Originally unveiled as Project Athia back in 2020, Forspoken tells the story of Frey, a New Yorker who sees themselves sucked into the fantasy world of Athia at the time of its greatest peril. Thanks to a magical vambrace, Frey is literally equipped with powers that let her sling spells and use crazy parkour skills, Frey is thrust into the role of the hero of Athia, albeit reluctantly.
The tale that unfolds is one rife with loss but also hope for a world to come back from the brink of destruction. In my nearly twenty-five hours in Forspoken, it never really felt like a complete package, though. From the poor, cringe-inducing dialogue, slow character development, and technical issues that plague the PlayStation 5, Forspoken felt like, despite its multiple delays, still needed some time for polish.
Welcome to Athia
Forspoken takes place in the fantasy world of Athia, broken by corruption that is spreading through the land. This corruption turns anyone and anything in its path into monsters and has forced humanity to seek refuge in the only city left standing: Cipal.
Athia was once ruled by four matriarchal sorceresses, the Tantas. These Tantas embodied the virtues of Wisdom, Strength, Justice, and Love, and they ruled with benevolence. However, the corruption that has engulfed Athia has also taken root in the Tantas themselves, driving them crazy one by one. As a result, Athia’s once powerful rulers have either abandoned their people or oppressed them.
Athia itself is a character all its own, and it's one of the best aspects of Forspoken. Its four distinct regions are interesting and present their own unique sets of challenges, such as navigating the high cliffs and windswept plains of Visoria or having to parkour and swing around the broken floating islands and waterways of Avoalet.
Cipal is also interesting in its own right as the last bastion of humanity in Athia, its large stone structures of the upper city standing in stark contrast with the run-down, impoverished lower city sitting in its shadow. Cipal is a beacon in the darkness, yet the inequality in the city shows clearly that even when all seems lost around the Athians, humanity can still sometimes be cruel and imperfect towards each other.
Being an open world, Athia is littered with things to do and places to explore. The various regions have points of interest for Frey to venture into, either for a new cloak or pools of mana. While there are a ton of things on the map, I do appreciate that these spots, whether it be the laughably named linear dungeon Labyrinths or the broken-down ruins that dot the various regions, the map icons tell you exactly what you’re going there for. As a result, I never felt like my time was wasted exploring the world as I could pick out exactly what I wanted to earn at that time and go explore that instead of aimlessly wandering the world.
There are also statues which Frey can interact with that give stat boosts or have Frey take part in a challenge to earn a reward at the end, whether it be a time trial race to a finish line or a trial by combat to kill enemies before time ran out. My favorite points of interest in each region were the Tanta Familiar monuments, which will unlock cat familiars that visit Frey when she's taking a rest while exploring.
Into the Frey
Frey herself is a character that has a hard past, and it’s something I was constantly reminded of through almost every interaction during my time in-game. From being abandoned as a baby to having to learn to survive on the streets of New York with no one looking out for her other than herself, Frey constantly keeps people at arm’s length as a way to protect herself from what will be the inevitable letdown.
Forspoken aims to drive this home from the beginning, with the RPG opening up in a courtroom, Frey dealing with the charge of stealing. However, thanks to a judge who feels like Frey deserves one more chance, she sees herself free from prison right before the holidays. In the ensuing days, she stumbles upon a magical vambrace and is transported to the world of Athia, unsure of how she got there and how to get home.
That drive to get home regardless of the devastation around her puts her at odds at times with the people of Athia itself. Upon reaching Athia, Frey discovers not only is the vambrace sentient (nicknamed “Cuff”), but she has magical powers to draw upon to defend herself.
Despite the setup, I found myself getting annoyed at the outset thanks to the poor quality of the writing. Cringe-inducing writing has been a narrative for Forspoken ever since the trailer released in 2022 went viral. Unfortunately, it didn’t really get much better, as its opening moments I found myself constantly shaking my head at some of the dialogue choices.
A huge driver of this was the writer’s insistence that cursing is a personality trait. I don’t mind the occasional curse word - oftentimes they can be used to great effect. However, especially in the opening scenes of Frey’s journey, it felt like the writers were trying to see just how many swears they could get away with rather than write compelling dialogue to set up the RPG.
Despite this, actress Ella Balinska’s performance as Frey is great, and I really hope we see her in more games. The dialogue does get better over time, but not by much, though it’s especially improved through the love-hate relationship between Cuff and Frey.
The bad writing doesn’t help make Frey a particularly likable character early on, especially as her choices and interactions with people around her seem to only cause her to push everyone away. Frey’s relationship with those around her feels frayed at times, thanks to their insistence that she’s Athia’s hero while Frey is just focused on getting back to New York.
