A Sudden Shift
As we grow as human beings, our tastes change. It’s an inevitable fact of life. Like, you suddenly start enjoying slow-paced ambient music despite being a metalhead through most of your youth, or you decide that mushrooms are in fact the perfect pizza topping even though you hated them growing up. Maybe you hated the first beer you ever tried, but now you can’t get enough of it.
Oh, wait, that might just be specific to me. But I digress.
Anyways, it’s hard to say that you’ll always dislike something, because another thing may come along that changes your opinion on it. Like, say, video games.
If you’ve followed my review career (who wouldn’t?), you’ll know that I’m not much a fan of the musou genre. Despite finding some enjoyment here and there, overall, the games just aren’t for me. Lacking stories, repetitive gameplay, it’s just a combination that I’m not a fan of.
Turns out that XSeed decided they wanted to change my mind. Not only that, but they were going to do so through a sequel to another musou game that I already found mediocre.
Developed by Marvelous and published in the west by XSeed Games, Fate/Extella Link was released on March 19th, 2019, for PS4, Vita, Switch, and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Charlie the Great
Link directly follows the story of the previous series entry, The Umbral Star. The Moon Cell, a computer system in the Earth’s moon that now houses most of humanity, has entered a period of relative peace. You are the last of the “Masters” in the Moon Cell, a person able to command “Servants,” manifestations of historical and mythical figures.
The peace is suddenly broken by two events: a wave of attacks by enemies known as “Attack Programs,” and the appearance of a new Servant – Charlemagne (who insists on being called “Charlie”). Many of your other Servants have also suddenly turned against you, assisting the Attack Programs in their assault on the cities of the Moon Cell.
If there’s one thing I never expected from the Fate franchise or Type-Moon’s works in general, it’s a simple story. However, that’s exactly what we get with Link, and, honestly, it felt like a nice change of pace. You’re being attacked, go figure out who the attacker is, why they’re doing it, and stop them. The game’s story feels like an episode out of a shonen anime, with enough interesting plot points to keep me interested without getting deep or crazy.
Despite being the fourth entry in a sub-series of an overwhelmingly dense franchise, the story here in Link is surprisingly easy to pick up as well. Even with a bunch of franchise jargon flying around and some references to The Umbral Star, the game’s plot still seems light enough for series newbies to jump in without getting confused. Then again, I think much of the Fate series’ terminology has become a permanent part of the anime (and much of the gaming) zeitgeist by this point in time.
Assisting in this ease to pick up is the fact that Link focuses almost entirely on the new character of Charlemagne. The plot revolves around him, pushing the other series-established characters to the background. As such, there’s very little you actually need to know about recurring characters to enjoy the story presented here.
Of course, as a game spawned from a visual novel franchise, the story is broken up into three “routes,” two of which you can pursue immediately. You’re free to choose which to follow first, although the game pushes you toward one route by making the other more difficult to complete without either finishing the first route or grinding out previous missions. Dialogue choices you can make during story scenes will direct you to certain missions on the game’s flowchart, although you can completely ignore the choice you made in the story and pick any other unlocked mission at any time.
Sand Down the Edges
The gameplay in Link feels like an extremely refined version of The Umbral Star, and it is much better for it. The game has filed away many of the rough edges of its predecessor, leaving behind an incredibly fast-paced and visceral-feeling musou title.
The game carries over Umbral Star‘s two-button attack system, but has changed up most of its other engines. Rather than having multiple styles of special attacks that you have to charge up in battle, you now have access to a customizable loadout of special attacks that you can access at any time by holding down a bumper button. Each Servant gains access to six or seven, but you can only bring four into each battle, requiring a bit of thought into how you want to play each stage. Most of these attacks have quick cooldown times, meaning you can pop them off near-constantly, adding greatly to the game’s visceral feel.
Replacing Umbral Star‘s “Extella Maneuver” and “Moon Crux” gauges is the “Moon Drive” gauge, built up by simply attacking enemies. Once full, you can activate the gauge, giving you an instant boost attack and defense, as well as allowing you to start filling up another gauge: your “Noble Phantasm” screen-clearing ultimate attack. While the previous game only allowed you to use a Noble Phantasm once per mission, in Link, you can pop them off as often as you want, so long as you’re able to refill your gauge again.
By far the greatest improvement in Link is the speed of the game. There’s never any downtime in battle, as you’re constantly moving between map sectors to take over territories or complete missions. Gone is the tug-of-war of needing to control so many territories to spawn a boss, instead replaced by a series of missions you need to complete in each map. These range from protecting territories, to escorting allied Servants to certain areas, or deactivating enemy Noble Phantasms.
With each mission in a stage usually lasting only a few minutes, the moment-to-moment action is regularly shifting, helping to stave off the repetition that is much too common in games of these ilk. Twenty-minute-long stages feel like they fly by as you’re constantly moving and changing up your tactics on the fly to complete your next goal.
Link features 26 playable Servants, although you’re locked to using only a few in story mode. Once you complete one branch, though, you gain access to a “free play” mode that lets you select any Servant you currently have unlocked…regardless if it makes sense with the plot. Each Servant’s base attacks and available specials are varied enough to make them feel unique, despite the large cast. Much of the fun I had was switching between Servants to try out new battle styles, although I eventually settled on using Jeanne d’Arc to clear the final story route.
Although each Servant levels up separately, Link features the aptly-named “Money is Power” system, that allows you to level up any Servant to the level of your highest-leveled Servant by using in-game currency. Said currency flows freely (seriously, I never ran out of money), pretty much making any Servant viable in any stage of the game. Hell, you can take a Servant you’ve never used into the final battle with ease, just by paying for the level up.
Lastly, for those who really get hooked to musou games, Link offers up an extensive series of post-game missions for you to tackle. If you enjoy post-game grind, this is where you’ll want to be. While the final stage of the game has a recommended level of 40, the post-game missions go up to level 150. While the story itself is short (I was at the seven-hour mark when I beat the final boss), Link still gives players looking for more plenty to do.
On one hand, Link has an attractive and unique aesthetic to it. The various environments you’ll be fighting in are all nicely-detailed fortresses, each with their own unique feel to them, often fusing nature and architecture with digital effects. The designs of the Servants are all distinct, they seem much more detailed than they were in Umbral Star, and they animate beautifully.
On the other hand, with environments especially, much of the design work here is retread from Umbral Star. Like with the character design, there’s definitely more detail here, but the environments themselves are going to feel disappointingly familiar if you’ve played the previous entry.
As far as the soundtrack, while it fits the gameplay nicely and certainly amps up some of the plot’s higher moments, it doesn’t stand out to me quite as much as Umbral Star‘s did. Much like the story, the soundtrack is a bit simpler here, but in this case it doesn’t feel like a good thing.
See a New Light
Overall, despite the simpler story and somewhat disappointing soundtrack, Fate/Extella Link is a massive step up from its predecessor. Hell, it did something I thought was impossible: get me addicted to a musou game.
With an easy to digest story and constant uptime in battle, there was never a dull moment during my playthrough. As I mentioned earlier, the base story clocks in at a rather short seven hours, but the post-story content is rather extensive and should keep genre fans coming back for a long time.
I can say that this is a musou game that I’ll actually go back to after this review is done…which, I believe, is a hell of a seal of approval for a game in this genre. Here’s hoping the next inevitable entry in the Extra/Extella series steps it up even further.
Review copy provided by XSeed Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.