Though I’ve never played Final Fantasy XV, I saw it just about everywhere in the nearly four hours I spent playing Forspoken, the upcoming action-RPG from Square Enix and Luminous Productions. From the movement to the game’s explicitly flashy combat, and yes, even its imperfections, Forspoken seems like a continuation of the foundation that team laid out all those years ago. The similarities were so apparent, the first question I asked the team behind Forspoken was more or less, “Why this instead of another shot at Final Fantasy?”
Takeshi Aramaki, Luminous Productions’ head and Forspoken’s director, called out that Final Fantasy XV, despite its complications, did speak to a large swath of people and regions that the series hadn’t traditionally had a tremendous space in. He attributed this success to developments in the game’s RPG and open-world elements that hadn’t previously been seen in the series and it seems like the team at Luminous Productions was keen on the idea of continuing that work. This meant untethering themselves from the property and striking out to make something new, though not entirely different. And so the company landed on Forspoken, a uniquely global production on the heels of corporate restructuring that saw Square Enix divest away from most of its western partners.
So what is Forspoken exactly? It’s countless things. For the most part, it is an open-world action RPG with an emphasis on magical parkour movement and an expansive combat system boasting hundreds of spells and four distinct elements. In my few hours, it even feels more specifically like a third-person shooter atop all of those things. It is also a “fish-out-of-water” story where a brusque New Yorker named Frey is transported to a dying magical world, talks to her cuff and does indeed fight “jacked-up beasts” and dragons. At times in my preview, it was somber, and at others, it was remarkably light. Sometimes I snuck around and at others I was knocking back waves of enemies with a giant vine. Suffice to say, it’s a lot, but kind of remarkably, it worked for me in bits and pieces.
Forspoken’s combat and movement took a lot of adjusting before it began to feel right, because neither quite felt fleshed out to begin with and doesn’t give an exemplary first impression. Frey’s magic is supposed to grow more powerful and useful over time, so when you first get your powers, they’re a bit rudimentary. For example, at the beginning of the game you can dash and bound like you’ve likely seen if you’re at all familiar with the game’s promotional material and Frey can scale small buildings and rock formations with relative ease. The problem here was just that her actual movement, as in the way she climbs over things or hurdles over tiny obstacles, came off kind of stiff. Despite the fact I should’ve been able to gracefully traipse over these things, my character kept getting hung up on them and committing far too many stops and/or flashy animations to get over anything. Tinier problems, like the camera failing to keep up, marred the experience even more, but with a few setting tweaks and time, I eventually warmed to Forspoken’s movement. Matters only improved when I received more movement tech, like a quick zip tied to a fiery grapple technique.
Combat felt a touch better and was at least intuitive in that your support (think turrets or vine traps) and attack abilities are tied to the trigger buttons, while radial menus that swap between spells are mapped to the accompanying triggers.What really helped me get better at combat was figuring out how movement factored in. Much like Sunset Overdrive years before it, staying still is the least exciting way to play Forspoken and the surest way to make certain you have a hard time with things. The thing was that holding the parkour button, moving my character, switching between abilities and then locking on to hurl rocks at enemies all becomes a lot really quick. I was overencumbered with inputs to make and it was frying my brain in the middle of encounters. That’s why I’d suggest making your parkour button a toggle the second you can, and switching your camera settings so that it repositions behind Frey at all times. This leaves your fingers free to engage in Forspoken’s admittedly frenetic dance. But the thing is that once it started clicking for me, my worries about how the game initially felt disappeared.
Soon enough, I was airdashing over enemies who I’d bound in place before lighting them up with a dazzling volcanic eruption, only to then dodge backwards and launch an endless stream of rocks into the lot of them from a safe distance. I erected a shield of stones for enemies that got too close before launching them like a shotgun spread. In the heat of fights like this, I realized why Forspoken’s fast-paced combat was so appealing and familiar to me: I was functionally playing a third-person shooter. The aforementioned move is literally one straight out of one of my favorite games in recent memory, Control, another third-person shooter with a unique emphasis on movement and supernatural/magical powers. When speaking to the game’s co-director Takefumi Terada about what influenced the design of the game’s deep well of spells, he even noted that accounting for distance was among the first priorities, which sounded distinctly like the school of thought of a developer on a shooter rather than an RPG. Terada told me, “Given that we do have a hundred types of spells, we wanted to ensure each and every one had their distinct purpose and role. So we feel like the most important aspect is really the distance between the player themselves and the enemy.” He proceeded to note how fire-based magic was designed with close-quarters combat in mind, hence why Frey can suddenly summon a blazing sword. While the other elements Frey can unlock went unseen, Terada did make mention of one of them perhaps being best used at a long range, and to hear him talk about it made me realize how different this kind of approach is for an RPG and how refreshing it felt in action.
