Forspoken's combat is spectacular but the open world lacks identity
We went to Stockholm to be among the first to play Forspoken.
Some combat systems are so blatantly good that you don't really need a lot of time to reach that conclusion. Forspoken has one of those, or at least that was what I thought before I got comfortable in the soft gamer chair provided by Square Enix for my 90 minutes of hands-on time with their new action game. Thankfully, my assumptions turned out to be correct. Forspoken truly shines in combat where our protagonist Frey juggles an impressive selection of (mostly) offensive and defensive spells, while both her name and skate-like movement reflect Solar Ash's Rei. When everything clicks it is both mechanically satisfying and visually impressive, which bodes well for the finished game. The slightly generic fantasy world and its standard selection of activities are less promising, however, but before we get ahead of ourselves some context is in order.
Forspoken has been in development since Luminous Productions was founded in 2018, producer Raio Mitsuno tells me when I speak to him, director Takefumi Terada and cinematic artist Roosa Jokiaho a couple of days after my visit to the Swedish capital. Although Luminous Productions is formally a new studio almost half of its approximately 170 staff members worked on Final Fantasy XV. While both games feature an open world, Forspoken is firmly planted in the action genre. There are still plenty of RPG elements such as crafting, a skill tree and capes, necklaces and artificial nails you can equip and upgrade, but that's standard in open world games. The artificial nails being the clear exception.
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The section of the game I played didn't feature any content from the main story. Instead, it was a slice of the open world and its activities. Judging from previous trailers and the game's item descriptions there is no doubt that story is a big part of the game, it just wasn't the focus here.
Instead, I had plenty of time to explore Athia, the name of the world Forspoken takes place in, and beat its corrupted citizens and wildlife to a pulp. The part of Athia I explored was remarkably open, which is a good thing given how fast Frey moves around the world with her magic parkour. Her abilities, which includes a magic grappling hook, can also be used to scale vertical surfaces such as the cliffs that are everywhere in Athia, but I wish she was even more powerful given how many places I couldn't scale. Maybe a late game Frey will be able to?
While getting around is both fun and breezy the activities found in Athia are less so. There are fast travel points to unlock, sculptures to make you stronger and treasure chests guarded by opponents to make you richer. Standard stuff. Safe houses are slightly more interesting, offering a place to sleep, a chance to upgrade equipment and challenges to take on and pursue in the open world. Timed challenges with harder enemies are also among the most involved activities, but as a whole I didn't come away impressed. Takefumi Terada did assure me that the final game will have a wider array of activities, so the jury is still out.
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From a visual standpoint the open world didn't wow me either. Forspoken is not an ugly game by any stretch but what I saw just didn't stand out - no matter whether we're talking topography or the medieval looking building architecture. And speaking of the latter, their placement in the world has a bit of a random feel to it. Lastly, the colour scheme is a bit on the brown side if you ask me. It is encouraging, however, that Raio Mitsuno tells me the slice I played is only a section of one of the game's four main areas, but it's still a somewhat weird area to showcase first.
While the world and its activities didn't wow me, the combat definitely did. Takefumi Terada explained that Forspoken and Athia is built around magic and magic parkour, and it really shows. My Frey had access to two distinct schools of magic: Her own and Silas'. I have no idea who this Silas character is, but I quickly became a heavy user of his fire-based spells. All spells can either be quick fired or charged, and the latter was my go-to when using a flaming spear that could impale my enemies and explode in a fiery inferno after a one second delay.
Frey's own school of spells seemed to be earth based with my favourite being a gatling gun-like barrage of rocks perfect for taking out flying enemies. Each school of magic came with three distinct spells, but Frey can also use support spells that come with a cooldown period keeping you from spamming your favourite. For me that favourite was a burning ring of fire, which would have made Johnny Cash proud in addition to burning those who tried to cross it and boosting Frey's stats while standing inside it. Another was a geyser made of lava and of course you can also summon undead warriors to aid Frey in battle.
It took me a little while to get my bearings and to utilise the scan ability to discover enemy weaknesses, but once combat clicked for me, it really clicked. Firing spells feels great and the many support spells enable Frey to create diversions and empower herself, which was particularly necessary when fighting the mini boss capping off the demo. This encounter was by far the demo's most challenging and using spells that drew the hulking beast away or trapped it was a must so Frey could charge up her most powerful spells. Takefumi Terada mentioned that this enemy wasn't even a full-blown boss, which bodes well for the final game.
Later in our interview he told me that the part of the game he is proudest of is how many spells the team has been able to put in the game. The goal was 100 and while he didn't confirm that Forspoken features that many, there are plenty and they impress when it comes to variation and execution.
As mentioned, my time with Forspoken was light on story, but I was able to glimpse bits of it here and there, particularly when Frey and her magic bracelet Cuff engaged in slightly annoying quippy banter. Raio Mitsuno says that Cuff is there through almost the entirety of Frey's journey and acts as her guide to Athia. Sometimes he supports her, sometimes he teases her, but in the end the goal is to make it a relationship that evolves over time.
Whereas Cuff gave the biggest indication of Forspoken's approach to storytelling, the archive showed how Luminous Productions handles the lore. It is, of course, hard to get a clear picture of the appeal of Athia's lore from 90 minutes of playtime, but the descriptions of capes and various items does show that it is important to Luminous Productions, underlined by Roosa Jokiaho's comments on its large role in the game.
After having played Forspoken and talked to the team, I'm not entirely convinced that Luminous Productions has a winner on its hands. The world and storytelling being the main reasons why. But I am curious to play more because the combat is so appealing. From what I've played it's Forspoken's biggest trump card and if the world becomes more interesting and the story is at least mildly interesting, we might have a cool game on our hands when Forspoken hopefully releases early next year.