It’s hard being the new kid.
When Forspoken comes out next month, it’ll be something rare and precious from publisher Square Enix: Something that isn’t Final Fantasy. Square develops and publishes lots of games, and sometimes new franchises like Octopath Traveler pop up, but Forspoken’s magical open-world action is a big swing from a company built and sustained by Final Fantasy.
After spending about three hours playing a pre-release build of Forspoken and talking to two game directors and a creative producer from the studio Luminous Productions, I can see why Square Enix believes the game can succeed on its own merits without pre-existing branding. With a protagonist and world that have some narrative potential and a seriously sweet central movement mechanic, Forspoken might be the next big thing from Square Enix.
A new franchise means a bunch of new, creepy monsters. Credit: Square Enix
If Forspoken wants to establish itself as a major part of the Square Enix pantheon, it’ll need a compelling world. Luminous studio head and Forspoken director Takeshi Aramaki said working outside the bounds of an existing IP (about half the Forspoken team worked on Final Fantasy XV) offered some much-needed freedom.
“Of course, when you work with an existing franchise like Final Fantasy, there are certain kinds of boundaries that are already laid out,” Aramaki said. “So it was kind of nice and extremely fun from a development standpoint to be able to kind of create everything from scratch, from monsters, characters, to magic, and so forth.”
Athia is split into four major regions, each ruled by powerful female spellcasters called Tantas. Yeah, you guessed it: These Tantas aren’t super happy about Frey trespassing in their world with her fancy magic spells, so they decide she’s public enemy number one. Oh, and much of the world has been corrupted by a mysterious force called “The Break,” so what remains of humanity is largely concentrated in the capital city of Cipal.
I’m not 100 percent sold on Athia yet, as its aesthetic resemblance to stock European fantasy settings isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as the various worlds of Final Fantasy. There’s a reason for that, at least; creative producer Raio Mitsuno said the art team visited places like Romania for inspiration. So, in that sense, it’s a little more grounded in reality than some of Square’s other worlds.
“They went to places that still have these really, really old styles of architecture still intact to really get a sense of the details of the design, like how the air feels in areas like that,” Mitsuno said. “They took references from existing real-life places and then put their original twist onto them.”
Getting to know Frey
‘Forspoken’ may live or die with how much people like Frey. Credit: Square Enix
In this demo, I started with protagonist (and native New Yorker) Frey Holland arriving in Athia via mysterious means. In practice, this meant I experienced the game’s tutorials and watched a whole lot of cutscenes. This was useful because I finally got to know Frey a little bit.
Square is a company with a treasure trove of memorable protagonists like Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII and Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII, but not many of them have been women of color like Frey. Obviously, that’s very cool, and according to Mitsuno, it was something that occurred naturally early on in development. The team was so impressed with actress Ella Ballinska’s audition that they decided to model Frey after her.
“Frey is a determined character. She has an amazing sense of humor, but she’s also got a more soft, vulnerable side as well,” Mitsuno said. “It’s a very dynamic character, a very complex character, and Ella just fit exactly the vision and the mold that we wanted Frey to be.”
Naturally, Frey runs into some trouble right after arriving in Athia. Credit: Square Enix
Our 20-year-old protagonist had a fractured childhood, moving between foster homes and having to learn street survival skills to get by. While she didn’t intend to get transported to Athia, it’s something of a new opportunity for her. Most importantly, I learned that she is a cat person and loves phone photography. There are actually spots in the game where you can snap scenic photos with Frey’s smartphone for side quest purposes.
Her dialogue is filled with curse words and dripping with sarcasm, which may dismay some players. That said, it’s all delivered well by Ballinska, and that’s really all we can ask for. It’s reflective of a new approach Luminous took to making the game, as the Japanese studio worked with writers overseas this time around. Aramaki said this came about after the completion of FFXV, a game the team felt could have used more work on the narrative front.
“We tapped into the minds of [The Book of Eli screenwriter] Gary Whitta and [Uncharted writer] Amy Hennig…to help us craft the scenario and story and world,” Aramaki said. “We really felt like collaborating with this overseas talent would create an amazing experience.”
Run, Frey, run
On the gameplay front, easily the biggest way Forspoken diverges from the developers’ previous efforts is with its magic parkour system. All players need to do is hold a button and Frey will effortlessly bound across Athia’s expanses, automatically clearing obstacles along the way using magic. It’s limited at first by a stamina meter, but over the course of the game, you’ll get new abilities that both speed Frey up and mitigate stamina usage.
There’s also traditional fast-travel, but why do that when you can move around in style?
According to co-director Takefumi Terada, magic parkour was baked into the game’s design from the beginning. Years of stabilization and debugging went into making it feel just right. Not only that, but Athia itself was built as a playground for Frey’s movement abilities.
“The whole entire open world was designed to ensure maximum enjoyment out of magic parkour,” Terada said.
That’s in direct contrast to FFXV, which asked players to sit and watch long road trips play out on highways to get from one end of the map to the other. There was charm to that (you got to listen to Final Fantasy tunes on the radio), but fast-travel quickly became preferable. In Forspoken, it might be more enjoyable to sprint across the map yourself.
Forspoken is also the first Square Enix title to forgo the last generation of consoles. One thing that was apparent in my time with the game (and in talking to the developers) is that everyone involved is glad to be done with the long loading times of yesteryear. Loading in and out of cutscenes and fast-traveling rarely take longer than two seconds or so.
Frey can eventually glide across bodies of water. Credit: Square Enix
“Without this kind of system in place, [we] might not be able to create games anymore,” Aramaki joked.
Aramaki also feels that speeding up the process will make Forspoken more approachable to a wider audience of players, such as people who care more about gameplay than story.
“When you’re looking at players across the board now, they all kind of differ in the amount of time they’re spending in the game these days,” Aramaki said. “Minimizing that load time, or having no load time at all, is obviously very good for those who want to…speed through these experiences.”
Forspoken is a big gamble for Square Enix. It’s a brand new name with a new hero and complex gameplay with lots of room for experimentation. While Luminous is self-described as a studio that specializes in developing new IP for Square, Aramaki said the team would love to revisit Athia if the gamble pays off.
“We do feel like it would be nice if this were to become a franchise,” Aramaki said. “However…we would like to take a little bit of a break [after Forspoken launches].”
Forspoken launches on PlayStation 5 and PC on Jan. 24.