A lot of games these days like to capitalise on nostalgia. Whether it’s with pixelated graphics or callbacks via specific gameplay mechanics like side-scrolling platforming, old school enthusiasts have more choices than ever before. The Forbidden Arts feels very much like game straight from the GameCube era, with a mixture of platforming and action gameplay that entertains for a while, but quickly loses its charm and becomes a chore to play.
You take on the role of a young boy called Phoenix, who comes to possess the ability to create and manipulate the element of fire. By exploring a vast overworld and conquering numerous dungeons, Phoenix encounters both friends and enemies alike, gradually building up his abilities as he progresses. The overall narrative is decent enough, and whilst there is little to no voice over work present, there’s a good amount of dialogue to keep you busy whilst you explore the villages and overworld.
The main bulk of the gameplay takes place in dungeons, which focuses on side-scrolling platform gameplay alongside hand-to-hand combat, with a smattering of elemental magic. The environment itself is reasonably varied, with a decent amount of verticality - get ready to do a whole lot of wall jumping. You’ll come across various puzzles, some of which require switches to be hit in a specific order, and others presenting you with objects such as boulders, which you’ll need to guide down specific paths in order to progress. Also hidden throughout the dungeons are gold pieces, usually tucked away in hard to reach areas like high cliffs or down by a row of deadly spikes. The platforming is genuinely quite a lot of fun, although climbing walls is much more fiddly than it has any right to be.
The combat is where The Forbidden Arts really comes apart at the seams. Your can either attack enemies with a series of strikes with your weaponry, or throw a fireball in their direction, using up your magic energy as you do so. The problem lies in the enemy AI, which is competent at best and downright awful at worst. Whether you're faced against a basic enemy soldier, a necromancer, or even a boss, all of the enemies have very straightforward attack patterns that are telegraphed from a mile off. What’s more is that if you land a successful hit on an enemy, they’ll recoil with each blow, effectively allowing you to whack them again and again without worrying about leaving yourself open to a counter attack.
Whilst the enemies are generally pretty easy to deal with in most instances, Phoenix has fairly lacklustre defensive capabilities. It will only take a few good hits to bring you down, and if you happen to land on a row of spikes, or even fall in a body of water, you’ll die immediately. The action gameplay, as a whole, feels like it was tacked onto an otherwise fairly decent platform game. We feel like a bit more focus and energy on one mechanic or the other would raise the quality of the overall experience significantly.
The fire element of the gameplay is, again, unfortunately rather half-baked. Using fire over your regular weaponry is rarely a good option, and sometimes won’t even faze the most basic of enemies. Replenishing your magic meter also requires you to stand near bonfires, drawing energy from the flickering flames until you’re back up to optimal strength. This could have introduced an element of strategy if these had been spaced out more, but we rarely found ourselves running out of magical energy, and we occasionally even managed to clear an entire dungeon without making use of them.
Outside of the dungeons, the overworld is explorable in fully 3D environments. You can converse with locals and, much like you can in the dungeons, go hunting for gold pieces. Some of the areas are lovely and vibrant in colour, but the graphics overall - whether you’re out in the wild or in a dark and dingy dungeon - are flat and lack inspiration. Villages feel empty of any character, and vast stretches of land will be completely devoid of anything interesting to see. Similarly, the design of the characters and enemies are passable, but again, it’s like the devs have created a group of stereotypical fantasy figures with very little to make them genuinely unique. It’s certainly nothing that’s going to stick in your memory.
On the flip side, the game runs fairly well, with minimal load times and admittedly pretty vast areas to explore (although we have to say, some of the dungeons certainly outstay their welcome, particularly after you’ve encountered the exact same enemy type over and over again). The music is also reasonably impressive, delivering catchy tunes that with no doubt get stuck in your head after you’ve hung up your Joy-Cons for the day.
The Forbidden Arts feels like a game from the early GameCube era, but not a particularly good one. Whilst the dungeons are vast and varied, and the platforming mechanics competent enough, the combat really brings the whole experience to its knees thanks to poor enemy AI and half baked elemental mechanics that make the entire experience feel very repetitive. Add to that the lacklustre graphics and empty overworld, and this is a game that only the most ardent of fantasy enthusiasts will enjoy.