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Rating 3

Forspoken - Review

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.
Score: 3/5
Reviewed by Joe Wilcock on PS5 - January 30, 2023   

Forspoken is a riveting case study, it is equal parts brilliant and sloppy but most importantly, it serves as a stark reminder of what key components make up a great video game and what consumers should value within them. Luminous Productions' debut title is victim to a laboriously long opening which sucks out the game's momentum before it's even begun, but once the introductory 3/4 hours are over and you are let loose on the world of Athia, at which point Forspoken becomes a thrilling, satisfying and infinitely rewarding open-world action-RPG bonanza. Referred to internally as Project Athia, Luminous Productions is an ensemble of employees who worked on Final Fantasy XV, and echoes of that game are felt throughout Forspoken. It was conceived to test the power of the PlayStation 5 and PC, to show off the new console's graphical capability, and how successful it was in this endeavour will be discussed later.

Down the Rabbit Hole

The story of Athia is told through an Alice in Wonderland kaleidoscope, to which the game makes several references to. Frey, the game's protagonist, is a modern-day New Yorker who is cast into another dimension, a world of fantasy and magic. She must learn to harness the magic bestowed upon her to escape from Wonderland and return to her squaller in New York City. The fish out of water aspect works in parts and can be comedic, but it’s nonsensical for her not to conform her language to the natives of Athia after a while. Despite her poor choice of words though, it is fascinating to see Frey dish out advice to people in Athia as she is equipped with modern world knowledge. This makes for an interesting dynamic with other characters. Although Frey is seen as a foreign heretic, she is extremely intelligent relative to the time period in which she is cast back in this thus considered wise by citizens. The juxtaposition between Frey’s New York dialect and the ancient world of Athia works well for the most part.

The discourse surrounding the dialogue is nonsense, audiences are quick to lap up barrages of quippy MCU lines but are deterred by a female doing the exact same in a video game. Don’t get me wrong, it does cross over into cringy territory regularly, but it’s also genuinely funny at times. There is obvious chemistry between the two lead characters so when the writing is up to par, the comedy lands. Frey made me laugh quite a bit, especially early on, as she possesses natural charisma but unfortunately, she started to grate on me slightly as the hours went by. 

In her defence, she doesn't have a lot to work with either. Although the overarching plot and storyline are interesting, not innovative but interesting, there isn't a lot of depth to the dialogue or character relationships. That's not to say that what's here is bad, it's just not an aspect that was given a lot of attention. Most of the cringe-inducing clips of dialogue that have been highlighted from the game are absolutely fine in context and no different to the generic Hollywood action-hero personas we've come accustomed to. 

Athia and Cipal

Okay, I've defended one of the elephants in the room, it's time for the next and this is admittedly harder to stick up for. The graphics and environments have been questioned intensely and for good reason. The production quality seen here in Forspoken is utterly bizarre. When Frey is vaulting and zipping around Athia, it can look fantastic. Spells, combat effects and enemy designs look great as well. However, stop long enough to smell the roses and it all starts to fall apart. The character models are embarrassing for a AAA title in 2023, with the exception of one or two, facial animations are almost non-existent and the central city of Cipal could have been accomplished on the PlayStation 3 and to greater effect. 

Cipal looks bad for two reasons; it’s monotone, and the placement of the buildings makes it so the city feels sparse and barren. The buildings themselves are interesting and intricate, but the city isn’t stitched together correctly, making it look bland and dated. It's not integrated into the open world either which splits the game into two parts; the open-world action game and the exploration around the city. Traversal around the city works differently too as Frey is stripped of her parkour and magic abilities, which makes it feel detached from the rest of the game. 

With that said, I do have to give special mention to the hair physics on Frey, especially early on in the game when she wears her hair down. I may be mistaken, but I can't remember a game that shows the wind blowing through a character's hair as realistically as this. It legitimately blew me away, excuse the pun. But of course, this is spoiled by the decision to tie her hair up in a bun, only leaving a long fringe exposed, a missed opportunity for sure. 

You're a Wizard, Frey

They're Forspoken's biggest pitfalls by far, the rest of the game comes together quite nicely thanks mostly to its fantastic combat system. Hogwarts Legacy has some early competition and I would be surprised if the magic is any better there than it is here. Frey can learn up to 100 spells, from attack and support spells to traversal upgrades and exploration aids. Upon learning the first batch of magic spells, I was quite happy with my options. Frey's magic, also known as purple magic, is comprised of earthly abilities. Throwing rocks, binding enemies with roots and protecting yourself with rubble and so forth. However, as the mechanics slowly reveal themselves, you quickly figure out that you will soon be given access to not only a whole other spell set but several others. This is genuinely exciting and actually became my internal motivation to progress, so that I may discover and experiment with all the amazing spells on offer. 

Moreover, the magic-enhanced traversal is something to behold, it makes you feel like an Athian superhero as you hop, skip and jump across its vast landscapes. Each spell set increases your ability to manoeuvre around the world too, allowing for some incredibly athletic combinations to be pulled off and some serious ground to be covered. Once you become comfortable with the mechanics, it becomes extremely satisfying to get about the sprawling depths of Athia. 

Unfortunately, there isn't much to do in this medieval fantasy land other than checking off generic landmarks seen in hundreds of other open-world games and fighting Breakbeasts, the game's monsters. Ruins, vista points, treasures and challenges litter the land, much like a Ubisoft game or others of that ilk, and are as serviceable as its predecessors, but nothing much stands out. There aren't many side missions in the world either, and this is appreciated somewhat, Instead of giving Frey trivial tasks for side missions, she can gain XP by simply talking to important characters or traversing the land. It’s satisfying to be rewarded for simply engaging in the world and interacting with Cipal’s residents. There are conventional side missions in the game too of course but fewer of them. Interesting dialogue and immersion through world-building are always preferable over a generic side mission, which even the best games are guilty of from time to time. Earning XP through several means makes the progression feel natural and rewarding. 

Furthermore, the cleanliness and functionality of Forspoken's UI took me by surprise considering the game's low production quality. It has a feature, much like Apex's pinging system, that I can not live without in an open-world RPG going forward. Again, it has been trialled in other games but never so successfully executed. When you open the map, you have the ability not just to mark one location, but you can mark up to five, creating pathways to your objective. It may sound like a small addition, but it made exploration much more fun and accessible, so much so that it single-handedly trapped me in a gameplay loop of looting everything on offer. 

The cool enemy design, likeable side characters, appropriate epic music, serviceable boss battles and the overarching plot all deserve praise too and cap off what is a pretty good game. Despite this, there are just too many niggling problems that drag the overall experience down, but thankfully they're not substantial enough to ruin the whole game, as some outlets would lead you to believe. Underneath its underwhelming aesthetics and seemingly cringy protagonist, there lies a great game with an even better combat system, but it's shrouded in mediocracy and low production quality. It starts slow and makes a poor first impression, but the more you play Forspoken, the more of its shining qualities bring to bear.


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