A video game is often only as good as its weakest parts. But sometimes a game manages to overcome its obvious flaws. And while the results are never great, they can be good. Or at least halfway decent. Which is where we find Forspoken (PlayStation 5, PC), an open world, fantasy, third-person action / adventure game that manages to get fun despite its glaring flaws.
Well, to a point.
Despite being smart,
personable, and looking like she could be the star of a Charlie’s Angels movie, Alfre “Frey” Holland’s life isn’t going well. Doubly so when she steals what looks like the vambrace from the show Ms. Marvel, and is then sucked through a Star Trek-looking portal to a magical medieval realm called Athia where almost everyone and everything wants to kill her. Good thing she now has magic powers, and that the vambrace not only talks, but kind of knows what’s going on; she’s going to need both if she wants to get back to the land of good knishes.
As with a lot of open world action / adventure games, Forspoken has Frey wandering a massive land where she finds side quests (here called “detours”), is randomly attacked, and completes tasks that will hopefully help her become strong enough to survive any challenge she faces along the way.
What makes Forspoken different from similar games, at first anyway, is that Frey’s initial magic powers are ground based, and have her shooting concentrated electricity and baseball-sized rocks. Which, in the beginning, makes Forspoken feel like a shooter.
Well, sort of. No one will ever mistake this for a Just Cause sequel. Or even the sequel to the fantasy-themed Borderlands spin-off, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, which still had you using guns. Instead, it’s a bit loose and imprecise, and feels more like the shooting in Ghostwire: Tokyo, in which you also blasted enemies with energy you shot from your hands.
That said, Forspoken differs from Ghostwire: Tokyo, as well as the other shooters I just mentioned, by having the left trigger be for a rechargeable second magic spell as opposed to using iron sights. These can also be attacks (“Disperse” temporarily sprouts a plant that flings rocks), or defensive spells (“Bind” uses vines to hold enemies in place).
All of Frey’s attack spells can also be modified by holding the right trigger instead of just tapping it. This changes “Burst Shot,” for instance, from Frey throwing a single stone to combining a bunch into a boulder.
Though Forspoken is also unlike many gun games…
in that you never run out of ammo, or need to reload. You can just let ‘er rip. Or let her rip, as the case may be.
Further expanding Forspoken‘s combat pallete, Frey has even more powerful rechargeable special attacks that requires both triggers, while she can also, when prompted, kick someone when they’re down.
Forspoken also keeps combat interesting by frequently having Frey be attacked from all sides and by an unusually large number of enemies. Like the time she took on 30 large alligators, or a horde of zombies that easily topped 100 strong.
But what really makes Forspoken‘s combat feel different from most shooters (but not all) is that Frey’s trip to Atria has also given her the ability to magically run fast, jump high, and parkour. Though not as swift as The Flash or Quicksilver — or, if you’d prefer a game refence, the heroes of the late-2000 games InFAMOUS, Prototype, and Crackdown — she is quick, which is helpful given how this game’s open world is huge.
More importantly, these abilities aid Frey in combat, where she can use them to dodge attacks, or launch mid-air strikes, kind of like God Of War: Ragnarok if Kratos was more acrobatic.
Oh, and in case you care, Forspoken is decidedly one of those games where you get hurt a lot, but always have a lot of health restoring potions, as opposed to one where you’re resistant to injury but can’t carry a lot of bandages.
As interesting and unique…
as the gun-like combat in Forspoken may be, though, things get even better (if less distinctive) when, after reaching a milestone I won’t spoil, Frey gets a second set of attack spells. Unlike her first set of spells, these are melee based fire powers, with our hero now swinging a sword made of magical energy. And, of course, they act differently if you hold the trigger as opposed to just tapping it.
Frey will even, without prompting, jump from one enemy to another when you’re surrounded and jamming on that trigger, kind of like Batman used to do in the Arkham games, though Frey doesn’t need to be told to do it.
Along with these new attacks, Frey also gains the ability to get around using a magical grappling hook that kind of works like the one Batman has in his Arkham games, in that it can only attach to certain spots, and kind of like Master Chief’s in Halo Infinite in that it springs her upwards when she gets to those certain spots. She can also use it to target enemies, though this doesn’t work as well as the Chief’s.
