Forspoken - Lord of The Vambrace
Forspoken is a game about a young woman, raised in New York and, thanks to crappy life circumstances, frequently on the wrong side of the law. At the end of one particularly garbage day, she stumbles across a magical, talking vambrace that she insists on calling Cuff, and is then whisked away to the fantastical land of Athia. This new world is home to castles and spellcraft and incredible creatures, books to read and lore to absorb. So, naturally, like a true geriatric millennial, I spent far too much time fixated on Frey’s phone.
Frey is the name of the young woman in question, and her phone is, unsurprisingly, a smartphone. Also, since this Athia place is definitely not Earth – despite its abundance of things such as house cats and oxygen and English-speaking humans – the device isn’t of much use for anything other than taking photos, which quickly becomes rolled into a predictable suite of open-world checklist tasks.
The reward for checking this particular list? Instagram filters, basically. There’s potential for opening up lore about the land, for finding secrets hidden behind forgotten doors, for helping a displaced populace remember their homes and reward you in kind, and Frey gets… Instagram filters.
I can look past the phone’s apparently bottomless battery reserve. This kind of narrative bullshit – the kind that gets hand-waved away because of its mechanical or objective-based convenience – is basically built into the entire videogame medium. It’s stuff like unlocking a sepia filter, stuff that has no meaningful impact beyond its own circular existence that has me actively thinking.
The most conspicuous thing is that the phone itself looks like it was released back around 2015. It raises questions about just how long Forspoken has been in various stages of development for. What fascinates me most, however, are all of the things that it can’t do – notably, those related to that thing that phones used to be exclusively for: communication.
Every time I stumbled across a photo-spot in Athia’s open world, I found myself thinking of Forspoken as a game that was being worked on for a very long time by a large pool of talent made up of teams that simply… failed to talk to each other? Viewed discretely, so many of Forspoken’s pieces are fine: good, even. Seeing them all stapled together, however, is like watching a toddler piling ice-cream onto a plate of chow mein at a hotel buffet.
But first, I suppose, we should address the elephant in the room: the dialogue.
Cuff, the magical vambrace that gets grafted to Frey’s arm, is rather a chatty character, opening the door for banter during moments of gameplay. Sometimes chatting with him causes Frey to, bewilderingly, become locked in place, her superhuman legs suddenly robbed of the gift of walking. Suffice it to say, despite some neat usage of the speaker on the DealSense controller to give an ethereal edge to the magical jewellery’s remarks, Frey and Cuff never get much in the way of chemistry going.
That being said, the dialogue in Forspoken is, at large, not always as bad as has been made out. Few games have been victim to people prepping their hot-takes prior to release quite like Forspoken has, and this has come to a head with the dialogue simply… being kind of bleh. There are some spoken stinkers, but the larger issue is that there isn’t enough variety to stop frequent repetition of banter that is, honestly, perfectly fine in the way many other games have banter that is perfectly fine. You can even adjust its frequency in the menus. This isn’t to say that Forspoken is actually well-written, however. In fact, Forspoken will likely become a case study in how not to write for a video game.
The most obvious example is a scene that has already become Twitter-infamous: a moment during the prelude where Frey wakes up in her wreck of a home, surrounded by flames, and just outright refuses to pick up the duffel-bag on the floor in front of her that contains her entire life savings. Never mind that the visuals imply that the bag owned by this squallar-trapped twenty-something contains enough cash to outright own property in Manhattan – the actual way that it all plays out is, as Benoit Blanc might put it, just dumb.
Frey could have woken up with the bag already ablaze; it could have been in a different, unsafe or inaccessible location; the arsonists could have pinched it. One can only assume, as Rhianna Pratchett did an admirable job of pointing out, that there had to be some kind of breakdown in communication. The narrative beat (home destroyed; life savings gone) itself is fine, but the execution is a reminder that even the most skilled surgeon shouldn’t be working blindfolded.
The above is an early example that sums things up nicely, but it’s not the first (that Frey, a young woman of colour, would get treated as well in the courts as she does is arguably equally as fantastical as her eventual magical powers), and it’s certainly not the last. The frustrating thing, though, is that there’s a difference between a bad story and a poorly-written one, and the criticism of Forspoken should really be levelled at the latter much more than the former. Freed of the yolk of spoilers, it would be entirely possible to make the broader strokes of Frey’s story sound legitimately compelling.
