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‘Forspoken’ surprises and delights, but it takes a while

(Washington Post illustration; Square-Enix)

Forspoken

Available on: PlayStation 5, PC

Developer: Luminous Productions | Publisher: Square Enix

Release date: Jan. 24, 2023

I didn’t expect to enjoy “Forspoken” as much as I did. After all, trailers for this game became the mockery of memes.

“Forspoken,” published by Square Enix and developed by Luminous Productions, was widely criticized during its prerelease news cycle for following the Joss Whedon style of dialogue, dubbed “Whedonspeak” by Vice News. When a character recites obvious things about the story to the audience in a dry tone, that’s Whedonspeak. When Frey Holland, the “Forspoken” protagonist who is transported from New York to a fantasy land called Athia, says in a trailer, “So let me get this straight: I’m somewhere that’s not what I would call Earth,” that’s Whedonspeak. It’s a phenomenon that plagues many films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This type of speak was also common for Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the “Uncharted” series, which shares the same writer as “Forspoken,” Amy Hennig. So it’s not really a surprise it appears here too.

The story is riddled with cliches. It’s a rote fish-out-of-water story where Frey is paired with a sassy British sidekick in the form of a cuff (whom she insists on calling Cuff) that gives her magical offensive powers. This is on top of the fact that this is a by-the-numbers open-world video game, with a list of waypoints on a big map with various activities to do, usually in the form of battling fantasy monsters.

But a lot of things happen later in the game that make “Forspoken” just a little more special. The story relies on modern-day misfit tropes for a bit too long, and hides some genuine late surprises that turned my opinion around almost completely. Credit goes to Hennig and story creator Gary Whitta (screenwriter for Star Wars “Rogue One”) for crafting something memorable and fun despite the game’s cringey surface.

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Playing as Frey, you are a 21-year-old orphaned New Yorker who loves her cat and her kicks, performed by the very capable and charismatic Ella Balinska. She’s had a very difficult life, and the game doesn’t shy away from the fact that Frey is suicidal. There’s a tenderness in how she cradles her cat (magnificently named Homer) and cries herself to sleep, unable to escape a merciless life that has left her homeless and with a criminal record.

As she’s about to end her life, she finds the magical and sassy Cuff that whisks her away to Athia, a land besieged by something called the Break, which turns people mad and creates monsters. The Break is caused by four goddesses called Tantas, former rulers of the land who have gone mad. Frey is the only person unaffected by the Break for reasons she has yet to discover, and the people of the only human city left, Cipal, depend on her to figure things out.

First of all, there just aren’t a lot of action-adventure games about spellcasting wizards, even fewer with a Black woman in the lead role, and “Forspoken” offers, at the very least, this. And you get to gather and wear colorful flowing capes, do cool kick flips, twirl and spin like a ballerina, and race across fantasy lands with superpowered kicks like Sonic the Hedgehog. Frey is an engaging, fun hero to be. Balinska injects just enough verve in her dialogue to make even the cringiest line at least a little charming. The game also offers an option to minimize the dialogue, which I flicked on halfway through the adventure, since Frey and Cuff both often repeat lines whenever they visited the various repeating activities across the map.

Being Frey only becomes liberating and powerful at the end of the game, once she’s collected and absorbed all four elemental powers from her defeated foes. “Forspoken” falls into the trap so many power fantasy games can’t seem to get around: Progressing the game and story is tied to the self-imposed limits of creating a progression curve, which is a carrot to keep playing, but locks the most fun and interesting ways to play the game toward the end.

It’s a bit disappointing that Frey’s complete spell set is as generic as the game’s setup: It’s all elemental-based spells of earth, fire, lightning and water. But at least with the larger area-of-effect attacks, “Forspoken” lets you conjure up some impressive and good-looking fireworks.

Movement and traversal are also highlights, as Frey blazes through the landscape with magically enchanted sneakers. She can quickly earn more power to her move set, as she’s later able to kick off cliffsides and walls to climb higher up and jump across long distances. Movement also makes the large-scale battles more dynamic, as the biggest encounters take place in huge battlefields. Frey is able to block and dodge enemy attacks. You aim her magic spells like a third-person shooter, and longtime PlayStation players will find this a bit familiar to the long-dormant superhero series by Sucker Punch Studios, “Infamous.”

