Forspoken - Cuff Diving (Review)
Updated: Feb 3
Forspoken Released: January 24, 2023 Developer: Luminous Productions Publisher: Square Enix Systems: PC, PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Forspoken is insufferable.
No, I’m not talking about the game’s incessant dialogue, incessant though it may be.
Luminous' contentious venture fostered a massive (if brief) amount of discourse regarding its divisively quip-stuffed script, but whether or not the sarcastic squabbling of its protagonists is "cringe" doesn’t really matter considering how tiresome the rest of Forspoken is. No matter how grating Frey and Cuff’s banter might be, the banter isn't what did me in - its relentless, unapologetic “open worldedness” did.
Forspoken embraces the mainstream open world formula as zealously as any intumescent mass of vapid "content" ever could. In fact, it’s so Open World(™) that it barely concerns its expansive map with architecture, population, or unique points of interest. The realm of Athia is mostly vast open space with a handful of ceaselessy regurgitated tasks strewn across barren plains and mountainous terrain.
There's so much to do, and it all amounts to nothing!
Welcome to "AAA" videogames, I guess.
Visually, Forspoken's sprawl of nebulousness is surprisingly varied and quite beautiful as bright hilly fields give way to alien deserts, forested lakes, and physics-defying outcrops. But even as Frey slogs through hours of busywork and accrues evermore flashy parkour skills to navigate it, the environment itself remains interactively duller than a cold potato. Athia’s a dead, quiet, unintriguing realm stuffed with history that details an era when it might have been worth exploring.
It’s more concerned with shoveling dozens of pages of dryly written “lore” at the player than providing a tangibly contemporary reason for us to care about a mostly destroyed realm whose only sentient population now consists of morons and assholes. So much text, so much waffle, so much of it forced onto the player unbidden, and like the oodles of "content" on offer, it's a whole lotta bugger all.
Frey is an orphan who keeps running afoul of the law and desperately wants to leave New York with her life savings - life savings she explicitly chooses to abandon when her apartment is set on fire because she didn’t want to pick up the small bag of money literally lying at her feet. After becoming homeless, she finds a magic sentient bracelet and is transported to a real shithole of a fantasy land that looks well past saving, all so she can be pressured excessively into saving it.
Athia’s few remaining survivors (the morons and assholes) are huddled up in a single city so they can stay comfortably out of the way of Forspoken’s open world busywork. They’re besieged by the “Break”, which is just a rebranded version of the “corruption” that’s posed a vaguely impersonal menace in far too many modern games. The Break is responsible for turning almost all creatures on Athia into glorified zombies waiting to be battered by Frey’s growing arsenal of magical attacks... and batter back in plentiful return.
Combat is, to put it politely, a fucking mess. For the first several hours, Forspoken resembles a third person shooter with awkwardly implemented MMO-style cooldown spells. Frey fires off consistent projectiles with one hand while cycling through support spells with the other to summon plant turrets, bind enemies to the ground, lay explosive traps, etc.
The regular need to cycle through these abilities makes for a stuttered experience as you’ll constantly break the flow of combat and open a selection wheel, equipping readied spells to fire them off one by one. An option in the game settings works around this by automatically switching spells after use, but this leaves you with two choices - either keep pausing the action like before or surrender tactical control and just fire off abilities mindlessly when available. This option will fail to work properly once all spells are on cooldown (you'll need to manually select the next available spell), and it doesn't account for situational ones, meaning you'll often cure yourself of nonexistent poison to get to an ability you want.
Regardless, I went with the mindless option because tactics hardly matter - Forspoken's frenetic action is far too anarchic for that. The screen is so cluttered it can be hard to see or hear what’s happening between the dazzling visual effects and aggressive swarms of enemies, all of whom are ready and willing to launch their attacks cheaply from offscreen. Even relatively small scale fights are an audiovisual scrum of explosions, lights, bangs, and text, while the camera does a piss-poor job of focusing on anything.
There’s a lock-on function but it’s terrible. Enemies frequently break the lock, it sometimes fails to activate at all, it struggles to match the pace of targets, and it makes all those offscreen enemies even better positioned to sneak up on you. Trying to charge attacks or perform spells with slightly lengthy animations can be a nightmare - enemy attacks are a thorough barrage that require constant dodging and opponents viciously cover each other's offensive gaps. The aim assist feature does its best to hit stuff, bless it, but it can hardly cope with the speed of enemies and it's paradoxically less accurate at close range.
Enemies take their shots even during the massive “Surge” attacks that you can perform after building enough energy. Surges fill the screen with high damage magic, but if you take a hit or are forced to dodge, the Surge resets without a payoff and you just feel punished for trying to use the thing. Trying to do anything during a large enough battle at times is akin to edging, only way less edifying.
This doesn't equate to a difficult game, exactly - most battles are relatively simple to handle, and only get easier as you gain further power. It's just a maddeningly interruptive experience seemingly designed to show off the evasive parkour animations rather than provide a meaningful challenge.
The sheer irritation involved in handling so much noise has clearly been noticed by the developer, since automatic dodging is freely available to toggle in the menu. It’s not even an accessibility option, it’s in the basic combat settings for anyone who can’t be bothered to attempt near-prescience when avoiding all the incoming blows. In fact, a range of combat tweaks are available, blessedly allowing players to customize their way to a less frustrating time. I certainly appreciate the consideration, though it's a shame such consideration was needed in the first place.
All these issues are before Frey gets a second skill tree and can swap her earth-based projectile powers for fiery melee combat, suddenly turning the chaotic shooter into a chaotic hack n’ slash that amplifies many of my grievances and serves to ultimately push me toward auto-evasion. Let me tell you, it was jarring as all hell to see the combat style change so drastically after spending what must have been ten hours playing a hybridized shooter. Then again, pacing is one of this game's weakest points in every regard.
