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Review: Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star

24 Jan 2017

Never the First

Thanks to companies like Atlus and XSeed, the west has been seeing a major increase in localizations of somewhat niche Japanese games and franchises. Over the past few years, the Americas have seen (or will be seeing) official entries in series like Corpse Party, Hakuouki, and Utawarerumono. While relatively popular names in Japan, these titles were near unheard of in the western gaming market (outside of certain crowds) when localized.

An interesting thing I’ve noted about this recent trend, though, is that much of the time, the original title in a franchise is never localized. Perhaps publishers feel it’s better to bring over more recent titles, rather than trying to introduce a series to a new market through a decade old game. Many series in this trend also started out as visual novels, which are very niche in the west, so they might not help much in bringing in potential customers.

Particularly notable here is the Fate franchise. Crushingly popular in Japan, with a sizable fanbase in the west, multiple games and anime series in the franchise have been officially localized. The title that started it all, Fate/stay night, has never received an official western release. There’s an extremely popular fan translation, through which many series fans have experienced the original, but no publisher has actually created an official English release.

One of the first franchise titles ever released in the west was a spin-off of the original. Released for the PSP in 2011, Fate/Extra took the lore and some characters of stay night and remixed them to tell a new story. Extra then spun off into its own mini series, followed up by Fate/Extra CCC, which did not receive a western release.

Today, though, we are looking at the third entry in the “Extra” subseries. Developed by Marvelous and published in the west by XSeed Games, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star was released on January 17th, 2017 for the PS4 and Vita. The PS4 version was played for this review.

Clashing Tones

Extella takes place after the events of Fate/Extra. Your character has won the Holy Grail War in the Moon Cell, a computer system in the Earth’s moon. As such, you and your Servant, a manifestation of Roman emperor Nero, gaining control of the system. As proof of their control, the system has also given them a ring known as the Regalia, through which they can control the system and other existing Servants.

However, all is not peaceful after the war. Another former servant, the manifestation of Japanese mythological figure Tamamo-no-Mae, has decided to strike back and try to take the Moon Cell out of your control. Assisting her is, oddly enough, another Master (a controller of Servants)…one who looks exactly like you. One who also, somehow, possesses a Regalia.

First things first – if you do not have any kind of background knowledge in the Fate franchise, the plot of Extella can be near impenetrable. Various concepts and terminology are thrown around constantly with little-to-no explanation. If the above mentioned “Servant” and “Master” are foreign to you, along with things like “Command Seals” and “Noble Phantasms,” you may end up lost.

Further still, the game mostly assumes that you’ve played through Extra as well. In this case, though, the game does give a very very quick rundown of the ideas presented in Extra, but you’ll still be running across concepts like the aforementioned “Moon Cell,” “Wizards,” and references to a previous Holy Grail War. The plot can still be enjoyed without franchise knowledge, but there will be moments of confusion or missing some deeper meanings.

As for the plot itself, much of it comes across as very…well, anime. The franchise is no stranger to standard anime tropes, but most entries lean toward a darker, more serious atmosphere. Extella, though, feels like it doesn’t take itself all that seriously most of the time. Nero is constantly flirting with your character (no matter which gender you select), character interactions are filled with seemingly out of place humor, and there’s one character that, for some inexplicable reason, is trying to become a pop idol. Seriously, Elizabeth Bathory is one of the most annoying characters I’ve run across recently.

When Extella takes itself seriously is when the plot really shines. The opening of the game, along with the darker story beats, managed to entrance me in spite of the annoying lighter moments. The prose during some of these passages is excellent as well…which may be a controversial opinion, as series writer Kinoko Nasu’s prose is hotly contested amongst the fandom.

Repetitive Phantasm

While you will be doing a lot of reading in this game (as it is a spinoff of a visual novel franchise), you’ll also be spending just as much time locked in the heat of battle. Extella is part of the musou genre (which I’ve referred to in the past as a “mass beat-em-up”) along the lines of the Dynasty Warriors series. As such, you’ll be controlling a massively overpowered character slaughtering thousands upon thousands of faceless foot soldiers.

Basic controls are generally what you’d expect – you have a light attack and a heavy attack you can chain together, a couple special moves you can pull off, along with basic jumping, blocking, and dashing. You get three specials: “Extella Maneuver,” built up by killing enemies, that allows you to attack a massive group at once for great damage, and you can choose how much energy you want to deplete; “Moon Crux,” built up by killing enemies and performing Extella Maneuvers, which lets you change form and access more powerful attacks; and your “Noble Phantasm,” usable only once per map, requiring you to find three keys in the map, and attacks the entire territory you’re in for massive damage.

