This post was originally a script for a first attempt at a short video essay that would potentially be the start of a series. However, due to vacation followed by over a week of sickness that completely has destroyed my voice for the time being and thus has kept me from both recording this AND streaming, I have decided to release it as a text post. So you let me know! Would you like to see these as a video series? Keep it as a text post thing? I still have a good sized list of other movies, games, and what not that would fit the “Another Look At” format. Let me know!
You know, for a long time I’ve wanted to do a series on shows, games, movies – what have you – that I really, really enjoy but seem to have the minority opinion on. You know. Those things that it seems like everybody but you hate and think is awful? Call them hot takes or guilty pleasures, but I wanted to take another look at stuff like that and share my honest thoughts on why _I_ like them despite all the hate.
So with that in mind, I wanted to talk about the most recent addition to that list, and take another look at a little recent game called ‘Forspoken’.
Forspoken is a 2023 release developed by Luminous Productions and published by Square Enix. I feel the need to separate those two despite Luminous Productions technically being an in-house team at Square Enix for reasons we will get into in a minute. The game is an open-world action rpg set in the world of Athia, where the four ruling witches – or Tantas as they are called in-game – have gone completely insane, twisted their virtues into vices and unleashed a horrible miasma on their kingdoms dubbed ‘The Break’… because it “breaks” things. Not the most original name, but hey a lot of the locals in Athia just call it “The Corruption” and between the two, the Break sounds a lot more creative comparatively.
Into this ruined world falls Frey, a 21 year old squatter from New York city who is on the last fine strands of patience the legal system has. She’s scrappy, resourceful, has a good sense of right and wrong – and tends to choose ‘wrong’ out of the necessity to survive. She’s also an orphan who was found as a baby in a tunnel with no idea who her parents were. Some of the trope-savvy out there are probably already putting something together from all of this. Frey finds herself drawn to a magical bracelet in an abandoned shop, and upon touching it is whisked away to Athia. Against her will. With no knowledge of why she got brought there, how she got there, or how to get back. Her only companion in Athia at first is the bracelet who turns out can talk and who she names Cuff much to its displeasure. From there, Frey begins a quest to… well honestly, get home. I mean, home sucks but IS home and there aren’t zombies and dragons in New York… yet?
This sets the general tone for the game. Frey is a young, snarky, New Yorker in a situation and world that she doesn’t understand, wants to leave asap, and the populace is firmly divided between thinking she alone is their savior or wanting her head put on a pike. As Frey gets further and further elevated into a very unwanted hero position by the surviving citizens, the greater the conflict grows between Frey’s goals and the people’s wants. This – more than the insane Tantas – forms the conflict of the story.
You’ve probably seen the memes and responses to the game that Frey isn’t a likable protagonist and she’s got too much “cringey” snippy dialogue. And even I will admit that there is truth to those claims. I honestly think people are overselling how much is in the game, but I won’t deny it’s there. But as the game progresses I think it becomes very clear that this is intentional. It’s Frey’s story arc as she starts thinking about the needs of others over her own desire to get home. She realizes that she’s been a horrible person to those around her and lashing out at them because of her situation which isn’t their fault either. She stops quipping as much, because she starts to earnestly want to connect and help people instead of just “dealing with them”. You can actually see this early on in the game, when Frey is down-to-earth, kind, and gentle with those she takes a liking to, but is snarky and quippy with those she doesn’t trust or feels are just using her. It’s not Whedon-esque quips for the sake of being punchy, it’s legitimately character development on the part of Frey, which is something of a shorthand to where her loyalties lie through the story.
Speaking of, there’s the other half of this dynamic duo – Cuff. Cuff is difficult to talk about without venturing into spoiler territory for a plot point that actually caught me off guard to the point that I don’t really want to go into it here. Like it’s a legitimately solid twist, as opposed to the far more obvious twist that I was able to predict before we even got to Athia. Cuff is the demeaning, deadpan observer to Frey’s journey. Serving for the most part as Frey’s conscience and guide to Athia. Cuff is not native to Athia, but has been there before so he knows SOME of the information to help Frey. Honestly, most of the ‘annoying quips’ in my opinion don’t come from the wise-cracking New Yorker but the deadpan snarker bracelet, but what can you do when you are a powerful and sentient force that exists as a bracelet because of a bunch of crazy witches?
Oh, excuse me. Tantas. The “antagonists” of the story are really more of a combined lore dump/force of nature. Each are ‘interesting’ characters in the sense of how their madness manifests – the defender soldier turned tyrants, the arbiter of justice turned into a paranoid hypocritical judge, jury and executioner – with separate personalities for each – and the wise teacher who chooses to hide herself and her world in illusions to escape. But ultimately, the story is not about the Tantas… who are not witches, despite having cat familiars and magic – they are instead the forces that drive Frey’s back and forth growth into a hero.
So with all that said, how was the story? Pretty good. Not great. Not gonna win any awards, but it was a solid origin-style story of Alice accepting that Wonderland was her home all along. It plays up the melodrama pretty heavily at points which I didn’t find extremely unexpected with the high tensions of the literal end of the world happening. The drama can probably feel a bit much if you are jetting through the main story instead of stopping to explore the outside world and do the side-objectives. It does deal a lot of back to back blows in that scenario and could wear you out. But to those who find Frey annoying or unlikable, yeah. She kind of is at the beginning. But only to emphasize how much she grows out of it by the end. It’s like Mark Hamill in Star Wars. He intentionally played Luke whiny at the start of A New Hope, so that you can more clearly see where he matures to by the end. Or should I compare it to something Japanese, like Rise of the Shield Hero. The game is pretty much an isekai down to the formula of the story. Which is surprising from a team of American writers.
