Platforms: PS5 (reviewed), PC
Release Date: January 24, 2022
Genre: Open-world, Action RPG
Forspoken is a textbook example of how poor writing can ruin an interesting premise. I hate starting reviews off so negatively, but this is legitimately one of the worst titles I’ve played in terms of storytelling and dialogue. The fact that it also has an extremely unlikable protagonist just compounds matters — if not outright ruins the entire experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played games with worse stories and characters, but Forspoken is arguably the most egregious in recent memory. Even worse than Saints Row in that regard.
So is there anything worthwhile here? The game's action can be somewhat enjoyable as using what Forspoken calls “magic parkour” to traverse the vast fantasy setting distinguishes it from other open-world titles. The slew of different elemental-based magical abilities you earn throughout the game are also mostly fun to use. I won’t say the overall gameplay is incredible, but it’s decent enough for an action-focused title of this sort.
Though Forspoken has some redeeming qualities, it’s not a title I’d recommend to anyone. This is a shame considering how many (including myself) were looking forward to this title as far back when it was introduced as Project Athia. The experience is not as good as it should have been. If you want to know why, read on to find out.
Forspoken review: Story
In Forspoken, you take on the role of Frey Holland, a girl who is whisked from New York City to the fantasy world of Athia where the majority of the game takes place. Athia is a dying realm that’s being consumed by a miasma called “The Break.” Every living thing outside of Cipal, Athia’s capital city, is either killed or irreversibly changed into monsters by this blight.
Frey grew up as an orphan in New York City. She has been hardened by her difficult upbringing and has trouble trusting others. These are qualities that would normally make players and audiences sympathetic to a main character. However, Frey mostly comes off as nasty to others, even when they’re genuinely trying to help her. She remains selfish and abrasive throughout the majority of the game. Sure, she has a soft spot for stray cats and orphans, but other than that, she is wholly unlikeable.
As for the main plot, it’s pretty standard fare. Athia faces its last days and only a single hero (Frey) can stop the calamity. There’s a plot twist that would have been interesting if the game’s hamfisted storytelling didn't spoil it early on. Foreshadowing is good, but not when it's so blatantly obvious.
Forspoken breaks the cardinal rule of “show don’t tell.” In the early hours, Frey literally tells us what she’s feeling at any given moment and also rambles incessantly about her terrible childhood. These are things the story could have conveyed through better dialogue and by focusing on Frey’s facial expressions. This is an example of the storytellers not trusting the audience; it’s borderline insulting.
Speaking of insulting, the dialogue has got to be some of the worst I’ve heard in any medium. As I said, Frey will flat-out tell you what she’s feeling instead of letting her actions show us. Her third-rate Joss Whedon-Esque quippy lines don’t help things either. I understand the writers wanted to make her seem like a street-wise New Yorker, but as a lifelong New Yorker myself, I’ve never met anyone who talks like Frey in my life.
Frey has a talking vambrace she calls "Cuff," which serves to tell her (and us) about Athia. I didn't find Cuff as annoying as Frey, but it's a close tie. I liked Cuff's British accent, but that's about it.
The rest of the cast talk like generic fantasy stereotypes, but at least they’re mostly likable. I’d give Forspoken a harder time about its bad dialogue and writing, but it’s unfortunately in line with what you'd see in contemporary movies and TV shows — but I won’t go down that rabbit hole.
Forspoken’s story isn’t original, as even the game compares itself to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. But being unoriginal isn’t the issue here.
Forspoken’s narrative could have been wonderful with stronger writing and storytelling. The only positive thing I can say about the story is that it serves as a good example of how not to write characters and dialogue.
Forspoken review: Gameplay
Forspoken is an open-world action RPG akin to titles such as Horizon Forbidden West or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Like those games, there’s a large explorable map filled with numerous activities to partake in and an endless horde of enemies to fight. If you’ve played any open-world game in the last ten years, then you know what to expect here.
