Forspoken Review

Review: Forspoken Is Trapped Between Story and Open World

Playing Forspoken feels like playing two games. More accurately, it feels like playing a game and watching a movie at the same time. The game is about running freely around a vast fantasy playground full of monsters, challenges, and wild landscapes. Meanwhile, the movie is about a young woman struggling to survive in an unfamiliar land full of strangers. Though both parts of the experience are contained within Forspoken, they don’t really meet all that often. That’s ironic, considering Forspoken‘s central dynamic is that of an odd-couple bond between Frey, its heroine, and her talking vambrace, Cuff.

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Found abandoned as a baby near New York’s Holland Tunnel (hence her surname), Frey Holland’s had a hard life and begins Forspoken in court for an attempted car theft. Granted a reprieve from incarceration by virtue of the Christmas spirit, she makes ready to skip town with nothing but the clothes on her back, her cat Homer, and a gym bag full of cash. Then things get harder. One might think that a person in such a bad place might view being transported to the vast fantasy world of Athia as a blessing. Unfortunately for Frey, Athia’s even worse off. The world is dying slowly, being consumed by a phenomenon called “the Break” that turns people and wildlife into monsters. The Tantas, the leaders of Athia, are the apparent source of the Break, causing it with their vast magical powers. They’ve also gone insane, killing and oppressing what remains of the populace. The last free community cowers in the walled city of Cipal, and initially views Frey as a demon sent by the same Tantas to destroy the last dregs of mankind.

Frey has an edge, though: magic. Upon arriving in Athia, she’s somehow blessed with magical might and immunity to the corrupting effects of the Break. Though newly empowered, Frey’s desire to get home as soon as possible runs up against the needs of the people in Cipal. She protests, not wanting to take on the burden of becoming Athia’s savior or Cipal’s martyr, but it seems like getting home will bring her into further conflict with Athia’s dangers and the corrupted Tantas.

Forspoken feels like it’s being pulled in two directions: in one way by its story, and another by its structure and mechanics. The story is a dramatic and interesting play on the all-too-familiar video game hero’s journey. An excellent performance by actress Ella Balinska as Frey helps elevate the material, and Frey comes across as almost painfully human in the cutscenes. I empathized with Frey’s struggle and her desire to reject the heroic role these strangers and Cuff continued to impress on her.

Usually when characters say that “I’m not doing this for you,” you’re supposed to roll your eyes a bit and recognize that they’re just trying to hide their heroism. Instead, I believe Frey when she says that line. She really doesn’t owe the people of Cipal anything in particular, not least of all salvation. To their credit, her closest allies in Athia recognize that fact, even as they try to persuade her to come to their aid. There’s a sense of humanity in their interactions that helps sell some of the late-game narrative twists as well. I won’t spoil them here, but a point in the game that would in any other hero story be the unequivocal “Bad Ending” feels like a valid, supportable choice in Forspoken, the kind of choice a person can respect, if not necessarily agree with.

Unfortunately, the uncommon strength and coherence of Forspoken‘s core characterizations are undermined by the game’s structure. With what’s left of Athia’s civilization locked up in Cipal, the world outside its walls is almost completely devoid of meaningful character development. For all intents and purposes, Athia is a big and beautiful world, but it’s also empty of meaning. Lore tidbits dropped throughout the game talk about the world Athia used to be, and only end up underscoring how that world is pretty much dead now, thanks to the four bosses ruling the corners of the map. What’s left of Athia is nothing more than a vast obstacle course, which makes one wonder if there’s anything there even worth saving.

The story will bring Frey back to Cipal, only to come up with a reason to send her trekking out again. Usually that reason ties into killing off one of the four Tantas, in the heart of her territory. In her way are legions of enemies and dozens, if not hundreds of side activities ranging from combat challenges in the ruins of Athia’s settlements to little distractions where Frey befriends a magical cat (those are my favorites).

Adding to this is the awkward implementation of “buddy banter” with Frey’s companion/jewelry, Cuff. As an outsider to Athia and someone who doesn’t particularly want to be there, Frey’s reluctance to engage with the Athians and their causes on their own terms is understandable. It’s easy to complain about some of the moments shown publicly when they’re isolated, but in the larger context of the game, they’re appropriate and work to highlight Frey’s boldness and blunt rejection of what Athia demands her role to be. If Forspoken were an anime series it would be squarely in the “isekai” or “otherworld” genre, and like the protagonists of many such stories, Frey is a being of singular agency in Athia. Being the only person in the world with the capacity to do anything about its (and your) problems has its perks, and one of them is the power to act above it all.

