Any gamer interested in the upcoming magical action RPG Forspoken has been itching for more details since it was first teased in 2020 under the code name “Project Athia.” After a few delays, the new IP from Square Enix and Luminous Productions is finally set to launch in January 2023, giving the adventure a bit of room to breathe away from a packed fall release lineup.
With just a few months until release, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Frey Holland and the mysterious world of Athia. But the development team is slowly pulling back the curtain and sharing more information. We recently got a chance to demo the title and talk with the developers about what fans can expect come January.
While current Forspoken trailers are intriguing, there are still a lot of secrets the developers are keeping close to their vest for now. We know that the game follows the story of Frey Holland, a modern-day New Yorker who is, without explanation, transported through a portal to the high-fantasy world of Athia. Frey is adorned with a sentient magical bracelet upon arrival and is set loose to traverse across the open-world plains of this new land, mastering her new magical abilities along the way as she is tasked with waging war against treacherous creatures and punching up at a ruling class known as the Tantas.
That’s about all fans know about the story so far, for better or for worse. While plenty are excited about the world and this perky protagonist, many are critical of the tone highlighted in early trailers. In the clips, Frey is full of quips and sarcastic responses (not to mention the dialogue between her and her sentient cuffs) that had some rolling their eyes at what they branded “Whedon-esque dialogue,” a style found in most Marvel films. One trailer released in August was immediately a subject of memes across the internet.
That wasn’t how developers expected viewers to react to the dialogue, but they remain confident that anyone who plays Forspoken will better understand the target devs are looking to hit.
“Because Forspoken is a very story-driven game, we’ve had to be very selective about what we can show before the game comes out,” creative producer Raio Mitsuno tells Digital Trends. “We have to pick and choose bits of dialogue [for trailers] that don’t reveal anything, that are kind of otherwise harmless spoilers-wise. People aren’t able to see the full context of those conversations — what led up to those events, or what state of mind Frey was in, what just happened to her, what did she go through when she said that — we’re missing all of that information. We’re missing that emotional connection to those bits of dialogue. It’ll make sense and feel more natural in-game.”
At its heart, Forspoken is a fish-out-of-water story. Much of what we’ve heard from Frey so far is her learning about the fantasy world she’s just been dropped into, which isn’t necessarily the state she’ll be in throughout the game. The development team explained that Frey’s tone, and the tone of the game as a whole, will evolve and shift as the story progresses.
“A fantasy world with make-believe characters is one thing … but we wanted to take someone from our world, who has our beliefs and our cultural sensibilities, and thrust them into a world that none of us know,” says Mitsuno, comparing the approach to The Chronicles of Narnia and even Superman. “This mix of modern and fantasy has always been one of the core concepts for Forspoken. This approach may have caused a bit of a perception issue, but we’re very confident in and excited about this story.”
Mitsuno and the rest of the team said that more details about Frey’s journeys in Athia will become known in future trailers, but that a lot of the story will still be kept under wraps.
The demo that I was able to play was built to focus on combat and exploration, so I can’t speak on new plot developments — but I can’t imagine Frey would be able to survive fights throughout Athia for long without adjusting her attitude a bit.
In the demo, Frey was equipped with a set of early-to-midgame spells and gear. I don’t think any of the enemies I ran into were entirely prepared for what Frey had in store for them.
Even with limited skills unlocked, the spell variety is already fun and balanced. Frey has access to two main spell types: support and attack. Support spells include spectral tendrils that can damage multiple enemies in a set area of effect, landmines that you could set while being chased down, and many more utility-type abilities that require a bit more thought to use in the heat of combat. Attack spells are divided up into schools of magic that Frey will unlock and master throughout the game and, boy, do most of them pack a punch.
Fire-based spells included a powerful lance that could be summoned and chucked at range. A slashing attack (my favorite) let me deliver a series of fiery blows in the blink of an eye. I also had access to a few rocky Earth spells that allowed me to rapid fire magical stones at flying enemies and summon an earthen shield that absorbs some damage before breaking up and damaging surrounding enemies. Each spell can be charged to deliver more powerful effects and land with a bit more flair if you’re performing aerial attacks. A lot of enemies have resistances and vulnerabilities to different types of spells, so quickly switching between schools of magic and knowing what each spell does is key to success.
Toward the end of an hourlong demo, I was still learning more about exactly what Frey was capable of. Learning strategies for all the different enemies in Athia — from dark assassins and zombie fighters to mutant alligators, elks, and birds — was quite a task, and memorizing my spell list was even tougher. I naturally leaned hard on just a few spells that I saw solid results from, but I can imagine that with more practice, expertly stringing together a variety of spells instead of spamming one will be possible and very, very fun.
“Spell variety was a big part of our initial concept for the game,” co-director Takefumi Terada tells Digital Trends. “Each spell has its own properties and is useful in different situations. While using a mix of all of them is ideal, we wanted different players to be able to play how they want and customize their experience with the spells they choose to use.”
Mechanically, switching spells requires a lot of bumper button work — I was bringing up the radial spell menu and scrolling through spell options a lot more than the gameplay trailer suggests. I found it a bit overwhelming to run into an enemy with a damage resistance to my go-to spells and have to open that menu on the fly to try and read spell descriptions mid-combat. Obviously, there will be more time to learn and a more natural progression when playing the full release. I’m sure it’ll be a bit easier to tackle when you’re learning new spells slowly, but know that each fight takes a bit of effort.
Menu difficulties aside, combat is exciting and active. Each fight was a little different, but I always felt like the difficulty was tuned-in really well. It was a challenge and I was always outnumbered, but not to the point where fighting wasn’t fun. At the peak of battle, I couldn’t help but think that Frey was a combat combination of Talion from the Middle-Earth series with all the abilities of the most powerful mage-builds in Skyrim.
A big sticking point of this new IP is Frey’s ability to traverse Athia using her magic. The trailers show her surfing over hills using water magic and jumping great distances with ease.
I was intrigued by this aspect of the game, but it feels a little too simple so far. I only had access to a “zip” ability that allows Frey to quickly jump to a target spot within range (this was very fun in combat) and what was essentially a magical quickened run. I found myself often just holding the run option, and that’s about it. I tried a handful of times to summit massive cliffs with little success. My one attempt at exploring a small sea of floating islands in a canyon resulted immediately in a 100-foot fall. Thankfully, I didn’t take significant damage.
It was tough fully exploring this aspect of the game in a demo so laser-focused on combat and without full access to the range of parkour magic Frey eventually will have at her disposal. Like the combat, I can easily imagine that a more skilled player who logs in the hours could get really into jetting off across the map to the next destination in a magical blur — the idea just felt a little half-baked in the demo I played. I’d assume that magical parkour is intertwined with some quests along the way to help players get a better feel for it than I did.
It’s tough to judge an entirely new IP on a couple of trailers and a quick demo, but I know one thing for sure: I want to play more of this game. With the still-secret plot, the promise of action-packed combat, and a long list of spells Frey hasn’t unlocked yet, there’s no way I’m not picking this game up again when it releases. While there are still quite a few questions in the air on how this game will feel in its final form and what mark it will hit tone-wise, the demo left me with an appetite for more.
Forspoken is set to release on January 23, 2023 for PS5.
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