‘Forspoken’ preview: breakneck speed and magical combat

One of 2022's most intriguing prospects reveals itself

Forspoken is a difficult one to pigeonhole. On one hand it’s all flashy magical visuals and breakneck speed levels of parkour. But it’s also a new action role-playing game trying to break through a crowded genre. Developer Luminous Productions brought the dudebro adventure Final Fantasy XV to Google Stadia, but while the story from that particular title didn’t exactly impress thanks to characters that feel half J-Pop boy-band origin story, half road-trip movie, it seems this time around, with its own debut title things are going to be different.

For starters, protagonist Frey Holland is a young woman from New York City. For some reason she’s been transported into a fantasy world called Athia. Oh and also she now has magical powers and the ability to parkour like you’ve never seen. The locals are afraid of her, and will call her “Demon”, as they don’t understand her powers at all.

After sitting through a hands-off presentation of the game, it’s clear that this might actually be one of the more intriguing titles of 2022. That said, I must confess that after seeing it, I’m left with potentially more questions than answers. It’s difficult to gauge, for example, how the movement feels when holding a controller yourself. It looks incredibly fluid, and the system named “Magic Parkour” is upgradable to allow you to extend how much free-running, or, I guess, free-magic-ing, you can do.

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Forspoken
Forspoken. Credit: Luminous Productions

Lead writers Allison Rymer and Todd Stashwick were on hand to talk about the process of creating Frey, and although both mentioned industry luminaries Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, Prey, The Walking Dead) and Amy Hennig (Uncharted, Legacy of Kain) were part of the writing team, it’s unclear if they were around for the entire project, or just its inception.

Rymer, though, was brought on the project with Gary Whitta in 2018, as he had an idea for a female lead story. Then came Amy Hennig, who brought Stashwick into the fold to deepen the narrative. Stashwick explained, “I had worked on a Star Wars game with Amy, and these fantasy worlds are the realms we like to work in. It was fun to build our own world”. That’s when he and Rymer met up and clicked, able to play off one-another well.

Back to Forspoken itself, main character Frey is having a tough time. She’s on the verge of possibly going to prison, and she’s scared and on the run. All she wants to do is run away with her cat Homer, who looks incredible in the proprietary Luminous engine.

Forspoken
Forspoken. Credit: Luminous Productions

Stashwick explains, “She hasn’t been shown a lot of kindness, so that has built this tough exterior. She’s a fighter. One of the big things that’s part of her tough exterior is her sense of humour. She uses it as a defensive mechanism”. Rymer added, “It’s the part of her that I love the best. It’s what people do when things are so tough and hard. It’s also made her very strong. A lot has to get in her way before she’s going to give up”.

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During combat, Frey will almost constantly be chattering away. In truth, this is something even based on this early hands-off demo that needs toning down. Yes, she’s from New York and is now in a strange land that looks like the NieR series mashed up with ancient Greece, but it was incredibly jarring hearing her bark obscenities without even drawing breath during combat that looked exhausting. Maybe it was the hands-off nature, but I felt a tremendous disconnect there.

Frey can blast her foes with a variety of magical attacks: ranged, traps, close quarters, and more. All these abilities seem to be accessible at will. There’s a radial menu which allows the player to switch between spell types, and of course time slows time down while you think about your next move. There seems to be cooldown timer on some spells, and the developer was keen to stress that flair-based combat or tactical, thoughtful play are both viable options.

Forspoken
Forspoken. Credit: Luminous Productions

It wouldn’t be a modern game without gaining experience after each encounter, and in Forspoken you can craft and upgrade, too. Resting at a safe location restores health. There’s a 3D map, destination markers; you can spend mana to learn new spells. Cloaks and necklaces are cosmetic boosts. Fingernail patterns also make spells more powerful (no, seriously, and this is another aspect that felt very out of place next to the fantasy setting), and honestly, it ticks every box for “modern open-world game”.

That said, the combat and movement could be what sets it apart. A huge magical storm engulfs Frey during one random exploratory session the developer showcased. It begins almost like a horde-mode encounter, and it’s called a “breakstorm”. Demonic looking enemies attempted to swarm our hero as magic seemed to crack and fizz through the air. Eventually a named boss the size of the screen became visible through the mist and gloom. The player died before completing this encounter, probably intentionally, but it did look brutal and very difficult indeed.

Forspoken
Forspoken. Credit: Luminous Productions

Elsewhere it appears stealth is a viable option, too. On the journey toward a waypoint, the demoist started taking on a group of large enemies, drawing them away from the destination marker. Then, using a spell, went invisible. This kind of emergent experience is something you only really get a feel for once you get to grips with how systems work in a game, but along with the traversal, it looked genuinely interesting.

Earlier on in the presentation, Stashwick explained that Frey is complicated. “She isn’t a superhero in that classic sense”, he said, ”she does eventually get powers, but there’s still this vulnerable scared human underneath it all”. That complicated persona perhaps didn’t come across in such a short presentation, but it does apply to the game. There’s definitely something there with Forspoken, but it really feels like something that can’t be done justice just watching it being played.

There’s a lot of time left before the Spring release date is upon us. This will give the developer a chance to explain what antagonist “The Break” actually is. All we know right now is that Frey is the only person who can come into contact with it without dying or becoming an enemy. Co-lead writer Rymer told the on-watching media: “After us living with this for so long, and all the work that everyone put into it, it’s so exciting to finally put it into the world”, and in truth, I’m fairly excited to see what more Forspoken has to offer myself.

Forspoken launches in Spring 2022 for PlayStation 5 and Windows PC.

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