31/07/2017

☆ Review: Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star - "Exposition & Supposition" ☆

Share This Post On Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share This Post On


Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star - PC

Originally released on PS4 and PS Vita last year, it’s time for The Umbral Star video game to hit PC (alongside Switch). Fate is a fantasy universe that encompasses manga comics, anime TV series, visual novels, prequel novels, and various home console and arcade games. An epic brawler in the tradition of Dynasty Warriors, this latest incarnation is a bright, enjoyable action RPG let down by poor storytelling, minor presentation issues, and some grinding gameplay.
Set after the Holy Grail War of the previous game, Fate/Extra, the plot is an insanely convoluted and turgid mess overlaid on a very simple story about an invading evil. Basically, you and your warrior avatar are tasked with restoring a magic ring, which has been split into three pieces, each representing an element of your being: Mind, Body and Soul. Once restored, you will have the power to overcome the final boss and eliminate the threat.


You play a Master, and you are bound to a Servant. There are sixteen different Servants in the game, each representing one of eight possible classes. The class defines the fighting style. The main story mode offers three fleshed-out campaigns, each seen from a different character’s perspective, but you can play smaller, side story campaigns for the other Servants. There’s also a Free Battle mode, which allows you to play through any battle encounter you like.


Each campaign is comprised of six chapters, with each chapter centred on a key battle in the defence of the SE.RA.PH (the world that exists after the apocalyptic war). The structure of the battleground will be familiar to Musou fans: A grid of walled-in fighting zones, connected by passageways. To take control of a zone, the player must overcome the mini-bosses within, known here as “Aggressors”. While you’re busy fighting, other zones can be invaded, which introduces a tactical element as you must decide which zone to focus your defences.



For the uninitiated, the combat may appear impossibly manic and confusing, but behind the noise, it’s quite straightforward. You are an overpowered hero, meaning normal infantry are merely a minor hindrance. Your key decisions are about which boss to beat down. There are standard Aggressors; larger, mech-type Aggressors; and powerful Plants, which will mass-produce Aggressors until you take them out.


Sometimes a story boss will spawn, and taunt you into a duel. The design of these bosses is fantastically imaginative, with everything from swift, Bayonetta-like ninjas to hulking Norse kings, complete with flowing robes. You will usually need to defeat the boss more than once, as they transport to a different zone once their health drops to a certain point.


On Easy mode, it’s possible to button-bash your way through the game, but on higher difficulties, some semblance of tact is required. The controls are the basic quick attack, heavy attack, jump, and dash setup we’re all used to. But once you’ve built up sufficient power you can also unleash an Extella Manoeuvre, which will deliver (via an OTT animation, naturally) huge splash damage to multiple enemies.


The combat feels solid and fluid, as it should. I encountered some minor camera and targeting issues, but in a game where general chaos rules over precision, these weren’t game-breaking. Navigation was more of a problem: at times, finding the doorway that connects to the next zone was infuriating, even with the giant neon signs telling me where to go. Also, satisfying though the combat may be, it can also become rather grindy on upper difficulty tiers, as you are asked to manage a battleground in a constant state of flux.


I’ve spoken at length about the combat, but now I should speak about... well, speaking at length. To say that the cutscenes (and they are cutscenes, regardless of the occasional button press) are verbose would be an understatement. Excessive exposition may be a trademark of Japanese games, but Fate/Extella takes it to the next level. In fact, exposition isn’t enough for these characters – they go into supposition too, endlessly proposing theories about why other characters are acting the way they are.



So much of what we see in Extella’s text boxes is a meandering digression, making it hard to discern the vital story information. And it’s not as if the underlying narrative is particularly profound; it’s a bog-standard save-the-planet job with one strongly telegraphed twist. On the plus side, the Japanese voice acting (there is no English dub) is of a high quality. And while the overarching message of love and human frailty is hackneyed, it is also laudable, and the game is refreshingly inclusive in terms of gender.


The characters are suitably bold, and they deliver some astonishingly cheesy lines. When your character says “The arcs of her sword paint a picture as beautiful as a blooming rose” it’s hard not to smile. The main players are mostly larger-than-life women, which is fine because they get to crack some jokes and show off some fabulous and impractical outfits, while the men mope around moodily back on the ranch.


Alongside battling and plotting, the game offers a little lightweight crafting. The items you make give you access to limited-use perks on the battlefield, accessible via the d-pad. You also get to develop a pretty basic skill tree, which can be filled with passive abilities. Skills can be stacked, so if you put skills of the same type together their effects are boosted.


In terms of visuals, let’s just say that performance trumps prettiness. The graphics options are very limited on PC, but I slid everything to full and the game was a smooth sixty the whole way through. This is to be expected as the environments aren’t very detailed, and the virtual reality nature of the SE.RA.PH (for reference, the aesthetic isn’t a million miles from Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE) and the robotic enemies means that there aren’t great vistas or complex models to process.


More disappointing are the animations in the cutscenes, which are stiff and lacking in expression. For a game that demands we spend so much time hanging out with these characters, who are keen to express their every single thought and feeling, the merely functional animation is unforgivable.  

Summary:
It seems to me that there are two main demographics who will be eyeing up Fate/Extella: fans of the Fate series, and fans of Warriors games. If you’re in both camps, even better. But what about those who aren’t bound to either? Whether Fate/Extella is the most accessible route into the sub-genre is questionable – be prepared for bafflement. But you will be getting a fun, formulaic game with plenty of content and decent replay value.

Game Link: Steam
Dev Link: X Seed Games


Review By Rupert