Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PS Vita
The Fate series has always been a complicated one. Starting life as an adult visual novel, it spawned not only manga and anime, but novels, movies and other games as well. Despite all this, the availability of Fate media in the West has been slim, where only a few legal places to watch the anime exist, and even then only a small fraction of the universe’s offerings being made available. Since most of the media tie-in together, either by a book being a direct sequel to the anime, or a game offering a different perspective on the plot, fans have either had to make do with the holes in their knowledge or seek out summaries or fan translations. So when it becomes clear that Fate/EXTELLA is set in an alternate universe to the veritable buffet of sources that makes up the canon, both newcomers to the Fate series and even established fans can breath a sigh of relief. A Fate game with minimal homework for people who may be unfamiliar with the Fate series, surely? The only issue is that the game immediately hands you the equivalent of a five thousand word essay, not two minutes out of the gate.
Fate/EXTELLA is set in a world where the ‘Holy Grail War’, a battle to the death over a mysterious artifact with the ability to grant one wish, took place in a digital environment created by an all-seeing computer on the moon. You play as a previous participant and champion of said war who lost their memory after receiving their prize. That is about as clear as the plot ever becomes, however, as Fate/EXTELLA is in fact a sequel to a game that came out on the PSP in 2012. Its plot leans so heavily on the premise that people will have realised this and played the previous title, that quite often it feels like you're on the wrong side of a poor translation when phrases like ‘Moon-cell’ and ‘spirit core’ start to be thrown around without explanation. While players familiar with the series may be able to tread water, gleaning what information they can from terms they recognise from the anime or mangas, it leaves newcomers confused and quite lost as to what is going on. Indeed, coming to this game without playing the previous title is a huge detriment to the enjoyment of it.
Despite the incredibly confusing setting which renders large chunks of the plot unintelligible for some, the gameplay is actually quite enjoyable. On first starting up the amount of content available is incredibly limited; of the three possible main story perspectives only one is available and only by completing this one are others opened up. Each of the three story arcs are represented by the servant that accompanies the protagonist. The servant, a famous hero from the past, is the main character which the story focuses on and the one that the player uses for battle. Combat itself is done in a hack-and-slash style of tactical action game akin to Hyrule Warriors. Hordes of enemies - programs lead by enemy servants - swarm you and your allies in an attempt to control a battlefield, which is split up into several rooms or regions.
Fighting to control these regions results in a sort of tug-of-war. If your allies die in a room, or are forced to retreat, then the enemies gain the amount of points, or keys that room was worth depending on its size. If the enemy gets a determined amount of keys on a battlefield, shown by a bar at the top of the screen, then it’s game over. If you get enough keys, however, it unlocks a boss battle against the enemy servant in control of the hordes. In order to take rooms you need to cut down enough minions to spawn a room’s aggressors, larger versions of the standard enemy. Only once all of the room’s aggressors are dead is the room emptied and made yours. This isn't permanent, as hostile forces can always come back in once you have left and reclaim the room. You have to be quick and create choke points, limiting where your foes can strike from, as well as dealing with each map’s individual challenges, like destroying an enemy spawner or chasing a fleeing foe.
Combat is made a little more interesting than just hammering the square and triangle buttons with the inclusion of combos, which change your attacks depending on how you move in the fight and the order of presses. In addition there are special moves which charge as you kill enemies. Extella Maneuver allows you to strike a single target for increased damage before finishing with a massive room-wide special attack. There is also a transformation move that increases damage and movement significantly while changing the servants’ fighting style. Lastly there is a servants’ Noble Phantasm, normally a weapon with close ties to the servants’ history, like Arthur's Excalibur. By collecting three items hidden on each battlefield you unlock the ability to use a one-off super powerful move, related to the legend of that particular spirit.
As you progress through the story more servants appear. Enemy servants unlock free battle maps, giving you the chance to level up your three main servants or any allied servants you have encountered. Allied servants you have met allow you to play their side stories, seeing parts of the story from their perspective, or even give you the ability to switch to them in combat. With the huge amount of servants available in the game (over twenty allies over three plot arcs), the amount of content available is impressively large, if repeated almost constantly. The side stories only have minor changes, meaning you play the same battles almost ten times, and three times that if you aim for all difficulty levels. Aside from the short intervals where you can talk to your servant in their bedroom after battle in scenes reminiscent of a dating sim, there is no break from the repetitive nature of the game, made only worse by the sheer length.
While the gameplay is fun, the lack of variety and confusing storyline destroys what could be an immersive experience. Coupled with the fact that all audio is only in Japanese with English subtitles, with some dialogue being ignored completely, it all serves to only distance the less hardcore anime fans. On the other side, the game's bright and cheery, almost family-friendly atmosphere is so removed from the show’s gritty, horrific gore fest that long time fans of the anime are only in for disappointment if they expected the game to be even vaguely similar in tone. Yes, the animated cutscenes are nice, but if you're excited for a game based on the show where Gilles De Rais used young children to shield himself from a chariot, then you'll be heartbroken when you see Elizabeth Bathory's attempt to be a famous popstar by wearing cute outfits.