If you’re unfamiliar with the Fate/ franchise, you’ll certainly be forgiven; this long-running series from doujin developers Type-Moon started with a 2004 erotic visual novel (Fate/stay night), and has flown largely under the mainstream radar since, while steadily expanding into a massive media collection of RPGs, fighting games, anime, and manga. With an overarching story full of digital dystopias, reincarnated historical figures and alternate timelines, it’s an intriguing world, and the latest entry - Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star - took the series into hack and slash combat for the first time. EXTELLA originally released on the PS4 and Vita in 2016, but has now come to the Switch with all DLC and an exclusive costume included. Even if you’ve never touched a Fate title before, EXTELLA is well worth a look — this is a colourfully appealing character action title with fast-paced gameplay and an engaging, visual novel-like story.
If some games start in media res, dropping you right in the middle of the action, Fate/EXTELLA seems to start somewhere beyond that; ‘bewilderment’ is perhaps a good way to describe how we felt trying to follow the opening moments. EXTELLA’s story follows the events of Fate/EXTRA on the PSP (and the Japan-only EXTRA CCC), in which a massive conflict known as the Holy Grail War was fought inside the digital realm of SE.RA.PH. The Holy Grail War saw different pairs of ‘Servants’ — incarnations of historical and mythological figures — and ‘Masters’ — the humans controlling them — vying for control of the Moon Cell, a digital lunar lifeform that can grant its bearer any wish of their choosing.
When EXTELLA kicks off, this conflict is over; Nero Claudius (one-time emperor of Rome reborn in feminine form) and her Master have won the war, and alongside it the Regalia — a ring that can hold her Master inside it. But something’s not right, and it’s not long before an enemy appears inside SE.RA.PH to threaten their reign — wielding their own Regalia. If all that takes a re-read to cotton on, don’t fret; Fate’s story is winding, obtuse, and confusing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to follow. As long as you don’t mind being a bit lost at times, and keeping up with a steady stream of new vocabulary, it’s actually quite an engaging adventure. It helps that the translation is top-notch, and the characters — especially the three main playable Servants — are very well drawn, and watching the relationships between them and their Masters unfold (more on that later!) kept us excited to play more.
In terms of gameplay, Fate/EXTELLA should feel much more familiar than the story. Organized into three main Stories, each starring a different Servant (starting with Nero) and giving parallel perspectives on events, EXTELLA is a battlefield action game, similar to Hyrule Warriors or other musou (aka ‘Warriors’) titles. That means you’ll control a single, massively powerful character from a third-person perspective as you hack and slash your way through hordes of largely harmless grunts, in an effort to draw out more powerful foes. Rather than achieving victory by defeating all enemies or making your way to the end of a level, in musou games territory is key. You’ll compete for control of the different ‘sectors’ which make up each map, and if you can manage to conquer enough for your side (by defeating the ‘Aggressors’ which show up when you fell enough low-level foes), you’ll earn the right to battle the boss. Beat the boss, and you’ll clear the stage.
In Fate/EXTELLA, this arrangement is codified through the ‘Regime Matrix’ system, where both you and the enemy army have a meter of fifteen keys to fill at the top of the screen. Each sector is worth a different number of keys, and that contributes to some strategic choices in play. It’s usually a good idea to go for (or defend) more ‘valuable’ sectors first, since they’ll do the most to fill up (or maintain) your Regime Matrix, for instance, but set pieces in each level — from mini-bosses to deal with and traps to disarm to enemy invasions to repel — often call your attention elsewhere. How you choose to balance those competing demands can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
On the ground, that involves a lot of targeted hacking and slashing from your Servant, and that core action gameplay in Fate is a blast. The left stick moves your character, ‘Y’ performs a fast, weak attack, ‘X’ takes care of the heavier (and slower) hits, and ‘B’ jumps. Different strings of weak and strong attacks, both on the ground and in the air, will trigger combos (with more unlocked as you level up), and there’s quite a variety in the movelists; we settled on a few bread and butter routines for each character, but still found plenty of room for experimenting with flashier chains in certain situations. Combat is fast, responsive, and has an excellent sense of flow — the perfect fit for a musou setup, which sees you overpowering huge groups of enemies in style.
