What’s old is new again.
Sometimes in the world of video games, the constant march of technology outpaces the creation of new ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as proven ideas are proven for a reason and can work for many years, as long as they’re intelligently repackaged with at least one fresh twist. Forspoken, Square Enix’s upcoming open-world romp for PlayStation 5 and PC, may be the latest example of this.
Based on a 45-minute demo I played, it’s clear that Forspoken marries gorgeous next-gen visuals with thrillingly fluid traversal powers in a huge open world. But in some key ways — chiefly, its straightforward mission design — it feels like a game from 2009.
Depending on your personal taste, that could be a breath of fresh air or a dealbreaker. Either way, it helps set expectations for this intriguing and anticipated new game from the company behind Final Fantasy.
I’m magically parkourin’ here!
In case you haven’t been following along since its initial 2020 reveal as Project Athia, Forspoken stars Frey Holland, a native New Yorker who one day is magically spirited away to a fantasy world called…Athia. She gets a sweet cloak, a talking wrist cuff, and magic powers that she’ll use to navigate Athia, kill monsters, complete seemingly ordinary quests, and find her way back to the Big Apple.
Did I mention she also has totally sick magical parkour powers?
Anytime I’ve watched trailers for Forspoken, that’s the one mechanic I’ve wanted to try above all else. Frey uses this power to zoom across the grassy plains and craggy mountains of Athia. It’s incredibly eye-catching and looks fun as hell, even if the design and overall structure of Forspoken itself doesn’t seem overly creative.
So, naturally, the first thing I did once I had my hands on the game was to activate parkour mode. There’s hardly any technique to it at all; simply hold the circle button down (I played on a PS5), move in any direction, and Frey’s magic handles the rest. It’s not limitless, however, as you have a magic stamina meter that drains pretty slowly and refills quickly.
Most importantly, though, that part of the game just works.
Zooming around the world is a delight.
Credit: Square Enix
Simply sprinting across Athia’s gorgeous fields without a care in the world is a real treat. Hardly anything is an obstacle for Frey when she’s doing this, as she’ll automatically bound over small objects and hop over gaps. What she won’t do (at least by default) is climb up sheer walls, but I found that you can kind of fudge it by holding the parkour button while jumping over and over again.
I’m just a sucker for novel, dynamic forms of traversal in games. Give me a big field and a fun, fast way to get from point A to point B, and it’s like catnip for me. Of course, there will be plenty of enemies and quest objectives between points A and B, and those aspects are where Forspoken will either succeed or fail as an open-world action game.
A burning ring of fire
Forspoken isn’t just a game about running around real fast. Frey’s newfound sorcery also applies to combat, which I experienced against a variety of monsters including everything from shambling zombie soldiers to flying bats and even a boss fight against a huge, crystalline lizard. The contexts in which I fought these enemies were often plain and derivative in nature, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Forspoken feels like a combination of Prototype and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The demo gave me access to a large (I’d even call it overwhelming) number of spells. You map one damage-dealing spell to the right trigger and one helpful support spell (typically defensive in nature) to the left trigger, but those can be swapped out at any time, even in the middle of fights. There seems to be a great deal of depth to all of this, as spells are mapped to different elements (e.g., fire or lightning) and enemies have different weaknesses. Some spells are even powered up or modified if you use them while in parkour mode.
In Forspoken, you can do everything from slinging rocks at enemies to summoning flaming soldiers to fight alongside you. One of my favorite spells was a fire-based spear that worked as a melee weapon normally, but when charged up, it became a projectile that stuck to enemies and exploded like a Halo plasma grenade after a few seconds. That, combined with a support spell that encircled the immediate area in a ring of fire that increased Frey’s attack power, made short work of a lot of enemies as I plowed my way through its standard open-world missions.
You can’t go wrong with a good fire spell.
Credit: Square Enix
For the first half of the demo, Forspoken’s combat felt incredibly loose. The default camera sensitivity was too high, causing me to consistently overshoot my targets. That is, until I realized that there’s a lock-on button. I also couldn’t figure out the rhythm of when I should be zooming around the battlefield or when I should stop and look at things tactically. But after about 20 minutes of experimentation, it eventually sort of just clicked.
Once I got a handle on things, I was hot-swapping spells in and out to take advantage of enemy weaknesses, and steamrolling groups of soldiers and even that big lizard boss with ease. None of it feels especially precise, but it doesn’t need to be thanks to that handy lock-on button. Just use Frey’s magic to create as many different kinds of explosions as possible and eventually you’ll come out on top.
It’s giving Xbox 360 vibes
Clearing out a fortress teeming with enemies is something I’ve already done too many times in video games.
Credit: Square Enix
By far the biggest takeaway (and biggest concern) from my time with Forspoken is that the structure of the game itself feels very antiquated.
Back in the Xbox 360/PS3 days, there were a handful of open-world adventures with superpowered protagonists and nimble, acrobatic movement. Think Prototype or Infamous. The moment-to-moment action was fun, but mission design was often rudimentary at best.
I’m worried Forspoken will be another one of those games with a shiny coat of next-gen paint over it. Every objective I had felt like it came straight out of 2009. These included clearing an enemy base to “liberate” it, or finding a statue that permanently boosted my magic damage. I want to believe this game, with its exhilarating movement and magic power fantasy combat, will have more interesting things to actually do when it comes out, but nothing in the demo gave me much confidence.
The same goes for the design of Athia itself. Based on what little I saw, it’s really basic, stock fantasy stuff: green fields, brown castles, beige rocky areas, and so on and so forth. Enemy designs outside of the crystal lizard boss didn’t really stand out to me, either.
Between its aging mission design and generic, sprawling fantasy world, Forspoken feels like a combination of Prototype and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Credit: Square Enix
Except, you know, way more fun to play.
Maybe the final version of Forspoken will have a great story with nuanced characters, bustling towns full of NPCs, and more creative quest design than what I saw. But there’s also reason to believe it won’t have any of those things. If that’s the case, it might be a fun throwback in a sense, or at least a great podcast game. Or… it might be a dull disappointment.
Regardless, you better believe I’m going to use the heck out of that spear spell when Forspoken launches in January.