Forspoken’s story and dialogue have no chill

From Frey’s first steps in the fantastic medieval country of Athia, Forspoken’s the influences emerge in full force.

She runs and hides under broken walls in an abandoned castle with a giant dragon in pursuit. She gets a boring, talkative sidekick named Cuff, who is literally a talking gold bracelet. Then, after narrowly avoiding danger, we get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the landscape, dominated by a massive stone monument rising skyward.

The game seems to scream: It’s a JRPG! It’s an isekai! There could be some glorious anime bullshit here! Even smaller details, like the stone landmark, reminded me of Gaur Plain from Xenoblade Chronicles. However, despite its initial promise, much of Frey’s time in Athia unfolds without much fantasy or the requisite levity. The new game from Luminous Productions and Square Enix strikes a distinctly serious tone that makes it difficult to persevere through the journey.

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

Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

Luminous Productions imbues Athia with a sort of overwhelming sadness. This mostly stems from the “bubonic plague vibe” it has. There isn’t actually a plague, but there are dark, stormy clouds that envelop entire cities and kill every living thing inside. Speak also relies on a photorealistic graphical style that, despite some of the vibrant combat magic, isn’t all that colorful – even its flowers look a bit sad and colorless.

Then we overlay the story of Frey, which is also very sad! She is an orphan abandoned by her parents at birth. She lives in poverty in New York, and the day she finally saves enough money to move out and have a better life, her house is burned down by a gang. She finds new confidence in Athia, but still lives a lonely life. On her journey, she is not joined by any group of companions, who fill the cutscenes with romantic monologues about the power of friendship.

She’s a stranger to Athia’s world and (not to spoil anything) gets burned when she opens her heart a little.

Frey’s magical parkour abilities allow him to traverse the world untethered. However, apart from its mechanics, Speak lacks the moments of levity that allow players to endure the long, sad, and sometimes difficult journeys of so many other “serious” games. There are no silly Cactuars popping up to make you laugh; no overly arrogant friends by your side; no fancy moments that allow you to take a break and recover from everything. Maybe the closest you get is a nice little side quest where you feed sheep, but even then it ends up being a bit tedious because you don’t see Frey feeding the sheep since the text on a screen black simply indicates that you fed them.

An image of Frey kneeling to feed a sheep in Forspoken.  The world looks a bit dull - the grass looks a bit dry and dead, but the sheep are cute!

Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix via Polygon

There’s a reason comic relief is so common in blockbuster movies and video games — it gives audiences pause before the next exciting but stressful setting. Speak is so decidedly serious in its overarching narrative that it becomes too much for dialogue – thus, the cringe emerges. Bad jokes and rigid self-narrative are a staple of several popular AAA games, but in Speak when they miss, they seem to fall even harder, because this isn’t a world where silly things happen or people talk in weird, unbelievable ways. The self-referential dialogue feels less like comic relief and more like self-mockery.

I personally think Frey deserves to have fun. She is clearly having fun at points. The first time she uses her magical parkour abilities, she says, “Okay, that’s great! I look serious! His life and story doesn’t have to be completely goofy, but all the sad medieval stuff might need to be pushed back. And he gets nothing. For me, it’s exhausting enough to put me off.


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