I’ve been obsessed with Forspoken since its reveal as Project Athia in 2020. Set in a medieval fantasy realm, the fish-out-of-water game is being developed by Luminous Productions – an in-house Square Enix team dedicated to the development of Final Fantasy XV, a game that I thoroughly enjoyed despite its problems. It also showcases the talents of Uncharted series creator Amy Hennig and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story writer Gary Whitta on the narrative side, which makes me interested in recreating the journey of protagonist Frey Holland.
On paper, it’s exactly the kind of RPG I like to spend my time with. After a few hours of hands-on work and talking to some members of the team about the decisions behind Forspoken’s design, I’m even more excited for January, although I still have some reservations about this studio’s first new IP.
This preview session focused solely on the story, with the team encouraging me to put less thought into exploring Athia and more into what’s happening in the main path of Forspoken’s second, third, and fifth chapters. In chapter two, Frey has just arrived in Athia and still doesn’t know how or why she ended up there – questions that remain unanswered in the chapters I play. Frey is a New York City woman with a history in and out of foster care. As a result, she struggles to trust anyone.
In fact, she has a hard time trusting anything, including the talking bracer on her arm that she calls Cuff. The dynamic between Frey and Cuff stands out to me in how hilarious it can be.
There’s a moment where Cuff gets on Frey’s nerves and she tells him to shut up, adding, “You’re bloody stupid,” and I laughed out loud. Frey’s fish-on-water persona is mostly from the books, but her initial apathy with this alien fantasy realm is funny at times. In the few chapters I played, her bond with Athia grew and her plight against the corruption, or breach as Frey calls it, that is turning what was once a peaceful and sheltered land into a place teeming with mindless and dangerous monsters . But her fear of interfering upon her arrival is understandable.
One of the biggest surprises for me is the dialogue, which is mostly devoid of the shotgun blasts and Joss Whedon-esque lines that many criticized in a 30-second trailer released in August. A few lines here and there maintain that tone, but unlike this trailer, Luminous Productions spreads them out enough in Forspoken that it feels organic. And when you get to know Frey as a character, these lines make sense whether you love her or hate her.
I asked creative producer Raio Mitsuno about this trailer and the backlash that followed.
“I’m really glad you brought it up,” Mitsuno tells me at the preview session. “It was a social media post that included a number of bits of dialogue that we had used in previous trailers and put together for a new video. We knew people would have a chance to actually play the game and be introduced to Frey and see what she’s going through [and] the interactions…her personality just feels like a natural representation of the character we were trying to create. To be completely honest, it was quite difficult to portray this complex dynamic character in our advertising campaign because we have limited time. We don’t want to reveal everything about the story either, so we try to keep things under wraps, but we want to create intrigue and interest in the character.”
Mitsuno says the team believes in Frey, loves her personality and what she represents, and that people will understand if they play the game. But the team is also aware of how a lack of context could portray them. Ultimately, Mitsuno says that moment was a learning experience.
After playing through a tutorial to learn how Forspoken’s magic-based combat works, I make my way to Cipal, Athia’s central capital and the last safe bastion of the realm still untouched by the breach. I fight a few mob enemies before encountering a dragon boss, and the combat is quite challenging at this point. It’s weird at first to get used to a combat system that only uses magic, and it takes some time to get used to. But it clicks as the spells available to me open up, and I realize that while each combat move is magic, each of those spells is translated into a mechanic I’m familiar with from other games. One of my spells is a medium range stone row that shoots out of my hands like a machine gun. Another is an explosion of stones – a grenade. I also have a shield spell that knocks enemies back on an implosion.
And later, as I unlock new fire-based magic, I gain access to a fiery sword that gives me the short-range attacks I need and a flame-infused spear that offers long range. The combat feels unnatural at first, but over time it clicks and I can see how the dozens of spells at Frey’s disposal morph into a fun and strategic system that rewards different playstyles. The team expects the same.
“Specifically, because we’ve got an open world on our hands and we have 100 spells at our disposal, it really opens up to a variety of gameplay, as mentioned before,” co-director Takefumi Terada tells me through a translator. “To strengthen and improve one [spell] can open up and lead to others. So if there’s 100 different people, he’s really hoping there’ll end up being 100 different builds that players like.”
