Forspoken Hands-on Gameplay Preview (PS5)

Forspoken was first announced during Sony’s June 2020 State of Play webcast, known only as Project Athia. Fast-forward two and a half years later, and the game is quickly parkouring its way towards its (twice-delayed) release date of January 24th.

While a playable teaser demo released following an announcement during last week’s The Game Awards, we managed to sneak off to Square Enix’s LAX-adjacent offices ahead of the awards show to take a deeper dive into the game with a four-hour hands-on session. Time to see what developer Luminous Productions has been up to as they leap into the tail end of development.

Please take me home

For those unfamiliar, Forspoken stars Frey Holland, a typical young woman in New York, who is seemingly tired of her current life and plans to get away from everything. Little does she know that her plan is about to succeed in the most absurd way possible.

When she stumbles upon a magical, sentient bracelet (he prefers the term vambrace), Frey is transported into a whole different world entirely, called Athia. New York City and the United States of America at large may have their own share of problems like any country, but they’re nothing like what Athia is facing.

An ominous miasma that Frey calls the Break has infected the land, turning every living thing it touches into either dust or a much more ferocious, bloodthirsty version of its former self. The land has been ruled by four women known as Tantas, and Athia was a peaceful place to live before the Break.

Now, however, each Tanta rules with an iron fist, as all have been corrupted by the Break. For some reason, Frey and her unwanted bracelet partner whom she derisively calls Cuff are unaffected by the Break, as they have seemingly been purposely summoned into Athia in order to help the few remaining people who have managed to escape to a city on top of the mountains.

At first, Frey is reluctant to want to help anyone, even after one of the citizens helps to get her out of prison. Her main focus is on getting back home. Why, exactly, she is so eager to get back to the life that just a few hours ago she was ready to leave behind is a mystery. Perhaps it’s simply the familiarity of her old life is still something she’d rather have than being thrust into the problems of strangers in a strange land? Whatever the case, I know that personally I’d probably want to stay in Athia with the magical powers she quickly unlocks.

After befriending some of the locals, Frey finds herself caring for their fates, and thus decides that some of them are worth fighting for. She’s not exactly a noble warrior at the outset, and that comes across as believably endearing as you see her cold façade gradually chip away as she warms up to a select few people in need.

Joined at the wrist

One “person,” if they could indeed be called that, whom Frey is especially cold to at the start of her adventure is Cuff. Again, he is a sentient, or at least possessed, metal bracelet that Frey put on shortly before she was teleported to the land of Athia. He is permanently attached to her right arm, and can help block attacks as well as channel the magical essence that now flows through Frey.

He also talks, a lot. Think Mimir from God of War levels of talking, and you’ll have some idea of what I mean. Though in this case, only Frey can hear what he is saying, which results in some comical moments where other characters hear Frey talking to what sounds like herself. Her initial dismissive attitude towards him is due in no small part to their seemingly permanent arrangement, as up until now it seems Frey had no one she could depend on in her regular life. Growing up like that will naturally make anyone distrust others.

Forspoken boasts at least two signature gameplay features: magical parkour, and over 100 magic combat options. The magical parkour system is one that Luminous Productions said they had very early on in their work, before perhaps even the name of the game was decided upon. Once they had this more or less working, the world was built with it in mind. This means that there are usually a lot of obstacles between any two given points on a map, but it’s nothing a little parkour can’t get you through.

It basically works like this: while you move, you simply hold down the circle button, and Frey will effortlessly increase her speed while deftly jumping up and over almost anything in her path. The skill is not unlimited, however, though the stamina that this uses is quite plentiful even in the early stages of the adventure. Naturally, this stamina can be upgraded as the player progresses.

Like regular parkour, but MAGIC

The magical parkour serves as a basis for getting Frey into the “Flow,” the name for Forspoken’s combo system. By holding down circle during combat, Frey can kind of go on autopilot and automatically dodge most incoming attacks.

