Musou fans have been a bit spoiled this generation, with many great releases in this niche genre coming out for the Switch, some of which are from the Big N itself. One of the more middling Musou games from the early days in the Switch’s life was Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star, which married that tried-and-true hack ‘n’ slash gameplay with the long-running, convoluted anime franchise, and though it had its issues, that release proved to be an interesting and promising experiment that we hoped would get a follow up. Now, XSEED has opted to take another crack at the concept with Fate/Extella Link, a sequel which still carries some of the issues of its predecessor, but proves to be the better game on the whole.
The story of Fate/Extella: Link picks up right where its predecessor, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star, left off, following the Servants’ search for Altera after she’s kidnapped by a mysterious new foe who’s begun to ‘Oraclize’ other Servants in a mad campaign for assimilating SE.RA.PH itself. As one may expect, the narrative often leans hard into anime tropes and plotlines, packing the story full of larger-than-life characters and ridiculous story beats that are played with almost comical seriousness; none of these elements coalesce into a particularly memorable or compelling story, but you’re sure to have a great time along the way as you chuckle at the jokes and revel in the overall campiness of it all.
Even so, while the underlying narrative proves to be relatively simple and easy to follow, much of it is bogged down by mountains of lore and references that newcomers will be largely ill-equipped to deal with. A conveniently included glossary helps to assuage this somewhat, but make no mistake, this is undeniably a game designed to be played by fans of the series (or at least the last Extella game), and those of you that are coming into this one with little to no knowledge of the series are in for a rough first few hours as you come to grips with the many esoteric terms, names, and concepts that come at you thick and fast.
Of course, this being a Musou game, the story is merely there to provide sufficient context for why you spend hours beating the tar out of literally thousands of nearly helpless enemies on a battlefield, and luckily Fate/Extella Link has found a way to make this activity quite enjoyable. Each level sees you taking control of a Servant whose job is usually to defeat a boss character and secure a battlefield, divided up into ‘Sectors’ that are either controlled by your team or the enemy. As you jump between sectors, clearing out the local opposition and wresting control of the battlefield back piece by piece, various sub-objectives arise that will demand your immediate attention in some capacity, such as when the ‘Master’ is under attack by an enemy unit or when a series of especially powerful enemies need to be cleared out before they can escape and summon reinforcements.
What’s striking about all this is just how dynamic and kinetic these battles often feel; there’s always something happening on the other side of the map that you should probably get involved in, and every minor victory you claim is merely the gateway to another, bigger fight before the level is finally over. This sense of momentum and movement goes a long way towards making each level feel like an actual battle is taking place, where the outcomes of countless isolated squabbles and scuffles add up to cause the tide to shift back and forth and back again constantly as the fight wears on.
Every character has unique skills (more on that later), but ultimately shares the same basic moveset for cutting through the endless hordes, and this moveset is ultimately built around the concept of momentum. Your character can pull off flashy, deadly combos through a combination of light and heavy attacks, and every one of the thousands of enemies you defeat contributes a little bit to your ‘Moon Drive’ gauge. Once full, a tap of the ‘A’ button causes your character’s attack and defence to rise dramatically as the gauge slowly empties, and you can choose to either benefit from this buff in battle prowess in full or to empty the gauge early by executing a powerful, screen-clearing attack by tapping the ‘A’ button once again. All kills executed in your Moon Drive also cause your ‘Noble Phantasm’ gauge to gradually fill, and once that’s ready to go, your character can execute a special attack that’s powerful enough to warrant its own (skippable) cutscene as they positively scorch the earth with a ridiculous and over the top attack that’s as bombastic as it is devastating.
Through all of this, you can also pepper in ‘Active Skills’ to keep combos going and put boss characters on the ropes by doing things like area of effect attacks and buffing certain stats temporarily; up to four of these skills can be equipped at once and though they each are limited by slight cooldowns, knowing when to use them can have an enormous impact on the outcome of your battles. If there’s one thing that Fate/Extella Link absolutely nails, it’s creating a sensation of your character becoming an unstoppable force of nature that no being can possibly hope to overcome; some may no doubt find such a portrayal to be boring due to the lack of tension, but there’s something oddly refreshing about assuming the role of a character whose enemies don’t possess any meaningful chance of winning.