The controls are tight and very responsive, and you’ll be flying around the field slaughtering foes with ease in no time flat. Each playable character (out of 16) also has their own combo chart, with more combos unlocking as you level them up.

Battles themselves are laid out over a map of interconnected territories. Each territory is assigned an amount of “Regime Keys,” which you earn when you control it, or lose if your enemy controls it. The overall goal of each battle is to collect fifteen of these Keys to complete the “Regime Matrix,” unlocking the map’s boss fight.

Winning a territory is fairly simple. You have to destroy enough foot soldiers to spawn special “Aggressor” enemies. Destroying a set amount of these wins you the territory. Complicating matters is the existence of “Plants,” which constantly spawn Aggressors in a territory, and enemy Servants, who wander the battlefield looking to destroy you and your AI teammates.

While the balance of attacking enemy territories while defending your own is quite fun and occasionally challenging at first, Extella settles into a problem that plagues most musou games – extreme repetition. Every battle becomes repeating the same formula: beat foot soldiers, defeat Aggressors, win territory, repeat, find the keys for your Noble Phantasm, unlock boss, use Noble Phantasm on boss, win, repeat.

Not helping matters is the game’s general ease on standard difficulty. You are able to select your difficulty before each battle, but on standard, it’s easy enough to clear an entire map just mashing your light attack button over and over. The game also gives recommended levels for each stage and difficulty, but I had no trouble clearing maps many levels over my current character’s standing.

Basic And Smooth

When it comes to performance, the PS4 version is Extella is beautiful. The game runs like silk, even when hundreds of combatants are on the field at once. Battlefield animations look great, and even amidst the chaos, I had no trouble keeping track of where my character or my specific targets were. All kinds of flashy effects light up the battlefield constantly, and yet I never saw the framerate drop.

It may help, though, that the actual quality of the graphics is…alright. The design isn’t horrible by any stretch of the word, but it is fairly basic. The characters themselves have minimal detail and are mostly composed of basic colors, battle environments are somewhat bland and very repetitious, and animations outside of battle are lacking in substance. That last point is very disappointing, considering how much time is spent reading the plot outside of battle – characters mostly stand around with minor animation, and when they do move, they do so awkwardly.

The lack of detail may also be due to the fact that this game received a Vita release. While it is understandable in that case, it doesn’t stay my disappointment. While the game runs well and looks decent, I really feel there could’ve been so much more detail put in to it.

Aural Stunner

The plot is hit-or-miss, the gameplay becomes grating, and the graphics are OK…but, on the bright side, the music is excellent! The soundtrack of Extella consists of both remixes of tracks from previous Fate franchise games and original tracks. Most of the tracks fit the “dark fantasy” vibe the franchise has – heavy use of strings, wailing choirs, and pipe organs, with rock guitars and synth mixed in to fit the feel of this title’s gameplay.

The title screen theme in particular is a favorite of mine. A quiet piano and synth piece, paired perfectly with a beautiful image of a moving sky, reflected on a surface that your Servant team stands on in the distance. Seriously, the title screen is stunning, which is something I never thought I’d say about anything.

The game is also fully voice acted in the original Japanese, and the performances fit each of the characters amazing well…which is also why I dislike it. The acting is great, and the performers breathe life into the characters, which of course I count as a positive. Since many of the characters themselves and their interactions annoyed me greatly, though, the voices behind these personalities did so as well.

Like I said, though, I still mark that as a positive – the voices fit the characters, and they do so wonderfully.

For Fans Only

Overall, Fate/Extella is a promising game that trips over its plot into the musou trap. The plot has some great prose and climaxes despite inane moments, the music is beautiful, and it controls great overall – but it just can’t escape the crushing sense of boredom that comes from its repetitive formula.

Within its genre, though, this is a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are a huge number of gamers that enjoy the steady repetition of the musou formula, and with that in mind, Extella is a wonderfully crafted musou title. Compared just to other titles of the same style, I can say that this is one of the better entries I’ve played.

I can’t score this game in a vacuum, though. As such, the game as a whole is fairly average. If you’re a fan of the Fate franchise or the musou genre, this title is definitely worth a look. To the general gaming public, I’d say to rent it first and see if it holds up for you before purchasing.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSeed Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.