Since we didn’t have a ton of time during our hands-on demo, this part of the tutorial was quickly gone over, and I didn’t feel too confident holding Circle down as Frey would often move around a bit too quickly for my liking. Instead, I watched for the star-like icon that appeared as enemies prepared to attack me, and simply held circle whenever I saw them to dodge.

This worked well enough that I didn’t take damage too often, even allowing me to get through one of the early bosses without much hassle. This Flow mechanic is going to take a lot of practice to get through, but from what I’ve seen the payoff will be worth it.

Outside of combat, the magical parkour serves as a great exploration tool. Pressing up on the D-pad makes Cuff scan the nearby area, which will highlight chests and enemies that Frey should be aware of. Often times, the chests and other goodies are up and out of reach, but holding the circle button allows Frey to easily scale most buildings, and learned abilities allow her to kick and jump off walls in order to get a little bit higher. Not every area will be easily reachable at the start of the game, though, so some areas will probably need to be re-visited as the player progresses. This method of traversal will also take some getting used to, as it is incredibly quick and requires you to react quickly to whatever comes your way.

There are four different magic colors, each with their own style and uses. During our session, we mostly utilized the purple magic, which is the type that Frey has from the outset of her adventure. These attacks are ranged and earth-based, more akin to a third-person shooting mechanic. It’s something that’s easy to grasp. Pressing R2 fires off some projectiles, while holding the button allows for three different attacks, selectable by holding the R1 button: options include launching a larger projectile to deal more damage, firing off a burst of controlled shots, or creating a shield of rocks that protect Frey until she lets go, at which point the shield’s contents are fired straight ahead, damaging anything unlucky enough to be in her path.

A combo for every style

Frey also has an assortment of assist magics, which can be equipped separately by holding the L1 button. While we only saw a small sampling of these, the L2 button fires off these moves and varies from summoning a plant-based turret that fires at enemies for a time, to binding enemies in vines and leaving them wide open to attacks, and even leeching life force from enemies in order to heal Frey.

There are thousands of combinations between main and support magic attacks, and surely players of all types will find their own combinations that work well for them. For instance, towards the end of our session we were able to check out the red magic, which is melee focused and summons weapons made of magic which can be used to punish enemies who dare to invade Frey’s personal space. Switching magic can be done by holding L1 and R1, pressing left or right on the D-Pad, or even swiping on the DualSense’s touchpad. Again, there are plenty of options, and whichever one feels right in the moment will be right for you.

Speaking of options, the land of Athia is awash with them. In fact, at the start of our session we were cautioned to try and avoid going too far off the path that leads us to our next objective, because much like other open-world games, the entire world is available for the player to explore and interact with from the second chapter onwards.

Of course, some areas are going to be inhabited by formidable enemies that will take down early-game players in one hit, which serve as a natural deterrent to heading off in any old which way, but the freedom to figure this out on your own is great for those who love to just explore a vast new landscape. Athia was designed with magical parkour in mind, after all, so it is a huge playground in which players can hone their skills before going about Frey’s actual business of saving this cursed land. I will admit that I nearly didn’t make it to the end of our prescribed content, likely because I was able to roam about wherever I wanted.

There are also numerous style options for Frey, and all of them are functional. She can equip and upgrade various apparel such as masks, necklaces, and cloaks at workbenches tucked away within safehouses found throughout the land of Athia. Resources for these upgrades can be found on fallen enemies, in chests, or perhaps given as quest rewards.

Frey can also paint her nails in a unique upgrade option that I don’t remember in other games before. Each hand can be painted in a separate style if desired, for different effects such as extra damage, or easier recovery. Though, you could always just go with your favorite look instead. The choice, as ever, is yours.

Forspoken has a ton of potential, and is now a game that I am excited to get my hands on again as the release nears. The flow mechanic is going to take some getting used to – there is no getting around this. But I believe investing the time in it will allow players to reap the rewards and master the game in whatever way they so choose. The mixture of a large world, interesting cast of characters, and a vast array of magical combat options seems like a great combination, and soon we’ll find out if all these ideas meld together well when Forspoken launches on the PS5 and PC platforms on January 24, 2023.