound around, zapping baddies and snatching up upgrades. The combat is dynamic and occasionally strategic, and boss battles are engaging. The world-building and characters are occasionally inspired and pleasingly diverse, if inconsistently acted — it’s not Shakespeare, but I do want to find out what happens next.

But the cracks start to show pretty quickly as it begins to feel like the game was rushed out well ahead of readiness.

To begin with, it doesn’t run well. The quality-focused graphics settings are pretty much unplayable, and even on the “performance” setting, which lowers the resolution and detail considerably, you get slowdowns.

I liked Frey’s actress, but not everyone is as fleshed out.

There’s a ton of dialogue, but the game also repeats itself a lot. Like a lot a lot. I’ve heard the same quips when sighting an enemy or finding an item or landmark dozens of times. Frey and Cuff exchange barbed dialogue constantly, yet somehow they only recorded a handful of unique conversations, so you hear the same ones over and over. I had to set the “chatter” to “minimal” in the settings because I was so tired of hearing the same thing. (The cringeworthiness of the writing I pass over for now and leave to others to detail… but .)

Not only that, but the game frequently freezes you in place for dialogue or quest alerts, which tend to linger in silence for an infuriating three-count before letting you move again. Sometimes you’ll be given back control for only a few seconds before some new cutscene or pop-up takes it back.

Combat is splashy but chaotic, with unreliable camera and targeting controls that result in Frey constantly missing with her magic. As enemies get more intense, you’ll often be hit from offscreen, and damage ranges wildly from nearly nothing to one-shot kills by ordinary mobs. The need to pull the haptically resisting R2 trigger many, many times in rapid succession, to do regular attacks, is wearying (you can change this but it’s another thing where one questions why it is that way at all). And the support magic has you constantly dipping out of battle and losing your flow so you can select a trap or area attack that isn’t on cooldown.

Now picture stopping every 2 seconds to switch spells. Image Credits: Square Enix

Dodging is done simply by holding down the parkour button, effectively making Frey invincible. There’s a counter system of sorts but it requires getting hit in the first place, which is a little weird, and was never well explained.

There is some variety to the monsters, for instance a guy shielded from the front that you must incapacitate and hit from behind. Great! But the game also falls into the trap of padding out combat and difficulty by swarming the player. Those shielded guys aren’t so fun to fight when there are 20, coming from every direction. One early boss, already something of a damage sponge, soon reappears as a miniboss, then two guard a gate, then a quest has you fight five at once. Since you can really only target one at a time, and they spam fireballs at you, you spend most of the time holding dodge, waiting for a pause in their patterns to do a little spray and pray.

Image Credits: Square Enix

And while the world is big and realistic, it’s drab and kind of uninteresting. Each ruined town or fort is indistinguishable from the last. The “labyrinths” are short, also nearly identical lines of rooms with non-unique bosses at the end, and actually identical treasure chambers. The lore entries you find are short and vague: “The Varandis Guild built this tower to conduct their researches in. They delved into forbidden magic and were purged after the war of A.G. 3,472. -Quaestor Invicta, Glorious History of Athia.” (I made that one up, but you know the type. You could write one.)

Why are any of these places different or cool or important? It’s never clear, so you’re always just kind of traversing an all-purpose fantasy landscape looking for arbitrarily placed stat increases in copy-pasted assets. And because every point of interest is labeled on the map, and chests don’t have anything special in them, you know you can skip (literally) over most of the world. Sure, that’s arguably true of every open world game, but especially so here.

The whole thing has the feeling of an alpha or tech demo, basically, or a launch game rushed out to show off certain qualities of the PS5 (it can look gorgeous, for sure, and load times are nonexistent). There are all these systems but they don’t seem to harmonize; there are all these locations but they don’t have a reason to exist; there is all this dialogue but much of it feels almost improvised in how unspecific it is; there are side quests (“Detours”) but few compelling rewards.

I had to feed five of them, each with their own little fade-out! For no reason and no reward! Image Credits: Square Enix

It’s as if they built the whole game in isolated rooms (with the pandemic, this may even be true) and forgot to have someone play it and ask important questions like “why is it this way?” Why doesn’t the camera snap to the next enemy when you defeat one? Why can’t you just assign support magic to button combos? Why does it take so long for certain UI items to appear or disappear? Why are there grapple points that shoot you so high that landing causes Cuff to think you’ve died? I was constantly running into things that seemed like they’d have be caught in QA or playtesting.

It’s too bad, because there is real promise in the setting and art direction, and the landscape really can be impressive and fun to explore at times. When the combat isn’t getting in its own way, it can be a messily fun power trip.

I do feel that, like Final Fantasy XV before it, Forspoken can be updated and mostly redeemed with six months or a year of work filling in the gaps, doing polish passes, and adding quality-of-life improvements. There’s nothing wrong with a cool open world to explore and fight monsters in — this is a new and original one and plenty of people will enjoy it as-is, but others will recoil at finding janky aspects in such a high-profile game. With luck Forspoken will eventually achieve its ambitions, but until then I’d say hold onto your money.

Forspoken review: Square-Enix’s risky new IP arrives half-baked by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

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