Frey Holland is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being a New York gang she owes favors to, and the hard place being the judge she finds herself in front of again as a result of those favors. Immediately after getting a second chance to turn her life around, the gang burns down the apartment she’s been squatting in. Making sure her cat, Homer, is safe and sound, she heads back to where it all started: the Holland Tunnel. Having been abandoned there as a child, it seems as good a place as any to think. Suddenly, she spots a golden cuff in an abandoned shop. Putting it on takes her to another world: Athia. Athia used to be ruled by four Tantas, kind sorceresses who kept peace and helped the people, but that age has passed and the mad Tantas now spread chaos and a corruption called the Break that turns living things into golden beasts. With magic powers granted to her by Cuff, Frey is the only one who can stop the four Tantas, steal their powers, and find a way home.
Forspoken is something of a superhero game, and is the sophomore effort from Luminous Studios – an in-house team at Square Enix who previously developed Final Fantasy XV. As a fan of XV (despite its many flaws) and another superhero-ish game called Gravity Rush, I was very excited to get my hands on Forspoken. I’m happy to say that I got what I wanted here, but at the same time I can see that it should have been so much more.
As such, we’re actually going to start with the bad here, because the good is just so freakin’ good. First off, the elephant in the room: Forspoken has a black protagonist and diverse cast, but has a very white team of writers, and you can tell. The game starts off with Frey in a courtroom, the judge lamenting that she’s seen Frey in this position far too often. I can see why they did this, as shortly after landing in Athia, she’s once again in another courtroom. Parallels and all, but it just feels a little in poor taste considering games rarely have a black protagonist.
The biggest issue throughout the game though is that it feels like they just don’t know what to do with her. Frey is a reluctant hero, and aside from liking sneakers (she calls them kicks, which as a term for shoes has been around since the 60’s if not earlier, fun fact) and reading, you don’t get much out of her. Her character arc seems to be about learning to trust people or using her anger for good, but neither of those things actually happen, just a few off hand quips referencing those ideas in the final battle. She has some fun interactions with Cuff and other NPCs, and I did end up liking her, but I can see why some will find her insufferable.
In addition, I found the soundtrack to be a bit too minimal. There are a few great tracks but nothing that really stands out. It would have been neat to hear a combination of traditional orchestra with more modern synths and beats, like the title screen song, but you sadly don’t hear much out of the ordinary here. There is a nice leitmotif as well as a general theme of choirs, but aside from that it’s generic fantasy stuff.
Similarly, the overall story feels like it’s playing it too safe. There’s some cool ideas buried here along with what would be a neat twist with a bit more foreshadowing, but it’s almost as if the game is afraid of actually going to those places rather than just hinting at them. It makes me question if they knew they had no black writers and decided to play it safe instead of, you know, hiring some or consulting. Maybe they saw people say the pre-release material was cringe or annoying and scrambled to change things. Personally, I would have preferred they lean into what the game is harder. You may be cringe, but you could also be free! Still, without spoiling anything, it’s a decent tale that at least serves to take you to a few places in this gorgeous world. (Also, mark my words, Cuff will be the next Tumblr sexy man.)
That world is Forspoken’s main draw, the beauty of it showing what a current gen console can do, both with the massive amount of things to do, and the joy of simply moving through it. Athia is technically split into four different regions, each ruled by a Tanta, with the city of Cipal (humanity’s last bastion) at its center. Each section of the story sees you parkouring off to a Tanta’s castle to face her, but that still leaves most of the map untouched. Athia is massive and 25 hours in, I’m still finding more and more things to do. For reference, the main story took me around 20 hours with copious amounts of sidequesting and other activities, so that last 5 hours is entirely just me exploring the world and completing challenges.
These challenges include everything from fighting off groups of enemies, racing to the finish line with your magic parkour skills, and petting a cat without scaring it off. Practically everything rewards you with stat boosts, gear, crafting materials, kitties to visit you in safe houses, and even the odd spell or two. It’s small but incremental progress.You can feel Frey slowly getting stronger. I do wish there was a bit more variety, or at least more mini-dungeons, called Locked Labyrinths, as those were my favorite missions. Still, moving and fighting are so engaging it makes me want to clear out the whole map anyway.
