Forspoken Review – Beautiful, intriguing world

A great responsibility has long rested on the shoulders of developer Luminous Productions. Not only did the studio have to pull Final Fantasy XV out of a years-long “development hell,” they’ve also been tasked with proving their Luminous Engine as a valid alternative to a (now-developed) Unreal Engine. So far, the studio has had little success. Final Fantasy XV failed to live up to expectations, and all the while was the only game built in the (now decade-old) engine – until now, that is. With Forspoken, the studio and the engine are given another chance. While Forspoken appears to be a more cohesive experience than Final Fantasy XV was, it falls into a lot of the same traps.

Conceptually strong plot

One promise that Forspoken does already fulfill is that of the first tech demo for the Luminous Engine. Forspoken is technically, aesthetically but also thematically very close to ‘Agni’s Philosophy‘, as the demo was called. You play an interdimensional witch named Frey in Forspoken. Frey is from the real world, but when she finds a golden, talking bracelet there, she is transported to the magical world of Athia. Her existence in New York was not too good, but life in Athia is no fun either. Humanity has been virtually wiped out here, and the few survivors live in a single city. Everything outside is plagued by a zombified sky and a foursome of Tatas: formerly benign witches corrupted by miasma.

Although it sounds like yet another “Isekai” – but with zombies – the plot is conceptually quite strong. This is partly due to the work of writer Amy Hennig, known for Legacy of Kain and Uncharted. The world always manages to convince, and even the turns in the story that you see coming in advance are reasonably witty – although the elaboration is often a bit off. For example, the dragon from the trailers plays a hugely important role in the story, but is more or less forgotten right after the tutorial until the end of the game. Then, of course, the twist about the true nature of the creature hits a little less hard. The obvious comparisons to Alice in Wonderland that Forspoken emphasizes several times are also somewhat clumsily brought out.

Hateful characters

Well, Luminous Productions already proved with Final Fantasy XV that they could still provide even a less coherent story with hugely sympathetic characters. Here, unfortunately, the opposite is true. Everyone in Athia is incredibly nasty to each other. Frey and her unconscious bracelet constantly lash out at each other – often completely out of the blue. At the same time, something of a friendship is supposed to develop between the two, but that doesn’t come off too nicely because of the agonizing dialogue. It certainly doesn’t help that that dialogue is constant and repeats many empty, but always unkind, phrases ad nauseam. I have rarely experienced such unsympathetic main characters.

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The people of Athia are also thoroughly mean-spirited. From the beginning, Frey is mainly concerned with finding a way back home. Not crazy you would think, but the people of Athia think otherwise. They initially capture Frey and call her a demon. Even when she has proven herself and proves useful to Athia, she is besieged from all sides for not wanting to kill the Tatas for a while. After all, why wouldn’t she just commit some murders for a people and a world she has nothing to do with in what could be, for her part, a bad dream? Murder, by the way, is literally the term the game uses. It doesn’t talk about “defeating” evil or some other heroic euphemism. It calls it what it is: murder. As if that were not enough, the Athians are offended that Frey, after all they have done to her, does not want to stay cozy in Athia. Yet the play paints not the Athians but Frey as antisocial. It is so absurdly gruesome and manipulative that I expected the game to do something with it. Eventually it does, but for a single character. The rest of Athia is apparently so unreasonably cruel of itself, but the game doesn’t talk about that.

Focus that respects your time

Aside from the inexplicably evil characters and somewhat clunky elaboration, Athia is a fine setting for a game like this. Many titles with an open world do a little exposition here, delve into a few characters there, and shut down the mainline every so often when you decide to explore yet another new settlement. In Athia, there is only one, relatively small town with a handful of important NPCs. That may not sound positive, but it is. It naturally makes for a nice smooth story that doesn’t get too distracted.

Partly because of that focus, Forspoken respects your time more than you’d expect from an open world game. You can choose how much of the world you want to explore here. You could ignore all but the main missions content, so to speak, without getting into trouble in terms of level or equipment. It’s really up to you. I myself saw the credits with just under 22 hours on the clock. With that, the plot did not take up more space than necessary and I even felt like playing on – a relief for a game like this.

The downside of such an approach is that the open world activities are even more likely to feel like dickish, stand-alone tasks. We’re not talking about the most original tasks, either. The barren plains of Athia contain all the clichés: houses that serve as fast travel points, towers that mark important points on the map, (platforming) puzzles, combat challenges and repetitive mini-churches. If you’ve seen one of each type, you’ve seen them all. The rewards, such as extra stats or new outfits, are fun and welcome, but never really necessary. There is a huge difference in power when you add up all the upgrades at the end of the game, but the effects of a single new robe or piece of jewelry is marginal to the point of inanity.

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Style over substance

It’s a good thing, then, that Forspoken plays quite pleasantly. It delivers a tremendously effective power fantasy. As the chief witch, you have up to four elements at your disposal – each with its own set of spells. All of those spells you can unleash on the enemy almost simultaneously. You can summon an army of fiery demons to fight for you, protect yourself with stone armor, and rain arrows of ice upon the enemy as you besiege them with homing missiles of electricity. It takes quite a long time until the game hands you all these tools, but once you have them, you’ll see all the particle effects the Luminous Engine can handle flying across your screen at once.

Style definitely takes precedence over substance here – but there are few games that make you feel so empowered.

Don’t get me wrong: Forspoken is by no means a masterpiece in terms of gameplay either. The Devil May Cry-like system where you get more points the more stylish you play implies a lot more depth and control than Forspoken actually has to offer. Viewed properly, the combat in Forspoken is almost as shallow as that of Final Fantasy XV was. Some enemies are weaker against one element than another, but they never really require a different strategy. You simply win by unleashing your entire arsenal on the enemy, occasionally healing and possibly dodging an attack – though the timing of this feels so skewed that I usually took a hit more or less for granted. The action just looks so cool that it doesn’t really matter how the violence on your screen comes about. Style definitely trumps substance here – but there are few games that make you feel so empowered.

In this regard, the way Frey moves through the world is just as satisfying. Using her magic, she can run across plains and “course” through mountainous terrain at lightning speed. Her rock magic sets her off the ground harder, literally putting fire under her shins to run faster. When given access to water spells, she can likewise surf the lakes of Athia. Again, some refined controls are lacking and it takes quite a long time until you unlock all the skills. However, the overall gameplay ultimately works so smoothly that you tear across the world map almost in a trance from task to task – even if those tasks are of little interest.

Forspoken is technologically and aesthetically stunning – just as Final Fantasy XV was. In that sense, it absolutely proves again the power of the Luminous Engine. In the process, it sets up a beautiful world with a smooth story that is a lot more cohesive than Luminous Productions’ previous work. Unfortunately, the unsympathetic (or downright evil) characters with their agonizing dialogue hold back the plot. The smooth, fluid action should make up for a lot, and in part it does: Forspoken makes magic powerful and tangible like few games have done before. But despite a vast array of spells, the action remains shallow. Thus, like the developer’s previous game, Forspoken is ambitious and full of good ideas, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

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