Every once in awhile a game really surprises me. My familiarity with the Fate series begins and ends with the anime, but I’ve been aware of the mobile and handheld franchises for some time. When the Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star was announced with some flashy promotional videos, my expectations were pretty much set at a sold Warriors-like with some dating sim elements. Let's say I was at least right about the dating sim, but had drastically underestimated Marvelous. Fate/Extella delivered with some interesting new ideas that rejuvenated the aspect of Warriors games I’ve always felt was their Achilles' heel, the irrelevance of map movement and strategy.
Taking place after the climax of Fate/Extra, which occurs in an alternate timeline of Fate/Stay, Fate/Extella begins an indeterminate amount of time after your character won the Holy Grail war. After some unexpected events, you end up on the moon (which is also the Holy Grail and a big computer) with some dramatically raised stakes and a story that has entered that sphere of conceptual complexity that only anime can reach. Despite the plot insanity, the narrative remains pretty comprehensible by giving you simple to understand goals, mostly involving defeating other Servants who are trying to mess with your moon kingdom. At worst you hit a few wall of text interludes between missions describing some historicity or abstraction of what's going on, but your immediate goal always has face begging to be punched.
To be honest, even extended dialogues are fairly painless. Nero is an immensely dramatic character and alternates between sanctimoniously dispensing orders and lavishing compliments upon the main character, her Master. The two of you are in the midst of a fated romance so over-the-top that just about every conversation is dominated by gushing digressions and starry-eyed gazing. Whether it’s the result of some great translating work or the original intent was to make the dialogue as soppy as it is, I’m not sure, but it actually never gets old and Nero's voice actor delivers. There are some dating sim elements, primarily Nero whisking you away to your shared room regularly to have private conversations which allow you to deepen your bond by answering questions in the ways which most please her. Do well enough and you can earn yourself some fanservicey special scenes. It’s a sort of take-it-or-leave it aspect of the game that doesn’t do too much to obstruct the focus, the combat.
The biggest surprise Marvelous brought to bear was the high pressure gameplay in battle. Fate/Extella plays like a light speed Warriors title, giving you the same combo structure with more enemies and higher mobility. The biggest quality of life upgrade is that your jump button automatically includes a launching attack so that none of your strong attack combos have to be your designated air combo starter. Perhaps the biggest issue is only your form change really has a guard break attack. This would be a huge sticking point for me except that the main thrust of the gameplay is in prioritizing objectives. Your enemy is constantly making attempts to invade your conquered territories from their own, so you can’t simply push your front forward to win. Instead you have to constantly dive in and out of enemy territories to crush “Plants” before they can invade then move back to continue your advance. From mission start there isn’t a single moment you don’t have something to do and the dynamic requires you to constantly keep an eye on your mini-map and actively choose between offense and defense.
Visually speaking the graphics of Fate/Extella accomplishes a lot with very little, keeping things simple enough to not to lag the game even with several hundred enemies gathered around you on the screen while delivering some insane particles and sequences. You're provided with three different ultimate attacks that have a variety of uses as well as adding a lot of style to your combat. Extella Manuever is your most basic ultimate, a huge attack that has you mashing O while reaching several thousand hit combos. Your Moon Crux transformation puts you into a boost state after a ridiculously elaborate and satisfying henshin sequence, the your transformation involving an elaborate and extremely satisfying henshin sequence. Your Noble Phantasm is a miniature Ikuhara production, complete with rose tossing and spontaneously manifesting golden architecture. One of your enemies has a pop-star persona and you can tell you’re drawing close to her because you can hear her performance from several zones away. Even the levels themselves are composed of floating pieces of architecture in a multicolored void connected by wormholes you leap through. The personality of the game nearly reaches Guilty Gear's stratospheric altitudes.
In addition to the above, Fate/Extella offers the usual accoutrements of modern day action games. There is a crafting system that allows you to make equipment for your own character which provides utility powers you can use to aid your Servant in combat as well as upgrades for the Servant themselves. A bonus of building your Bond with your Servants and Sub-Servants are occasional gifts of both item types. While you start with Nero, there are at least two other story paths following Tamamo and Altera, as well as several side stories featuring many of your Sub-Servants. For the perfectionist, all missions can be run multiple times and various difficulties to grind levels and achieve EX rankings as well as completing optional objectives that build Bond with your various Servants.
Whether you came for plot, gameplay, or some shared bath scenes with Saber, Fate/Extella manages to deliver on all fronts without shoving any of the three down your throat. Speaking from my personal preferences which typically doesn’t favor obvious “level-like” environmental designs, Fate/Extella managed to compartmentalize it’s arenas without giving me invisible wall fatigue. The combination of fast combat and the mental engagement of battlefield movements made for a shockingly satisfying gameplay experience that leaves you feeling immensely accomplished if you can successfully juggle objectives to take ground without ceding any territory. Whether you’re in it for the romance or no, the characters deliver some surprisingly charming dialogue that helps you wind down between battles.
+ Satisfying high-tempo combat
+ Enemy invasions force constant objective triage
+ Visual flash and dramatic characters provide a lot of personality
+ Plenty of extras to pad out replayability
- No set guard break
- Needlessly complex plot