Oh, did you not know that? Yeah, Forspoken is developed by a Japanese studio but the writing team they hired to craft the story of a new yorker getting isekai’d to a fantasy world? All Americans. Two of which – Todd Stashwick and Amy Henning – were writing that open-world Star Wars game for Visceral before EA canned the whole thing and dissolved the studio. Amy Henning in particular has a long established history in game writing and worked with Naughty Dog on both Jak & Daxter and Uncharted. The concept and lore was developed by Gary Whitta, who wrote the Book of Eli and was one of the early co-writers on Rogue One before departing ways with the project. With the fourth and final writer being Allison Rymer, who was the writer on Shadowhunters, the tv show adapted from The Mortal Instruments book series by Cassandra Clare. And I can tell you that if you were to combine the minds that created Jak & Daxter, the Book of Eli, and adapted the Mortal Instruments into a blender… You’d be well prepared for the tone of Forspoken. I mean, a Young Adult novel protagonist wise cracking with a snarky sidekick adventuring in a vast depressing post-apocalyptic open-world landscape? Yeah, that all matches.
But yeah, for a first time new studio, it’s a pretty basic story that holds together enough to show their real strength: the familiarity with their toolset.
“Did Vry say a first time studio? I thought this was Square Enix! Makers of the renowned Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises!”
Well, yes. That’s why I made sure to emphasize that Square Enix was the PUBLISHER, and that their internal team dubbed Luminous Productions was the developer. See Luminous Productions used to be called Business Division 2, and was the team responsible for Final Fantasy 15.
“See? Final Fantasy 15! Not a first time studio!”
Excuse me, hold on a moment. Business Division 2 became Luminous Productions when Hajime Tabata, director of Final Fantasy XV, left and a bunch of other people on the team followed him to start another studio. Luminous Productions is what’s left. The directors of Forspoken? One was a programmer for 15’s DLC, and the other was the director only for two of the DLCs – and the writer of an obscure romantic comedy anime that I watched in high school. Weird coincidence.
So generally, the studio is made up of people with lots of development experience but no management. Some minor directing credits at best. So what does this mean for the game? Well, they know the tools they’re using. The game is made in the Luminous Engine developed for Final Fantasy XV and it is very clear that the team’s strong suit is working with it.
They’ve developed an amazingly fun, complex but incredibly friendly combat magic system that makes it fun to just dive in and throw insane combos of various powers capped with ‘Surge Magic’ finishers that erupt the landscape in elemental fury that makes you feel like a God of Destruction, kind of like when you summoned one of the Astrals in 15.
You can eventually switch between four different types of magic, each with strengths and weaknesses and can be woven together seamlessly in combat. What’s that? Drop a ring of fire to trap enemies inside and then cause a wave of water to push them away from you and into the damage wall of flame? Yes please!
The environment is vast, gorgeous, and developed up enough that it never feels bland. I always like to think that a sign of a good open world is that I don’t need a map to navigate an area and can work just with landmarks – Forspoken is great about this, leaving interesting details in spots that allow you to orient your surroundings using them.
On top of all that, the game is beautiful. On top of the side quest to find picturesque photo spots, there are dozens and dozens of places where I would just stop and admire the scenery.
However, I am going to do that thing where I agree with the game’s critics a bit here. If you want something that shakes up the standard open-world formula of here’s a bunch of map points, do something here and get equipment or lore or stat boosts – you won’t really find it here. Forspoken does not break the mold of open-world adventures. How much that will affect your enjoyment is really up to you. I don’t play a ton of open-world stuff. I haven’t jumped into the latest Assassin’s Creeds or Far Crys. So the fact that the game stuck to usual tried-and-true didn’t really bother me, but I can see how people looking for a breath of fresh air or coming in after a more creative take on the open-world formula like I’m told Eldin Ring manages to do, might find Forspoken lacking in that department.
But I honestly applaud the game. It is a great first attempt by a studio who had its founder and creative visionary leave the studio and had to fill the void with who they had. It’s not the best game, but as a trepidatious initial step from a fledgling studio trying to find its feet it’s not bad. Especially in the performance department. I put over 80 hours into Forspoken on the PS5, completed the entire storyline, and I had the game crash on me… twice? Tops? Compare that to other big name open-world games from veteran studios rolling in awards like CD Projekt Red where I could set my clock to remind me to save every 25 minutes because Cyberpunk 2077 was guaranteed to crash at 30 minutes of playtime on the dot. A game the size and scope of Forspoken running as well as it does? I’m still impressed.
So yeah, that’s my Another Look at Forspoken. A game that got a lot of hate, despite it being an okay game. Above average really. I don’t think you’ll see the accolades rolling in at the Game Awards next year or anything but it does make me excited to see what the team at Luminous Productions does next. What about you? Did you have any fun playing Forspoken? What do you think of this new series of looking at my guilty pleasures? I’m enjoying being able to share these with you, so let me know in the comments or give it a like if you found my perspective interesting at all. Till next time!