The problem is that Cuff acts exactly like that, too. Though no one but Frey can hear his posh English accent, Cuff’s sarcastic and cynical dismissal of every moment grates, and it renders his later, more sincere-seeming pleas to Frey to exercise her power to change Athia’s fate ring hollow. In more practical terms, having Cuff and Frey’s dynamic both rely on being the same kind of “snarky outsider” archetype makes me, as the player, feel like I’m the third wheel on a date that’s not going particularly well.

Cuff and Frey snipe at each other constantly in their open-world “Cuff chat” banter, often in ways that don’t reflect the current state of the story or the evolution of their characters. It makes the characterization put forward in the main quests feel insincere as a result. Frey might have a reason for acting the way she does, but Cuff’s just a jerk. And when an actual narrative justification for some of that behavior emerges later, it only make the damage done that much more pointless. I advise turning the “Cuff Chat Frequency” setting in the options menu to “Minimal”, which more less leaves out everything except what’s directly relevant to the story. You can’t make the “talking bling” shut up completely, but you can have him speak only when it matters to do so.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this tension between the gravity of a heroic quest and the ability to faff around in side activities isn’t unique to Forspoken. It’s a conflict almost inherent to open-world game design. The issue is that the narrative clash here is more acute in part because of Frey’s strong characterization. If she were a personality-free cipher and a stand-in for the player, like your average Far Cry or Grand Theft Auto avatar, there would be less of an issue. But here, being able to play around without a care in the world feels wrong. That’s a problem because playing around in Forspoken can be a great time.

Luminous Productions set out to create a game about movement and traversal when it began work on what was then “Project Athia“, and they’ve succeeded handily in Forspoken. Frey’s “magical parkour” and the various spells that you can earn to further enhance her mobility make jetting across Athia both easy and exciting. The freedom to run like the wind and not stop for anything made me feel more powerful than any of the otherwise impressive combat spells, and I relished every chance I could get to hunt down a few more pools of mana scattered around the map, because I could bound across the landscape like no one’s business. Combat is flashy and surprisingly diverse. Frey has multiple types of magic she can switch between, with an array of spells for virtually any situation. And at high levels, some of the “Surge Magic” spells are absolutely breathtaking to watch in action. The issue is more with the enemy and encounter design, as there isn’t enough variety in enemy types, behavior, or combat setups to make complex tactics worthwhile. Meanwhile, ramping up the difficulty just tends to make battles take longer.

Thankfully, Forspoken doesn’t sprawl nearly as much as many modern open-world titles. The main story can be completed in under twenty hours, with a fair bit of side activities and questing squeezed into the spaces between. The game doesn’t penalize you for taking easier routes, either, so players that get tired of the fighting can turn things down and relax while they bounce around at their leisure, looking for photo spots or clearing out side activities. Things feel particularly fast on the PS5, where the game’s use of fast SSD storage means that loading times come in at just a couple of seconds. Using fast travel to teleport to the other side of Athia barely takes a breath, which adds a sorely needed sense of convenience to incentivize clearing some of the less engaging content.

While Forspoken is a much better time than chatter on social media might suggest, those who opt to take on Frey’s journey will likely encounter bumps and stumbles that are hard to ignore, as well as have to deal with some unpleasant traveling companions strapped to their arms. Folks who can put up with those shortcomings, though, will find a dramatic and very pretty adventure as a stranger running freely across a strange land.

Forspoken is available on the PS5 and PC. Playable demos of the game can be found on the PSN store, as well as the Steam, Epic Games, and Microsoft PC storefronts.

7
Forspoken

Explore the beautiful and cruel world of Athia in the shoes of Frey Holland, a down-on-her-luck New Yorker sucked through a magical portal. Defeat your enemies with high-powered elemental spells and uncover more about the Break, the mysterious corruption plaguing the land. PS5 version reviewed.

Forspoken impresses with its movement and central narrative, but is sold short by annoying banter and open-world meandering.

Food For Thought
  • I love that Frey's gear consists of a fancy cape, fancy necklace, and fancy nail art.
  • The joy of superpowered movement in-game reminds me of two older PlayStation showcase titles: Infamous and Infamous 2.
  • The people of Cipal may have lost their source of food, but at least they can grow cat grass and make kitty toys.

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Author
Josh Tolentino
Josh Tolentino is Senior Staff Writer at Siliconera. He previously helped run Japanator, prior to its merger with Siliconera. He's also got bylines at Destructoid, GameCritics, The Escapist, and far too many posts on Twitter.