That said, hers does do one thing neither of theirs does: it slows time when she uses it. Which makes it easy for Frey to save herself when she falls off a really high cliff. Or a Roger Dean-looking floating rock.
Working in concert, these elements make the combat in Forspoken rather engaging and exciting, especially when Frey has a lot of enemies coming at her from all sides. And since combat is the main thrust of this game…
The thing is,
as good as Forspoken gets when Frey adds these second set of skills, it’s almost not worth it given how long it takes to get to this point. (The operative phrase here being “almost.”) It wasn’t until four hours in that she first reached the game’s main area, which is when this got halfway decent, and then another six or seven before she got her sword spells, which is when it got good.
Before that happened, Forspoken was sluggish and dull. So much so that, at one point, after playing for what I thought was an hour and a half, I checked, and realized it had only been 20 minutes.
This slow start isn’t the only issue that undermines Forspoken. And the rest apply to the whole game, not just the beginning.
It’s controls, for instance, are just slightly off, especially when you’re trying to parkour. They’re certainly not as smooth as such fellow third-person games as The Last Of Us Part I or Horizon Forbidden West.
Making traversal even more frustrating, Frey has a tendency to get stuck on things. Like steps and rocks and slightly raised areas of the terrain that she should’ve learned to navigate at age 2.
It also doesn’t help that Forspoken‘s main area of exploration is massive, and that the fast travel points are scarce. Even with Frey’s ability to speed run, points of interest are often so spread out that, at times, it feels like you spent as much time walking as you do adventuring. Even more so than in Death Stranding, which I once summed up with the cliché, “…and we’re walking, we’re walking…”
Though it also doesn’t help…
that these points of interest quickly become redundant. The underground dungeon-like areas, for instance, all look the same, are all largely linear, and all play out the same way, just with different occupants. They also, like many of the so-called “detours,” often feel more than skill challenges than something an explorer would do on their way to saving the day.
The irony being that there is some variety when it comes to the ones that are skill challenges, as some test Frey’s combat abilities, while others challenge her running skills.
Forspoken also doesn’t make it easy to combine attack palletes. Each set of spells has its own menu you pull up by holding the bumper buttons (right for your main attacks, left for the rechargeable ones), which makes it hard to, say, punctuating a rapid fire of magic energy with a devastating slice of your sword. Not impossible, just not just easy.
Though, on the plus side, pulling up these menus does pause the action, as opposed to slowing time or letting it continue unabated, which would leave you open to attack.
And while Frey gets even more magical powers as she progresses, none are as much fun as her sword. Well, unless you’re super into water balloons.
Then there are Forspoken‘s narrative issues. The game often breaks up the action with lots of short cutscenes, and then takes way too long to put you back in control after they’re over.
It also seems like they couldn’t get actress Ella Balinska — who’s both the voice of and the model for Frey — to do as many voice sessions as they needed, because the bits of conversation between Frey and her vambrace repeat way too often.
Then there are the issues…
that are not unique to Forspoken. For starters, enemies will make a bee line for you even when they have their own enemies to contend with. Like the bear who came after Frey even though there were some perfectly good soldiers in between them to swipe.
Similarly, while Frey’s vambrace can scan the landscape for enemies, supplies, and treasure, the effects wear off way too quickly, forcing you to continually hit that button. Y’know, like you had to in Batman’s Arkham games, the recent Tomb Raider games, Horizon Zero Dawn… Even worse, the button in question is up on the D-pad, which means you have to stop moving to activate it.
Forspoken also has an issue so common that I basically just cut and paste the following paragraph into every relevant review: the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your TV — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll find it hard to read the menus, book entries, tips, mission objectives, or interactive dialog prompts. Even the subtitles are too small, and that even after you adjust them.
despite all these flaws, Forspoken actually gets good. Certainly much better than the first couple of hours led us to believe. Combat, when you have the sword, can be exhilarating, especially when you’re surrounded, and in a way that’s rather different from other open world fantasy adventure games. Sure, it takes too long to get good; Frey is crap at parkouring; it’s way too interested in testing your skills than having you do something adventurous; and as modern age people transposed to the past stories go, it’s no A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court…or even A Connecticut Rabbit In King Arthur’s Court. But it’s also not as bad as Ella’s Resident Evil show. It may take its sweet ass time getting there, and stumble when it does, but Forspoken ultimately ends up being a halfway decent adventure.