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Square Enix's Forspoken still looks gorgeous, but I'm worried about the narrative

Metroid: Other M story vibes?

Remember Forspoken? I don’t blame you if it passed you by, as this year has been pretty insane as a whole. It’s that new fantasy action game from Square Enix. You know, that new one! Okay, I’ll be more specific, as a result of a recent Forspoken preview event.

Forspoken follows Frey Holland (Ella Balinska) as she warps from New York City to the magical land of Athia — oh, and it looks fantastic and has fast-running physics. That one! Square Enix recently gave a select number of people a hands-off tour, and there are still a lot of “what ifs” for this game.

Forspoken preview 2

As usual Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda introed the game, using rousing phrases like “fusing the latest technology,” as well as “magic parkour action” and “a unique story.” This is the first real debut project from Luminous Productions, who worked on FFXV, so all eyes are on them to deliver. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m anxious to see how it turns out. During the event, the curtain was pulled back again on who is actually working on Forspoken. Takefumi Terada is the co-director, with Raio Mitsuno as the creative producer. Allison Rymer and Todd Stashwick are lead writers, and while Gary Whitta and Amy Hennig are technically attached, they were only mentioned in passing in the overview. This is where my concerns started to form.

Tom Keegan (voice and mocap director) says the crux of the game is about “family,” which gets my Fast & Furious and Olive Garden warning alarm bell going. Frey Holland is nearly 21 and “on the verge of possibly going to prison,” and is described as having a “hip hop walk” (which raised a few eyebrows during the event) before she gets transported into what is essentially anime Oz plagued by a mysterious force. She also curses constantly (“shit” and “fuck” were in the gameplay demo); which isn’t inherently “wrong,” but is definitely a choice if she’s doing it throughout the entire game. There’s edge, and there’s annoying.

After seeing more of the story elements in the Forspoken preview event, myself and a few other folks in the event voiced some concerns about the story and the extent of Whitta/Hennig’s involvement. Right now, it seems as if there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. You have collaborating east and west studios trying to take on a modern New York City character whisked away to a fantasy land: it’s going to be a tough creative process by nature. At the same time, I wasn’t really given any assurances that they were going in a direction that would rise above any existing narrative action tropes that have been re-used since the PS2 era. If anything, I hope the story is benign and doesn’t double down on some of these half-baked beats. But with all this work and celebrities involved, it sounds like they’re going all-in on it.

Although a major focus was the aforementioned storytelling angle, we were able to see a few of the finer points of the game’s mechanics in the Forspoken preview, which seem to draw from a lot of existing action-RPGs, and inspire more confidence, even if they’re familiar. Leveling up “extends parkour,” resting in a bed brings your health back in line, and there’s also a craft/bench system. Her main equipment items are cloaks and necklaces (as well as nail enchantments), so it doesn’t seem to be completely bogged down by loot (a surefire sign that it’s more action, less RPG, which will appeal to a certain crowd). We were shown small skirmishes and groups of shambling zombie enemies, which seem to be the two big sets of confrontations. Water and lightning spells were demoed, with Frey able to “tag/paint” multiple foes like a Star Fox game on top of delivering direct strikes.

There’s lots of running (and a swinging web-like mechanic) and enemy head-hopping, and not a ton of enemies in the open world in this build: traversal was front and center. The fights seem more deliberately placed, and in the demo, they showcase how you can run from combat if you want in some cases. Frey and her magic bracelet Cuff (played by Jonathan Cake, of Desperate Housewives fame) also banter, of course, as is customary in open world type games.

Square Enix is putting a lot of stock into the game, given the focus on cutting-edge aesthetics in the Forspoken preview. Whether it pays off remains to be seen. Mechanically, it looks sound, and the aesthetics are gorgeous. I have more than a few questions as to how effective the storytelling in Forspoken is really going to be, as there are a lot of hands in the creative pie, spanning multiple project leads across several countries. As for me, I was partially sold on “anime running,” as I’m a sucker for cool traversal systems. Hopefully the mechanics get a lot of focus, because the development team is really selling the narrative angle hard.

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