What do you get when you cross Alice in Wonderland with Iron Man? Square Enix’s latest action-RPG Forspoken aims to answer that question, with a fish out of water plot as the protagonist Frey is thrown into a world of dragons and sorcery. Built on the same Luminous Engine that powered the team’s last game, Final Fantasy XV, it has a similar open world design, with animation, art, creature design and more that will feel familiar.
The game has three resolution modes, Quality, Ray Tracing, and Performance, each of which also has a 120Hz mode. Quality targets 3840x2160p with dynamic resolution scaling (DRS) engaged, which can scale by 75% in total down to a low of 1920×1080. Ray Tracing mode reduces the ceiling to 2880x1620p and scales to a low of 1440×810. Both these modes use FSR2 reconstruction to get back to a 4K output when not at that level, which is always the case in the Ray Tracing mode and often in Quality. Finally, Performance targets 2560x1440p both in ceiling and FSR2 reconstruction, and can dip down 75% also to a low of 1280×720. This mode boosts performance to 60fps over the previous two, which are capped at 30fps.
The image quality impact in Performance mode is noticeable, but small enough compared to the gains it offers. That said, there’s a perfect compromise in that 120Hz mode, in theory at least, if you have such a screen. With 120Hz mode enabled, both Ray Tracing and Quality mode run at 40fps, meaning effects and settings are identical to the non-120Hz modes, but DRS is often lower down the range in heavy sequences due to the 25% reduction in frametime. In reality this makes a minor impact to the image for an improvement to the fluidity and control, which can be vital with such a fast-paced action-centric game.
The engine has high input latency, and running it at 30fps means we get median times of 225ms with the Quality mode and 221ms in Ray Tracing mode, whereas the 60fps Performance mode offers a significantly faster median of 115ms. This is where having a 120Hz screen offers the biggest boost, knocking around 30% off those Quality and Ray Tracing mode times, down to 163ms and 154ms respectively. This is due to the 25% smaller frame-time as well as the fact that it can now flip into the next 8ms refresh when a frame is dropped, bringing the median input time down by some 60ms. The 60fps Performance mode does gain some from 120Hz mode, but only the expected 8ms frame-time peak, giving a small 7.2% improvement in fluidity.
As such, without even getting to framerates, I suggest using the 120Hz mode for all modes if possible. If not, I recommend using the Performance mode, as the camera, movement, and combat are all severely hindered in the 30fps modes as demonstrated here.
In theory, these settings should cover all our bases. Unfortunately, in practice all of the targets are missed – and not just on occasion but often enough to be sub par. Starting with the Performance mode, we “target” 60fps, but in bandwidth-heavy sections with foliage, the opaque or partially translucent alpha effects can all cause a 25-30% frame rate reduction, causing long sections in the mid to low 40s. The game does support Variable Rate Refresh (VRR), but these rates are below the active range for VRR on PS5, and you can still see and feel the dips.
Turning the 120Hz option on, the Performance mode is still capped at 60fps, but when drops happen you can at least flip into 8ms, meaning this is still the fastest and most responsive mode to play. The Ray Tracing mode is next with it being between 8-14% faster than the Quality mode when running on a 120Hz screen, but even then it can dip back into the low 30s often enough to feel the same. This does not mean all the time, with many sections of quiet exploration or cutscenes hitting the 40fps high, but assume that heavy combat will play out somewhere in the middle ground.
You might ask why not run an unlocked option for 60Hz screens, but this causes frame-times to leap between 16ms and 33ms when forced into a 60Hz container. On a 120Hz screen, however, they align to that 40fps rate at 25ms, which is why it feels smoother as the frame times are closer together and even. Unfortunately, the Quality mode is worse than the Ray Tracing mode, and at 40fps it is more often below that and can even dip into the mid 20s – again dense opaque pixel fill-rate seems to be the main cause. As such, the 40fps mode is great in theory, but in practice the Quality mode suffers most from not being worth it and the Ray Tracing mode, although better, is still not close enough to that target to be called a true middle ground option.
Image quality and effects
Visually, the game is a mixture of new and old: world geometry, lighting, shadows, global illumination, specular, and more do look good with high polygon count on characters, good materials, and general facial and skeletal animation. Compared to Final Fantasy XV it is superior, specifically in resolution and image stability, even compared to that game’s PS4 Pro version, but not to any generational-looking degree aside from improved assets and resolution. It does offer some current generation increases though, with Quality offering a full 4K output and Ray Tracing adding in hybrid shadows with a soft penumbra, with accurate contact hardening enhanced by more objects casting shadows.
Quality mode increases LoD over Performance and the Ray Tracing mode, with further shadow cascades and increased debris in certain areas. Ray Tracing has the best quality, with shadow cascades mixed with ray traced shadows within the first cascade, as in closest to the camera. These give softer shadows and better ambient occlusion, but outside of a side-by-side comparison are not significant enough to stand out to most players. Quality mode is a little sharper, helped by the contrast-adaptive sharpening pass within the engine, but in reality both modes look similar enough that you can’t tell much of a difference after a few minutes of play. The Ray Tracing mode improves most on the self shadowing of characters in cutscenes, which are quite plentiful throughout the game.
Character models are well constructed and realized, but suffer often in the cutscenes due to lower bone rigs than many modern games, especially in the mouth, eyes and nose. The game relies on a mixture of performance capture and keyframe animation. This, along with the leap in some cinematics over others means you can have big gaps in model quality, lighting, materials and animation between scenes and even from model to model. Textures are certainly one aspect, with mip-maps often running sub-par assets in cutscenes, which highlights that the engine/game still needs some refinement here, as textures can be quite late loading in, leaving you with some blurry and last-generation looking details on the PS5.
Loading highlights the game’s cross-generation roots, despite it being a PS5 and PC only game. Continuing a game takes less than 2 seconds, making excellent use of the SSD and I/O design of the PS5. Loading into a game is slower, at just over 5 seconds. The main issue though is the constant fade to black and loading you will see during your play. Admittedly most are 2 to 3 seconds at most, but the constant fade out-in, stop-start nature of opening a door, leaving a fort, battling an enemy or even within a cutscene can create a disconnect from the game. This is compounded by many sections locking you in place until the UI, dialogue, or prompts have loaded. This was frustrating as it felt unnecessary and restrictive, meaning that the game doesn’t feel like it is utilizing some of the key aspects of current generation consoles, instead feeling far more like a cross-generation game.
Sound Production and Mixing
Effects are okay, with decent mixing and production. Music, although far from bad, is repetitive and terribly mixed, with music clumsily fading out or just stopping and new tunes starting at certain points in gameplay or cinematics. This is compounded by some poor mixing which can leave voices fighting with the music, and the dialogue is far from top tier.
The Luminous Engine was a revelation only seven years ago with FFXV, offering character models, cloth physics and hair that rivaled the best in the industry. Forspoken betters that game in almost all aspects, but the gaming industry has moved on since then, and the engine has not kept pace. What it offers is a wide open land, high graphical quality, and a wide range of modes. Unfortunately, none of those hit the expected mark both in quality and consistency, and I hope that patches can resolve some of the performance and quality issues noted here.