Review: Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star
Published by Jack Taylor September 28, 2017
Fate brings together two unlikely genres in a game that's as satisfying as it is action-packed.
Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star is a hack-and-slash action game, developed by Marvelous and published by XSEED Games, for Nintendo Switch. Marvelous has provided a copy of the game for review purposes.
For those of you not au fait with the Fate series, allow us to fill you in. Originating as a visual novel in 2004, the series has expanded across various formats since; its many entries include two RPGs called Fate/EXTRA and Fate/EXTRA CCC, the former of which launched for the PSP in 2010. We highlight these because, while there are several different stories within the series, the subject of this review takes place in the same universe as those two games, meaning that their fans are likely to recognise characters and references seen in Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star, an altogether different experience to its predecessors.
It's important to clarify early on that no prior knowledge of the Fate series is required to enjoy Fate/EXTELLA, particularly if you're here for the gameplay, although the same very much applies to the story, which is just about understandable for those of us new to the series if you can follow along closely enough. Unlike previous entries, Fate/EXTELLA features gameplay best described as Warriors-esque, as in each battle, your aim is to take control of various sectors of a battlefield to expand your army's coverage and whittle down your enemy's strength. Each sector holds a certain number of Regime Keys, and conquering a sector grants you those keys; these get added to the Regime Matrix, which decides the ruler of the territory, so you'll control the entire battlefield once you have enough keys. This will prompt the main boss to appear, giving you the chance you need to win the battle and complete the stage.
A map of the battlefield is shown in the upper right of the screen, and this provides you with two important bits of information: the colour of each sector, indicating which faction controls it; and the number of Regime Keys held within the sector. You're able to travel between sectors by using the paths that link them, which is a slight simplification of the Warriors formula - there's no wider battlefield, just the sectors within it - but one that works given that the genre is new to the series here. Much like Tecmo Koei did with Hyrule Warriors, it feels as though Marvelous has taken care to build the genre around the series rather than the other way around; in other words, rather than this presenting as a Warriors game with Fate characters, it feels like a Fate game embedded with a new style of gameplay. It also helps to make the game a little more accessible to anyone new to Fate or Warriors, or both, while also holding onto plenty of depth and content.
Fate fans are likely to be pleased about that last part, because a benefit of Fate/EXTELLA's design and accessibility is that fans of the series don't need to worry about the difficulty curve or being bombarded with information on how to play the game. Quite simply, each playable character has a regular attack and a strong attack, and consecutive button presses can lead to powerful combos, more of which are learned as each character levels up. As you progress through the story, you'll also be taught at a steady pace about other attacking methods - Extella Maneuver, Noble Phantasm, and Moon Crux or Moon Drive - which are relatively easy to use, as long as you remember they're there. At this point, these might all just be words strung together, but each type of movement has its own benefits and can be used to tip the scales in particularly tough fights.
All of this will come in handy when winning battles, which revolve around the Regime Matrix we previously mentioned. You'll have to fight your way through enemy grunts in order to take over sectors, and after defeating enough grunts, Aggressors - larger, tougher enemies - will appear in the sector. You'll be able to see on the map how many Aggressors need to be defeated to claim the sector, and once you've done that, its Regime Keys will be added to your Regime Matrix; once you've filled it, the Boss Servant will appear, signalling you to take them down and claim your territory. It isn't always that simple, as Aggressor Plants can spew out additional Aggressors when they show up, and enemy Servants can invade your sectors to steal them back, so you need to try to keep one eye on what's going on around you and focus your efforts where they're most needed.
The concept of winning battles is a relatively easy one to grasp, given that the goalposts don't change very often, although this can be a slight downside as well and the risk of repetitiveness can rear its head; there are only a small number of stages, and more often than not, all you'll need to do is claim sectors and beat the Boss Servant to win the battle. Another minor issue in battles is the camera, which can be quite obstructive at times, even when locking onto an Aggressor or Servant to try and focus your efforts. It's a minor nuisance, much like a fly in an otherwise untroubled ointment. Ironically, you're sometimes better off attacking blindly rather than locking onto these enemies, and you might find yourself coping with out it in the first instance anyway.
Throughout the game's main story, your role is that of a Master, a survivor of the Holy Grail War; you'll select the Master's name - Hakuno Kishinami by default - and gender at the start, and the game's events are narrated from their perspective. In each story arc, you're joined by a Servant, who remains close to the Master's side throughout and will fight for territory during the battle stages. Between the battles are support conversations and important events, often involving the Master and the Servant, but other characters also feature at different points of the story. It's here that the series' origin as a visual novel comes into the fray in some ways, as the Master's first-person narration of the events around them is mixed in with the dialogue of other characters, and the ways you choose to respond to your Servant can, although limited in options, help to improve the bond between the two of you.
Depending on what you want out of Fate/EXTELLA, the story might not interest you in the slightest - although it does enjoy straying well across the PG line on a couple of occasions - but it does at least introduce you to some of the other Servants in the game. The main story will first see you play as the Saber-class Nero Claudius, a well-rounded and easy-to-use character to start you off, and all Servants are playable in either Main Story arcs or the shorter Side Story arcs eventually as well. Each character - including the likes of Cu Chulainn, Gawain, and Medusa - has their own story to tell, and their side stories allow you to fight through various stages with them, levelling them up and increasing your bond with them. What's quite clever is that you can't initially play through their entire story, short as they are, as forthcoming chapters will only unlock as you progress through the main story. It's a great way to expand the amount of content in the game without it feeling bloated, as each Servant has different characteristics, including attacks and strengths.
If you still want more action - or if you need to level up some of your Servants before moving ahead in their stories - complementing the two story modes is the Free Battle mode, in which you can take part in any of the stages you've already completed. Better, you're able to do this with any character, as you'll select the Servant you want to fight as before selecting an enemy Servant, then choosing from the list of available stages that appears. It works really well as a way to try and beat your best ranking on each stage and to gain a bit of extra experience for some of your lower-levelled warriors, and it gives you an opportunity to try different options in terms of battle setups, as you have Code Casts and Install Skills which give you boosts and extra powers in battle, and there are plenty of these to choose from. The strategy provided is admirable, not just for its depth but also for its ease of use and understanding.
Impressive presentation also helps to ensure the game maintains its high quality throughout, and the visuals are pretty great even during fast-paced battles. Some sectors within battlefields can be a little tricky to traverse, and this can sometimes be down to a confusing layout more than anything, but there aren't always visual clues as to which direction you need to head in; otherwise, everything is relatively intuitive, from the menus to the heads-up display. The high quality of the presentation is complemented by an impressive soundtrack, albeit one that never hogs the limelight for very long, and Japanese voice work that fits the game neatly, though on this occasion there's no English option. Still, the fact that practically every line is voiced is something you don't see often.
Fate/EXTELLA is likely to be a very new experience for most players, and it's one that immediately impressive from the off. Outside of the 20 to 25 hours you'll spend on the main campaigns, it's tremendously difficult to say how long you'd be able to spend on the full experience, bearing in mind you've got all of the side stories to work through and the Free Battle mode to kill time (and enemies) on as well. It's a good game to pick up in relatively short bursts as well, as you can finish a battle stage in less than 15 minutes, which is perfect for a quick play when you have the time to spare. That would all be for naught if the game wasn't enjoyable in the first place, but it's a highly impressive experience, and one that Switch owners should definitely consider looking into. As an introduction to a long-standing, and as its own entity, Fate/EXTELLA provides a fantastic gameplay experience and an immersive story to boot.
Lots of content to get through
Easy to play in quick bursts
Camera can be a pain at times
More stages would have been nice
Might get too repetitive for some