Frey has an arsenal of elemental magic attacks you can use against foes. Swinging a flaming sword or hurling giant boulders is admittedly fun. Since Frey can use magic parkour during combat, you can unleash deadly attacks while running literal circles around the bad guys. If you’re feeling brave, you can also run headlong into enemies and vault over them while attacking. Though I wish the lock-on mechanic wasn’t as finicky and that attacks felt more impactful, the overall fast-paced combat is easily the game’s best feature.
When not fighting for her life, Frey can use her magic parkour to explore Athia. As I said in my Forspoken preview, magic parkour isn’t just about speedy forward movement. Frey can also move vertically or laterally at will, and zip to ledges by setting anchor points. Walls that would normally serve as barriers in most open-world games are nothing more than an extra hurdle to leap over. Exploring the world via magic parkour is another highlight.
Forspoken review: Upgrades
Completing quests and defeating enemies earns you experience points which raise your overall level. You gain mana (magic) points with each new level and you can use these points to unlock new abilities in each of the skill trees associated with a particular magical set. The game isn’t stingy with experience points and it’s easy to equip Frey with devastating attacks early on.
There are safe houses scattered across the world used for fast traveling and resting (healing). Each of these havens has workbenches useful for crafting and upgrading gear. You can equip Frey with different cloaks, necklaces and nail polishes that you find by exploring or completing missions. These items provide her with stat boosts and perks like auto-healing when not in combat. Customization isn’t terribly robust, but it’s enough to let you customize a Frey that suits your playstyle.
Forspoken review: Side quests
There are a handful of sidequests (called Detours) to complete between campaign missions. Unfortunately, almost all of these diversions are fetch quests that do little to expand on Athia’s lore. Games like God of War Ragnarök and especially The Witcher 3 have brilliant side quests that are just as compelling (or more so) than the main narrative. Forspoken is not in that league.
The map is littered with the kind of extraneous content you’ll find in almost all modern-day open-world titles. Most of these quests involve surviving against waves of enemies, but some consist of traversal challenges or even puzzles. Completing these quests earns you experience points, crafting materials and unique items to help Frey become stronger. With that said, these sidequests aren’t exactly engaging and I found myself mostly skipping them.
Forspoken review: Visuals and sound
Forspoken runs on Square-Enix’s Luminous Engine — the same one that powered the gorgeous Final Fantasy XV. While the world of Athia certainly contains striking environments ranging from desolate deserts and lush forests, the visual quality feels decidedly last-gen. At times, I felt like I was looking at a PS4 game due to the bland textures and dull character models. Forspoken’s visuals are good but I expect more from a title that’s exclusive to PS5 (and PC).
The oftentimes atrocious dialogue isn’t helped by the similarly terrible voice acting. It’s shocking to hear professional actors deliver such stilted, lifeless performances. Some actors are better than others, but overall, the voice acting is pretty awful. But I guess there's only so much an actor can do with such dreadful dialogue.
I’d say something substantial about the sound design, but there really isn’t much to discuss. The fantasy soundtrack is serviceable but forgettable. Sound effects are also generally good, especially during combat when there’s a bunch of magic flying around. I suppose the only negative here is that the mixing could have been better during certain action-heavy cutscenes where voices get drowned out. But considering the bad dialogue, perhaps this is a blessing.
Forspoken review: Verdict
Forspoken is the first AAA PS5 exclusive of 2023 and a title I’ve looked forward to since its announcement. It’s unfortunate that the finished product turned out to be such a huge disappointment. This is absolutely not going to be one of the best PS5 games.
Yes, the gameplay is solid and the visuals can be intriguing. The core narrative also has an interesting premise. But the game’s virtues are overshadowed by horrendous dialogue and an irritating protagonist. It’s a shame since, with better writing and acting, Forspoken could have been an awesome new IP. But as it stands, it’s a huge missed opportunity.
I suppose if you only care about gameplay and visuals, or are desperate to play an actual current-gen exclusive made for modern consoles, then Forspoken might be worth checking out. But considering all of its faults, I can’t recommend this to anyone — especially not for the $70 asking price. Forspoken isn’t this year’s Babylon’s Fall, but it’s a letdown regardless.