Revealed as “Project Athia” back in June 2020, Forspoken is an action RPG from Luminous Productions, a new team formed by many members of the Final Fantasy XV team. The story’s concept was written by Amy Hennig, the woman behind the Uncharted series and many other critically-acclaimed games. Forspoken’s story – in concept – is very interesting. Its execution, however, is far less than.
Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good with this game. With repeated delays, there are a lot of things you encounter that seem completely avoidable. It makes you wonder what exactly happened to cause those delays, and what the game was like before things were changed. Forspoken promised beautiful environments, awesome action, and an incredibly deep story.
The potential is there, but it just doesn’t hit the mark. There are many aspects of the game where areas of improvement are obvious. If you were expecting a game with lush, detailed environments that were shown in the trailer, let go of those expectations if you plan on picking this game up.
This review will be as spoiler free as possible, only talking about broad story themes and things already revealed in trailers. We’ll break it down into four categories: Story, graphics, music and sound, and controls and mechanics.
The story follows Alfre Holland, an orphan found abandoned in the Holland Tunnel in New York as an infant. Frey – as she goes by – is a troublemaker. The game opens up with her in court for what appears to be yet another criminal charge, this time being “attempted grand larceny.”
From there you quickly learn that Frey is involved with a gang, is in trouble with this gang, and when she reflects on her life, often debates potentially jumping off the top of a neon sign attached to a motel. Before she does so, however, she catches a glimpse of something in an abandoned home across the street.
In the abandoned home lies a beautiful golden snake-like cuff on a table. Frey picks it up, and as it attaches itself around her forearm, she gets sucked into a completely different world called Athia. The story is flawed from the get-go: Not in concept, but in overall execution.
The writers expect you to develop sympathy for the characters you interact with (as well as Frey), but you legitimately have no reason to do so. There is nothing about Frey or anyone else in the world that really draws you in to yearn for more. The characters all fall flat, feeling unoriginal and far from unique.
The biggest flaw in Forspoken’s story is its god-awful dialogue. It truly felt as if someone stood in a room and said, “Okay, how can we make Frey as annoying as humanly possible, all while making her say ‘fuck’ and every iteration of the word way too many times over?” She’s so annoying that I spent most of the cutscenes with my face in my hands because her character is just that unlikeable. She is worse than the bratty kid from elementary school, and the worst bully in your high school class. She makes everything about her and does it in the worst way possible.
A large issue in regard to her character is that she’s supposed to be a New Yorker, from Hell’s Kitchen. I’m not a New Yorker myself but have worked with New Yorkers my entire career. Frey’s voice lines throughout the game do not reflect the vernacular of New Yorkers. For someone who has grown up in Hell’s Kitchen and supposedly lived a hard life, she comes across as a bratty kid from Los Angeles.
To add to Frey’s terrible character and dialogue, Cuff (who gives you powers in Athia) also talks. The banter between the two of them both in cutscenes and gameplay is so repetitive and annoying that I genuinely debated muting the voices. There is an option to have the banter only occur during story progression in the accessibility menu, which really says something. If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “it seems you did something to annoy them all [the bad guys]” or “let me guess, bad guys nearby?” I’d be able to pay off my mortgage. And I just bought my house four months ago.
Picking up items in the world is just as annoying; “find something useful?” “It’s probably worth pocketing this!” “Better than nothing!” Over.. and over… And over again. The repetitiveness is insufferable. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but in an open-world game, you don’t need a line of dialogue for every single treasure chest you open, or every item you obtain. Especially if you only wrote and recorded three lines.
The absolute worst part, however, is the way the game transitions. How poorly the game transitions genuinely made me feel as if I were playing a release title for the PlayStation 3. For example (and this happened a lot), you would be entering a cutscene, and the screen would fade to black, but then the cutscene would continue. It would fade to black again, and then you’d be in gameplay. You’d be given the task of reaching a certain destination; let’s say it was 500 feet in front of you; you’d take three steps, and suddenly, fade to black into a cutscene.
These transitions were jarring and completely ruined my experience with Forspoken. This would sometimes happen multiple times in one cutscene, with the camera barely moving at all once the cutscene came back into play. This same technique (we’ll call it, for a better lack of terms) also translated into gameplay. There were many parts of the story that required you to search for something in an area, as well as certain speed challenges you found around the map. If you stepped out of bounds, Frey would say, “this isn’t the right way” and before you could take two steps back in the right direction, it would fade to black and reset you. This was incredibly frustrating, especially when you barely stepped out of bounds.
Forspoken has the same problem I had with Assassin’s Creed III: There is way too much to do, and none of it really mattered or meant anything. The dialogue, voice acting, and underwhelming cutscenes made it very difficult to stay invested. The story does however improve incredibly for the last 10% of the game.
It’s not great, but it is okay. Once you get to this point of the game (without spoiling anything, it is after Chapter 11), you may ask yourself, “how were these points executed so poorly for the other 90% of the game?” The narrative design is boring at best, and I fear most will not get to this point in the story.
If the story wasn’t a big enough letdown, the game was graphically lackluster and disappointing. On the PlayStation 5, you had three options for graphic modes: quality, ray tracing, and performance. While the first two promise stable frame rates and higher resolution, this is very much so not the case. The only mode that provided a decent frame rate was in fact performance mode, and the change in resolution is negligible. All ray tracing mode really does is enhance the environment’s shadows.
When you boot up Forspoken, the Luminous Engine logo pops up. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s the same engine that was used for Final Fantasy XV. For a PlayStation 5 title, I was incredibly disappointed. The fidelity of the facial animation was far below industry standard, and the environments felt stale. Each major area you explore to progress the story has a different color associated with it. The beginning of the game offers a boring color palette, and instead of creating visually diverse areas that truly differentiate from one another, all these had was a color filter thrown on top.
