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I’ve been excited about Forspoken since its reveal as Project Athia in 2020. The fish-out-of-water game set in a medieval fantasy realm is developed by Luminous Productions – an internal Square Enix team that helped develop Final Fantasy XV, a game I quite enjoyed despite its problems. It also features the talents of Uncharted series creator Amy Hennig and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story writer Gary Whitta on the narrative side, which makes me interested in playing through protagonist Frey Holland’s journey.
On paper, it’s precisely the type of RPG I like to spend my time playing. After going hands-on for a few hours and talking with some of the team about decisions behind Forspoken’s design, I’m even more excited for January, even if I still have some reservations about this studio’s first new IP.
This preview session was focused solely on the story, with the team encouraging me to worry less about exploring Athia and more about finding out what happens on the main path of Forspoken’s second, third, and fifth chapters. In Chapter two, Frey has just arrived in Athia, still unaware of how or why she ended up there – questions that remain unanswered through the chapters I play. Frey is a woman from New York City with a history in and out of foster homes. She struggles to trust anyone as a result.
In fact, she struggles to trust anything, including the talking vambrace on her arm she calls Cuff. The dynamic between Frey and Cuff stands out for me, namely in how hilarious it can be.
There is a moment when Cuff is getting on Frey’s nerves, and she tells him to shut up, adding, “You’re f***ing stupid,” and I laughed out loud. Frey’s fish-out-of-water personality is mainly by the books, but her initial apathy in this foreign fantasy realm is sometimes funny. Over the few chapters I played, she grew attached to Athia and its plight against the corruption, or the Break as Frey calls it, that’s turning what was once a peaceful and protected land into a place filled with mindless and dangerous monsters. But her apprehension about getting involved when she first arrives is understandable.
One of the biggest surprises for me is the dialogue, mostly void of the shotgun blasts of cringe, Joss Whedon-esque lines many criticized in a 30-second trailer released in August. A few lines here and there retain that tone, but unlike that trailer, Luminous Productions spreads them out enough in Forspoken that it feels organic. And getting to know Frey as a character, these types of lines make sense, love it or hate it.
I asked creative producer Raio Mitsuno about this trailer and the subsequent backlash.
“I’m really glad you brought it up,” Mitsuno tells me at the preview session. “It was a social media post that took a bunch of pieces of dialogue that we’ve used in previous trailers and put together for a new video. We knew that once people had a chance to really play the game and get introduced to Frey and see what she goes through [and] the interactions… her personality just comes across as a natural representation of the character that we wanted to create. It has been pretty difficult, to be perfectly honest, to portray this complex dynamic character in our promotional campaign because we do have limited time. We also don’t want to reveal everything about the story, so we’re trying to keep things under wraps, but we want to drive intrigue and interest for the character.”
Mitsuno says the team believes in Frey, loves her personality and what she represents, and that people will understand her when they play the game. But the team is also aware of how missing context might portray her. Ultimately, Mitsuno says that moment was a learning experience.
After playing through a tutorial to learn how Forspoken’s magic-based combat works, I make my way toward Cipal, Athia’s central capital and the last secure bastion of the realm, still untouched by the Break. I fight a few mob enemies before encountering a dragon boss, and the combat is quite challenging at this point. Getting used to a fighting system that only uses magic is strange initially, and it takes some time to click. But it does click when the spells at my disposal open up, and I realize that while every combative move is magic, each of these spells translates to a mechanic I’m familiar with in other games. One of my spells is a medium-range string of rocks that shoot from my hands, like a machine gun. Another is an explosion of stones – a grenade. I have a shield spell, too, that blasts enemies backward upon implosion.
And later, when I unlock new fire-based magic, I gain access to a fiery sword that gives me the short-range attacks I feel I need and a spear imbued with flames that provides great long-range coverage. The combat feels unnatural at first, but in due time, it clicks, and I can see the dozens of spells at Frey’s disposal turning into a fun and strategic system that rewards various playstyles. That’s what the team expects, too.
“In particular, because we have an open world on our hands and we have 100 spells at our disposal, it really opens up to a variety of gameplay as mentioned earlier,” co-director Takefumi Terada tells me through a translator. “Strengthing and enhancing one [spell] may open up and lead to others, so if there are 100 different people, he really hopes in the end that there are 100 different builds that players are enjoying.”
