You know how sometimes you’re putting together a jigsaw puzzle and there are those pieces that somewhat fit together if you force it a bit? It’s not the exact or obvious fit, but you’ve got little to work on and so you slot them in and pray for the best until you find the actual solution. Forspoken, Square Enix’s next big RPG, is the unclear and incomplete image of a jigsaw puzzle whose solution rarely comes into focus.
Forspoken is at once a sprawling RPG, a proof-of-concept for parkour-based movement tech, a showcase of how many goddamn particles a PS5 can render, a mess of an isekai, a third-person shooter, and more. Naturally, it sags and collapses under the weight of these descriptors in what I can genuinely only describe as a rollercoaster of a journey. A slow and tumultuous climb spotlights countless of Forspoken’s stumbles before eventually giving way to enough momentum to speed right past its finer moments. Clumsy writing occasionally chances upon a golden nugget or two before burying it in heaps of annoyances, predictable beats, and awkward staging. And you know what? That’s fine.
Forspoken has been getting dragged online for months over corny dialogue and I’m here to tell you to get over it. Yeah, it sucks in some places, and in others it’s perfectly fine. Good, even. It’s scripted like a corny fantasy movie; suspend your disbelief and embrace cringe or don’t. I’ll tell you what though, this game isn’t worth crucifying. Forspoken’s greatest sin isn’t cringey dialogue, it’s that it’s fundamentally confused about what to be and how to be the best version of the various things it reaches for. It’s not that it isn’t ambitious but that it doesn’t know where to place those ambitions. And so the game ultimately feels lost, often meandering in the dark and tripping over itself in search of a conclusive answer.
The world of Athia itself and the way you interact with it are the primary victims of this lack of direction. Athia is repeatedly called beautiful and fantastical, but I couldn’t really tell in my nearly 20 hours with the game. Athia is split into sort of distinct regions that have some differences (i.e some are craggy and tout valleys where others are more lush) but they don’t sport much resembling life and/or vibrancy. Cipal, the game’s main hub, is the drabbest location I’ve ever been forced to spend time in. It is blisteringly concrete white, its architecture wholly uninspired at its best and an eyesore at its worst. You spend most of your time in it hopping back and forth between awkward conversations that seem crudely stapled together in order to resemble a side quest, and so much of the game’s early stop-and-start rhythm begins here and doesn’t entirely let up.
The world outside Cipal’s walls fares better, but that’s not saying much. It’s just kind of plain lands dotted with randomly named villages that host 20 enemies you need to kill in order to unlock some treasure chest or buff. It doesn’t look any better from the map you’re provided, which is devoid of life but filled to the brim with icons and dots that suggest there’s something to be found. I actually found it more fun to just dart around and pick random fights than engage in anything the game might dub “content.” The game’s closest thing to dungeons—called labyrinths—are just as lifeless: a series of similar hallways that lead to rooms where you fight waves of the same enemies until you fight a cracked visage of some kind of monster. Go to another and it’ll be the same. The game runs out of anything resembling meaningful content so quickly it seems like an afterthought, which may as well extend to its layout and artistic direction.
Forspoken’s greatest strength then is its gameplay, but even that comes with caveats, because what about this game doesn’t. Existing somewhere between the magic of Final Fantasy and a third-person shooter, managing Forspoken’s different elements and unleashing them to take out enemies efficiently—and might I add dazzlingly—is among the game’s most consistent thrills. The only problem is that it feels unsupported by the game built around it. Enemies have different weaknesses, which encourages players to switch things up, but Forspoken rarely takes the step beyond that and designs truly interesting encounters. The game’s most rewarding fights are against the Tantas, the villainous sorceresses who were once Athia’s defenders. Besides them, few fights call for much thought; One particular enemy calls for players to take out its wings to weaken it and some shielded enemies need to be bound by vines before you reposition behind them to do damage, but otherwise everything else is a panicked, parkour-fueled frenzy. This is a shame because there really are a variety of spells, from crowd control maneuvers, traps, buffs, and straight up damage, that could shine better in a slightly more complicated game. Instead they are largely wasted on fights that prioritize the number of enemies on screen more than anything else. The game’s magical parkour is similarly a delight, but runs into the same kind of problem; the world of Athia just doesn’t support doing much else in it but running from objective to objective. The magical parkour, for all the hype surrounding it, actually feels underutilized in a half-baked world and with no real application in the game’s main missions. By the time I unlocked various bits of movement tech, like a way to cross water fluidly, the game barreled to its conclusion, revealing there was little to do with such abilities. I found myself begging for some kind of exhilarating escape sequence or two to break up the pace and provide something fresh, but it never quite came to fruition.
(Ed. note: As an aside, go into the accessibility options and go nuts automating your character’s functions. Forspoken’s controls can be incredibly demanding and I only began enjoying it when I minimized the micromanaging I had to do.)
And finally we arrive at the Frey of it all. Frey Holland is a homeless orphan in New York who’s grown cold from being a person on the margins. She’s someone who longs to be elsewhere and have connections to a community of people, but when she finds herself transported to Athia, she balks at the notion and people almost reflexively. Not that she should exactly embrace Athia with open arms, as she is immediately threatened by monsters and cataclysms, but she pretty firmly rejects the community that begins forming around her and it’s not really a matter that gets resolved as much as it gets papered over. As far as the final chapters of the game, Frey establishes time and time again that she’s in this struggle for herself, and Athia’s health and future is a handy byproduct. A reluctant hero is no surprise in an isekai, and a character who brushes up against the world is typically interesting, but in the case of Forspoken, I just felt at odds with Frey’s standoffish nature and how much of the story it took up.
Frey is also a stranger in a strange land and is making sense of the world of Athia through her own eyes and in her own words and the result is a mixed bag. She’s brusque and knows nothing about Athia, meaning she can’t help but give everything a side-eye and a smartass comment, which is at times charming and at others off putting. Trying to explain her mannerisms and point of views, like why she says “fuck” a lot or why Newark and New York are distinct places, grounds her a bit. Everytime Frey calls one distinguished character Bob or affixed the prefix “break” to anything affected by the miasma consuming the land (i.e ridiculous terms like breakshards or breakzombies), I felt her not fumbling to understand the things going around her, but refusing to and minimizing it to some oddity or joke rather than the plight it is. She rarely feels like she clicks into place in Athia and this game, but the same can be said about lots of Forspoken, and that’s kind of its greatest problem.
All these fragments of Forspoken collide in messy ways that reveal the lack of depth or even synergy across the whole thing. Forspoken is, if anything, a compelling enough first draft at something that I think can be greater. Maybe next time around the puzzle pieces will actually fit and I’ll be able to see the game it could’ve been. But as it stands right now, a more explicit direction could’ve prevented the thorough roasting everyone seems keen to deliver.
Forspoken was developed by Luminous Productions and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available on PC.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.