Mitsuno adds that while “builds” can be used to describe what players could make their Frey into, the team doesn’t mean “builds” in the traditional sense found in Destiny 2 or any MMO. It’s rather that you can choose which spells you want to use at any given time. If you prefer earth-based spells, you can invest in it, and the same goes for fire magic. But be aware that you can switch at any time to focus on another magical tactic.
Shortly after defeating the dragon and arriving in Cipal, Frey is labeled a Hellspawn heretic, likely the one behind the corruption, and put in a prison cell. But Auden Keen, a local whose father had studied the phenomena that brought Frey to Athia, frees me from prison. Auden hires me to find more of her father’s diaries.
After leaving to do so, I return to Athia to discover that Tanta Sila, a former protector of the realm who is now seemingly evil, is threatening to kill Auden for freeing me. This ends with a boss fight against a Valkyrie-like creature that feels like a typical arena-style fight against a low-level boss. It’s quick and easy, and soon I’m on my way to Sila’ Castle to fight the real deal.
Along the way I’m gaining new parkour skills, which unfortunately don’t spark any additional interest in this traversal system in me. The parkour looks cool and flashy but feels distanced. You essentially hold down the circle button as you move, and Frey will climb small cliffs, jump off hills, dodge enemies, and more. It may be getting more practical, but parkour struggles to convey excitement to me beyond its visual flare as I move.
I was initially concerned that parkouring through Athia’s vast lands would result in me missing key points of interest on the map. Though there weren’t many spots to explore early in the game, Mitsuno said the team took great care to ensure the world remained enticing while traversed using Forspoken’s parkour system.
“We wanted to make sure people could fully enjoy the magical parkour action, so the open world is built on that concept,” says Terada. “We started out by testing how the magic parkour felt and the controllability and playability of it in terms of the speed and elevation changes and jumps between different terrains and elevations and so on.” The team made sure that it was early in focused development on that and then built the world specifically to take advantage of the movement abilities they created for Frey.
“When we originally created this game experience where we were trying to steer people towards the main path of the story, we ran into the challenge and issue that players could miss certain things on the world map, so that was as you mentioned , quite a challenging aspect,” says Terada. “However, we have conducted numerous user tests and analyzed the gameplay from these and assure that additional work and balance and adjustments have been made to get to where we are at the moment.”
I parkour my way to Sila, fighting various mob enemies along the way. I’ll also get a new set of nails to equip Frey. They can put different marks on their nails inspired by the power of the tantas and the magic of Athia, and each set offers different buffs. For example, I have the Blue Flash Nails on Frey’s right hand, which increase all damage by 5% and make attack spells recharge faster. On the left, I equip the Slay Nails, which increase spell damage by 5% and make support magic deal more damage under certain conditions. Other upgrades for Frey include an extensive set of skill trees, different types of gear like wearable cloaks, and more.
On the way to Sila, I also try out some side content, such as a race. In the race, I parkour across the terrain, defeating certain enemies at checkpoints along the way before a timer expires. It was fun, and the various item rewards and experiences seemed worth the four-minute jaunt. I also encountered a boss that is way too powerful for me to fight, but I’m now intrigued by these tough fights scattered throughout Athia. I keep going up the cliff to finally make it to Sila’ Castle. I learn a little more about the four tantas and their roles in Athia before entering Sila’s throne room.
My fight against Sila is fun, but like the Dragon and Valkyrie bosses before her, that’s natural. The combat doesn’t do anything new, but Frey’s parkour skills and various spells are a fun addition to this typical arena-style boss fight. Visually, it’s great – Frey’s purple earth-based spells pair well with Sila’s fiery orange magic, and I’m excited to see what other magic combinations will emerge from battling the other three potentially corrupt Tanta-Protectors.
However, I wish the rest of Forspoken’s graphics wowed me just as much. Athia, or at least the starting area I’ve been messing around in, is uninspired and seems generic. The characters also look odd, more mannequin than human. It’s a little under two months until Forspoken’s release, so I’m hoping the final product will look better than this preview. If the graphics are struggling at release, at least Forspoken’s battles and characters are fun to play with.
Download at: https://www.gameinformer.com/preview/2022/12/12/cuffing-season-in-athia