Japan has known Type-Moon for almost 20 years as an organization of story-tellers. They’ve developed novels, manga, animes, and video games spanning many genres. Their longest lived narrative by far is the Fate/ series. Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star is the newest installment in the saga and picks up where its predecessor, Fate/Extra left off. But wait, there’s a twist! It’s in a parallel universe. Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star released on Steam on July 25th.
The story begins with protagonist Hakuno Kishinami waking up to the looming face of a woman in red. Fans of the series will recognize her, but for newbies like me, she quickly introduces herself as Nero. She identifies you as her Master and herself as your Servant from the Holy Grail War. You, however, have amnesia and don’t remember any of this.
What ensues is basically a high-school style romance story, complete with vague vows of eternal love, cringe-worthy poetry, and all the jealousy and insecurity you remember and miss. And it’s all set against the confusing backdrop of the destruction of Earth and the Moon by an evil world-eating computer/monster named Velber. Of course, saving the world isn’t the objective. Fate/EXTELLA is a story about making your own destiny, not being beholden to the expectations of others, and relying on the strongest power in the universe – love.
The story presents itself through cryptic fragments thanks to the lens of amnesia, but the flimsy and shallow plot and characters’ frequent use of confusing jargon create an emotional barrier between the player and the characters. Thankfully, Fate/EXTELLA provides an in-game Encyclopedia, which helps intellectually, but does little to bolster the emotional connection.
Text boxes and relatively un-dynamic cutscenes propel the story between battles. The servants are equipped with Japanese language voice actors. Unfortunately, the protagonist is not. The player spends most of the time outside battle sifting through text boxes wherein Hakuno tends to ask himself rhetorical questions, summarize conversations that we had literally just listened to, and fawn poetically over his Servants. In such a dynamic game, this manner of storytelling quickly becomes more of a labor than anything. I found myself hoping that the Servants would quickly stop slinging superficial insults at each other and that Hakuno would cease his reflecting so we could get to the next battle. (Pro Tip: If you double tap the spacebar or start button you can skip cutscenes.)
Occasionally, Fate/EXTELLA will ask the player to participate in cutscenes through multiple choice responses. These choices have the effect of either increasing your Bond with a particular servant, or varying the following text slightly. The bonding system is how the player equips their Servant with Install Skills, equips that improve the Servant’s combat effectiveness by buffing attack, defense, granting elemental capabilities, etc. As your bond with your servant increases so does the number of Install Skills the player can equip. Don’t worry if you choose wrong in the bonding questions though. You can also increase your bond through optional mission objectives or by replaying the chapters. Truthfully, the options seemed so insignificant that one guess seemed no better than another. I didn’t feel that they revealed much of anything about Hakuno or the Servants’ personalities.
The narrative arc plays out across 4 parallel universes, each with 6 Territories to conquer and the occasional stand-alone boss battle. Each campaign places Hakuno with a different main Servant as they harness the power of their eternal love to save Earth and the Moon world SE.RA.PH. Unfolding the story across universes presents potential to develop unique insights into the characters’ perspectives. Despite this opportunity, the narrative still falls flat. In fact, Altera is the only Main Servant who develops in a compelling way outside of Hakuno’s shadow. The time that could have been used to deepen or develop real personality within the Main Servants was instead consumed by them bickering over Hakuno’s affections.
Despite the Servants being the incarnation of Earth’s greatest heroes, Fate/EXTELLA very quickly reduces Nero and Tamamo no Mae to obedient and fawning sexual objects. In fact, Nero’s final transformation, Saber Venus, is a scantily clad monument to female objectification. It keeps much of the focus only surface-deep.
The story is very different when we finally hit the battlefield. The combat system is incredibly fast—and I mean that—and relatively fluid. Combos string simply between light and strong attacks, with dash and jump combos to vary the pacing. Enemies spawn by the hundreds as quickly as you can kill them. The player can’t swing a weapon without striking at least a dozen. Even on Steam with a mid-spec system, the game processes pretty smoothly. The exchange is in the graphics. The “Enemy Programs” are designed as relatively simple polygons, and there is no great depth of detail in the worlds and characters, and cutscenes are generally static.
The gameplay dynamics play out almost exactly like the Dynasty Warriors or Warriors Orochi series. The Servants hack ‘n’ slash their way around a Territory divided into conquerable Sectors. EA number of “Aggressors” inhabit each Sector. The Aggressors appear on a schedule linked to K.O. counts and the player must defeat all of them in order to claim the Sector. Occasionally enemy Servants will be at the head of sector forces, but the Servants also have the ability to invade and conquer other sectors if left unchecked. There are also enemies called “Plants” that produce Aggressors and allow them to invade allied sectors.
Managing these elements within the battlefield becomes critical. Allied sectors will quickly become overrun and the battle will be lost if the player fails to regularly destroy Plants. I found myself dashing around the battlefield slaying Plants as they spawned, destroying as many Enemy Programs as I could before zipping off to the next Plant. This dynamic keeps the pace fast and the pressure high.
Beyond the normal attack combos, Fate/EXTELLA also boasts 3 different special attack gauges: EXTELLA Maneuver, Moon Crux, and Noble Phantasm. These skills are charged through combat or power-ups found within the sectors. These special moves will turn the tide of battle or finish off those resilient level bosses, so their management can prove critical.
Greater challenges unfold as the player progresses through the campaign. Flying enemies, behemoths, elemental enemies, and Sector Traps become commonplace and keep the game play interesting. Players also unlock more advanced and powerful combos as they level up, allowing them more options for controlling the fight. Do you like throwing enemies into the air and juggling them? Or dashing in circles causing incremental damage? The pace is yours to control.
Fate/EXTELLA also boasts Side Missions and Free Battles. Side Missions cast the player in the role each Sub Servant, embellishing upon their personalities and motivations. Free Battles enable the player to take 1 of the 17 Servants into battle against another on a random map. These modes can be used to help boost the Bond and Level of your Servants and find Install Skills.
Ultimately, I am conflicted. On one hand, I found the story flat and confusing and relying so heavily on text boxes to describe character actions defies the visually dynamic medium afforded them. But on the other hand, the gameplay was exciting and flashy, and really engrossing. 17 playable characters and 4 difficulties will provide you at least 100 hours of intense action. I did, however, still encounter a few functionality issues of the battlefield. Notably, I encountered issues directing special attacks, even when locked on to enemy Servants. I also routinely colliding with invisible walls while trying to jump the smallest piles of rubble. And in one instance, I actually fell through the map when a cutscene interrupted an attack chain. And at $49.99, think carefully about what you want and expect from a game.
Fate/EXTELLA probably isn’t for you if you’re unfamiliar with the series and interested in strong stories. At least let it come down in price before you consider it again. If you’re a die-hard fan of the Fate/ series or you’ve got a bloodlust that must be slaked with a fast-paced beat up and the price is no option, do it. And for gamers of the latter order, don’t be afraid to skip the cutscenes.
A PC Review Copy of Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star was provided by Marvelous USA for the purpose of this Review.