While you start the game only controlling nature and earth, over the course of the story you’ll acquire a total of four spell sets. Every spell set adds something new to both your parkour and offensive repertoire, and by the end you basically feel like the Avatar. Frey’s magic is a mid-range projectile set and allows you perform basic parkour moves by holding the circle button. In battle, your spells are divided into two types: attack and support, assigned to both R and L buttons respectively. Pressing R2 repeatedly will fire a “combo” of rocks, while holding the button will start casting one of three more powerful spells selected in the R1 radial menu (3 for each spell set). For example, you can charge up a powerful rock explosion or fire a long range, rapid fire stream. Support spells, meanwhile, offer various utilities like a damage over time projectile, a vine whip that heals you slightly based on damage dealt, a defense buff, and more (8 spells in all).
Fights are incredibly hectic affairs, with foes surrounding you and constantly being on the offensive. Support spells help you control the tide, and offensive spells let you deal damage in the most efficient way. You need to constantly be on the move, because standing still for even a second on hard mode is a death sentence. Using your parkour skills, you can leap over foes and gracefully weave between attacks, but you can’t dodge everything just by holding the circle button. Attacks denoted by a blue light can be parkoured around (provided you’re not being barraged by too many at once), while red light attacks will hit you if you’re anywhere near where they land. If you do get hit, Cuff will block the attack and reduce the damage you take, also providing a counter move you can perform by pressing triangle the moment you get hit. He can’t do this forever though, and when his shield breaks, you’ll start taking the full brunt of attacks while he recharges. In this state, practically one hit from anything will kill you instantly, so don’t get hit. On the flip side, if you knock an enemy down, you can perform a killing blow that will deal tons of damage, again by pressing the triangle button.
It takes a while to get to grips with how chaotic combat is, and by the time you feel like you’ve got a good grasp, you earn a new spell set after a grueling and incredibly fun one-on-one with a Tanta. While Frey’s earth magic is a good all-rounder, every other element provides some much needed diversity. For example, Sila’s fire magic focuses on melee, granting you a rad fire sword for normal attacks, aggressive space controlling support moves like a charge or a fire dome, and cool charge moves such as rapid fire (pun intended) punches, a great sword, and a ranged spear you can do a Dragoon jump with. Next, the blue water spells serve more of a sniper role, focusing on debuffing enemies and then following up with charge attacks powered up by normal spells. Finally, lightning is a crowd control tool, with weak normal attacks but several buffs and powerful charges that hit multiple foes.
While enemies are weak to specific elements, that doesn’t mean you should forgo the others entirely. Support spells especially can prove invaluable even if your target resists a type. I was constantly using the fire type summons to distract enemies or provide just a little bit more damage while charging spells. Everything in battle ties into the style meter, which provides a letter grade, from F to A to Star, judging your performance and providing an experience and drop rate multiplier. The meter goes up when you do things like string spells together by casting your normal combo and then following up with a charge, which greatly reduces charge time too. While positive increases are small, getting hit will decrease the meter by a full letter grade or more. Performing a Cuff Counter will get you a few points back along with restoring some HP, but never nearly as much as you lost. So, once again: don’t get hit.
As you fight, you’ll build up Surge Magic, a damaging area move that can devastate groups of enemies if timed and positioned correctly. You activate it by pressing L2 and R2 at the same time, with the triggers emitting a satisfying vibration in addition to the normal, slight resistance. It feels like the cherry on top of a really solid battle system.
Combat is incredibly fun, with the Tanta boss fights being the absolute highlights, but I may have had more fun with movement. Use of Flow is governed by your Stamina meter, represented by diamonds just above your health bar. Obviously you need to keep an eye on this in combat so that you aren’t caught without the ability to dodge, but it’s also important to manage while moving through the world. Initiating Flow will cost one diamond, and continuing to hold the button will use up another after a short time (when Frey dashes slightly again). You can reset this timer by interacting with the environment, for example by auto-jumping over a short obstacle. You have very little stamina at the start and even fewer moves to restore it, so if you run out you’ll be forced to jog while it recovers.
You can learn moves to restore stamina, however, like a launching jump performed just after you hit the ground or a timed dash to further accelerate you. They don’t remove the issue entirely, as you still need to actively plan your route so you can use these moves, so parkour only gets more fun and involved as you go. The best part is that the game doesn’t actively tell or tutorial-ize you on how to use all these moves, you figure them out on your own. One of my favorite moments was when I figured out how to completely negate fall damage, which massively drains stamina, by using the fire grapple on the ground. I don’t think I’ve felt this much pure joy in movement since Gravity Rush, and this feels like the closest follow up to that series we’ll get with the death of Japan Studios. In all honesty, I wish there were more pure platforming sections – it’s that good.
