Square Enix’s new action role-player is an entirely new franchise from a brand new developer, but what exactly is it and how does it play?
One of the worst parts of our job is having to criticise a new IP or new idea. The ever increasing cost of making big budget video games means that anything that isn’t a sequel or a licence is now a significant financial risk and we salute any publisher that makes the effort, including Square Enix for Forspoken. We give them all credit for trying but having now played the game we struggle to remain optimistic about the final release.
It’s especially unfortunate because Forspoken features a black female lead, in what is a concerted effort, on Square Enix’s part, to improve the diversity of their games. That too deserves plenty of praise, but the problem is that unless the game itself is interesting it’s not going to matter, because nobody will end up playing it.
We’re not suggesting that Forspoken is a disaster of any kind but from the two or three hours we played of it, it is an extremely bland and unengaging action role-player, that takes disappointingly little advantage of the fact that it’s starting from a blank slate.
The problems with the game start with main character Frey, an American from the real world played by British actress Ella Balinska. The character has already faced criticism from others for relying too much on stereotypes, in terms of how Frey is portrayed and elements of her backstory, but we saw little of the latter as our hands-on started on Chapter 2, when she’s already arrived in the fantasy world of Athia.
Reading between the lines, what seems to have happened is that she found or stole a magic bracelet, that she calls Cuff, which has transported her to Athia and which is now bonded to her arm and not only talks to her but grants her magic powers. We’re sure there’s more to it than that but that’s the gist of it, as you explore a world that is filled with other magic users and ruled over by a group of evil sorceresses.
The first impressions of Athia are not encouraging, in terms of both the generic fantasy world designs and Frey’s irritating dialogue. We’re sure Frey is meant to be sassy and relatable but instead she comes across as caustic and obnoxious, constantly dropping f-bombs like a 12-year-old that’s just discovered the word.
The most interesting thing about Athia is that it’s extremely racially diverse, with a city council made up of people of all races and genders. That’s immediately more interesting than Frey’s wearying fish out of water routine, which when combined with Cuff’s unfamiliarity with the real world sees the pair sleepwalking through every cliché possible, as Frey’s talk of New York City and Earth culture is constantly misunderstood to non-hilarious effect.
We can’t help but think that the game would’ve been much more interesting if you’d been playing as a native of Athia, which would have allowed the game to keep a black female lead but sidestep all the bad attempts at isekai style comedy. Perhaps Frey’s Earthly origins become more intrinsic to the story later on, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be worth sitting through all the well-worn clichés of the early hours.
Speaking of well-worn clichés, the gameplay does very little to justify putting up with the storytelling. The key selling points are the fact that there’s over 100 spells and that Frey has a sort of magical parkour that allows you to hold down a button and immediately traverse over any relatively low level obstacle. It’s a similar idea to many of the middle era Assassin’s Creed games, back when they actually had parkour, but it makes very little impression and is not particularly fun to use.
It means you don’t have to use a horse or similar to get around the open world areas but beyond that there’s nothing intrinsically enjoyable or interesting about the movement system. If anything it’s more frustrating than usual, when trying to be precise, since landing on a small ledge is difficult when you have to immediately slow down from a full pelt.
There seem to be a lot of upgrades available – we unlocked a wall jump fairly early on – but despite the freedom it’s clearly meant to give you the parkour still feels fairly clumsy. When it comes to levelling up, it revolves around upgrading your cloak and putting on special nail polish with different runes on it, which is not something we can imagine happening if the main character wasn’t a woman.
The combat is fine, with multiple types of magic organised by colour, but again there’s nothing very unique about it, with many of the offensive spells just feeling like normal third person weapons. Even the names, like burst shot and scatter shot, don’t seem very magical. There is also a wide array of support spells to freeze or otherwise reduce the effectiveness of enemies, but everything we played just had Frey fighting on her own, which limits the tactical considerations when there’s no one else to worry about.
It’s also disappointing that the enemies are all so dull – just generic looking knights, vaguely zombie-like people, and slightly mutated animals (the story revolves around a miasma that transforms anything inside it into a monster). Forspoken is nowhere near that bad, but we ended up being reminded of Platinum’s disastrous Babylon’s Fall, given the bland fantasy enemies, long-winded combat, and miserable-looking game world.
Developer Luminous Productions is a new studio but half the team worked on Final Fantasy 15 and while that’s certainly not our favourite entry in the series they should have been experienced enough to avoid most of the pitfalls that Forspoken blunders into.
The open world environment is large, and 100 is a lot of spells, so maybe the game does open up into something more interesting later on, but we can only speak to what we saw and played and that was disappointing on almost every level. There’s a free demo currently on PlayStation 5, so can you make your own mind up there, but it’s safe to say this is not currently amongst our most anticipated games of 2023.
Formats: PlayStation 5 and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Luminous Productions
Release Date: 24th January 2023
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