Forspoken makes spellcasting look magical for once

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I have some rigid standards for videogame magic, and I’ve been hoping the gorgeous-looking witchcraft in Forspoken, the upcoming open-world RPG/witch parkour simulator from Square Enix’s Luminous Productions, would measure up. After a half-hour virtual preview event presentation, things look promising. Where other games treat magic with reservation, Forspoken seems unafraid to lean in.

The streamed event kicked off with the lead writers, pre-recorded, sharing their excitement for protagonist Frey Holland, and the story of identity, family, and self-determination they hope to explore. Before stumbling through an interdimensional portal to the fantastical world of Athia, Frey spent 20 years enduring the failings of foster care as a New York City orphan, and the writers explained she carries a vulnerability behind an exterior toughened by circumstance.

Also she has a cat named Homer, which is its own kind of magic.

Given the depressing rarity of black woman game protagonists, the enthusiasm was nice to see. But since the gameplay we were shown featured no dialogue outside some brief exchanges with Frey’s sentient bracelet, which is named Cuff, I can’t say how well that enthusiasm comes across in the writing. Unless you count letting her say “Fuck!” during fights. Because they did do that.

The first footage was a showcase of Forspoken’s open-world traversal. Frey descended from Cipal, the last bastion of humanity in a world consumed by a corrupting miasma called the Break. (Cipal is presumably Forspoken’s hub city.) With magic parkour, Frey streaked across and over the landscape in a sustained sequence of dashes, gravity manipulation, double jumps, and conjured ziplines, trailing streaks of glimmering magic as she did. There’s no way to know how it feels until it’s in our hands, but it looks as fluid and satisfying as you’d hope for the thing you’ll be spending most of your time doing.

Once Frey descended to open ground, Break-animated undead emerged from the earth to offer a look at combat, and it was immediately clear Forspoken has a refreshing take on magical fighting. The vision of fantasy spellcasters we most often see in games is a pretty stationary one. It provides some contrast to the character archetypes that are traditionally more nimble—if the wizards were dancing across the battlefield between lightning bolts, the rogues would feel inadequate. Frey isn’t rooted in place, though, endlessly throwing identical fireballs and watching the same canned spell animations when her cast bars fill. Her magic isn’t a button you push when it’s off cooldown to add flavor to otherwise mundane combat. The same fluid magic parkour makes combat look fast and reactive, transitioning smoothly from spells fired off quickly over the shoulder into jukes and rolls.

It looks extremely stylish. In one effortless-looking sequence, Frey peppered enclosing Break zombies with a fast-firing Dart spell, dodging their lunges between casts. When the crowd got too thick, Frey vaulted up and over them, shifting into a brief mid-air hover just long enough to spray a fan of bolts and score some opportune headshots. Landing into a dash to get some distance, she turned and unleashed a charged barrage that cleared out the survivors.

There wasn’t much mechanical information given about combat, but there are a lot of spells to choose from. A lot.

In the footage, time slowed while the player swapped their spells mid-combat. Without specifics, I’d estimate a good two dozen or so spells are included. They seem to be sorted into schools of magic you’ll swap between like stances, each associated with a color—almost like Magic: The Gathering.

Red magic seems the most overtly aggressive: lots of fire and explosions, including an enchanted spin kick that launched a target, who detonated on landing. Blue’s ice and water magic seems like it runs a little more technical: lots of slowing effects and combo opportunities. I’m not sure where green magic’s lightning spells fall on that spectrum, but I do know they’re pretty. Purple’s stone spells are… present. I’m sure they’re lovely, too.

Combat aside, the demo skimmed a bunch of systems without lingering for much elaboration. There’s gear to collect and craft, a skill tree for learning new and upgraded spells. The best thing shown here, though, are the nails: by painting special patterns on her fingernails with magical materials, Frey can amplify her spells with additional effects. The notes I took here just say “that’s sick as hell.” I stand by it.

Forspoken is set to release May 24, 2022.

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