The first two hours of Forspoken are some of the worst AAA games have had to offer in years, if you ask me. That's some statement to open a review which will ultimately kind of recommend Luminous Productions' semi-controversial PS5 exclusive, and trust me; we are not anywhere close to being done.
Forspoken has been delayed several times, faced backlash from the wider gaming community for its silly marketing, quippy dialogue, and when even a demo couldn't reverse the bad press and word of mouth, what do you even have left? It almost seemed written in the stars for a while that Forspoken was going to be bad.
And it's not bad. At least it's not bad, crucially, when you play it. But around the central gameplay experience exists a maelstrom of disparate elements, which has a hard time creating the crucial connecting tissue that ties an RPG experience like this together. For a game partially about running, it does seem to both lose its way, and get in its own way numerous times.
In Forspoken you are Frey Holland, and in the game's opening she's little more than a scoundrel, a pickpocket, a thief trying to make ends meet, working towards escaping New York with her only real companion; her cat. When that plan fails, she contemplates life, but before giving in entirely to despair, she's transported to Athia through Cuff, a magical bracelet which seems to hold the soul of an otherworldly being. Athia is in trouble, ravaged by a mysterious force called "The Break", which corrupts and destroys everything it touches. The last bastion of humanity is the city Cipal, and it's from here Frey must strike out and save Athia, and save herself.
Alright, that's the back-of-the-box-synopsis out of the way, so now I can tell you that the New York portion of Forspoken is absolutely awful. Long-winded, disparate, half-hearted and poorly conceptualised, it looks like something which was cobbled together in mere months, and lacks polish, narrative cohesiveness or any sort of mechanical or structural meaning. It sets us up for Athia, sure, but it leaves the worst possible impression of the game. What were they thinking?
Forspoken continues to waste the player's time even after most of its overarching narrative has been constructed, forcing players into countless tutorials and joyless busywork. Even worse still; these take up so much space in those crucial opening hours, yet they fail to properly explain the game's various elements, and how they combine into one cohesive whole. I didn't know I had Stamina as a spendable resource until five hours in.
Imagine my surprise that when Frey, or you, are finally allowed to run wild, explore Athia, defeat clusters of various enemy types and use magical parkour abilities to scale and traverse, Forspoken really, truly comes into its own. The game does consist of what we'd now consider regular, run-of-the-mill open-world trappings, like gauntlet-style dungeons, a rudimentary gear system that can be upgraded using resources found in the open world, various repeatable activities and the like. It doesn't do anything particularly special, but what it does do is put pretty interesting enemies in front of you, that you may destroy with an awesome and ever-expanding array of magical spells, each more different than the last.
By either levelling up through XP, and by gathering mana nodes in the open world, you gradually purchase and upgrade a wide, wide range of different offensive and defensive spells, which are utilised by selection on L1 and R1, and cast using L2 and R2. These can work in tandem with one another, and one particular spell can have several use cases depending on how you squeeze the trigger. While complex fights do necessitate switching spells, and pausing combat quite frequently, the amount of customisation and personality each encounter offers is fantastic. Not only that, the simple but effective ranking system means that you're always on the lookout for getting gradually better.
Then there's the parkour. While it's initially poorly explained (as is the theme throughout), holding down the circle button to traverse the open world, and using it in tandem with an enemy lock-on in combat is a great way to feel nimble and agile regardless of the type of encounter you find yourself in. While the camera can get unruly with many enemies on screen, the combat is refined around the parkour movement, and it works wonders when animation, strategy and polish comes together into one refined experience.
Playing Forspoken is awesome, it's polished, it's refined and thoughtfully executed. It's the eye of the hurricane, where it all comes together into one cohesive whole, which makes it all the more frustrating once you're forced to move out of the calm centre and into the maelstrom of Forspoken's auxiliary elements. Scripting is actually not a big problem throughout, and despite some over-quippy dialogue Frey does end up being a more well-rounded character than initially feared, as are the main antagonists, the Tantas that inhabit each of the game's zones. There's a massive issue with pacing during cutscenes though, as the storytelling is often broken up by oversimplified, short walk-n'-talk segments, curious one-offs and awful dip-to-black effects that constantly takes the wind out of any drama that the characters manage to create. Athia is an interesting place, make no mistake, but the game limps through crucial exposition and constantly, constantly, gets in its own way.
As described above there are rudimentary open-world activities, but most require combat which is where the game shines, and through some magnificent boss fights, challenging enemy variety and even some functional platforming, the issues mainly pop up when the game stops moving. When it takes control away from you, you notice how brown it all looks, despite some environmental variety introduced in later-stage areas, and how ugly it looks too. I mean, Forspoken is not a pretty game by any stretch, and if you need 60fps, as I would totally recommend given the strong gameplay chops on display, you'll be treated to pixelated character models, less than ideal facial animations and some simplistic choreography. Again, this is vastly improved once you move, once you explore, once you fight, and most of the time, that's what Forspoken wants you to do, which really does soften the blow of the game's visuals overall being less than impressive.
You might not like Forspoken already. Maybe you've played the demo, seen an extravagant amount of direct gameplay, and found that it looks undercooked and badly put together. I'm not here to tell you you are wrong; the cutscenes are mostly forgettable, trending on awful, the story is serviceable, mostly because Frey and Cuff do end up being a semi-delightful duo, and it does little to innovate structurally. Again, the massive outer ring of the hurricane does proper damage to one's experience of Forspoken, and there's no excuses; this should be better.
Conversely, Luminous Productions are damn lucky that they've constructed a gameplay loop so incredibly satisfying, consisting of awesome spells, lovely parkour and solid enemy variety. That's what you're mainly doing, and therefore it's mainly enjoyable to play. You'll see really divisive scores on Forspoken from established media, furthermore, you'll probably also see a range of personalities mocking its stilted cutscenes, and its uneven execution - all of that is totally merited and expected, when you've spent dozens upon dozens of hours in Athia, like me. But rather than be a part of that pile-on, I feel it necessary to hammer home the point again; playing Forspoken is fun, it's entertaining. That's what makes this one tough, and the reason why some may look at the final score and think that it's either too generous, or too harsh depending on one's individual weighing of a game's central elements. To me, what matters is that Forspoken is fun to play most of the time, but it's a damn shame that the game's remaining elements eagerly attempt to ruin that enjoyment at every turn.