That trust in the player sadly doesn’t extend to the entire game, but it does hit the important parts like figuring out how to use spells in combat. For example, a bit later into the game there’s a section where you’re going through a linear dungeon with the path occasionally being blocked by magic walls which requires you to defeat enemies to progress. Every single time you do this, the game pops up with a message saying that the wall has been removed. That the game chooses to interrupt you for obvious and unnecessary stuff like this feels super weird. It breaks the flow of some story moments. The game acts like these mechanics will come up later even though they never do.
When you’re not fighting or exploring the world, you’re crafting to upgrade your gear or doing side quests called Detours in Cipal. Throughout your adventures, you’ll acquire three types of equipment: cloaks, necklaces, and nail polish. Cloaks and necklaces increase your stats and provide specific bonuses, while your nails only provide set bonuses, though they are much more powerful and can provide effects that your other gear can’t. Stat boosts are pretty straightforward, increasing your health, defense, and power with each spell type. Bonuses are more complicated and exciting. They can be anything from simple percentage bonuses to triggering auto heals on critical hits or causing killing blows to emit a shockwave. There’s a lot of variety in these bonuses, allowing you to customize each cloak and necklace to your liking. Even if an accessory comes with some buffs that you don’t like, you can easily replace them if you have the materials and each attribute is added to your crafting list when acquired.
Upgrades do take a lot of materials, making it difficult to keep gear you like the look of up to snuff with the more powerful pieces that don’t fit your style. It’s certainly possible to make even the starting cloak as powerful as the endgame ones, but some sort of glamor system would have been appreciated to keep your style on point. (And maybe another outfit or two instead of Frey’s shirt and jeans combo. It’s a decent look, but I’d prefer to lean further into the modern sorceress aesthetic.)
Detours serve to flesh out the game’s small cast and provide a few goodies along the way. Each chapter you return to the city with a few people to help. These can include things like just talking to a person or two, following a cat to some treasure, or going out into the wilds to find something. There’s nothing particularly standout here, but I still did them all since they were fun enough, provided good character moments (in particular for Johedy and Auden), and expired eventually if you ignore them, so you might as well. Whatever you do, you’ll also be rewarded with experience or Mana, both of which serve to buy you new or upgraded spells in the spell trees.
Speaking of, while you’re constantly filling out your magic trees and getting new spells, you can further improve those you have by accepting challenges at bookshelves. These challenges range from easy things you’ll do anyway like dealing a certain amount of damage, to stranger things like killing three enemies at once with a single spell or using a traversal technique a set amount of times consecutively. For completing these challenges, you’re rewarded with stat boosts and sometimes a boost to that particular spell, like dealing more damage, a buff lasting longer, or a move using less stamina. It’s a fun system that spices up everything nicely, having you approach movement or combat in different ways. It meshes well with the rest of the gameplay loop, and makes me want to master each and every spell.
If you’re having trouble with Forspoken though, there are plenty of accessibility options to help you out. There are three difficulty modes, easy, normal, and hard, but you can further customize things like damage taken or turn on auto dodging. You can fully rebind the controls too, aside from certain menu buttons, which is always great to see. Before you ask, yes, you can adjust the frequency of Frey and Cuff’s chatter or turn it off entirely. Diving deeper, you can set colorblind filters, make enemies pulse white to be easier to see, turn on auto pick-up (which is a must), and many more options.
For frame rate/resolution though, I would highly recommend picking performance mode for 60 fps and never looking back. Action games just need to be at 60 to feel the best they can, and I think that holds true here. The resolution or ray tracing modes just don’t look that much better to justify their existence. I might not have an eye for that kind of thing, but especially with ray tracing, the only improvement I noticed was better looking shadows. If you have a 120 hz display, you can turn on a more responsive mode to reduce lag, but the game won’t actually run at 120 fps. There are times where the game struggles to hit 60, with only one serious dip I can recall late in the game, but it’s so fun I couldn’t care less.
Forspoken is an incredible title. Although the story suffers from being a bit too generic, the gameplay is inventive, magical, and an absolute blast. This is a game I’ll come back to again and again just to move around and exist in the fascinating fantasy world. Forspoken is an exciting leap forward for action games, and I can’t get enough of it.