Square Enix’s Project Athia was intriguing since its initial announcement, eventually earning waves of mixed to negative reception as more news was revealed. Now renamed Forspoken, these general reactions remain due to certain gameplay decisions and writing style choices leaving a collectively unmemorable, shallow impact for several players and critics. As for me, I’ve ended up in the same boat.
Forspoken follows protagonist Frey Holland, a New Yorker who has suffered as an orphan, never finding stability in her youth and constantly switching between foster homes. The opening segments solidly depict her circumstances, emphasized by her repeated run-ins with the law, awful living arrangements, and lack of those she can emotionally confide in. Then, after Frey’s apartment burns down, circumstances lead her to discover a cuff that whisks her off to the fantasy land of Athia.
The cuff, whom Frey aptly calls Cuff, can speak and, via a ton of exposition, informs her of the world. Athia is in dire times due to a phenomenon called the Break taking away countless lives as the four leading rulers, the Tantas, agonize their people. Humanity is on its last legs, and Frey’s sudden arrival puts her between a rock and a hard place. Her life back in New York was treacherous, and Athia is no better, as its state is causing a borderline extinction. Still, she desires to go back home, Athia’s people be damned.
Unfortunately, the narrative and cast in Forspoken only become moderately compelling in its late stages. Most characters suffer from a lacking basis of care for the player, aside from their combined predicament.
In addition, many NPCs are not captivating in the most inherent of ways, making several scenes a bore to sit through. Frey, on the other hand, is a far more complicated case. She is a character who’s essentially a reluctant hero, thrown into a situation she has no initial personal investment in, intensified by how Athia isn’t exactly inviting.
As a result, she consistently illustrates her annoyance with everything going on, and that’s completely natural and understandable. But, this trait becomes exhausting to witness the further one progresses, as the vast majority of Frey’s lines are coated in hatred, dismission, and the like. Regardless of intention, it’s just too much as it overrode the sympathy and empathy I was meant to feel during the more emotional scenes.
However, I appreciated and even liked Frey’s character writing in hindsight because of how the last quarter tackles her. It’s difficult to explain why without delving into spoiler-related material. Still, it does a great job highlighting her personal struggles and why it has motivated her to act so selfishly, even though some of her words can never be aptly justified. I’m fairly certain that Frey is a protagonist who is not intended to be likable.
The writing approach of having the main character actively combat their responsibilities was fresh yet waned quickly. It wasn’t until the final chapters that I felt reinvested. Not everyone will have the patience to play through the majority of the game, though, and I wholeheartedly relate. There were several points where I was close to dropping it altogether. This is surprising because the storyline is shockingly short, being less than 20 hours, so having the urge to stop playing with an experience this brief is not telling of high quality.
These issues with the writing spread to how I absorbed the lore. Athia contains countless passages players can read to learn about this land’s history, and a decent chunk of it is pretty interesting, tackling various subject matter. Yet, my engagement with this material slowly deteriorated as the title progressed because I lacked attachment to the cast residing within said world. I find it difficult to care about the history of a game area when there is little worldbuilding to latch on to. Of course, this point will vary depending on the player.
Regarding gameplay, Forspoken’s combat is action-focused, boasting a few distinct styles. For instance, Frey begins with projectiles she can shoot in a few different ways, making the experience almost akin to a third-person shooter, while melee usage is gained later on.
These multiple avenues to approach fights, alongside the skill tree and upgrade systems, offer a great deal of choice with one’s playstyle. Sadly, the meager enemy variety, nonexistent feedback when using the flame sword, and other specific faults made encounters monotonous.
Although, it’s worth emphasizing how bizarre this gameplay pacing is. Players only have the first tree of skills for a chunk of the story, with the remaining skill trees and movesets being acquired close to one another, offering little time to become familiar with these abilities unless one solely sticks to side activities for a time.
The pacing is all over the place and is likely the result of either fundamental restructuring close to launch or simply poor planning. Enemy design is at least passable, if a tad too simple, and the strengths of combat are only really emphasized in the variety Frey boasts by the time the credits arrive.
There always appears to be an “if” or a “but” whenever I express positivity about my time with Forspoken. This also extends to locales players can find in the world comprising enemy waves. Within these seemingly subterranean passageways, all players must do is defeat the foes they encounter across each room. The first few instances of these fights can be fun. Still, the practically identical structures, overabundance of similar enemies, and even the too-similar level designs leave far too much to be desired.
They’re essentially glorified arenas, which is disappointing because Forspoken does an inadequate job of implementing exploration. The maps lack memorable landmarks and features, and there are rarely any instances where navigation is not just an automatic ride. A few ideas, like water surfing, are excellent in concept but aren’t necessary enough at any point to warrant their inclusion.
As a result, exploring optional content felt like a chore more than I’d like to admit. Speaking of side activities, the quests are purely busywork, rarely boasting intrigue that makes it worthwhile outside gameplay-related rewards. Some seem oddly tacked on with an oddly high number of quests, such as following cats around and nothing else.
In the realm of voice work, the primary cast is stellar, with Cuff’s voice delivery being my favorite, thanks to his masterful tonal shifts. The antagonists’ voice acting is standout as well, as their madness was emphasized tenfold.
Granted, the town NPCs and such are pretty weak by comparison, but considering their lack of memorability, I didn’t mind it all that much. As for the presentation, the critiques mentioned above of the world design still stick. However, I appreciated how Cuff communicated through the DualSense controller for a bit more personal touch.
Forspoken is one of the most conflicting game experiences I’ve ever had. While its ending hours are compelling, the other 80% of the experience was amongst the most miserable I’ve been with any game, almost causing me to stop playing entirely. And even those ending hours feel noticeably rushed, suffering from a fair share of writing faults.
Unfortunately, no enhancement in quality via the later stages can compensate for that strife. Further, the questionable pacing of combat acquisition, with so many of the tools earned too close to each other, caused my interest in another fundamental aspect to flounder.
Those who stick out Forspoken until the end may derive enjoyment from how certain elements were tackled like I did, though, ultimately, it’s all too little too late. At the very least, exploring the open world and completing optional tasks after completing the story can be fun, albeit in brief doses, since there’s not much of interest within the environments.
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