Forspoken review: Alice’s adventures in blunderland
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Featured Image Credit: Square Enix
Did you know the guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland was high? Like the whole time he wrote it, rambles your boyfriend. You’ve now lost the opportunity to ask him if he had made any headway with his cover letter so you make an affirmative sound. Yeah, like the different characters are meant to be like coke and weed and stuff, he says. He flicks his finger on his phone screen so you can’t see he’s just read a TikTok aloud rather than sharing with you a profound observation.
That isn’t true, by the way. About Lewis Carroll. But I did wonder to myself: would I have had a better time with Forspoken if I wasn’t soberly smashing through its story in the form of multiple boss battles.
Check out the cinematic trailer for Forspoken here!
From Luminous Productions, the sparkliness of Forspoken is fabulous. After tumbling into another world with a sentient talking Cuff welded to her wrist, the protagonist Frey doles out elemental blows that light up the whole screen with sparks and particle effects. She’s also able to traverse the world of Athia like lightning, golden strings flying off her feet as she scales rocks and catapults across plains. Undeniably sick, it is.
Athia is ginormous too - split into the four regions Junoon, Praenost, Avaloet and Visoria - so the traversal mechanic isn’t so much a feature as it is a necessity. Our colleague, Kate, had previously stated that we haven’t had a game that’s pushed the PlayStation 5 yet, even two years into its lifecycle, and we’ve certainly found one in Forspoken. The game relishes throwing what might be up to 50 enemies on the screen at the same time, sometimes of varying types, and it is extremely fun to mix and match those aforementioned attacks and support magics to puree your foes.
Athia is succumbing to an apocalypse called the Break - some sort of corrupting energy that twists the living form and turned the Tantas, the sorceresses who rule the lands, to madness. The Tantas designs are incredible, but what else were we expecting from the developer of Final Fantasy XV. As allusions to the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Caterpillar, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, all of them are a challenge to best and once you inherit their magic, the abilities are all very varied.
It’s super satisfying to chain attacks and exploit monsters’ weaknesses, your arsenal even more cataclysmic than the last time you’d sprinted through here. But it’s not a walk in the park - there was one very entertaining fight with a Tanta who took Frey’s senses away which made the Dualsense triggers click timidly in my hands rather than the satisfying cu-clunk from charging up attacks.
Plus, the scale of the game tests the PS5 to render the grasses, rocks, ruins, foliage and more in devastating detail faster than you’re skittering across it. Though Luminous Productions has definitely nailed down the wonder of wonderland, Forspoken’s greatest weakness is its scale, causing everything else to clatter to the floor like you’ve just dropped the cutlery holder out of the dishwasher. What a rube you were, to judge the appliance by its appearance, that it would be a more efficient way of spending your time.
The game’s story isn’t groundbreaking, but it is engaging - for a time. Starting in New York City, we learn that the heroine Frey is nothing but bad luck. As a baby, she’s found in the Holland Tunnel and the story is a small aside in the paper published several days later. Turbulent times follow in children’s homes and her desperation is mistaken for waywardness, forming the foundations for an angry personality. Her guarded disposition isn’t so much a wall as an insurmountable obstacle. So, when she slams her palms into the earth, summoning roots to pierce through her enemies, you understand where her whoops of joy come from.
Easily, Frey and her companion Cuff are the most memorable part of Forspoken’s story. I’ll admit that they suffer from the recent affliction that has struck down PlayStation’s protagonists but there were moments that amused me in this dynamic. Neither of them are of Athia, the strange world that they stumble into, so they’re sort of scraping along together. The banter that they have in combat is helpful and even encouraging if you’re starting to struggle. I’ve heard from a few that Frey’s commentary is annoying and there is a setting to decrease the frequency of her dialogue - sadly it does not work on sexists.
However. You’ll recall I’ve mentioned one fight in this entire game that I really liked. As I was racking up the hours, I realised that in order for me to truly be on board with this sprawling world and the cardboard cutout characters Frey encountered, this game needed to be something like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
The designs of the corrupted creatures were so excellently creepy but they weren’t given any real time to shine. Moreover, repeating the same enemy over and over isn’t making me shake in my boots every time I enter a new region. The twists towards the middle and end of the game might have been received with more than a gormless raise of my eyebrow if I’d been grounded in the game from the beginning. A more cinematic start, much more linear spaces to pelt this way and that. Of course, Forspoken has been in development for what could be four or five years all in all. And what was the big thing in games about four or five years ago? Pun not intended.
To sum it up, did we really, really, really need a cat taming minigame? And you already told me the story of Athia at the start of the game. Why am I now ‘learning’ it again at the end of the game, strolling from point to point, pressing triangle for exposition. It’s a gorgeous game, but God if it’s not like a minorly insipid make-up artist’s Instagram grid. Loads of things to look at but no actual meaning in any of them.
Pros: everything looks stunning, inventive enemy designs, memorable performances from Ella Balinska and Jonathan Cake (Frey and Cuff)
Cons: samey gameplay, story is on par with a Marvel movie from the mid ‘00s, it shouldn’t have been an open world game
For fans of: the Horizon games, Final Fantasy, faffing about
Forspoken was reviewed on PlayStation 5 with code provided by Square Enix. Game releases 24 January, 2023, for PC and PS5. Read a guide to our review scores here.