And in the interest of overpowering those enemies, in addition to your regular attacks you’ll also have access to three different types of special attacks. There’s the ‘Extella Maneuver’ — executed by hitting ‘A’ when you have enough charge in the Extella Meter — which acts as a screen-clear super, hitting all enemies within a certain area around your character. You can also store several ’stocks’ in the meter, and chain them together with repeated hits of the ‘A’ button — a long chain can eradicate most everything aside from bosses, and it feels great to unleash that stored up fury.
The Extella gauge fills quickly, but the other two special moves are used more sparingly; the first, Moon Drive, relies on a separate, slow-filling meter, and lets your Servant transform — Sailor Moon-style — into a powered-up version of themselves, complete with killer attacks and a brand new costume. The second, the Noble Phantasm, requires picking up three Phantasm Circuits, each of which is hidden in a different sector in each map, and activating it with a tap of ‘ZR’ will destroy everything in range with a cinematic flourish. This last attack was the one we used least on our playthrough, if only because actually hunting down Circuits often fell by the wayside in the face of more immediately important objectives. Transforming using the Moon Drive, however, felt great, and helped turn the tides in several boss battles.
Many of these aspects are relatively standard for musou-type titles, but Fate doesn’t feel like a standard musou, and we love it for that. There’s a real emphasis on speed, for one; your characters’ combos slice through enemy hordes with a satisfying sense of forward motion, the chainable dash move (mapped to the ‘R’ button) will send you zooming across the stage, and you can even air dash continuously — by far our favourite way to fly.
Beyond the speed, one of the biggest differences between Fate/EXTELLA and musou games like Hyrule Warriors is that the separate sectors aren’t linked by any corridors; rather, they’re discontinuous and connected with warp points. Hit ‘B’ at the jumping off point of a sector and you’ll rocket through digital space, following a twisting path of flowing data as it winds its way in and around the stage to your next destination. It’s seriously stylish, and it also gives the gameplay a distinct feel; since travelling between sectors is almost instantaneous and doesn’t involve meeting any enemies, you’re hacking and slashing for keeps at pretty much every moment — there are no unimportant spots on the map, and that makes for a thrilling, steadily high pace throughout.
Another aspect of Fate’s style that makes it stick out is its focus on relationships — not necessarily between characters, but between you and its characters. The ‘Master’, which can bear your name and be male or female (and changed at any time), feels like a player avatar, and the game starts right off the bat with the first Servant, Nero, already very much enamored with that Master. That romantic relationship continues to develop throughout — alongside others — through the lengthy visual novel scenes between battles, and that makes EXTELLA feel a bit like a dating sim, in tone if not explicitly in mechanics. There are a few branching conversational paths, and picking the right option at particularly important junctures will raise your ‘Rank’ with your Servant, but there’s also the one-on-one ‘My Room’ chats, the surprisingly steamy dialogue, and the literally steamy bathing scenes.
It’s all very well done, with XSEED’s typically stellar writing making the blush-inducing prose enjoyable rather than embarrassing to read through; if you like a bit of romance and winking wit in your action games, you’ll have a great time here. It’s also worth noting that you’ll get that ‘lovers route’ regardless of your Master’s gender, which is appreciated — we played primarily as a female avatar, and outside of a single terminological oddity (being called ‘Husband’, with a capital ‘H’, by a certain character) our gender made no difference to our admirers.
Finally, there’s something to be said for Fate’s recontextualization of historical figures as a stylistic point. It’s oddly satisfying to see Gilgamesh, Jean d’Arc, and Cú Chulainn share a battlefield, and we’d have never imagined a game could engender so much empathy for an arsonist emperor — but then, after seeing Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Báthory reimagined as a tsundere pop idol, very little should feel surprising anymore. If you love catching references and can keep up with the worldwide spread, these little details add a ton of personality to the action. It makes Fate feel like a sort of mytho-historical All Stars meet-up — similar to Shin Megami Tensei in that sense, but with a brighter, more anime-influenced style.