Mitsuno adds that while “builds” can be used to describe what players might make of their Frey, the team doesn’t mean “builds” in the traditional sense, like what you might find in Destiny 2 or an MMO. It’s more so that you can choose which spells to utilize at any given moment. If you prefer earth-based spells, you can invest in that, and the same goes for fire magic. But know that you can switch gears at any moment to refocus on a different magical tactic.
Soon after defeating the dragon and arriving at Cipal, Frey is dubbed a hellspawn heretic, likely the one behind the corruption, and placed in a prison cell. But Auden Keen, a local whose father had been studying the phenomena that brought Frey to Athia, breaks me out of jail. Auden tasks me with finding more of her father’s journals.
After leaving to do that, I return to Athia to discover that Tanta Sila, a former protector of the realm who is now seemingly evil, is threatening to kill Auden for freeing me. This ends with a boss fight against a valkyrie-esque being that feels like a typical arena-style fight against a lowly boss. It’s quick and easy, and soon after, I’m en route to Sila’ castle to fight the real deal.
On the way, I gain new parkour abilities that unfortunately fail to strike additional interest in this traversal system within me. The parkour looks cool and flashy, but it feels detached. You essentially hold the circle button while moving, and Frey climbs up small cliffs, jumps off hills, dodges enemies, and more. It may become more hands-on, but the parkour struggles to instill excitement in me beyond its visual flare when moving.
I initially worried that parkouring through Athia’s vast lands would result in me missing key points of interest on the map. While there weren’t many points to discover this early in the game, Mitsuno did say the team took great care to ensure the world remains enticing while traversing through it using Forspoken’s parkour system.
“We wanted to ensure that people were able to fully enjoy the magic parkour action, so the open world is built around that concept,” Terada says. “We first started off by testing out how the magic parkour feels and the controllability and playability of that as far as the speed and elevation differences and jumps between different terrains and heights and so forth.” The team made sure to focus on that early in development and then built the world specifically to take advantage of the movement abilities they created for Frey.
“When we were initially creating this game experience where we were trying to direct people to the main story path, we did come across the challenge and issue where players might miss certain things within the world map, so as you mentioned, that was quite a difficult aspect,” Terada says. “However, we did conduct numerous user tests and analyzed gameplay from those and assured that additional work and balance and adjustments were made to arrive at where we currently are.”
I parkour my way to Sila, fighting various mob enemies along the way. I also pick up a new set of Nails to equip to Frey. You can equip different markings on her nails inspired by the power of the Tantas and the magic of Athia, and each set provides various buffs. For example, I have the Blue Flash Nails on Frey’s right hand, which buffs all damage by 5% and allows attack spells to charge more quickly. On the left hand, I equip the Slay Nails, which increase spell damage by 5% and make support magic deal more damage in certain conditions. Other upgrades to Frey include an expansive set of skill trees, different types of gear such as wearable cloaks, and more.
I also try out some side content on my way to Sila, like a race. In the race, I parkour across the terrain, defeating certain enemies at checkpoints along the way, before a timer runs out. It was fun, and the various item rewards and experience seemed worth the four-minute excursion. I also ran into a boss far too powerful for me to fight, but I’m now intrigued about these tough battles scattered around Athia. I continue up the cliffside to finally make it to Sila’ castle. I learn a bit more about the four Tantas and their roles in Athia before entering Sila’ throne room.
My fight against Sila is fun, but like the dragon and valkyrie boss before her, par for the course. The fight’s not doing anything new, but Frey’s parkour abilities and various magical spells are a fun addition to this typical arena-style boss fight. Visually, it’s great – Frey’s purple earth-based spells clash well with Sila’ fiery orange magic, and I’m excited to see what other magical combos will come from fighting the other three potentially corrupt Tanta protectors.
I wish the rest of Forspoken’s visuals excited me as much, though. Athia, or at least the starting area I played around in, is uninspired, coming off as generic. The characters look strange, too, more mannequin than human. There are still a little under two months to go before Forspoken’s release, so I’m hopeful the final product looks better than this preview. At the very least, if the visuals struggle at release, there’s fun to be had with Forspoken’s combat and characters.