Speaking of refreshing, I know plenty of people were on edge about Forspoken’s dialogue after a certain ad got around a while ago, and while I don’t think anything can be done about it (as it’s very much still in the game and right there at the beginning), I think it ultimately settles into a more relaxed, but still corny, cadence. Some of the writing, especially in certain dramatic moments, is a little overwrought, but I rarely felt actively alienated by it, though I’ve also got a tolerance for that low brow kind of writing. The magical speaking cuff that Frey wears doesn’t actually talk all that much on the default setting, and yes that does mean that you can opt in to hearing more or less of them as you’re exploring the game. Frey tosses out phrases and terms that the people of Athia simply don’t know, which grounded her for me, but gave her an otherworldliness to the characters around her, and the disparity is predictably played for laughs. The point is, it’s way more serviceable, at least according to the four hours of the game that I played, than you might expect.
As far as Frey herself, well, she seems like a stereotypical New Yorker, a point that seemed important to creative producer Raio Mitsuno, who told me, “We figured out this is Frey in terms of her personality and who she is. And then once we had that, it was kind of a collective, ‘Hey, this is a character that’s from New York. Like, this just feels right and it just feels like it matches with everything that she represents and everything that she’s gonna go through in this journey.’” As the team stumbled onto Frey’s origins, they also felt like in order to best realize this character, who they hope will resonate with many, they need to make her relatable or at least someone that people could understand. Being from New York, a place Mitsuno said “has such an identity in and of itself” made it easy for the team to feel like players would be able to get a good grasp on the type of person they wanted to be their lead. And true to form, she puts up a hard front, but is secretly a softie, and warms to people in Athia quickly even if she constantly tells them she’s in it for herself and just trying to get back home. She doesn’t have a “hip-hoppy walk” as far as I could see and I certainly tried walking at different speeds to see if there was evidence of one. She’s a cat person and loves fitting the word “fuck” into her sentences. She’s just like me. Frey is, for all intents and purposes, a normal ass woman who definitely should’ve been written by Black folks, but didn’t strike me as egregiously written in the relatively short time I got to spend with her, either. Time and more relevant perspectives than mine will tell whether that remains true. What more immediately concerned me instead was the game’s story.
Athia is plagued by something that Frey, in her naivete, simply calls “the Break,” which has apparently been transforming animals and people alike into the monsters you fight. To make matters worse, these four matriarchs called the Tantas, who are integral parts of Athia’s past and seemingly maintained the realm, are all taken by “madness,” as the game constantly puts it. While it’s almost definitely brought on by whatever is really fueling the Break, I’ll admit that it was a bit disappointing to find that the primary villains we’ll be facing off against as far as I can tell are a bunch of crazy women, not only invoking a shitty trope but sexist attitudes that people actually have towards women in positions of power. Meeting one of the Tantas shed very little light on whether this really was the cause of their downfall, and the ambiguity of it all now hanging over the plot of this game is killing me. Through it all though, it seems like the team is keen to tell a more personal story that is foregrounded by the epic scale of the devastation going on in Athia. Mitsuno credits that focus to the primarily Western team of writers who both established the world and then expanded on it, like Amy Hennig, Todd Stashwick, Allison Rymer and Gary Whitta.
I walked away from my time with Forspoken more optimistic than I had arrived, but few of my concerns about it were resolved either. While I’ve made peace with the tone of the writing, and found it more agreeable than I was led to believe, it’s still a wonder if it’ll manage its levity and weight tactfully or not in the long run and whether or not its narrative is what it seems like it’ll be is going to hang over me until I actually see it through for myself. And while the combat and movement seem like they allow for plenty of growth that’ll make interacting with them a more consistent joy, Forspoken gets off to a rough start introducing both before gradually getting its act together. It’s a wonder if such a start may put people off before the game even gets going. I think that’d be a shame because the game is clearly ambitious in scope and the team behind it sure seems like they want this one to stick the landing.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.