And in fact, in terms of visuals, Fate/EXTELLA reminded us quite a bit of a Shin Megami Tensei stablemate: Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. That’s true in two senses, one perhaps more complimentary than the other. First, in terms of raw graphical prowess, this does look like it could exist happily on the Wii U. Character models are nicely done and detailed, for instance, but they animate a bit stiffly in cutscenes, and in general this doesn’t feel like a showpiece for what the Switch can do — though it’s worth mentioning that slowdown was never an issue in our playthrough.
EXTELLA also draws very favourable comparison to Tokyo Mirage Sessions from another angle, however: its visual style. From the colourful character designs to its setting of brightly light neon dreamscapes, filtered through a cyber-futuristic lens, it’s an absolute treat to watch. Level backdrops include digiverse versions of Roman ruins, Japanese temples, and modern skyscrapers, all swirling with suspended platforms and dancing with data. As a complete graphical package, Fate/EXTELLA is undeniably slick.
That’s reinforced by the soundtrack, as well — a pulsing collection of electronic tracks, fleshed out by a few welcome vocal selections that sound straight out of an anime opening. The full Japanese voice acting is also very well done, and goes a long way towards creating endearing characterizations of your partners; Nero’s VA is a particular highlight, but every Servant feels like a real personality thanks to their voices. One unfortunate aspect (also shared with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE) is that there’s a notable amount of dialogue — in transformation sequences, special moves, and the like — that goes by without any subtitled translation; though as in TMS, you’ll certainly get the gist of it.
We had a great time with Fate/EXTELLA, but it’s not without its issues. Most immediately apparent is the lack of variety in enemy designs. That’s a common feature of musou-style games, perhaps, but it’s especially noticeable here; you’ll largely be laying waste to a single type of replicated grunt, by the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands, and the Aggressors which guard each sector are palette-swaps of three or four different archetypes. It never particularly bothered us, and certainly reinforces the grunts’ role as sword-fodder to bring out stronger enemies, but if you thought Hyrule Warriors’ minions felt familiar after a while, Fate/EXTELLA’s single mass-produced foot soldier is almost comically repetitive.
Another grumble is with the AI on your army’s end, ostensibly there to aid you in your campaign. Each mission will see one or more allied generals holding down the fort in various sectors, but they never really seem to pull their weight; we hardly ever had companions actually take back contested territory, and it usually felt like they were there to slow the invasion rather than repel them. That could be a deliberate design decision — it certainly keeps things frantic, and blasting across the map to bail out allies under siege is satisfying when it works — but it also contributes to a bit of a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ feeling as you play.
Finally, for all its story and side content, Fate/EXTELLA is only meant for one Master at a time — there aren’t any multiplayer options to speak of. It makes sense in the Story mode, but we would’ve loved to have seen split-screen support in the Free Battle mode at least; Hyrule Warriors has taught us how much fun musou can be with a friend, and Fate’s fast-paced action would be a perfect fit for co-op.
Even without multiplayer to extend its legs, however, it’s worth reiterating how much content is here. Each of the three main Story modes feels like a small, self-contained game in its own right, and a beautifully paced set at that — the half-hour-or-so chapters in each Story are a perfect length to sit down and play through in a single session, and spacing them out helps keep things from feeling too repetitive. Progression is steady and addictive, as you’ll unlock new moves for your character, new customizable support options mapped to the D-Pad, and new passive skills that you can choose to slot into their builds, with bonuses for chaining similar types of abilities together. Having thirteen extra characters to play through smaller sections with in the Side Stories is a great bonus as well, and works wonderfully within the framework of the game’s nonlinear narrative, letting you learn more about different Servants’ backstories as you get a little rush of satisfying slash-‘em-up gameplay. If you get hooked on Fate, in other words, there’s plenty to keep you busy here.
A real treat for anime-action fans, Fate/EXTELLA is a lovably frantic hack-and-slash with a feeling all its own. Appealing characters and an irresistible sense of style draw you into its world, and addictive, satisfying gameplay and excellent writing keep things exciting throughout. It suffers from some common ails of the musou genre, like minimal enemy variety and subpar AI, and it’s far from a technical showcase for the system, but if you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced slash-‘em-up on Switch — or to seriously complicate your relationship with one of Rome’s most infamous sons — Fate is a perfect choice.