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The biggest disappointment with the spell set is that it lacks impact. Her fire set gives her a much-needed melee moveset, and lets her summon a flame sword. But hitting monsters with it feels like smacking things with tissue. Luminous Productions is made up of staff who worked on “Final Fantasy XV,” which had a similar problem, and it’s unfortunate they haven’t figured out how to animate and develop real punch for their punches, especially since Square Enix’s own “Final Fantasy VII Remake” solved that problem in 2020 with its chunky, heavy sword attacks. But at least the bigger spells land with some force. The light feeling also contributes to making Frey’s fighting feel effortless, so your mileage may vary depending on what you want in a combat system.

The biggest hiccup in combat is the lock-on mechanic for aiming spells. It behaves erratically, sometimes unlocking from enemies. If a locked-on enemy is defeated, the game doesn’t target a nearby enemy. Instead, the camera flies away from the horde, requiring fiddling with the joysticks while you’re trying to charge and switch spells. Coupled with voluminous particle effects, fighting can be visually chaotic and confusing.

I’d advise taking a look at the accessibility options, which allow players to automatically dodge enemies, making the game amenable to many accessibility control setups. Players can also set the stamina meter to refill immediately, as it’s not exactly fun to run out of stamina running across the fields. Through these options, the game allows you to lessen the frustrations of the topsy-turvy camera movements and chaos of the combat.

There’s not much to say about the open-world gameplay that hasn’t been said with every other game of this type. The map is large and cavernous, and beautifully designed, but it’s just scattered with waypoints for activities. Don’t get too excited about the “dungeon” areas: They’re all cut-and-paste hallways and combat rooms with treasure chests, never deviating from a very bland format. I wouldn’t have bothered if these dungeons hadn’t promised more capes for Frey to wear, so at least they offer worthy rewards. Other areas have ruins to “explore,” which only means looking around to fight more monsters, while statues just need a bit of magic shoot bang to unlock statistic points. It’s all transparently a video game. Even Frey, when encountering a boss battle in a cut-and-paste dungeon, will say, “Ooo a boss battle.” There’s that Whedonspeak again: Frey, we know it’s a boss battle. We can see the Leviathan.

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The PlayStation 5 version of this game runs at a decent clip, with little to no noticeable frame drops in its 60 frames-per-second performance mode, or the ray-tracing and quality modes which aim for 30 frames-per-second while trying to stay at a 4K resolution. It’s too bad the performance mode drastically reduces image quality, often at 900p or lower, making for a smooth but blurry experience. I switched between the two modes because the 4K modes offered enough additional detail.

Although I enjoyed Frey more than I thought I would, it’s inescapable that “plucky American with sassy British sidekick” is a well-worn trope, and “Forspoken” does little to distinguish itself from other stories of this type … until it actually does. Cuff and the denizens of Athia are strangely combative and argumentative to Frey, and to be fair, Frey is an abrasive character herself, given her background. Initially, I thought these arguments were written in just for the sake of having tension and conflict in the story.

Then the story begins to justify this, as the people of this land aren’t what they quite appeared to be at first blush. I consider myself a pretty cynical viewer when it comes to being surprised by video game stories, yet “Forspoken” still caught me off guard. Yes, I struggled to finish the game’s formulaic open-world activities, but once the story got going, I was riveted.

And if I can inject some personal bias into this review, as a cat owner, I was charmed by Frey’s insistence to center her little Homer as much of her motivation to return home. Throughout her entire terrifying and surprising journey, she always has Homer top of mind. I would too.

“Forspoken” doesn’t do anything new for the open-world genre of games, but it does offer just enough to distinguish itself, mostly thanks to Frey and her magic spells and a story that’s able to stick the landing. Or to translate this to Whedonspeak, “Yep, she really did just do that!”

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Frey's voice actor. Her name is Ella Balinska.

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