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Neither Forspoken nor its main character make a good first impression. Without spoiling, the latter spends the first several hours of the game complaining about her life’s direction, both in New York and in the fantasy world where she’s transported. Having since finished the game, I can say she only ever gets marginally better — and not so much that it outweighs that ruinous first meeting.
The combat and traversal are fun, if not innovative. That might be just enough to elevate the game from the pits to which its characters, open world and color palette consign it. But so far it’s a mostly empty, unremarkable action-adventure game with a few decent features and pretty much nothing else to call its own.
The story follows Frey Holland, a foundling in New York City who’s living a pretty pitiful existence. A chronic screw-up, she’s trying to escape her debt to the local gangs and stumbles upon a beautiful bracelet hidden in a warehouse. She touches it and is transported to Athia, a twisted and corrupted fantasy world from which she must try and find her way back to New York. She quickly discovers that not only does the bracelet talk (she calls it “Cuff”), but it also grants her various magical powers.
Frey discovers the hard way that she’s immune to the Break, the spreading darkness that’s changing Athia for the worse. She also attracts the negative attention of the Tantas, Athia’s powerful matriarchs. Working her way out from Cipal, Athia’s lone uncorrupted city, Frey takes out the four Tantas, each in one of Athia’s four regions. She doesn’t really know why (and neither do we), except that it might be her way back to New York.
Can you smother a sentient bracelet? Asking for a friend
Forspoken has two different flavors of bad dialogue (which is kind of impressive when you think about it): Frey’s dialogue and the Athian’s dialogue. Frey sounds like what happens when a group of middle-aged people write what they think a 20-something woman from New York would sound like. She sprinkles unnecessary pop culture references and slang into her dialogue and then gets annoyed when neither Cuff nor anyone else understands her. This results in a few amusing moments, but not as many as the game wants there to be.
On the other side of the coin are the people of Athia. They all speak to Frey in your standard fantasy patois, nattering on about how crappy their world is and how they hope she’ll save them. It’s nothing outstanding, and the voice acting reaches the level of passable at the best of times. At the worst, it’s an intolerable waspish buzz. The only thing that makes the Athians bearable is that they’re standing next to Frey Holland, who is an entirely worse breed of irritant.
I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think Frey might represent the bar to clear for “Most Unlikeable Hero” for games in 2023. She’s snippy and nasty to just about everyone, then seems offended when most of them don’t want her around. She spends most of the game whining about wanting to go back to New York, where she has neither friends, money nor a place to live. While the game attempts to frame her bitterness as a result of her difficult life, it’s still not fun to watch Frey make her attitude everyone else’s problem.
But a large part of the problem isn’t just Frey, but Cuff, who’s constantly nagging and picking at Frey during their “banter.” His voice drips with disdain and sometimes venom every time he speaks. Even if there’s a moment where Frey is tolerable, Cuff is there to pick up the slack and make you cringe once again. It doesn’t help that the two have a limited number of lines, so you’ll hear the same exchanges dozens of times. Having one acidic, sarcastic protagonist would be tolerable, but two makes for a grating experience.
Athia’s map is enormous, and chockful of locations to visit. Some of the locations are magical hotspots where Frey can boost her stats or learn a new spell. Others are enemy hives where Frey can earn rare loot by killing all the enemies around. She can also partake of some sidequests in Cipal, including following cats and taking pictures for children. It’s harmless, if a little bland. There’s no much variation in scenery for individual locations, so one abandoned village or dungeon crawl is as about equal to another.
The traversal mechanics are one of Forspoken’s rare high points. One of Frey’s new magical powers is essentially supercharged parkour, letting her fly over the countryside, up cliffsides and over obstacles without issue. It’s delightful, especially once she gets several traversal upgrades, and it makes the staggeringly large map easier to swallow. Also, it’s one of the few times in the game when Frey actually seems to enjoy herself.
The combat, in which Frey uses a series of hand gestures to dish out magical punishment to enemies, is another strong point. Frey’s repertoire of abilities feel distinct and punchy, and she acquires more over the course of the game. The combat gets pretty same-y against the standard enemies, but it shines during boss battles, where I enjoyed myself the most in the game.
A major issue with the world of Athia is its art design. The overarching world feels kind of dry and unremarkable, especially in the hub area of Cipal. The game has lots of interesting design elements — the safe havens where Frey can recharge have patterns reminiscent of Byzantine art. One of her forms of equippable gear is different nail designs that empower her in various ways. These are both beautiful and distinctive, but are so small or obscured in the average view that there’s no way to really see them at all.
Before I give the game it’s score, let’s make like Frey itself and complain about some things: First, Forspoken has a crafting and gear system, and it feels just as underwhelming as the rest of the game. It’s never really explained how Frey knows how to upgrade her magical cloaks and necklaces — do New Yorkers have a crafting system of which I’m not aware?
While the combat is entertaining, the enemy design is not amazing. The basic baddies you’ll fight the whole game are just zombies, in case Forspoken wasn’t generic enough already. Oh, and one other thing: The game has puzzles locking up some of its loot … sliding tile puzzles. And not just a few — there are quite a lot of them all over the map, though they are mercifully non-essential.
Having now finished the game, I can say it never really gets more entertaining or magical than it was when I wrote the original version of this review. It’s a shame, because the game starts from a good place: A new fantasy IP with a take-no-prisoners female protagonist. And I can tell that a lot of the people who worked on the game were sincerely trying. But I can also tell that several others very much were not.
(Square Enix provided us with a copy of this game for the purposes of review. Forspoken is currently available now on PlayStation 5 and PC.)
Edited March 3: This review has been updated and given a score now that the writer has finished it.
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