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Frey, Forspoken’s protagonist, looks to the right of the camera in a dimly lit environment

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Forspoken finally gets better, shortly before it ends

Medieval fantasy in a bland open world

Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

Forspoken, of all things, is a Christmas game. It begins a few days before the holiday, which, as it happens, is protagonist Frey Holland’s birthday, a fact you learn when the game forces you to review her printed-out arrest record in the first scene, where Frey stands in a New York City courtroom accused of grand larceny and resisting arrest.

In that same scene, you learn that Frey, like the baby Jesus, had a mysterious birth. Only in her case it wasn’t wise men who found her in Bethlehem, but firefighters in the Holland Tunnel. (Hence her name.) After leaving the courtroom, Frey gets beat up by two women (one in leopard print, the other in camo) before returning to her barren, boarded-up apartment, where she has written her plan to leave New York on a piece of cardboard taped to the wall. Alongside her cardboard decor, Frey has a few books (Alice in Wonderland and a leather-bound hard copy of something called “Law and Order” are the most prominent) and a wall rack devoted to her beloved “kicks.” Her whole apartment promptly burns down, leading her to reflect on her life while leaning over the edge of the Crossroads Hotel as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day. Suddenly, she spots a magical bracelet that is about to change her life.

From the get-go, Forspoken’s tone feels unintentionally absurd. The game, developed by Luminous Productions and published by Square Enix, opens in present-day New York City, a depiction that, even to a non-New Yorker like myself, feels less like New York and more like what an AI that has been fed Law & Order reruns and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room would produce. (At one point, when asked what she misses about New York, Frey offers up Central Park and knish, the latter of which plays a surprisingly important role in the game’s plot.)

Protagonist Frey’s criminal record, which the player is forced to look over in order to progress in Forspoken Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix via Polygon

Soon, though, you are portaled away to Athia, the game’s true setting: a medieval fantasy world overrun with corruption that threatens to destroy life itself. There, you find yourself joined at the wrist to Cuff, a sentient bangle who hates you. Then, the dialogue from the infamous trailer is spoken, and you’re off to the races.

Forspoken’s opening hours are by far its worst. It took me 16 hours to complete the game, taking in a fair bit of the side offerings in this open-world action RPG, being careful not to sprint too quickly toward the game’s conclusion, though the temptation was there. The first seven hours of those 16 (nearly half the game’s run time, I feel the need to emphasize) were hamstrung by a lengthy tutorial, one-note combat, and an insistence on interrupting the “magic parkour” with lore entries, horrible dialogue, sheep-petting minigames, cat-following minigames, and spoken exposition detailing the intricacies of meat production in Cipal, Forspoken’s empty, ugly hub city.

For a game that so consistently references Alice in Wonderland, one of the biggest disappointments is just how bland Athia is, not just visually, but conceptually. Rich and poor divided between castle and slums? Check. Mysterious blight that can be stemmed with a poultice made of special roots? Also check. An old man who’s gone mad, but might actually hold the key to solving all this? Sure. And on and on.

It’s a blessing, then — a true Christmas miracle — that once you get your second set of magical abilities, the game can actually be a fair bit of fun. Forspoken’s combat is its central draw, and despite regular issues with lock-on and camera control, it’s satisfying to swap between several sets of magic on the fly, rooting enemies to the ground with vines before charging up a circular sweep of a fire sword and watching the VULNERABLEs litter the screen while my combat rating shoots up.

Frey looks out over a cliff-studded, borderline desert area of Athia in Forspoken Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix via Polygon

Traversal is also decent fun. Frey has an Infamous-esque sprint ability that gets further modified throughout the game, allowing you to whip across the landscapes in a matter of moments. Sadly, you’re invariably whipping toward visually identical dungeons (the interior lighting changes from red to green as you progress), visually identical rest areas called Pilgrim’s Refuges (no lighting variation), and cat-approaching minigames (distinct from cat-following minigames). Frey and Cuff banter as you explore and quickly start to repeat themselves within the first few hours of the game, to the point where you will be able to recite, by heart, their most memorable loot-pickup lines by the time the credits roll.

The combat gets more enjoyable with every Tanta you kill, as you absorb the power of these magic queens. By the time you get a fourth set of magical abilities, the game feels like it’s finally opening up, with a full suite of powers available to you, a feeling immediately undercut by the fact that it’s actually ending. There was certainly side content left to explore once I’d fought my way to my true power, but in terms of what was left of the story, it more or less amounted to a series of minibosses, some of which were retreads of what I’d already seen. If I hadn’t already felt disappointed with the game, I certainly would at its conclusion.

Frey talks to an NPC in the open world of Forspoken Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix via Polygon

Before I wrap up, let’s spare a word for Frey, a notionally Black protagonist who joins a growing trend in media of putting Black people in worlds where race is inconsequential. Except the game is very insistent that Frey is a New Yorker, mysterious birth or no, spending her entire life up until this point growing up in our decidedly nonfantasy world, where Blackness is not a nonfactor. Regrettably, Frey’s identity is thinly written and awkwardly deployed, as the story leans not only on stereotypical narratives but trauma as a plot device.

An early plot point involves Frey holding the lifeless body of an Athian Black girl with whom she has bonded, an image that, in the raceless world of Athia, doesn’t carry the same weight it does in ours — and Frey’s. Initially, Frey is spurred to action, vowing revenge for the child’s death, which led me to believe, optimistically, that the game was thinking about Frey’s identity as more than just the sum of its repeated insistence of her love of “kicks” and the one time she says “OK bet.” Unfortunately, like everything in Forspoken, the death is quickly relegated to quip-fodder, as Frey jokingly calls the child’s murderer “the kiddie-killer herself,” which brings us back to square one: a two-dimensional foster kid with a rap sheet who swears so often you’d think she was paid by the “motherfucker.”

Frey encounters one of the Tanta, magic queens in Forspoken Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

Forspoken’s final hours feature a bizarre difficulty curve, where I found myself absolutely destroying certain bosses before the full dialogue could even play out, only to then be pitted against the big bad who, among other things, featured a one-hit kill cleverly disguised as a cutscene. Frey triumphs, of course, but for a character who spends the majority of the game loudly proclaiming she neither is nor wants to be a hero, I found her late-game pivot to savior hard to believe. Still, a world plagued by blight is in need of rescue. If the Cuff fits, or some such aphorism.

Personally, I found myself more convinced by the game’s alternate ending, where you can return to New York without saving the world. A laughably curt cutscene accompanies the choice before the full credits roll, but it feels like a more honest conclusion for a character who, like me, was ready to be done with Athia.

Forspoken will be released on Jan. 24 on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.