Preview: Forspoken

15 Dec 2022

At least as far as pre-release reception is concerned, Forspoken has something of a hill to climb with its release. Despite flashes of an expansive open world and impressive-looking magical combat, the marketing focus highlighting protagonist Frey’s reactions to the world around her occupied a majority of discourse surrounding the game.

Now, after being the recipient of two delays, the game unveiled a surprise demo at the 2022 Game Awards. For many prospective players, the advertising angle and the memes surrounding it are the only impression of the game to be had, which immediately places a larger onus on the demo to impress than there may have been otherwise.

Forspoken is currently slated to hit PC and PlayStation 5 on January 24th, 2023 from development team Luminous Productions and publisher Square Enix. This demo was available exclusively on PlayStation 5 and the question remains: does it succeed in quelling uncertainty and fostering excitement, as any decent gameplay demo should?

Given that narrative execution is perhaps the biggest question mark with Forspoken, the way it carries its plot was one of the things I was most interested in gleaning from this playable preview. Tragically, the demo offers very little in the way of hinting how the story is going to play out, instead opting to show a quick recap of the events leading up to the demo’s start and a brief introduction to Frey as a character.

Though there’s little in the way of cutscenes outside of this recap, the demo does prominently feature the interactions between Frey and her sentient bracelet(s?), Cuff. As you’re flying across the field and battling baddies, either will comment on the situation or react to specific contexts like taking a sudden burst of damage or striking an enemy’s elemental weakness.

Their interactions are only a small part of a much larger picture, but tinged with a potentially interesting dichotomy of two characters that are clearly more at odds than not and only begrudgingly cooperating with one another. Though it’s difficult to gauge as-is, there’s a lot of potential for interesting interactions as they develop over the course of the game proper.

That said, enjoyment of these interactions did start to wear a little thin after several hours of gameplay. Although there were only a few instances of repeated voice lines, even the new ones started to feel a bit formulaic and predictable. This was particularly true for Cuff, who seemed contractually obligated to deliver a snarky disagreement to nearly every comment Frey had.

There are very few things that endear me to a game faster than a mechanical emphasis on movement. Seeing Frey fluidly scale a sheer cliff face and dash through the air across rocky terrain in the first gameplay reveal was all I needed to cement my interest, which is exactly why I was so pleased when the demo immediately allowed me to play around with the game’s traversal system.

Movement in Forspoken’s demo feels about as fluid as it looks. At the simple hold of a button, Frey will run at a high speed, climb walls, and vault over obstacles in a way that maintains her forward momentum with very little input from the player. At the beginning of my time with the demo it was hard not to feel a bit disappointed at that lack of player input here, but the existence of unlockable movement skills in the open world shows promise for more depth later on.

The player has access to a large stable of magical attacks that typically fall under the categories of purely offensive or purely defensive. Some operate better at a distance, while others are only effective when Frey is willing to get up close and personal with her enemy. Elemental weaknesses of different enemies also plays a part, but the demo doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for this system other than “fire element good, earth element bad” and vice versa.

It sounds simple enough on paper, but learning how to carry Frey through combat encounters took some getting used to. Starting Forspoken’s demo feels a bit like returning to a game you put down for six months after reaching the midpoint; there’s a lot of build options available from several equipment passives and a the skill tree filled with points have already been expended for you. What’s more, the tutorial gives only the most cursory of explanations regarding these before telling you, “Okay! Good luck!”

This made for a lot of initial flailing on my part as I frantically attempted to switch between the different schools of magic while also avoiding multiple enemy attacks. There were many clumsy moments and the occasional feeling of helplessness when it came to deciding what I should be doing in each combat encounter, when I should be doing it, and which equipment and spells I should be equipping.

But that overwhelming feeling eventually turned into an upside of the experience for the way it demonstrated just how much influence the player is given over Frey’s performance. There are an awful lot of spells and passives to choose through your equipped cloak and nail polish, each of which can benefit the spells you enjoy using the most in different ways.

Experimenting with every attack and equipment piece requires resources that can be dropped from enemies or picked up from the open world, which is a nice way to encourage the player to leave no stone unturned, and as you change more options and see the way it alters your gameplay, you start to develop a better understanding of what you should be doing. The more you experiment in Forspoken‘s demo, the faster the gameplay starts to takes shape and naturally inform you of what you should be doing.

The fiery close-range combat felt the most engaging due to just how often Frey is forced to dodge attacks before being able to return her own, but each spell still felt as though it had its own place depending on which enemy I was butting heads with. Battles that forced me to find those windows of opportunity to charge up Frey’s attacks, prioritize attacks of the right element, and keep an eye out for when to back off were the ones that really showcased just how open the system is for player improvement.

Player decision making is also facilitated by the way certain spells have entirely different methods of execution. Loosing a charged a spell versus an uncharged one or jumping before executing certain attacks can result in two very different utilities and outcomes, and it’s highly satisfying when you’re able to make efficient decisions like this on the fly throughout an encounter.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that Frey is not immune to the effects of her own magic. If you decide to go for a powerful area-of-effect attack, you better be sure to distance yourself from it or be ready to dodge by the time it goes off. It feels like a more refined, action-centric iteration of the friendly fire found in Final Fantasy XV’s magic system, which many developers of Luminous Productions worked on previously.

I was also pleased by the size of the zone available in the demo. It’s certainly large, but not to the point where it sacrifices unique landmarks and vistas or feels out of scale with the gameplay loop. From random encounters to abandoned cities overtaken by enemies, there was quite a bit to do and all of it was rewarding.

Despite a strong initial feeling of confusion from being thrown into the deep end of its systems, it didn’t take very long for the various gameplay elements and general loop to fall into place in Forspoken’s demo. Magically sprinting across the gorgeous open field, fighting the different enemies peppered throughout, and earning equipment to further customize my preferred combat options caused time to pass far more quickly than I was expecting.

After an extensive stint with it, Forspoken’s combat feels up to the task of offering players a choice-driven combat system with a high skill ceiling. It has some sizable infusions of the character action genre (complete with a grading system) to thank for that, but it’s still more unclear than it probably should be if the storytelling, worldbuilding, and variety of content outside fighting itself will be able to engage the player across the runtime of a full game.

We’ll have to see come January.

Screenshots taken by writer.