Character models in cutscenes and forced dialogue sequences appear to be very stiff. They don’t really move naturally, almost making it seem like they’re moving just to show they’re alive. At the very beginning of the game in your first forced conversation sequence with Cuff, you have the option to “show him your phone.” When you select this option, Frey doesn’t show him anything at all. Her arm remains held out in front of her, swaying back and forth. How can he comment on the device without it leaving your pocket? Characters roaming Cipal, including those that give you side quests, are even stiffer, making them feel like they were just added in to fill space.
In contrast, the combat is aesthetically pleasing. Each set of Frey’s powers offers exciting animations with vivid colors. Frey also has special attacks that charge up (longer cooldown times than the support and regular spells) and provide illustrative animation sequences, really making you feel like you annihilated an enemy with something powerful. Each killing blow disintegrates your enemies, giving you the satisfaction and certainty of their demise.
Frey’s animations, while she parkours across the map, are rather enjoyable. Her sneakers glow gold, leaving trails of parkour dust behind her, flowing into the camera with glimpses of different colors.
She eventually learns the ability to glide on water, which turns her shoes to ice and gives her something that resembles a surfboard made of ice. What really would have made these visuals pop is if you got to see them at night. But for whatever reason, it’s always 3:00 PM on a Wednesday in Athia.
Music and Sound
In terms of sound design, nothing really sticks out to me as anything special. The developers chose to utilize the DualSense speaker for all of Cuff’s dialogue (in addition to coming out of the television or whatever sound setup you are using). I genuinely had high hopes for the music, seeing as how the soundtrack was composed by Bear McCreary and Garry Schyman. What I got instead was what felt like the same three tracks on a loop.
In an open-world game, I would expect different areas to have some kind of variety in music. In Forspoken, 95% of the time you spend exploring Athia with the same battle-like music. You could be free of enemies entirely, and resting at a campsite. Yet the loud battle music still plays. The music ultimately ended up being a negative factor, and much like the dialogue, I was tempted to turn it off entirely.
Certain cutscenes and very short periods of tranquility had beautifully orchestrated music but still lacked overall variety. To anyone playing the game for the first time, I would recommend turning down the game’s music to about 70%. Even at that volume, it may be too much and too disruptive. In cutscenes and areas where the music was repetitive, it removed me from the environment and irritated me.
Once you’re in Cipal, a character suggests you stop and talk to the citizens. These conversations were boring. Anytime you went to speak to a character, Frey would take a couple of steps back to stand in a specific spot, almost perfectly still, just to hear a few voice lines that don’t really add to anything. It only took me a few of these conversations to ignore everyone for the remainder of my playtime.
Controls and Mechanics
Mechanically, this game did have some aspects that I enjoyed. It may seem small and trivial, but at the end of each chapter, the game would prompt you to save your progress thus far. If you’re like me, you might forget to save every now and so often only to be gifted the rude awakening of having to replay an hour of content over again.
The game does offer a very unique way to level up spells beyond just gathering mana and spending them on your skill tree: Challenges. In each safe haven, called a refuge, there’s a bookshelf by the bed (you are first introduced to the bookshelf in the city of Cipal after a certain point early on in the story). By interacting with the bookshelf, you can activate up to three challenges, each associated with a spell. Once the challenge is completed, you can return to the bookshelf and upgrade the spell. Challenges in games like this typically don’t grab my attention, but connecting them to enhancing spells encouraged me to do more.
On the other hand, there were still a lot of frustrations. One of the large nuisances was the pop-up message: “you cannot save during an event scene.” What differentiates an event scene from regular gameplay? I have no clue. This happened a lot. I’m sure this is connected to the awful transitions that I brought up earlier. As an example, I would be standing in a refuge, and wanting to save. I’d get the message, and save outside at a later point. Other times I could stand in the refuge and save just fine. This happened in the city of Cipal, out in the open, and in refuges.
The game’s main mechanic is Frey’s ability to parkour everywhere. Very seldomly did this actually feel good. It often felt clunky and with other mechanics (you gain these after certain story points) incorporated into it, difficult to control. One of the first abilities you obtain in the game is to be able to climb and scale walls. You do this to be able to get to higher places. The inconsistencies with this mechanic made me want to rip my hair out. Some walls would be very tall, and I’d be able to glide up to the top with no problem, but walls that were much shorter wouldn’t be scalable for whatever reason. It also strikes me as very odd that you cannot parkour in the city of Cipal. I had assumed it was because Frey didn’t want to scare the citizens with her powers, but nothing was ever explained.
Forspoken took me less than 20 hours to beat but offers many more hours of gameplay depending on whether or not you want to complete everything and explore the world. It was very difficult for me to get invested, so I spent most of the time parkouring across the map and only doing fights that were required for progression. One extra thing – called “Detours” in the game – I would suggest doing are the Locked Labyrinths. While they are incredibly linear (even when they “branch out”), they do offer some fun boss fights and good rewards. Graphically, however, they suffer from reused assets and the “color filter” aspect discussed earlier.
Forspoken’s combat tries so desperately to be interesting, but falls short and is repetitive and boring. Some combat even feels chaotic, almost leaving you lost, wondering what’s happening. As a huge fan of Amy Hennig, I was hoping she was more involved in the production of Forspoken. Now I’m really wishing she had been, and how her version of the story would have played out. Square Enix has already confirmed DLC, In Tanta We Trust. While Forspoken left me everything but impressed, I am curious to see how the DLC contributes to the story.
The PlayStation 5 review copy of Forspoken was provided by Square Enix.