It’s hard to engage with Forspoken without considering what came before. And that was Final Fantasy 15: a large, beautiful, open world game, where the main character used aggressive magic to fight against a range of beasts, enemies and bosses. And that genetic code is felt here. With much of the same team and the same engine powering this new Sony IP and PS5 console exclusive, Forspoken carves a fascinating sculpture of its own identity, to stand bold against established properties – like Horizon or God of War. This is not to say it overshadows or cowers alongside these, but that it at least boldly attempts to be part of a well-regarded group of Playstation exclusives.

Forspoken stars Frey, a New Yorker who finds herself constantly on the wrong side of the legal tracks. Sleeping in abandoned apartments, looking after her lovely cat Homer. One night while fleeing from gangsters to whom she owes money, she suddenly stumbles into a strange new world, called Athia. With a magical bracelet with a delicious, smarmy British accent wrapped around her arm, Frey is suddenly confronting dragons, wielding magic and navigating a broken and bruised world.

What immediately struck me was the incredibly fluid traversal mechanics and Frey’s magic combat. Movement is relegated to the circle button, while magic is assigned to shoulder buttons: attacks on the right and support on the left. Frey moves balletically around the field, tossing magic from her hands, with the cursor automatically locking on. The combat is incredibly frantic so you will be thankful for the various incredible assistance provided by the game – which can be tuned to your specifications in the option menu.

Athia is largely depopulated, filled only with zombies and monsters, made as a result of what Frey called the Break. When any form of life makes contact with the Break, which appears like a plague, it becomes zombified. Discovering the only human populated city, Cipal, Frey is initially blamed for ongoing attacks before everyone realise she is the only person who can be beyond the walls and not be corrupted by the Break. It is up to here to find out about the Break and stop its spread.

Forspoken was written – or its lore established – by veteran writers like Gary Whitta and Amy Hennig. Discovering the world is therefore part of the pleasure of experiencing the game, so I would rather not say more.

Initially, the game is rather offputting since Frey is rather powerless and can do little. However, after defeating my first major boss, the game seemed to shift entirely. Not only are you presented with different kinds of magic, but new traversal systems. The options and variability make the game far more engaging and enjoyable. Frey is a wonder to play, moving quickly and responsively to every button press and movement of sticks. The combat is beautiful to witness and fun to perform, combined with one of the best traversal systems I’ve ever experienced.

Before the game was released, the marketing seemed to pick out some of the most cringe conversations between Frey and Brace. Their relationship forms the central nexus of the entire story, as both are trying to find a way home. I laughed frequently and enjoyed the banter and growing relationship between the two: with Brace providing insider knowledge and assistance to Frey, while Frey grows in power to solve the mystery of the world.

The open world is massive. As is usual, icons dot the landscape, that feed into Frey’s growing power. Almost all involve Frey defeating one or more enemies. They are not particularly original: from delving into what amount to dungeons that have the same design to clearing out areas to open a chest. Sidequests are unfortunately not much to write about either: We’re not talking about fascinating character or plot development like The Witcher 3. Instead we’re talking about pressing x on three sheep or taking pictures at certain spots. Big deal.

While it’s fun to navigate the world, there is little to do in it that isn’t merely a tickbox open world exercise. Instead, it is better to stick to the main story as this does advance characters, uncover more of the world and lead to Frey advancing her powers.

It is also refreshing to experience a game that centres so many women: Frey, her friends, the city leaders and the main bosses (who were also once the world leaders) are all women. Further, Frey as a black woman is also a welcome change from the centring of white characters especially in big budget titles.

Unfortunately, aside from the issues I mentioned there are others. Most notably is the strange way it does cutscenes: with frequent cut-to-blacks even in the same scene! Sometimes the game will have a cutscene that ends and expects Frey to walk, and literally a few seconds later another cutscene starts. It made no sense and made it all feel stilted. Also characters feel that way too in conversation: sometimes there are too long pauses between Frey and other characters, as if they are spooling up before delivering their lines.

2022 was a year for narrative-driven, open-world action RPGs, with the aforementioned Horizon and God of War sequels both dropping last year. Forspoken was fighting what appeared to be a losing battle. Its mechanics are better than they have any right to be and the combat is truly inspired, up there with the recent God of War titles. It feels, as they say, fresh.

I’m uncertain if I would recommend Forspoken at this time, given the couple of bugs too that remain and a fairly lifeless world. However, the main story is enjoyable, Frey and Cuff are great and the combat is utterly astounding. It’s a joy to behold and the game usually maintains a solid 60 frames. Forspoken is, as I say, bold and I only hope the parts where it is strange or clunky is smoothed over going forward.

Also this game loves cats!