Say what you like about Forspoken, it’s an exceptional advert for the PS5

Right. We all know Forspoken as the game that’s been perpetually delayed, that’s been laughed at for its dumb trailers, and that’s been sort-of left out to die. That’s a fair comment, right? A cursory look at any of the popular gaming message boards, or at social media, will instantly tell you that Forspoken is no-one’s most anticipated game. It’s a curio, at best. A game people are gleefully watching, expecting it to fail, at worst.

We should all give Forspoken a(nother) chance.

But what if I told you that, actually, it’s not that bad? That – when you get your hands on it – it actually feels OK to play? Playing as Frey, the young black woman spirited away from New York and dumped in the land of Athia, you are tasked with helping the people of a dying land in order to get back home. It’s Wizard of Oz via all the JRPG tropes you’d expect from the studio that made Final Fantasy 15.

It’s a very pretty game, right?

The core conceit is your use of magic. A sentient cuff has bound itself to you, and acts as your mentor-cum-friend in these strange new worlds. It also chats shit, constantly, but the incessant banter really isn’t as bad as you’ve been led to believe from all the memes and dodgy trailers. In context, it’s actually – whisper it – quite charming. No worse than what you’ve endured in Borderlands, Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3, or Tales from the Borderlands, Battleborn, Tiny Tina’s… you get the picture.

And then there’s how it looks – this is a PS5 and PC-only game, and it shows. Forspoken is unencumbered by last-gen constraints, and the result is a title that looks really, really great and plays like nectar in your hands. The studio’s focus on making the magic parkour feel right – and empowering you with over 100 usable spells – combines to give you a treat for the eyes and the, erm, fingers. There’s particle effects galore, Frey’s cloak billowing in the heat as she sets enemies alight, reflections of the sky glancing off the water as your camera spins around to watch you finish off one of the ambling enemies, all dressed up in black and gold.

All this – this dedication to making it look good – is all because Luminous Productions has been working with this tech for well over a generation, at this point.

Calm down with the lens flare – this isn’t a J. J. Abrams joint.

“The Luminous Engine is, of course, an engine that we created for Final Fantasy 15 – and we’re using that same engine now, for Forspoken,” says Forspoken co-director Takefumi Terada via Square Enix interpreter. “But we have worked on making all kinds of improvements and all kinds of tweaks to it since then, both in terms of graphics, and in terms of optimisation, things like that.

“And one area where we really feel the difference is how we can now recreate – with 100% fidelity and power – the artist’s vision. The artist’s vision, exactly: we can make things look exactly as we envision them on console.”

This game is a great advert for the PS5: as well as all the effects you generate with your different spells – whether they’re making the earth shatter beneath you, creating domes of fire to hem your enemies in, or sending tendrils of lightning ricocheting between everything – you can quickly dash from location to location. In my one hour-plus time with the game, I didn’t see any pop-in, graphical bugs, or any dodgy animation. This may be a game lambasted for its seemingly ‘budget’ genesis, but you don’t see any of that when you’re actually sat in front of it.

“I think the number one important point for us about the performance of this game can be seen in the magically-enhanced parkour,” continues Terada. “It’s very high-speed, fast-paced action, and it allows you to traverse the map at great speeds, as well. And this is something that we were only really able to achieve because of the PS5 and this kind of next-gen hardware. It opened up a lot of capabilities for us. So I do hope that is something that will resonate with the players.”

Frey will come up against many weird and wonderful foes.

Of course, the game was something slightly different when it was conceived: the team making it was originally founded by Final Fantasy 15 director, Hajime Tabata, before he left the team to pursue his own game development. With his departure, Forspoken morphed, too – but that change seems to be a good thing. Terada tells me that despite the changes the game has endured, this focus on making it fast, fun, and easy to pick up has always been at the core of what Forspoken is.

“I think that, obviously, there have been some changes since the initial stages of development, but in terms of that core concept – of the fantasy world and real life coming together in a kind-of fusion – I think that is something that we have ‘carried the flag’ for and picked up and ran with, and that’s something that we’ve certainly achieved in the game as it comes towards launch.

“I think one of the biggest learnings for us from Final Fantasy 15 was this idea of making a game that was easy to understand – or easy to grasp, at least. We really wanted to create a game where players can pick up, and pinpoint right away, what’s so engaging about it. So they could just jump straight into it.”

The illumination is just lovely.

From my time with Forspoken, I think the Luminous team has achieved that; I was dumped into the game, more than a few hours in, and I managed to use all the spells, read all the enemy attacks, complete my mission and seek out the hidden super-boss that was tucked in at the end of the level. This mega-sized crocodile thing thrashed and struggled, but between setting it on fire, battering it with clumps of earth, and beating seven shades of snot out of it with a magical lash coming out of my obnoxious cuff, it stood no chance. And when I was told to leave – to stop wailing on this poor reptile – I was genuinely sad. I wanted more, more!

Yes, Forspoken feels like a game designed by committee, to a degree. But there’s a spark here, some soul embedded deep down in whatever this game is. I think it’s clear that there are elements of this game that have been through the wash in the process of the game’s long development, but the result is something likely to attract a small, loyal following – a game that could very well become one of the first cult hits of the PS5 era, if Square Enix sticks the landing.

Forspoken launches for PC and PS5 on January 24, 2023.

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