Forspoken review-in-progress: 2023’s unlikely (and unlikeable) heroes
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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. While I have not yet finished the game, it hasn’t really picked up from there in the hours since, and I don’t have much hope for the ending.
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.
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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. The cringey bullshit that comes out of 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. It’s a chore to listen to, as Frey sprinkles unnecessary pop culture references and slang into her dialogue and then gets annoyed when neither Cuff nor anyone else understands her.
On the other side of the coin are the people of Athia, Cipal in particular. 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. Despite the game’s best efforts, her motivations aren’t compelling or interesting.
Cuff isn’t much better, constantly nagging and picking at Frey during their “banter.” His voice drips with disdain and sometimes dislike for Frey 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. It’s a real struggle putting up with them.
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. It does sometimes feel that there are too many collectibles — the mana pools, for example, are sprinkled everywhere like orbs in Crackdown.
So far, the traversal mechanics represent a rare good point in Forspoken. 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 a grappling hook upgrade. 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 pack a (literal punch), 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. Its color palette, in particular, makes the entire landscape look dry and unpleasant, especially in the main city of Cipal. This extends to most of the open world. Conversely, some of the game’s unique visual elements — such as Frey’s ability to boost her attack power with a cool manicure — are unnoticeable. And when it does introduce color, it’s eye-watering.
Because I haven’t finished the game yet, I’m not going to give it a score. Instead, let’s make like Frey herself and complain about some minor stuff. 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. What level of Hell am I in, where I’m forced to play dozens of sliding tile puzzles over and over?
I’ll come back here and rate the game once I’ve finished the last chapter. However, I’m not convinced that it’s going to become any more magical and entertaining than it is now. 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.
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