The way that Forspoken drags Frey Holland into the fantasy world of Athia feels like the classic ‘fish out of water’ tales that were common during the golden era of 80s and 90s fantasy films. Whisked away from her life in New York to this completely alien world, she finds herself bonded to a talking vambrace – who she derisively nicknames ‘Cuff’ – and discovers that she can wield magic as a consequence. I guess that’s something she does now?
Lost in an unfamiliar land, hiding from massive dragons and battling smaller, but no less nightmarish creatures, it would be a lot to take in for most people, but Frey’s roguish attitude and self-confidence (with fairly good reason, to be fair) see her thrive. While she initially just wants to get back home, she’s soon drawn into helping the people of this world instead of just looking out for herself, as Athia has gradually been consumed by a corrupting influence of the Break, perpetuated by the Tantas who were formerly benevolent rulers, but now have a more malevolent disposition…
Thankfully, Frey is far from helpless and can draw upon the magic of the Earth, dredging up rocks to be single explosive projectiles, spitting them out at enemies in rapid fire, or creating a shield that fires back in a shotgun-like blast. These provide the basis for her attacks at the start of the game, but is quickly supplemented by support magics that can summon an ivy whip to deal damage all around Frey, bind enemies in a tangle of weeds, or summon plants to fling rocks independently at enemies for you – this one feels especially powerful. It builds up to a super that brings a wave of rocky spikes out of the ground in front of Frey.
That’s just one of several types of magic that Frey learns through the game, her abilities further augmented by the necklace and cloak she wears, as well as painting magic augmenting symbols on her finger nails, just like the Tantas do.
Combat in Forspoken is an interesting blend of unleashing these ranged attacks, support abilities and then some flamboyant and energetic movement wrapped around it. It took me a while to get used to, training myself not to fiddle with the right analogue stick too much and losing the lock on because of it, and then learning that you can just hold a button to use up the pips of magical parkour dodging, with Frey flipping and tricking around anything that comes her way when you do so. Each battle is graded depending on how you perform, and it grew on me through the few hours of playtime I had, building up to a titanic battle against Tanta Sila, one of the corrupted rulers of Athia.
There’s some weaker moments from the two sections of the game that we got to play – both sections coming from earlier chapters in the game. In particular, there’s a faux stealth sequence while escaping imprisonment that just feels forced, from the pacing to the dialogue. Similarly, the way that Frey is brought to feel attachment to the people that continue to survive here is right out of the Hollywood book of narrative tropes. The gigantic apples that are the size of a child’s head, though? Those are actually intentional – apparently Japanese apples are just massive.
Then there’s the dialogue that was lampooned from the story trailer released a few months ago. It’s still in the game, but it does work a bit better in the context of Frey finding herself in such unfamiliar lands… and talking to some glitzy bangles on her arm.
They’re growing pains that will fade as you get deeper into the game, I feel. Certainly, they became less of an issue once I had the freedom of the open world to explore, making use of Frey’s magical parkour skills to race through the world at superhero speed.
The world is big and broad, having a wider wilderness feel that’s not too densely populated to allow you to move and dip into battles with the roaming zombified humans and beasts if you so wish, or keep on dashing past them. Dotted around are refuges that you can unlock for fast travel, occasional challenge dungeons that you can venture into and take on strings of battles.
At least, that’s what the relatively calm open world near the city of Cipal was like. Jumping ahead to a later chapter with Frey assaulting the mountainous castle city of Praenost that Tanta Sila calls her home, the tone shifts significantly. The environments are cast in a reddish light, and the enemies are more challenging (partly because of skipping ahead in our hands-on session), and they come in numbers that draw your attentions in multiple directions at once making for some quite challenging situations.
There’s a great deal of verticality here, but you’re able to scale many buildings and canyon walls with ease. Getting into the castle, you’re faced with a choice – barrel in through the front gate and fight your way past the enemies, or try to find a more subtle way up and into the castle.
It really comes to a head when facing Tanta Sila, as she unleashes flaming attacks and taunts you through the multi-stage boss battle – then again, Frey gives as good as she gets with some of her own verbal barbs. It was by this point that I felt I had a better handle of the combat, continually peppering Sila with attacks and understanding how much the game will hold your hand through lock-on and dodging attacks. It’s a fine balance to strike, but I feel that Forspoken has a good grasp on how to provide challenge alongside accessibility.
There’s something to Forspoken, and it’s clear from spending an extended time playing that certain trailers and last week’s demo haven’t always put the best foot forward. The narrative works well to drop you into this fantasy world, the magic Frey wields feels powerful, the action is often frenetically acrobatic, and the speed at which you zip around the world is enticing. We’ve only scratched the surface of what this game can be, and I’m certainly keen to see more when it comes out early next year.