How familiar are you with Roman history? And what’s this about the moon?
It is difficult to determine where exactly to start when addressing Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star (henceforth referred to as Extella); is it a standalone game, part of series, spin off, remake? Unfortunately, the answer is all of the above.
The Fate franchise is a long running Japanese series in Japan, yet has a very niche audience here in the West, with only the dungeon crawler Fate/Extra seeing a release on the PSP. However, the roots of the franchise lead back to the Japanese adult visual novel genre with Fate/stay night, and whilst Extella certainly isn’t a visual novel, knowing this, elements of the direction that the game takes suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Fate/Extella is unique within the franchise in that its main gameplay falls firmly under the musou genre, the kind of gameplay that one finds in games like Hyrule Warriors and the upcoming Fire Emblem Warriors. Like other musou games, Extella sees the player take control of multiple zones (referred to as ‘sectors’ here) whilst defeating large swathes of nondescript enemies.
The main game is split up into different arcs (more on the significance of this later) and within those, different chapters. Each chapter sees the player take their given character to take control of the map, among changing sub-objectives. Typically, the main aim is to complete the what is called the ‘Regime Matrix’, which requires controlling most of the sectors in each map. Getting in the way of achieving this goal are various different mini-bosses, aka ‘Lesser Servants’, and the number per chapter varies wildly. Completing the Matrix typically, but not always, results in a boss fight with a servant.
Whilst the different maps are thematically varied – ranging from a cherry blossom filled Japanese setting to a lavish Roman-esque palace grounds – they all make multiple repeated appearances throughout the campaign. Thankfully this is done so in different orders to alleviate some of the sense of déjà vu.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the end boss of each main arc.
Despite there being a narrative logic for the boss fights playing out mechanically in the exact same way, it does not lessen the sheer sense of boredom that comes with fighting it for the third time. If the boss at least had a slightly different attack pattern it could have been more forgivable, but the way it is implemented comes off as lazy.
On the surface, musou style action of capturing zones and dispatching hundreds of enemies appears to be the core of the game, but when playing you may feel that, at best, this represents about half of the game. This is because Extella has not distanced itself from its roots within the visual novel genre. It is this considerable element that is the make and/or break of the game.
Being aware of where the franchise has come from makes this easier to comprehend, as at first, it comes as quite a shock when the dialogue simply won’t let up. If you just want a musou/Warriors-esque game then Extella is not for you.
It’s a shame as the basic gameplay progression in a chapter is more streamlined and is actually more welcoming for newcomers than Warriors games. But each chapter is separated by equally long sections of in-depth and long-winded dialogue and this also extends into the chapters themselves, especially towards the second half of the game. These can thankfully be fast-forwarded through as well (the instant text speed option in the settings is also a must), but be skipped entirely as well; though doing the latter would defeat the purpose of the game, as the dialogue does provide the context for what is taking place.
As for the story itself, convoluted is the first thought to come to mind. Thankfully the story is technically standalone, although it does share characters from across the franchise and does follow on from the events of Fate/Extra. The story will be more rewarding for those who have played Extra but for everyone else there is more than enough going on in Extella to try and keep up with.
The basic plot is that three different protagonists/antagonists are fighting to obtain the complete Regalia in order to gain control over the digital realm of SE.RA.PH. This digital realm is apparently located on the moon, because Earth was seemingly largely destroyed around 14,000 years ago. Confused yet? Well, it gets worse/better.
When the game starts you choose your character’s name and sex, except this is not the character that is controlled in the musou part of the game, instead, it is the player’s ‘perspective’ during the visual novel sections. The named character is known as a ‘Master’, which partly helps explain why the characters the player does actually control are known as ‘Servants’. Although, the ‘Master’ descriptor confuses things at the beginning of the game, as they are not the ones in a position of power, and at best are seen as an advisor.
Without going too deep into the rest of the story, which does eventually make some noticeable progress, the game is initially split into three main arcs, with each one following a different ‘Servant’. Each Servant has a vastly different background and therefore motivation for gaining control of the Regalia, it also results in very different relationships with the players named character, with Tamamo referring to the player as her ‘Husband’ (regardless of chosen sex). Yet it is the Servant playable in the first arc that has the most in-depth background.
Nero Claudius is the fifth Emperor of Rome (yes Earth’s Ancient Rome) reborn as a female in the future, and she is head of the new cyber Roman Empire that is on the moon. She is not alone in having a strong connection to the past, as she is joined by lovable rogues such as Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman turned serial killer, who is now an awful pop-star with wings (that gives her the ability of flight) whilst wearing an incredibly risqué outfit. Among others are Jeanne d’Arc and Attila the Hun and additional, albeit less known, people of note from Earth’s past.
Now onto a weird point to address during a review, this is a game that is pushing it with its 12 age rating. There have been previous instances of Japanese videogames being altered (localised) when brought to the West, often to adjust its more overt risqué elements due to different cultural sensibilities. Extella does not seem to have gone through any such process, which could not be any more evident with the highly revealing default outfits worn by Elizabeth Bathory and playable character Altera. Nero and Tamamo also have additional outfits (unlocked from the start) that can be described as such.
Plus, all female characters have the necessary ‘physics’ to support such outfits (additional outfits such as swimsuits are also unlocked later in the game). This initially seemed like unnecessary fan pandering, as well as seeming to be at odds with what are generally strong female characters, but given the franchise’s roots as an adult visual novel provides some explanation for the approach taken with the questionable approach towards armour.
This version of Fate/Extella is a repackaged edition for the Nintendo Switch, featuring all the DLC that was released after the games initial PlayStation 4/Vita launch. Aside from that, there is little to separate it from other versions, aside from the attributes of the Switch consoles itself. Given the nature of the lengthy visual novel elements, the game lends itself to the handheld form, though that does not mean that the text is not readable on the big screen.
The PlayStation versions included the ability to move save data between the home and handheld systems, but this meant buying the game twice; of course, the strength of the Switch negates this situation, and the game runs smoothly and looks the part regardless of screen size.
Once again, the Switch version comes across as being the best way to play the game, with the game performing smoothly consistently both docked and in handheld mode.
Fate/Extella is not an easy game to recommend, but not through lack of quality. Whilst the musou and visual novel genres are not exactly at odds with one another, it does not make for a cohesive experience either. If all you want to do is hack at hundreds of enemies, then the encompassing dialogue sections can become a test of one’s patience. Likewise, if you want to experience an in depth visual novel that merges cyber sci-fi weirdness with historical fantasy wrapped up in anime aesthetics then having that broken up with fast paced action might be too jarring. That does not mean that there are not those who will enjoy such a combination, but the execution of the two is never a perfect meld.