What’s funny is that I actually like the combat when broken into its individual components - I think the expanding range of offensive spells are rather fun, and the versatility is most certainly impressive. Basic attacks can be given one of three distinct flavors that alter their behavior when charged, while the huge array of support spells are inventive and useful with only a few feeling notably ineffective. This is true of every spell tree, with Frey playing noticeably differently while using alternate magic types.
The attempt to blend fast-paced action with so many unique RPG commands is an attempt I respect, and I wouldn’t even mind the sheer mayhem of combat if I didn’t feel like it was too eager to punish players for lacking omnipotence. When you get into a flow, and especially after Frey picks up her third spell tree to really play around with switching styles on the fly, battles can genuinely power through their irritation factor and provide a measure of exhilaration instead.
Forspoken is definitely a game that becomes more fun as you grow more powerful, but how quickly you get to that point depends on how deeply you’re lured by the distracting and ill-advised open world gameplay. Thanks to my obsessive compulsive disorder, I found it hard to ignore the map’s excessive littering of collectibles and side activities to the point where I’ve been able to play for entire days and achieve absolutely no storyline progress.
This is a really bad way to play the game, but Forspoken so desperately encourages you to engage with its distractions that it’s easy to feel like charging toward story chapters is a mistake. Trust me though - you can skip most of this game’s side corn and you’ll miss pretty much nothing good. I recommend it.
While there are worthwhile locations that grant new skills or offer equippable cloaks and necklaces, the vast majority of optional rewards are either mana (used to unlock spells), or crafting materials (used to upgrade gear). These items are useful, but they’re so easily obtainable elsewhere in abundance that by the time I returned to the narrative missions after hours of sidelining, I was ridiculously overpowered to the point of trivializing boss fights. That might have felt good if not for one little problem - all the optional content was so boring that I felt like the wasted time wasn't worth the power.
Worse, I'd traded in what might have been a memorable boss encounter for hours of laborious bollocks.
I had been trudging through all that monotony out of compulsiveness, not because I was compelled in the positive sense of the word. I could have saved myself hours of killing the same old zombies, climbing the same old towers, and solving the same old insipid tile-sliding puzzles (that can also blessedly be disabled). Forspoken is designed to suck you into a miserable gameplay loop, and it serves as an active detriment, a fine example of how this game is its own worst enemy.
Because so much "loot" takes the form of upgrade materials, Forspoken consequently has some of the least rewarding loot chests I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing quite like navigating one’s way to a treasure chest, opening that sucker up, and finding … grass. Actual, literal grass of the same type Frey’s already been picking up off the bloody ground by the sackful. Chests are another thing you learn not to go out of your way for - they're underwhelming to an overwhelming degree.
Forspoken's a uniquely unrewarding game overall, really. The cloaks and necklaces I mentioned are worth finding and upgrading for their passive boosts, but once you have a set you like, you don’t need to stress about finding them all. Rarer collectibles such as coins can be traded for gear upgrades, but most of those are rubbish anyway, and since leveling up just makes magic hit a bit harder and gives you a wad of already plentiful mana, there’s not even anything satisfying about leveling up.
The only engrossing progress on offer is had through completing challenges unique to every single spell - fulfilling certain conditions such as knocking enemies down or triggering a set number of effects will upgrade their effectiveness. That can all be done while focusing on the main story, so once again, it's nothing you need to wander off the beaten path for. Whatever you do, don't wander too much, ever. There's nothing for you past the horizon of sad oblivion.
Forspoken is far, far bigger than it needs to be, as evidenced by how crushingly dreary and recycled most of the "content" is. For all the variety in Frey's abilities, her objectives are excruciatingly restricted to a few repeated jobs, the majority of which consist of traveling somewhere and killing loads of stuff. Had it been a smaller, tighter game, maybe I wouldn’t have been so exhausted by it, but the game it chose to be is devastingly exhausting, and I was tired of it long before I’d even approached the second boss, to say nothing of the hours that followed.
Oh, and you know what? The dialogue and writing is fucking annoying. Let's just be honest here. It’s not even Frey that’s the problem, despite the internet focusing on her. No, it’s the punchably smug sarcasm constantly dripping from Cuff, and the litany of loudly unlikeable stock medieval characters making up Forspoken’s supporting cast. It's made worse by how insistent the game is that you pay attention to all that lore I discussed. There’s so much of it interrupting the actual story, and none of it's interesting. Almost thirty hours into the adventure, I picked up a nugget, a crafting material I'd been picking up the whole time - it was at this thirty hour mark the game decided to force open a lore page for nuggets.
Yeah, this game is terribly paced, often interrupting itself for no sensible reason, initiating downtime between chapters that bore the voluptuous tits off me, and offering banal sidequests that consist of running around a city talking to people long after such introductory bullshit ought to have concluded.
This damn thing should have been linear. It absolutely, positively, should have been linear, and in decades past, before the game industry had boiled everything down to a handful of trends, it would have been. You could have had the parkour, you could have had the combat, and on top of that you could have had some real direction, pacing, and a streamlined experience without so much self-defeating fluff. It should have been linear.
Forspoken was given huge social media attention for maybe two days after it launched and already it seems like the world’s moved on. I can’t say I’m surprised - for whatever publicity it might have enjoyed, we're ultimately looking at another forgettable open world game among an ocean of the things. It really does try and provide something new with its combat, but the execution is so hectic it amounts to a car crash of ideas that undermine each other. There's nothing beyond those ideas but an excessively bland map stuffed with meaningless content and distinctly unrewarding rewards.
In all the ways “open world” could be used as a pejorative, Forspoken excels.