As Forspoken’s story progressed, I found myself wondering not when, but if Frey would make any meaningful turns of character and truly embrace the role given to her. It made me wish I had any agency over the choices being made, instead of it simply being pre-determined by the writers. I found myself getting as exasperated with the character and her choices as the supporting cast around her - and while I guess it engrossed me in the story I’m not sure that’s what the writers are going for.
Her relationship with Cuff feels the most natural as that blossoms throughout the adventure. The banter between the two goes from antagonistic at first to a true friendship, each one building off the other. Cuff takes on a mentor-style role, teaching Frey about her powers and the world around them, while Frey supplies the vambrace with plenty of one-liners and idioms from Earth that confuse the magical being.
Frey’s interactions with the citizens of Cipal, from her issues with the ruling Council who are at odds with how to deal with an outsider who is unaffected by the Break, what Frey calls the corruption, to her relationship with the healer Auden feels forced at first as well. Auden becomes a solid rock for Frey, their friendship starting from an aspect of how each other can get what they want from the other, but throughout the game blooms into one full of mutual respect.
I especially enjoyed Frey’s friendship with the street urchin Olevia, with the main character clearly seeing herself reflected in the young Cipalian. And Keala Settle’s stern, yet never cold Johedy stole every scene she was in, as did the energetic, if a bit overly so, Pilo. These interactions help move the needle for Frey’s capacity to trust, even if they, along with myself, were getting more and more tired of how slow it was taking.
At the end of the day, though, the overall story felt lackluster, as many of the decisions at the end felt forced, the natural spots where Frey could make meaningful progress ignored until a rushed final act. It does resolve itself well, but getting there didn't necessarily feel great the whole time.
Despite the slow growth as a character in the story, one thing Forspoken does really well is make me feel like I got more and more powerful over time. This is something that many RPGs don’t nail, but Forspoken does here with ease.
This is thanks to the way the RPG handles its combat and traversal. The speed and parkour of Forspoken was a clear focus when Square Enix was marketing the game, and thankfully it’s one aspect that doesn’t disappoint in the least. Rushing around the world at high speeds, flowing over rocks and hopping up cliff sides is a blast each time, and it’s made easier thanks to being controlled by a single button on the controller.
This doesn’t dumb it down like many might be afraid of, but instead makes it more fluid. That fluidity is helped by Forspoken’s great parkour animations as each flows effortlessly into the next with no real noticeable transition. Jumping large distances or charging my speedy run with an explosive jolt never looked janky, instead, each animation looked natural, a credit to the motion capture and animation teams who worked on the RPG.
As I progressed through the game, I unlocked more skills that made traversal more advanced, such as the ability to send out a leash of fire and swing myself up to greater heights. I especially love the ability in the Blue Magic skill line that sees me surf across any body of water, making getting around Athia’s various rivers and lakes a breeze.
I would find myself rushing around the world, trying to string together as many parkour skills as I could to see how long I could keep it up before coming to a screeching halt. This makes traversing Athia’s huge world so much more enjoyable thanks to its incredible movement, and it’s one of the best parts of Forspoken.
Exploring Athia brought more to light about what the Break has done to the land. While the damage caused by the Break is clearly on display, each region retains its distinct character and beauty. There’s history here, and history that is at times fun to explore.
However, Forspoken falls prey to what is becoming more and more common in games where the lore is told not predominantly through the story and interactions with the various characters, whether through the main story or one of the Detour side quests in the RPG. Instead, archive entries are made in Frey’s journal, telling the history of Athia and the events that led to the Break, with Cuff supplying some commentary. These are through inscriptions on statues, scraps of paper picked up in dungeons and places of rest, or told through Cuff in passing.
As a result, there were times when I felt things didn’t land as well in the main storyline as they might have if I hadn’t missed a lore bit, or they had been better explained throughout. Large pieces are told, like the history of the Tantas and their relationships with the people, but the history of each region felt locked away behind a grind of lore points rather than through quests that could have told those stories better.
While traveling around the world of Athia, some areas are affected by the break more than others. The closer I would get to a Tanta’s stronghold where the Break is at its strongest, the harder enemies would become and the more visually the land would suffer from the corruption. Bastions of light called Pilgrim’s Rest spots dot the landscape, giving Frey a place to relax and recharge her health through resting, while also a safe spot to craft from.
