I’m not a game developer, but I do know what it’s like to work on a creative project for months or even years, always knowing that the final product will be fairly or unfairly compared to other — sometimes timeless — examples of the genre. In the end, you just have to hope that your work brings something new, better or interesting to a crowded space.
In the case of The Forbidden Arts, that crowded space is occupied by a nearly infinite number of side-scrolling platformer/RPGs, some of them beloved masterpieces and unfortunately, The Forbidden Arts not only suffers by comparison, it simply isn’t as much fun as many of its more polished cousins. In large part, this comes from the imprecision of its controls, coupled to the level of precision the game demands in its platforming and combat. In early access on PC for some time, The Forbidden Arts has just been released on consoles as well. I played it on the Switch.
In fact, my first impressions of The Forbidden Arts were pretty disappointing, and I assumed that my frustrations with the controls were related to playing the game in handheld mode. Played docked, and with the Pro controller, things improved but not by as much as I’d hoped. The Forbidden Arts is first and foremost a platformer, but jumping feels vaguely unresponsive, and it’s coupled with level design that demands the kind of precision of control that the game is continually challenged to deliver. The levels never once let you forget that they are first and foremost video game constructs, and not reflections of a real world.
Moving between a 3D overworld/hub and 2D map on which combat and exploration actually take place, The Forbidden Arts’ level design is unattractively blocky and focused on verticality, with a number of hidden areas and treasure wedged into hard-to-reach pockets. Although pleasant and colorful, the game’s forest, desert, snow and underground maps reuse assets (and enemies) and in docked mode, the relatively simple textures become more glaringly obvious. Although the game features an attractive musical score, it’s fragmentary and becomes repetitious.
The story driving The Forbidden Arts’ action is a timeworn, simple premise and neither the dialogue, sparse voice acting or overarching tale are unique enough to truly engage. In this particular version of hero-saving-the-world, you play as Phoenix, a pyromancer-to-be, whose latent talents are revealed by a druid early on. Defeating each boss unlocks new fire-based variations and spells, and offensive and defensing melee weapons as well. Boss battles are multi-stage and pattern-based and uniformly require a lot of trial and error to understand but happily, death in The Forbidden Arts doesn’t carry a burdensome penalty. The Forbidden Arts’ combat grows marginally more interesting, though especially early on it can be frustrating, as enemies and hit detection combine to kill in one mistimed touch or jump. In general, enemy AI is limited and pyromancy — which should be driving the combat — is often ineffective. As Phoenix grows in power and ability, there is enough tactical variety to see the player through the game’s dozen or so hours but combat is rarely truly exciting.
Anyone expecting a Zelda-esque level of role-playing or story, or Mario-level platforming will be disappointed by The Forbidden Arts, as will gamers looking forward to a lush, 3D world to explore. In fact, The Forbidden Arts is a platformer with light RPG elements, a skeletal story and an imperfect balance between its controls and its demands. Ultimately, The Forbidden Arts lacks ambition and enough imagination to help it stand out from a crowded, accomplished field.