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Forspoken is better than its bad name implies

There’s a fascinating story and incredible parkour action buried under lackluster combat and a game lacking technical polish.

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Screenshot from Forspoken featuring the protagonist Frey casting a magical spell with her hands outstretched in front of her.
Image: Square Enix

You’re not going to believe me when I tell you this, but Forspoken is pretty good. The game got off to an inauspicious start, getting delayed a couple of times and dinged in the court of public opinion for some cringey dialogue, an inexplicable name, exorbitant PC requirements, and for featuring a Black heroine but with no Black writers working on her. Despite all that, Square Enix and Luminous Productions managed to deliver a game that I thoroughly enjoyed playing with an ending that I’m cautiously stating is one of the best I’ve seen. (Which I’ll go into at a later date because spoilers.)

Forspoken had its hooks in me within the first 30 minutes. It starts with an introduction to Frey Holland, a young Black woman who was abandoned at birth in the Holland Tunnel with naught but a blanket bearing her name, in court for attempting to steal a car. Since this is Frey’s third felony offense, the judge considers throwing the book at her because of the repeat offender statute, aka the three strikes law. But because it’s almost Christmas and the judge sympathizes with Frey’s struggle to survive without parents or guidance, she is instead let go to return to the abandoned apartment she squats in with her cat Homer. 

Screenshot from Forspoken featuring Frey Holland looking through a wormhole leading to New York’s Holland Tunnel
Image: Square Enix

What really got me about Frey, what made her story so arresting — no pun intended — was the phenomenal performance by Ella Balinska. Black video game characters usually fall within two genres. They’re either not voiced by Black people at all, aka The Clementine Paradox, or they are but given such over-the-top stereotypical dialogue that it’s borderline offensive, aka The Barret Wallace Rule. (There is also a third statute known as the Debra Wilson Exception because Debra Wilson is amazing in everything she does, and she, to my surprise and delight, shows up in Forspoken.)

But Frey had this cadence and tone to her voice that made her sound authentic, like a real person speaking and not an actor punching up lines to an audience. She also dropped a lot of F-bombs, which you don’t really see in games, not even the M-rated ones, and certainly not as frequently as Frey does. She’s a straight-talking, no-bullshit character, and I loved her immediately.

She also dropped a lot of F-bombs, which you don’t really see in games, not even the M-rated ones

While I can’t materially relate to being an orphan squatting in a squalid apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, I can relate to Frey’s feeling of being stuck with nowhere to go, no love, no support, and no easily discernible options. It’s why I gave up working for a hand sanitizer company at the beginning of a global pandemic to write about video games for a living — you know, one of the most safe and secure job titles on the planet right now. I almost cried when the plot made Frey lose her home and her “start over fund,” and she was forced to give up her cat and her dream of getting out. I became invested in Frey and her story, and I was curious as to how Forspoken would lay it all out.

When Forspoken shifts from New York to Athia — the place Frey gets teleported to by a magical talking bracelet — I put my emotional investment aside to focus on the meat and potatoes of the game, and my enthusiasm waned a bit. Narratively, Forspoken is interesting; mechanically and technically, not so much. The game feels unfinished, like there’s a level of technical polish missing.

Cutscenes end with abrupt fade-to-blacks. The transition between gameplay and cutscene was always sudden, with Frey stopping and standing for far too long before the cutscene would play, and conversely, whenever a cutscene ended, it took way too long before I was back in control. 

The game feels unfinished, like there’s a level of technical polish missing.

I’ve become so used to the seamless transition between controlling a character in gameplay and not controlling them in a cutscene that the fade-to-black transition felt archaic. I’m playing on a PS5, the most technically advanced console someone can own right now, and Forspoken felt like it was held together by wet tissue paper. (Awkward...)

Beyond that, there were lots of little technical hiccups that, over time, felt like a popcorn hull stuck between my teeth. Was it urgent enough to go to the emergency dentist? No. But it was certainly annoying to the point of distraction. 

I also didn’t appreciate how Forspoken encouraged exploration in the open world but then either enclosed part of that world in weird box canyons I couldn’t escape or neglected to fill the world with anything to discover. Athia is beautiful, with mountains and meadows and ominous-looking ruins; Athia is also damn-near completely empty. But Frey’s magical parkour abilities make endless running in an empty world enthralling.

Screenshot from Forspoken featuring Frey parkouring up the side of a mountain against a violent red sky
Image: Square Enix

Parkouring is the best aspect of the game and some of the best parkour I’ve seen in a video game. I had the most fun flipping and flying, bouncing off walls and obstacles to get to higher and higher vistas. She can use it in combat, and it felt so very good to dodge an enemy by backflipping in the air, then come crashing down on its head with a powerful fire attack. It’s a shame the enemies Frey fights are not nearly as impressive or even worth the caliber of her combat. 

Fighting in Forspoken happens in two phases:

  1. Find which of the four elements Frey can control is powerful against your opponent.
  2. Run in a circle, hitting your opponent until it dies.

I had so many spells at my disposal — fire, water, earth, electricity — and so many ways to hurt my opponents with those spells, like lances, arrows, swords, magical plants that spit rocks, a water prison, and a cool flechette type attack that hits the enemy all over its body. But most of my combat encounters were just swarms of enemies whose only technical complexity was their sheer number. Bosses were little more than really big monsters with two attacks and a lot of health. 

Screenshot from Forspoken featuring Frey facing down a menacing dragon in a grassy field
Exhibit A of really big monster with a lot of health
Image: Square Enix

Combat was one-note and — even worse — kinda useless. Frey powers up her magic with mana that she earns either through traditionally leveling up by fighting monsters or completing quests or by picking it up in the open world. Leveling up earns maybe 12-14 mana per level. Meanwhile, I can collect all the mana I want just by walking around. Given parkouring was so much fun, guess which one I put more effort into?

While largely empty, the open world does have its perks. I like how the dungeons marked on your map tell you exactly what you can expect from them. Frey’s gear is a cloak, a necklace, and some really unique and pretty nail designs that confer traits like increased critical hit rate and the like. If ever I felt like I needed something new or different, I could check the map for the next place to go to get exactly what I want instead of plundering dungeon after dungeon, hoping it’ll drop the piece I need.

I was able to complete Forspoken’s story in 17 hours, even with a healthy bit of parkouring and sidequesting. Once Frey lands in Athia, she’s tasked with killing the four Tantas, benevolent witches who were the leaders of Athia before they went mad and started killing people and spreading a corrupting disease called the Break. Frey, relatably, wants absolutely nothing to do with this; all she wants to do is go home. At the urging of the people she meets and the magical talking bracelet grafted on her arm, she reluctantly becomes Athia’s savior.

But there’s a twist. I won’t reveal it here, but it felt like all of the action leading up to the final battle was cut, swapped out for an extended, partially playable cutscene. The final battle itself was also not great, a longer extension of the game’s “fight big guy with lots of health” standard. But the ending I chose (there is more than one) was fantastic and totally in line with me as a person and Frey as a character. By that ending, what had been a totally ho-hum back half transformed into something that’s probably gonna make my game of the year list.

Now listen, I know that taking this review altogether, Forspoken doesn’t seem like the best investment. And I know Square Enix’s floundering with promoting the game isn’t gonna make it fly off the digital shelves. But there’s a decent game here, one I enjoyed and one I hope people will give a chance.

Forspoken launches January 24th on PC and PS5.