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Forspoken (PS5) Review

February 17, 2023 | Posted by Marc Morrison
Forspoken Image Credit: Square Enix
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Forspoken (PS5) Review  

I’ll admit, I’m coming to this game late. It’s already been out a few weeks now and to say buzz about the game has been mixed, is a bit of an understatement. It became a meme to clown on the game’s dialog for a few days online and a Youtuber that I enjoy basically said the game was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “a bad Ubisoft game” and that it feels more dated compared to its predecessor, Final Fantasy 15. Well, I generally like some Ubisoft games and I’m one of the few, apparently, who really enjoyed Final Fantasy 15, so I gave this game a shot, and I am partially glad I did.

The basic setup of Forspoken is almost akin to the Super Mario Bros. movie, if that makes any sense. A person from the “real” world is transported to a mystical/completely different land and tasked with fixing it/becoming the hero, etc. There’s even a Japanese term for it, Isekai, that basically means a person being displaced from one world/setting to a completely different one and having to survive. Think “Alice in Wonderland”, which this game directly references.

You play as Frey Holland, an orphan with a mysterious past, several run-ins with the law, who is fairly down on her luck at the start of her game. Just turning 21, her life is spiraling out of control, right up until she finds a mysterious coiled bracelet. It somehow opens a portal to a different world, Athia, which is a bit different than New York City. Frey’s main goal is to figure out a way to get back home but she gets embroiled in the new world, suffering corruption from a cataclysmic event that even infected the leaders of said world. It’s just her, and her now magical/sentient “Cuff”, to fix everything and hopefully set things right.

At its core, the idea here is “What if a normal person was transported to Final Fantasy?”, which isn’t a bad premise. You quickly gain some powers, else an actual normal person would last about two minutes in ANY Final Fantasy game, and then you undertake a quest to get back home but also to try and fix the world. There’s a big problem that shows up though, that I’ll get into a bit below.

From a systems/gameplay perspective, Forspoken is very much like Final Fantasy 15. There’s not any turn-based combat, you can briefly slowdown time in the game to swap spells/abilities, but for the most part it’s a real time game as you attack enemies, dodge attacks, use magic spells and so on.

While Noctis in FF 15 could teleport around the battlefield, Frey has different powers. Her main ability is basically “magic parkour”. When she is attacked, you can press the button and she will dodge out of the way. You can also use the parkour system to jump in the air to attack foes, move around the world quickly, traverse mountains and so on.

At the start of the game, you basically only have earth magic for offense and…it’s not great. Each school of magic has three primary attack methods and then several support skills, both offensive and defensive, to help you along. The earth magic has a shield attack which I never used, a kind of short range ranged attack and a longer ranged rapid fire attack. It’s not until you unlock the next elemental school, fire, that you get a functional melee attack.

There are four eventual elemental schools you have: earth, fire, water and air, or in this game lightning. They only needed heart and then you could have summoned Captain Planet. But here’s hoping that’s in the DLC. One issue with this system is when the schools unlock. Fire and water unlock decently enough, but you unlock air WAY late into the game. Like, it’s a 12 chapter game, chapter 13 is basically a “keep playing after you beat it” chapter, and you unlock the air power near the tail end of chapter 11 and chapter 12 is basically one, long fight so you really only ever get to mess with it AFTER you beat the main boss of the game. It’s just some very odd pacing to the flow of the game.

One system I have mixed feelings about is the tech tree and how you unlock new powers. On the good side, every ability you unlock can be upgraded, usually just by doing simple tasks. You have to visit a bookshelf, spread throughout the world in refuges or in the main town, and you can activate up to three challenges to enhance your ability. Some are simple like “Evade attacks using magic parkour 0/25”, or “Perform special actions using Zip 0/15”, stuff like that. Others are more challenging though, like making sure to finish off the last enemy with a special attack, or attacking enemies from behind or something. Most of these are fairly easy to do and they reward you with damage boosts, boosts to the overall school of magic, stamina reductions and so on.

Combat can be occasionally frustrating due to the animation in the game. You can charge up Frey’s primary attacks by holding down the R2 button as well as her super-moves require holding down R2 and L2. However, if you get hit while charging, you basically lose focus and go back to zero. I really wish there was some spell or ability in the game that prevents this because it can make some of the challenges really annoying to complete.

On the flip side, actually unlocking new powers is dumb as hell. Strewn throughout the game world is mana for you to find, that are pickups. You just run over them and you acquire it, but the mana is paradoxically easy to find and can be hard. Some areas are teaming with it, fields of mana for you to spend a minute or two crisscrossing to get it all. Other regions will have almost none at all. It’s like someone haphazardly had a “Mana brush” and just painted some of the game world with the stuff with no rhyme or reason. If you liked playing the Crackdown games and collecting agility orbs than this game is like the magical version of that. You do get some mana by leveling up and certain side activities give you some but at least 80% of it will be found just running around.

At its core, combat is reward but it takes a while to get used to, much like Final Fantasy XV’s systems. There is a definite rhythm to the game that you have to get used to before it starts feeling right. You’ll be dodging and flipping over enemies, releasing a few support magic spells, attacking at the apex of your jump, eventually, but don’t be surprised if it feels awkward for the first few hours. Once you get more of your locomotive powers though, then combat feels way better.

