Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star Vita Review
Type-Moon’s Fate series has been making waves in the West recently, despite never having the original Visual Novel officially localized. This is thanks in part to its steady stream of anime adaptations, which not only cover the original story and its Urobuchi-penned prequel, but has expanded to all sorts of spin-offs from a magical girl comedy to an animated promo to their smartphone game.
Speaking of games, the series has also spread far past its original continuity to create entire new settings with their videogame releases (which in turn are also getting adapted into anime), the most notable being Fate/Extra; originally a dungeon crawler RPG on the PSP, Extra took a more cyberspace approach with its setting, combining the concepts of Fate/Stay Night with virtual reality and a billion more terms to fill up the already-bloated series lore. After enjoying success with a follow-up title exploring an alternate scenario (a common tactic from the series that popularized the concept of multiple story routes), the direct sequel has now been released on the PS4 and the still-not-dead Vita.
Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star features many of the returning characters from Extra, with Saber being the most recognizable among them. For those are only familiar with the anime releases, this is not the Saber that is prominently featured in most Fate-related stories, but a different Heroic Spirit who has taken on the mantle in this spin-off, one who is noticeably more rambunctious (and curvaceous) than her predecessor. As the victor of the last Holy Grail War, Saber and her Master were ready to reap the rewards as the newfound rulers of the Moon Core (don’t ask), with the Regalia ring shining brightly in Saber’s finger as proof of their victory. However, a mysterious and powerful titan had appeared, nearly robbing the Master of their life and stripping them of their memories, while a new enemy has appeared while also wearing a Regalia (and, more surprisingly, another Master). Thus begins a new battle for the Moon Core’s territories, with Servants fighting in both sides (or in some cases, the same side) for the right to wield the Regalia.
That was the heavily truncated version of Extella’s plot. The story directly follows the events of Extra, and makes little attempts to ease newcomers in; even the player-controlled protagonist’s amnesia can’t compensate for the sheer number of terms, references and callbacks that make playing Extra (as well as brushing up on the series’ original source material) almost mandatory. The protagonist alone has three separate titles associated with them (Master, Praetor and Wizard), while even the self-explanatory titles like Servants is missing key details on how exactly they function or what their purpose is.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on what you’re hoping to get out of this game), Extella follows the series’ original roots as a Visual Novel, and includes plenty of lengthy voice-acted cutscenes to flesh out its story and characters. Like with most of Fate’s other spinoffs, this is a love-letter that caters primarily to the fans, so if you are unable to appreciate the irony of Archer and Lancer working side-by-side, for example, much of the narrative may fly right over your head. Interestingly enough, players are able to choose the gender for the main character, which has no bearing whatsoever on the story or the way the characters treat them. This means that the lovesick Saber can either serve as the waifu of the cookie-cutter harem lead male, or the devoted protector of her yuri (lesbian) partner, depending on the player’s preference (though if the preference was to avoid all fanservice entirely, think again: this is a game that has Saber pouring into a tight bridal gown while also having sword battles against a literal idol singer, and that’s just the start).
As for the gameplay, Fate/Extella is yet another Musou game, which the Vita must hold the handheld record for having the most of at this point. This one follows the more traditional style of the genre popularized by Dynasty Warriors, where the goal is to seize as many territories (i.e. zones) on the map while also fending off invaders gunning for control over the player’s own territories. Rather than take out an arbitrary number of enemies until the territory is seized, players must instead take out an arbitrary number of enemies in order to spawn Aggressors, which are essentially the captains of each territory. Taking out these slightly larger, slightly stronger enemies will then bring the territory under the player’s control, but take care to keep track of Plants, which are flying saucer-looking pods that respawn Aggressors in order to have them seize territory. Like many Musou games, the goal isn’t to mindlessly slaughter waves of enemies, but to strategically slaughter waves of enemies in order to seize all the territories in time. Once all the objectives in each area are met, the boss of that area (typically another Servant) will appear, which results in an epically choreographed ba-nah, you just button mash until they’re defeated.
Despite all the fancy-worded terminology and slick VR neon effects going on, this is still a basic Musou title where every character has light and heavy attacks in addition to a room-clearing special move that feature a cool animation that will get very tiring after seeing it a hundred times per mission. There are other abilities that eventually unlock as well, including a temporary transformation (that sadly only involve an actual physical change for Saber and a couple other characters) and each character’s signature Noble Phantasm (their ultimate attack). The action is fast-paced and visually fluid, though the Vita version runs into the same problem as other portable Musou games in that it can be difficult to track of all the on-screen anime action on the portable’s display. Things are much easier to follow when played on the PS TV, though the blurry imagery and tiny text hampers things a bit. One appreciated instance of streamlining is that players can instantly zip around each territory rather than having to hoof it across long barren roads, a feature that definitely needs to be implemented in more Musou titles.
Beyond that, there is not much that differentiates Fate/Extella’s gameplay from its predecessors. The action is repetitive and dull, even with the extra visual trappings and character variety. The main hook is the lengthy story, but only a select group of hardcore fans who have been following the plot since the PSP days will be able to truly appreciate the metaphysical terminology and boisterous soliloquies from the various historical figures reincarnated as sword-swinging waifus and husbandos. In that respect, there is certainly a decent amount of content, including multiple scenarios and side stories, but if the simplistic button-mashing isn’t enough of an incentive to push forward to see those story bits, consider waiting it out for the anime adaptation (which covers the first game) coming this Spring instead.