To say I’m unfamiliar with the Fate series is an immense understatement. Nevertheless, I’m always open to taking on games that I have zero history with — it’s good to challenge yourself every once in a while! Part dating simulator, part visual novel and part Musou-style action hybrid, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star is an intriguing proposition that revels in its over-the-top, hammy narrative exposition and eye-meltingly high-octane moment-to-moment action gameplay. I just wish the game put more of an emphasis on the latter than the former.
Opening with a catastrophic event that wipes out civilization, extinguishing the majority of life from earth’s surface in the process, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star isn’t afraid of big, bombastic shifts in its narrative and tone. The game ushers you through some heavy-handed exposition, explains that you are suffering from amnesia (because of course you are) and are promptly introduced to Emperor Nero, a beatific monarch who is paradoxically referred to in-game as your Servant, and even more confusingly alluded to as Saber. Yep, get used to the game’s awkward motif of unwieldy Roman nomenclature and bizarre language — if you’re anything like me, you’ll be occasionally scratching your head in your attempt to join the opaque narrative dots.
Emperor Nero (or Saber, whichever you prefer) explains that she is an autonomous AI life-form with a soul, and that you are the Praetor, a powerful wizard-like master whose physical body is in stasis back on earth. Though you’re both manifested on a plane called SE.RA.PH, where the majority of the action takes place, it’s worth noting that your life force is inextricably linked together with your physical body; if you die in SE.RA.PH, your physical body dies too. Essentially, it’s a lot like The Matrix, but with less Mr. Smiths and more jiggly breasts.
Further still, you discover that you’re the survivor of a great battle referenced in-game as The Holy Grail War, which thankfully you won — yay. This victory has given you access to the power of the Regalia ring, a powerful artefact that grants you the skill to become one with the Servants (like Saber, for example) and control her in combat, along with the myriad of other different Servants you meet as the plot unfolds.
You see, its postmodern pseudo sci-fi tragedy setup isn’t bad per se, it’s just told in a static, bewildering soap-opera fashion that makes it difficult to get fully invested. There are reams of text with deliberately obfuscated language that inevitably slows the momentum of the game down, and I was often itching to get back into the slick and zippy action, which is undoubtedly where the title shines best.
Before deploying onto the battlefield, Praetor is given the option to outfit Saber with Install Skills. These help buff various attributes, such as movement speed, defense, frost damage etc. You also have the option to craft certain sets of armor, each with their own unique properties. These customization options are welcome, but there’s sadly not a great deal of genuine depth here. Few of these options make a meaningful impact to the outcome of battles, mainly because the difficulty of the combat is pitched very low.
Like I’ve mentioned before, the actual core gameplay loop is cathartic, if nothing else; it’s extremely satisfying cutting through swathes of enemies, racking up ridiculous hit-combos that amass into the thousands and taking down nasty bosses and mini-bosses. There are tons of enemies on-screen, and combined with the slick action, all of the spectacle coalesces into something rather impressive.
The ebb and flow of battle is key. The speed at which you take down the roomfuls of nasties is what will help lead you to a swift and triumphant victory. Zones on the map which are being overrun by enemy ranks are highlighted clearly, and these are the areas that must take highest priority as you make your way through the battlefield. Controls are responsive and the plethora of combo attacks at your disposal are both intuitive and fluidly executed.
Disappointingly, I did have some minor grievances with the game’s camera. Going into the options and setting the camera to ‘Far’ helped alleviate some of my issues, but it would still occasionally wig out, swing around furiously and get obstructed by the level geometry at times. The camera issues were often compounded when trying to take down the winged flying monsters, which were needlessly difficult to target with the finicky camera.
In regard to the game’s dating simulator style elements, there are some moments where you’re given dialogue options that can lead to increasing your bond with certain characters. These help to flesh out the story and lead to their own unique trophies, but make seemingly little discernible impact on the core gameplay, which I felt was a bit of a missed opportunity.
Ultimately, I did enjoy my time with Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star. The story can be somewhat charming in a cavalier, bombastic kind of way, but it’s the way the story is told that often lets the game down. It almost doesn’t want you to know what the heck is going on, which is a shame because I do think it does have a pretty unique voice with something intelligent to say. Sure, it’s mostly made up of an incongruous assortment of Roman tragedy motifs and The Matrix style Sci-Fi conceits, but it’s story is overall an interesting and unique one, if only for the sheer ostentatiousness of it all. I just wish the way it was told was more straightforward.
With the tight action carrying the game the majority of the way, this may well be a tough sell for those who aren’t into niche Japanese titles. However, for those who enjoy fluid combat and revel in the strange and the bizarre, this may well be exactly what Galen of Pergamon ordered… And if you’re like me and don’t know who the heck that is, he’s a famous Roman doctor. Because two can play at that game.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
With the tight action carrying the game the majority of the way, this may well be a tough sell for those who aren’t into niche Japanese titles. However, for those who enjoy fluid combat and revel in the strange and the bizarre, this may well be exactly what Galen of Pergamon ordered.