To say that there is a breadth of side content in the game is an understatement. There are side quests, called “Detours” here, which involve you doing tasks for people in the town. None of these are overly long or complicated but there is one involving taking photos for kids that will eat up a good chunk of time. There are abandoned towns to clear out, combat trials to complete, underground dungeons to explore, magical cats to collect (not joking at all with this one), shrines to clean up, and so on. This isn’t an exclusive list, there’s like 4 or 5 other things you can do that I didn’t mention. Most of this stuff gives you a stat increase, mana, a lore entry, or some new piece of gear.

Speaking of gear, it barely exists in the game. You basically only have two gear slots, one for a cloak and one for a necklace and that is it. There is shockingly no cosmetic items at all in the game, which, honestly, could use something. Seeing Frey’s same boring, black outfit for 20+ hours with you only being able to slot different cloaks on you, is a bit tiring.

Your necklace/cloaks have health, stamina, defense and healing (of yourself) values associated with them. Each also has three slots for modifiers to customize a piece of gear. These range from “critical hits can restore health” and “killer blows deal more damage” to just basic stat improvements like +5% Health or stuff like that. The neat thing is, these modifiers aren’t tied to a specific piece of gear, once they are unlocked, they are unlocked for all gear. So if you like a particular modifier, like say “Auto-heal effect triggered when enemy defeat” (get this, it’s almost game-breaking), you can affix it to any cloak you find later on. You can also upgrade the health, defense and various magic schools at upgrade benches.

There is also, peripherally, a third piece of gear but it’s…awkward. Not in terms of usage but in function. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure if it’s sexist or not, but the third thing you can change is Frey’s nail patterns. “Yes”, Frey can change her nails, with magical nail designs, for damage increases or other effects. It’s bizarre. Like, why not just create a third slot for “Cuff accessory”, or “Hairpin” or something, but nails? What, was makeup already taken by a different game? Each hand can have a different nail design and you find them, like most everything else, in the game world.

The real elephant in the room with Forspoken, at least to me, is Frey herself. This isn’t me bashing Ella Balinska, she does a good job for her first game role. It’s just that the character is written terribly, especially at the start. She’s written as a very petulant child and even if she had some rough problems growing up, it makes her intensely dislikable at the start. She does, eventually, get better, but she always has this attitude about almost everything. I actually thought of the old TMNT cartoon theme song line of “Raphael is cool but rude” and that’s exactly how they’ve written Frey here. She acts like her real life is so great, when she is basically homeless, has multiple criminal convictions, is on the run from a street gang and her only friend a female cat with the inexplicable name of Homer.

I’m not going to say what could fix a lot of Forspoken’s issues, but “making the character less of a prick” would be a good start. She has almost no sense of wonder or curiosity about the place or her predicament. She’s just obsessed, at least initially, with going home, and it’s like “Why?”

On the flip side, most of the side characters are somewhat more interesting. Cuff, itself, is voiced by actor Jonathan Cake, who I knew as a smarmy lawyer on Law & Order. Most of the other cast is made up of women and they all do a good job. Two standouts are Monica Barbaro (Auden) and Keala Settle (Johedy), they elevate the characters they portray and give them more pathos than you might expect.

Lastly, I’ll bring up technical performance, and like most things in Forspoken, it’s a weirdly mixed bag. Loading time is practically nonexistent in the game, which is damned impressive and is on the level of like Miles Morales on the PS5. You’re able to fast travel from one side of the game world to another, in about 3 seconds. Even the magical bracelet makes a comment of “Wow, that was quick” and it i. On the flip side, there are some occasional nasty framerate drops, especially with a lot of enemies on the screen or a ton of stuff going on. I also had the game crash on me a few times, one time was really strange. I was doing the dancing mini-game, having just fast traveled back to the main town and it began to get really choppy and laggy. I made it through the first round fine, but during the second it got worse till it eventually just froze completely and the game crashed to the menu. It was very odd since this was the first and only time I ever had a severe problem like this happen.

Ultimately, the reason I ended up liking Forspoken is, much like Sonic Frontiers, it gives you a big open world and tells you to do what you want. There’s a TON of side stuff for you to do, most of it copy-and-pasted and repetitive but it makes for a good game where you can just shut off your brain. It’s the perfect game to just put on a nice Amazon Video show, or podcast and take your mind off things, which is good since, despite the composers pedigree, I found the soundtrack to be entirely bland. I would start playing Forspoken, get obsessed with clearing out a region or two, then look outside and find that 4 hours had just gone by, it is that type of game.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
I have a fairly high score on this but it’s very conditional that you actually like exploring a relatively huge open world and doing some generic, if boring combat. If you’re looking for a game with deep combat mechanics, a likable main character or an earthshattering story, Forspoken isn’t likely for you. But if you want a game where you can just run around with some good parkour movement, open a thousand treasure chests and collect a million mana orbs, then Forspoken has got your back.

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Forspoken, Marc Morrison