From Frey’s very first steps in the medieval fantasy land of Athia, Forspoken’s influences emerge in full force.
She runs and ducks under broken walls in an abandoned castle with a giant dragon in pursuit. She gets an annoyingly chatty companion named Cuff, who is literally a talking gold bracelet. Then, after narrowly avoiding danger, we get a dramatic bird’s-eye view of the landscape, dominated by a massive stone landmark arching up into the sky.
The game seems to scream: This is a JRPG! This is an isekai! There might be some glorious anime bullshit in here! Even smaller details, like the stone landmark, reminded me of Xenoblade Chronicles’ Gaur Plain. However, despite its initial promise, much of Frey’s time in Athia unfolds without much whimsy or the requisite amount of levity. Luminous Productions and Square Enix’s new game strikes a distinctively serious tone that makes it difficult to persevere throughout the long journey.
Luminous Productions imbues Athia with a sort of pervasive sadness. This mainly stems from the “bubonic plague vibe” it has going. There isn’t actually a plague, but there are dark and stormy clouds that envelop entire towns and kill all the living things within. Forspoken also relies on a photorealistic graphics style that, despite some of the vibrant magic in the combat, isn’t all that colorful — even its flowers look a little sad and colorless.
Then we layer on Frey’s story, which is also very sad! She’s an orphan abandoned by her parents at birth. She lives in poverty in New York City, and the day she finally saved enough money to move and make a better life, her home gets burned down by a gang. She finds new confidence in Athia, but still lives a solitary life. In her journey, she isn’t joined by any band of companions, who fill the cutscenes with romantic monologues about the power of friendship.
She is an outsider to the world of Athia and (without spoiling anything) gets burned when she does open her heart up a bit.
Frey’s magical parkour abilities allow her to bound across the world untethered. Yet, outside of its mechanics, Forspoken lacks the moments of levity that allow players to endure the long, sad, and sometimes difficult journeys of so many other “serious” games. There are no silly Cactuars popping up to make you laugh; no overly cocky friends standing by your side; no moments of whimsy that allow you to take a break and recover from it all. Perhaps the closest you get is a cute little side quest where you feed sheep, but even then, that ends up being slightly tedious because you don’t actually get to see Frey feed the sheep since text on a black screen just says you fed them.
There’s a reason comic relief is so common in blockbuster movies and video games — it gives the audience a breather before the next exciting, yet stressful set piece. Forspoken is so decidedly serious in its overarching narrative that it becomes too much weight for the dialogue to bear — thus, the cringe emerges. The bad jokes and stiff self-narration are fixtures of several popular AAA games, but in Forspoken when they miss, they seem to fall even harder, because it’s not a world where silly things happen or people speak in strange, unbelievable ways. The self-referential dialogue feels less like comic relief, and more like self-deprecation.
I personally think that Frey deserves to have fun. She clearly enjoys herself at points. The first time she uses her magical parkour abilities she says, “Okay, this is awesome! I am catching some serious air!” Her life and story don’t need to be completely goofy, but all the sad medieval stuff could use some pushback. And it doesn’t get any. For me, it’s exhausting enough to push me away.