Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a down-on-their-luck orphan has their life turned upside-down when they get whisked away to a fantastical new world where they suddenly have magical powers, reluctantly rising to become the hero its people need to stop an evil threat. If that sounds like every fantasy book you’ve ever forgotten you read, it’s probably because Forspoken is a remarkably generic RPG – from its bland story to its lifeless open world. Thankfully its energetic combat and flashy parkour movement system do keep the relatively slim campaign decently entertaining throughout, but running through its boilerplate checklist of repetitive side tasks doesn’t hold much appeal beyond mindless trophy hunting after that.
The newest action-RPG from Square Enix puts you in the brooding shoes of Frey Holland, a well-acted but largely unlikable New Yorker who gets pulled through a portal to the fantasy realm of Athia after accidentally becoming bonded to an equally unlikable talking armband she calls Cuff. The four realms of Athia have been afflicted with a corruption that has forced its populace into the last remaining city of Cipal, and it falls on Frey and her newly imbued powers to help its citizens and face four powerful rulers called Tantas – not that she’s very interested in doing so.
Forspoken’s world and story are about as bland as they come, equal parts predictable and forgettable. That’s not so offensive on its own, but the real crime is how poorly the writing establishes any of its characters and the relationships between them – it’s like it constantly assumed I must already be invested in these people in a way it never actually made me. The most egregious example of this is the chemistry between Frey and Cuff, which frames most of the campaign as a sort of buddy cop movie but spends almost no time showing these two unlikely partners grow closer after their introduction.
Actual bonding apparently happens off-screen, and this story – which is mostly told through exposition dumps between large stretches of open-world exploration – felt fairly rushed across the 15 hours it took me to beat the campaign as a result. That means the snippy banter between Cuff and Frey come off as obnoxious rather than endearing. Frey is surprisingly vocal about her disdain for most of the tasks Forspoken asks you to complete, and Cuff constantly belittles her for no good reason in a manner that I think is supposed to come off as friendly ribbing but instead feels like awkwardly watching a couple argue at a dinner party. This dynamic never really changes, even as Frey slowly goes through the motions of her predictable hero’s journey, and it is always exhausting.
Forspoken is essentially split into two parts: talking to townsfolk and doing mundane side quests like feeding sheep or chasing cats in Cipal, and making your way to some specific point of interest on its absurdly large map to further the story. I don’t think the Cipal sections would have bothered me if conversations and cutscenes didn’t have such a stilted, strangely low-budget feel to them. The performances throughout can actually be quite good, even when the writing leans heavily into telling rather than showing – but none of it is ever very fun to listen to thanks to long, awkward pauses between lines and occasional crowd noise or background music that’s so loud it drowns out everything being said.
Between visits to Cipal, you’re generally given a target on your map and free rein to get as distracted as you’d like along the way. That involves sprinting across Athia’s rocky terrain using Frey’s magic parkour skills, flipping over obstacles and eventually using a grappling whip to swing long distances, and then beating the snot out of enemies at various points of interest for new equipment and other rewards. This is what you’ll be doing for the vast majority of your time with Forspoken, and it can be a lot of fun even if those systems never get too deep.
Frey gains four styles of elemental magic over the course of the campaign, each essentially a different weapon you can quickly swap between with its own set of alternate fire modes and unlockable support skills – all of which can then be modestly upgraded as you play. Her starting magic is basically an earth-based gun that can be fired rapidly or charged for an area-of-effect burst, with skills that root enemies to the ground, up your defense temporarily, and more. You don’t even have a melee attack until you unlock the fire-based sword option about a third of the way through the campaign, which was a little annoyingly restrictive at first.
But once you do open up more of Frey’s capabilities, Forspoken’s particle effect-filled combat becomes quite amusing. Enemy variety isn’t exactly impressive (special larger baddies in particular can be really cool the first time you fight them, but less so by the third), but elemental resistances and unique quirks pushed me to swap weapons and strategies frequently mid-fight in a way I really enjoyed. For example, I loved that shielded enemies could be dealt with either by getting behind them or by charging an AOE shot and then firing it at the ground nearby to knock them off their guard. One-on-one fights can devolve into locking onto your target and holding down the trigger while you strafe out of harm’s way with Forspoken’s extremely generous dodge system, but the group encounters often did a good job of keeping me on my toes.
Similarly, the parkour system is a mix of straightforward and flashy, sending you nimbly soaring across the environment by simply holding down the Circle button and pointing yourself in a given direction. Just like your attacks, this becomes a lot more fun once you unlock some cooler skills, like options that boost your speed with well-timed button presses. That said, it is also far more mindless than combat, requiring very little nuance even as additional techniques become available to you and rarely ever testing your mastery of those moves with difficult platforming challenges. Even still, it can be quite a satisfying way to fancifully flow from task to task without much thought.
That’s a good thing, too, because there is a considerable amount of ground to cover in Athia, and very little of it is worth stopping to admire. This world is huge, and the campaign doesn’t even send you near half of it. The map is littered with optional side objective markers, but there isn’t much reason to go too far off the beaten path to complete them when the same small handful of tasks are repeated ad nauseam no matter where they are placed. They almost all boil down to either fighting some random dudes to earn a reward or just being handed one outright, and the payoffs don’t feel particularly necessary unless you decide to up the difficulty to Hard. Plenty of open-world games follow a similar structure, but Forspoken does it with such a barebones transparency that Athia comes off less like a world for you to explore and more like a repetitive checklist asking to be crossed off.
It doesn’t help that Athia lacks much in the way of interesting visual landmarks, with different areas gated off by blatantly artificial mountain ranges and filled with piles of samey rocks and ruins to hop over. Each of the four regions offer a little twist to their layout, be that wide open fields or extra hills, but they’d still all blend together if it weren’t for the distinct color filter slapped onto each one. After the credits rolled I ran around this map for another dozen or so hours, hoping to find some exciting secrets in the hard-to-reach corners I hadn’t visited – but with the exception of an isolated trader selling a few neat items (literally the only NPC I met outside of Cipal), all I saw was the same side tasks on the same bland landscapes, over and over and over again. I’m sure there will be diehard completionists out there excited for a chance to put on a podcast and spend dozens of hours clearing every single map marker and opening every single chest (the kind of game I actually wrote about back in 2019), but I was given very little motivation to do so here.
The upside of that lack of urgency is that Forspoken’s progression systems mercifully don’t devolve into a grind on its Normal difficulty either, never forcing you to do anything you don’t want to. There are only three types of equipable items: cloaks, necklaces, and the charmingly creative nail polish designs. The first two are basically identical, increasing your health, defense, and magic while also offering special perks like increasing critical hit chance, while nails provide more unique boons like upping a specific type of magic. A light crafting system lets you upgrade your cloaks and necklaces by using resources you collect out in the field, increasing their stats and letting you swap in the perks of any gear you’ve found so far. That lends a lot of welcome flexibility to how you choose to play (and your fashion choices), but it’s also not the most exciting system since the majority of improvements are simple numerical boosts that are hard to see the effect of in the heat of battle.