These refuges become more important when caught in a Breakstorm, giant storms of energy that engulf the world around Frey with dark energy, creating an environment that damages you over time. The storm also brings a horde-like game mechanic where enemies are being thrown at Frey over and over again until a boss is defeated. Refuges provide a place to wait out the storm, which made me more often than not just beeline past enemies, using every bit of traversal I could to get to the nearest refuge as quickly as possible.
Bringing a Cuff To A Sword Fight
Traversal isn’t the only high-flying way to have fun, though, as Forspoken’s combat also takes this speed and fluidity and raises the stakes. If you’ve played Final Fantasy XV, the combat will feel familiar here, as Frey sees herself parkouring through the air and around the battlefield, slinging spells at enemies to take them out.
Parkouring is key here, as it’s used to dodge enemy attacks and provide meaningful and timely counterattacks to take an enemy out. Each combat contributes to an overall combat score that increases experience earned and item drop rates for each combat that showcases your ability with Frey.
Frey is able to draw upon four magical skill lines that represent various elements, from the fiery Red Line that is aggressive and in the face of its enemies to the more restrained Blue Line that sees Frey take out foes from afar while controlling the space between her and them with support crowd control magic.
These different skill lines will be woven between each other as some enemies are vulnerable or resistant to one or another. Choosing the right magical line for the job requires practice, but also knowledge of your foe built up over multiple fights. New skills are learned thanks to Mana built up each time Frey levels, as well as through pools of Mana picked up while exploring Athia.
The frequency with which I was able to accumulate mana and learn new skills felt unbalanced at first, as I was finding a lot of mana pools along my journeys. But given the sheer amount of spells to learn across all of the different skill lines, I still found myself with some unlearned when the credits rolled.
There is a lot here and it really allows you to tailor your combat style to your preference. As a result, each combat can feel wholly unique, a deadly dance of parkour and spell slinging that, if it weren’t for Forspoken’s performance issues, would have felt amazing every time. It’s a shame those issues exist too, as the combat in Forspoken reminded me so much of why I loved FFXV’s combat: fast-paced, frenetic energy that rewards quick reactions as well as utilizing every skill at my disposal.
Combat is broken up with two spell types: offensive spells and support. While each magic skill line has three offensive spells that can be charged and woven together, they are augmented by support magic that does myriad things in the heat of combat. Sila’s Red Magic Line has aggressive spells, such as one support skill that summons two floating swords who attack the nearest enemy while charging an offensive strike, while Prav and Frey’s magic has support skills that excel at crowd control and keeping enemies at bay.
Using your skills in combat will see Frey dispatch enemies one by one (or in large groups thanks to many AOE spells). You can knock enemies down in a weakened state, performing a killing blow on them to take them out and earn more points to your combat score. Taking damage will lower your score, and while the blow is tempered some by Cuff throwing up a shield to absorb some of the blow, a quick tap of Tirangle follows that up with a counter attack. Time it perfectly as well will also give Frey a healing boost.
Each spell line has its own powerful “Surge Magic” spell which is charged when using offensive and Support spells in battle. This spell unleashes a massive AOE attack, dealing damage to anyone in range, with its own twist. The Purple line sends massive vines surging through the ground, grabbing any enemy in its path and dealing damage to them, while the Blue line sucks enemies into a whirlpool, keeping them from moving while damaging them in the process. These spells can be improved with new Mana, as with every spell in each Elemental Spell set, giving them new attributes and increasing their damage.
In addition to grabbing new or improved versions of spells, Frey can take on various challenges for each spell in her toolbelt that enhances its power if the conditions are met. These include challenges such as using Frey’s Purple Magic Burst Shot, a giant rock projectile that explodes in an AOE, to deal damage behind an enemy ten times or building up the Green Magic’s Storm Dart power to deal 10000 damage to enemies over the course of the challenge.
By completing these Spellcrafting challenges, Frey will boost their power as well as build up higher stats in that Magic’s skill line, which can further be augmented through the equipment found around the world.
I appreciate how minimalistic the equipment is here as well. Since Frey’s power comes from the magic she wields, there isn’t a need to go don a full suit of armor or sling swords around (I mean, the Red Magic line gives you a flaming sword anyway). As a result, there are only three pieces of equipment to worry about: Cloaks, Necklaces and Nails.
The cloaks and necklaces augment Frey’s base stats, such as health, defense and her skill with the various magic skill lines. They can also carry stat increases and special abilities, such as the trigger that when Frey kills an enemy she regains health. These are handy in that when you collect a certain piece of equipment, you can apply that bonus onto any other you have through crafting, provided you’ve found the right materials throughout your journey in Athia.
