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Behind the wisecracks, Forspoken is a messy, interesting action-RPG

Square Enix’s open-world fantasy has more going for it than grating dialogue

A while back, Square Enix released a new ad for Forspoken, the open-world action game due for release on Jan. 24 next year. Games Twitter took one look at the ad and decided it was the most irritating thing that it had ever seen. The dialogue in the short trailer, delivered by the heroine Frey (Ella Balinska) — a young New Yorker transposed to a magical realm — was streetwise and quippy in a grating, corporatized way. With its uptalk, and its clumsy, sanitized slang (“freaking,” “jacked-up”), it made a meal of crashing the game’s exuberant fantasy setting into some marketing department’s idea of youthful insouciance and irony, a formula lazily copied from old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It did not play well.

Although social media’s hatred of video game wisecracking has since moved on to High on Life, this unfortunate bit of marketing has now become the entire narrative about Forspoken. So a chance to sit down and play a demo of the game for 90 minutes — an opportunity I had recently at Square Enix’s offices in London — is a chance to compare what the game actually is with what it is trying, so painfully hard, to be.

A young woman wearing a cloak races toward a bridge beyond a lake, with cliffs on the horizon Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

Well, up to a point. The caveat is that this was a bespoke demo designed to show off Forspoken’s gameplay and systems, and it was completely shorn of story. There were a few objectives to tick off, but no story missions, no cutscenes, and nothing in the way of context for the action. It was rather like fooling around in an open-world game between quests, exploring the map, grinding enemies, and finding points of interest. This is the obverse of how most developers choose to show off their games (i.e., with their showiest, most scripted, and most contained missions). Whether or not it was prompted as a corrective to the botched marketing beat, this is interesting in itself. But it must be remembered that it’s not the whole picture.

With all that said: In the normal run of gameplay, is it possible to tune out Frey’s banter with her sentient magic bracelet Cuff (Jonathan Cake, doing his Paul-Bettany-as-Jarvis)? Certainly, if you have ever played a game of this type before. The lines delivered as barks and asides during combat and exploration aren’t very funny, but they’re not much different from those you learn to ignore in dozens of similar games, like Forspoken’s most obvious inspirations, Guerrilla’s Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West.

Forspoken is a Japanese-developed game — it’s made by Luminous Productions, an evolution of the team that made Final Fantasy 15 — that is trying hard to look and feel like a Western AAA release. If it feels inauthentic, it might be because something is being lost in translation, or because the character design seems like it came from a marketing brief, or because the developers are striving too hard to connect with an audience that they feel distant from. Without any story context, it’s hard to judge Frey as a character, but touches like the way she derives stat boosts from her choice of nail design can’t help but feel forced. Beneath all this, though, lies a scrappy, but punchy and interesting, action role-playing game.

Frey, a young woman wearing a cloak, is seen from the side unleashing a magic spell with her arms outstretched Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

However she sounds, Frey looks great in motion. Her signature “magic parkour” skills allow for fast and fluid traversal across the rocky landscapes of Athia, the hostile realm where she finds herself. She sprints, leaps, flips and springs, her cool asymmetric cape flowing behind her. Athia owes more to playing fields of Final Fantasy games than to the lavish vistas of Horizon or The Witcher; it’s alien and a little barren, dotted with ruins and spanned by vast bridges.

Roaming this land are corrupted animals and strange, scratchy, witch-like humanoid foes. In combat against them, Frey can switch freely between two magic schools. Frey’s Magic is coded purple and concentrates on ranged skills; Sila’s Magic is red, and melee-focused. Skills, obtained from a spidery skill tree, are fast-equipped using a radial menu into offensive and defensive slots. They often take the form of magical weapons, or combo attacks. Even in ranged form, the combat is fast, fluid and in your face; staggers and counters matter. In style, it’s more Devil May Cry than Dark Souls, although in truth it has the precision and depth of neither.

What it has instead is a great flexibility that reminded me a little of Diablo 3. The focus is on finding offensive/defensive skill pairings that you like in each magic school, and then flicking between these at will. (Enemies tend to be vulnerable to one school or the other, while some skills are all about transitioning between the two, like a purple ranged attack that pulls enemies closer and automatically switches you to red magic.) But you can swap your skill loadout around at any time, while mixing parkour moves and attacks adds another layer of combinations to discover. It’s very free-form, very organic, and it feels like there will be a fair bit of room to individualize your play style.

Frey, a young woman, summons a magic spell in a green field faced with a charging, red, dragon-like monster Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

Feeding into this are crafting and equipment. The options here seem quite streamlined. In addition to the nail varnish, there are only two main equipment slots: cloak and necklace. (Full marks to whoever gave the cloaks their elegant names like “Puissant” and “Valorous.”) These increase your main stats as well as adding quite specific and arcane buffs to the likes of cuff blocks and precision counters. It’s hard to make much sense of these benefits during a brief demo, but there may well be some satisfying theorycrafting to be done here as you build your character around your favored play style.

After spending 90 minutes with a character build from midway through game, I felt like I was just starting to get comfortable with Forspoken’s loose, but far from unsophisticated, gameplay. Running Frey around the world, engaging enemies, and tinkering with the combat build, I could sense a game with its own unique character emerging from behind its generic, market-tested mask. Hopefully, over Forspoken’s full length, that game will have time to fully come into the light.

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