This extends beyond narrative. Almost every aspect of Forspoken feels like it was privately carved in its own room. There’s a clumsy follow-the-leader stealth section early on that adds nothing meaningful to the larger gameplay loop; the archive information in the menus contains information about events before they actually happen; there are campsites and safe houses scattered around the world where Frey can sleep with varying levels of danger, but her health bar is so narrow that a couple of hits usually necessitates a healing potion that will fully restore it, rendering the idea of resting to regain health functionally moot.
Also, there’s no time of day cycle anyway. I legitimately don’t understand how the lighting in this game, even when played with ray-tracing active, is as bizarre as it is when there’s no need to worry about the light sources moving.
Likewise, when Frey is first whisked away to Athia, a fantasy land corrupted by something known as the Break (how did it come to be named that? The aforementioned internal lore simply states that Frey made it up and that the entire population just… runs with it?), she is quick to inherit magic abilities that form the cornerstone of the combat system. It takes close to ten hours before the first main boss is defeated and she acquires a proper melee attack. Until then, it’s all projectiles and a cumbersome rock-shield.
This would perhaps be fine were the gameplay more stop and pop in nature. Or, perhaps, if the targeting system actually worked properly. However, the one consistent joy of this game – indeed, apparently what it was initially designed around – is the speed and fluidity of traversal. To its eternal credit, Forspoken wastes little time in sprinkling magic over Frey’s parkour skills. It’s at its absolute best when she is zipping around wide open spaces, leaping over ledges and around obstacles in a flex of the team’s animation blending abilities.
Magic parkour, quite simple, feels fantastic… which only makes it so bewildering how often the rest of the spell-set feels like it wants a goddamn cover system.
There is also little design harmony between the beastly threats that roam Athia’s landscapes and the powers with which Frey has to dispatch them. At best, a particular beast might be weak to rock or water or fire. Not that finding these weaknesses is ever easy; as with its crafting system (because of course it has one), Forspoken’s combat aims for depth but lands on complexity. A vast number of spells eventually opens up to Frey, but to bounce around them all requires entering radial menus upon radial menus. Simply mapping certain attack types to different buttons with a trigger to cycle the core element would likely encourage players to vary their approaches, even if it necessitates culling a couple of powers.
But that movement. Again: that movement. Sprinting around Athia is a joy, so long as you’re in open fields. The system doesn’t work so well in narrow corridors, but few, if any, open worlds are remotely as delightful to simply move around in. It’s here where some of the design elements can actually seem to come together, too. While the lighting in Forspoken can appear downright broken up close, out in the open the over-saturated colours give a fantastical, ethereal edge to the land. The choice for a simple cloak or cape to serve the traditional role of armour is a small but welcome aesthetic consideration. It’s also kind of cool that magical powers can be enhanced by, essentially, decorating Frey’s fingernails.
It’s a shame that so much of this is easily lost as busy work on the map.
Said map is, at least, beautiful. It’s presented in clean 3D which instinctively informs about which surfaces may be too high to climb, which paths may be more efficient. It’s just a shame that it is quickly covered with sidequest icon vomit. Curiously, a lot of this filler is straightforward in a way that almost feels unfinished, but it possibly works to Forspoken’s advantage simply because actually getting to an icon on a map plays to its mechanical strengths more than an additional task might.
From towers that don’t require any climbing, to conversations that reward XP without the player having to actually do anything, Forspoken routinely manages to feel a little incomplete; signals that development resources got stretched too thin. Forspoken is far more structured than the typical open world game, and, had it done a better job of focusing on this, could have been a fascinating look at an alternative direction that the genre at large might have taken after the PS2 era. It’s difficult not to wish it would present tight, plotted quests in large environments filled with small challenges built around its movement system that could subtly funnel players to things that actually enhance the experience.
At one point, a little past mid-journey, Forspoken, briefly and with unexpexted canny, levels pointed criticism at the inherently broken nature of our justice systems. It has to be assumed that this is the result of a happy accident, because too much of the narrative execution is simply so clumsy. Nonetheless, it happens, and in that moment it offers a brief glimpse of what could have been in a world where the art and story teams better communicated with each other, better accommodated each other’s intent and limitations. However it came about, it was a cool if short-lived moment that perhaps helps to explain why I did, ultimately, enjoy my time with Forspoken despite its many flaws. Just because the foundation was poorly built upon doesn’t mean it got excavated and tossed aside.
Forspoken may be a game of squandered potential, but there remains an argument that it’s still worth playing, not just for the simple joy of zipping through its world, but for the occasional glimpse at the potentially genre-defying tentpole it could have been with clearer vision and better collaboration. Because, in this world of stagnation over innovation, even just the groundwork can be worth savouring.