Nails are a bit different in that you can wear two separate sets at a time and they can’t be improved through crafting. They simply confer static bonuses on Frey, such as Slay’s boost to Frey’s Purple line of magic or Aftershock, which creates a shockwave when you use a killing blow. These are all found while exploring and while important, I never felt overly pressured to go find more. However, I always felt rewarded when I did.
Give me all of my frames, please
However, what never felt rewarding was Forspoken’s performance. Playing the PS5 version of the RPG, Forspoken has three graphical modes: Quality, Ray-Tracing and Performance. Quality and Ray-Tracing aim to give better quality visuals at a lower framerate, targeting 30fps, while Performance mode lowers the rendering resolution further and targets 60fps. Forspoken also has a 120hz mode for those with displays that support the framerate.
Quality and Ray-Tracing modes look better overall, though I’m unsure of exactly what ray-tracing is bringing to the table here as both look identical. The framerate suffers as well, especially in high-octane situations…like traversal across the world or in combat with all of the particle effects flying. My fight against one of the earliest bosses while in RT mode seemed to slow to a crawl at times thanks to all the fire effects going around, to the point where half-way through the fight I had to swap to the Performance Mode.
Unfortunately, that didn’t provide any more stable a framerate, as Performance Mode struggles to keep a consistent 60fps in motion most of the time. Running throughout the forests of Junoon brings the framerate to a crawl at times, and during combat when I needed Forspoken to be the most responsive, it dropped in the worst spots.
When running using the Quality or RT mode, the input lag also felt pretty unbearable, despite my TV running in Game Mode. Hooking it up to my VRR monitor didn’t bring the input lag any closer to being acceptable either, and I felt I was fighting Forspoken at times just as much as I was fighting the creatures on screen.
To hit these framerate targets, the visual presentation of Forspoken takes a hit as well. The lighting looks flat at times, and the animation work on character faces veers into the uncanny, almost plastic-like. Performance mode sees pixel counts plummet to sub-1080p and is then upscaled to my 4K TV (though likely not reconstructing up to 4K in Performance mode), making the presentation look soft and blurry at times.
As a result, the clearly beautiful world of Athia looked soft and lacked fine detail most of the time thanks to the low rendering resolution. It made some of the best aspects of Forspoken - its traversal and combat - feel like a struggle and unresponsive at times. The Quality Mode gives the best-looking picture here, and rushing through the world felt less unstable than the RT and Performance modes, but during combat, the framerate still suffers greatly, especially in intense fights with a lot of alpha and particle effects. Additionally, throughout the course of my review playthrough, I came across a few crashing to the PS5 Home Screen, something I had never experienced on Sony’s console until now.
From writing that doesn’t give a great first impression at the start, to a character that doesn’t feel like she grows meaningfully or naturally throughout the progression of the story, Forspoken leaves a lot to be desired here, despite good performances by the actors themselves.
While the parts that Forspoken excel at are good, they are tied so intrinsically to the worst part of Forspoken: its console performance. Traversal would be so much better and more responsive if the framerate didn’t drop constantly, while combat would be more impactful if I wasn’t also fighting the performance as well as the creatures on screen.
Because of this, Forspoken feels incredibly unpolished despite its long development cycle. Some of this could be ironed out with performance patches to come, but right now it doesn’t feel much more improved from the demo currently out. The best aspects of Forspoken: its fast-paced, energetic movement and combat are critically hampered by performance issues that plague every moment when rock solid framerate is needed most.
It’s a shame too because Athia is a world I’d like to explore more. When the framerate didn’t suffer, rushing through Athia at high speeds, kicking it into high gear, and parkouring around the various ruins, cliffsides, outcroppings, and waterways of the world is an absolute blast. Combat, when there isn’t a noticeable framerate drop, is fast, frenetic and fun, and the sheer level of customization and player agency during combat is insane - in a great way. I felt more powerful as I progressed through Forspoken, a great thing as it felt like actual progression and not just stats getting higher each time I leveled. Those power-up decisions were mine, allowing me to tailor Frey’s combat abilities and style to fit my own personal designs.
In the end, Forspoken is okay, with its world, parkour, and combat as its high points. And while I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the story, I want to see Ella Balinksa as Frey again in a sequel as her performance (and, frankly, the majority of the cast) was a definite highlight, despite the poor writing she was given. Unfortunately, the performance issues really have made Forspoken hard to recommend at its full price, as it negatively impacts so much of the moment-to-moment gameplay. Hopefully with a few patches Square and Luminous can improve it over time. But until then, traveling down the rabbit hole into Athia might be best done on a sale.