When not in combat, you can power up your Servants in the flying castle that acts as your home base, and this is where players are introduced to the myriad customization systems that power progression. Every time your character levels up in battle, they unlock either a new Active Skill or power up an old one, and here you can pick which four skills you want to take with you into battle. You can also equip Install Skills you’ve picked up from felled enemies, which act as passive buffs to things like attack speed, drop rates, and elemental resistances, and Mystic Codes, which act as a sort of ‘armour’ you can wear that grants minor support abilities like healing to your Servant. On top of this, you can also set which side missions you’d like to attempt in the coming mission; clearing minor achievements like “clear 3 sectors while at over 50% HP” will boost your bond level with the Servant that offered that side mission and unlock more Install Skill nodes for them.
What’s nice about all these separate, interlocking progression systems is that you can truly spec out a character to be exactly the kind of unit you want them to be, while also giving you the satisfaction of knowing that you’re always moving forward in some fashion and that much of that forward motion applies to all characters. Plus, there’s plenty of nice quality of life features to cut back on the grind somewhat, such as how you can spend currency to level up weak units to your current strongest unit’s level, or how duplicate Install Skills are automatically merged with existing ones to power them up slightly. We were pleased by the depth present in the progression of Fate/Extella Link, as it offers up a bit more complexity than one would expect to find in a typical button mashing Musou game by adding in more RPG elements.
Though it should only take you about fifteen hours to clear the story and see its different endings, there’s plenty of replayability to be found in Fate/Extella Link. For one thing, every level grades you based on how quickly land effectively you routed the enemy, and new Mystic Codes are awarded depending on the kind of rating you got; if you’d like to get that coveted 100% on your profile, you’ve got to figure out which characters and builds will allow you to play through certain levels nearly flawlessly. On top of that, clearing stages unlocks special ‘EX’ levels in a side mode that remixes objectives and bosses to provide a different challenge, while also baiting you with the promise of gaining special new costumes for Servants. There’s also a fascinating new multiplayer mode that offers up the opportunity to play in relatively equal 4v4 'King of the Hill' matches either locally or online, though there’s a baffling omission of true local multiplayer; if you want to play with somebody in the same room, they need to have their own Switch and copy of the game.
From a presentation perspective, Fate/Extella Link manages to completely nail the visual style that it goes for, offering up a smooth and inventive visual feast that looks great whether on the Switch screen or the TV. Though the framerate never rises above 30FPS, the anime art style is taken to its full potential with a diverse and imaginative line up of detailed battlefields that prove to be as weird as they are artistically impressive. One battle may see you fighting your way through a traditional Japanese temple, complete with cherry blossom trees, while another sees you fighting through a dark cyberpunk cityscape; it’s next to impossible to guess what kind of battlefield your Servants will fight on next and that visual diversity is greatly appreciated.
Plus, there’s quite a bit of flashiness in the moment to moment details, such as the effect that generates every time you jump between sectors, and this goes a long way towards making Fate/Extella Link’s graphics feel well-realized and pleasing to the eyes. All of this is then matched by a high-energy soundtrack that matches the ridiculous action and anime roots quite well; though not particularly memorable by any means, this is a soundtrack that does a great job of setting the tone.
The nature of the genre makes it pretty tough to do a Musou game wrong, but it’s also rather difficult to do one that’s truly right, providing an experience that’s capable of rising above the repetition and relatively easy difficulty. Fate/Extella Link manages to do just that, including all of the trappings of a Musou outing while sprinkling in a handful of fun, engaging, or creative changes to the overarching design and style to escalate this release a bit above the competition (and certainly above its predecessor). If you’ve never much been a fan of mindless hack ‘n’ slash games, we’d say this is a great way to test whether this genre is for you, and if you consider yourself to be a Musou nut, this is one of the best distillations of the concept we’ve yet seen. Either way, Fate/Extella Link is well worth your time; we’d recommend you add it to your Switch collection at some point.