Allow me to lift the curtain for a moment, friends: Normally, when a publisher has faith in a game, the PR team will send out code a week or two ahead of release so reviewers can play through it properly, marinate in the story, and then write a thoughtful review. The rule of thumb: the earlier you get the game, and the earlier the review embargo is before launch, the better the company thinks it is. They’re not always right, of course, and this isn’t a hard rule. But it’s a decent guide. On a related note, the codes for Forspoken, a game that is said to run for 30-40 hours, were sent out to most reviewers yesterday morning, less than a day before the embargo lifted at 1 AM AEDT today (an hour after the game became available on digital storefronts in Australia). Once you factor in how long games take to download on Australian internet, and my annoying need to sleep (and refusal to crunch to finish a mediocre game), I have only played around 5-6 hours of Forspoken so far. I will likely update this review during the week if I can force myself to endure more of it (maybe something really cool happens in the late game that makes the drudgery worth it?), but here are my thoughts on what I’ve played so far.
In Forspoken, you play as Frey Holland, a young New Yorker with a backstory ripped from one of the more mundane episodes of Law and Order. She’s a young Black woman whose parents abandoned her at birth, and she’s fresh off a run-in with the law, followed by a more aggressive run-in with a violent gang. After she conveniently hands off the care of her cat to the kindly judge who let her off (perhaps the most unrealistic scene in a game set largely within a magical alternate universe), she is sucked through a portal to Athia. Athia is a magical land afflicted with a kind of magical sickness, called The Break, that turns flora and fauna into either violent zombies or glowy purple trees/rocks.
Before she was sucked through the portal, Frey tried on a bracelet that she found in an abandoned building. That bracelet turns out to be Cuff, the magical equivalent of Clippy. Cuff has the soul of a judgemental, casually sexist, upper-class alternate-universe Englishman, and appears to be the source of Frey’s power. If you’ve seen the recent reboot of the Charmed TV show, Cuff has the exact vibe of the irritating, supercilious Watcher who pretends to be woke while talking down to the three witches of colour in his charge. Sadly, Cuff is now attached to Frey and won’t shut up unless you turn his dialogue down in the settings.
Meanwhile, there is something very off with Frey’s dialogue. I can forgive the inconsistencies in her character because people are complicated, but the dialogue is just lazy. A mixture of Marvel’s “well that just happened” brand of meaningless filler to emphasise an event and peppering in as many casual ‘fuck’s and ‘shit’s as possible. I’m no prude; I enjoy the occasional swear word used as punctuation when it feels natural. It can be an interesting character trait. But it doesn’t fit with the game, is overused, and Frey routinely deploys this kind of language where she would clearly know that it’s inappropriate. It comes across like a group of older male writers were trying to guess what a poor, young, Black, woman from New York would sound like, and it’s just jarring. It also comes across more like filler, the dialogue equivalent of trying to game an assignment by typing your essay in 16pt font with double spacing.
The story is also told through a lot of cut scenes. It’s almost as if the game is saying, “you seem to be finally getting into this story and becoming immersed! Can I interest you in a jarring cutscene or clunky transition to remind you of what you’re really doing?” The game I was most reminded of during the eleventy-billionth interminable cut scene was NBA 2K16, in which Spike Lee tried to make the NBA 2K career mode into a cinematic experience but clearly wasn’t given the time or tools required to make it feel natural or interactive.
This is all really disappointing because buried deep within Forspoken are a really interesting story and the potential for an excellent game. A strong editor, better writers (with a more diverse writer’s room to make all these people from different backgrounds come across more naturally), and more of a focus on the magic mechanic would have created a shorter, brilliant game.
The world is huge but a bit sparse, so going anywhere to do anything takes too long. The side quests have glimpses of interesting characters that don’t go anywhere and aren’t interesting enough to try to do deliberately. Frey is a potentially fascinating character if she’d been given more depth.
The combat is another missed opportunity. The spell slots, magic mechanics and really cool-looking monsters mean that combat could have been really exciting. Instead, it’s repetitive and boring, not taking advantage of its full potential. It smacks of developers who had exciting ideas being suppressed by management or cost-cutting or something. Because there is something here, but it just doesn’t materialise in the first 5-ish hours (maybe it gets better later, I’ll find out and let you know).
Like, the dragons and wolf-thingies are so cool! I’d love a game that did more with them. At one point, you fight a huge, angry, glowy deer, and that was really neat. I want little statues of all these monsters. Their character models are excellent. But I wanted the battles to end quickly because I got bored.
Taking off my critic’s hat for a moment, this game is completely fine. My wife enjoys it and looks forward to playing more. She likes it because it reminds her of the games she used to play as a kid, which makes sense because it has a really old-school vibe to it. There is something to be said for simple combat, and certainly, it’s great that the game has a Black female protagonist because that isn’t a perspective we get to see in these kinds of games very often. If Forspoken had been released on the PS3, I would have been impressed. It’s just that in 2023, we know that better is possible and the minimum expected for a $115 game is more than this.
If Forspoken was a TV show, I would 100% watch it while also playing a game on my phone, because it’s interesting enough that I want to know what happens, and spend a bit of time in the world, but it’s not interesting enough to earn my full attention. There are too many long, meaningless pauses.
Based on the first 5-6 hours with the game, would I recommend Forspoken?
At $115, I would absolutely not recommend it. The idea of having to play 25-35 more hours of this game anytime soon makes me wonder if I should have become an accountant instead. However, I think I wouldn’t mind jumping in for an hour or two a week to progress through the story at a slower pace. It seems like a game that would be chill and nice to do in small bites rather than long sessions. When it inevitably goes on sale (and I don’t think you’ll have to wait long), if you like a sparse open-world game and don’t mind having a condescending magical Clippy attached to your wrist, it’s worth a try. It’s not a good game by any means, but it’s also not too bad. It’s aggressively fine. It’s the Crocs of video games. It’s the room-temperature tap water of video games. It’s the ‘free wired headphones that come with your new phone’ of video games. It’ll do the job well enough, even though you know there’s better out there. Maybe play Horizon Forbidden West again instead.