The Fate franchise is a curious and complicated one. Originally a series of adult-oriented visual novels, the franchise ultimately found more popularity among general audiences, spawning numerous anime series, films, novels, manga, and of course, video games. A sort of “what if” narrative, 2011’s Fate/Extra shook things up, offering fans a far-future take on the hit tale of living weapons and the masters who wield them. Whole bits of lore were reimagined, characters were shaken up, and a new continuity was established. Well, kind of, sort of. A sequel, but not really, to this PSP title, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star makes an attempt to take this sort-of sub-series and push it to its logical extremes.
Unfortunately, it falls flat at every possible turn — but not from a lack of trying. The narrative, which concerns a protagonist being split into separate physical entities and being pit against each other, carries on Kinoko Nasu’s flair for the enjoyably convoluted. Virtual dimensions that manifest themselves physically, a cast that lives on the literal moon, and a story split between three different perspectives, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star pulls out all the stops to keep things engaging.
However, it ultimately comes across as a whole bunch of nonsense words attempting to tell a story that really isn’t all that complicated. The narrative in Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star, for all of its attempts at appearing deep, can be succinctly summed up in a few sentences. Fate’s stories usually work because of the deliberate pacing of the visual novels and the nature of serialized anime – the fantastic Fate/Zero stands as a testament to this. However, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star is a short game, one that can be easily cleared in a small handful of hours. There’s little room for genuine character growth or nuanced storytelling. Instead, the whole thing feels kind of rushed and hollow, with one-note characterization and alleged twists that players can see coming from a mile away. While a few separate campaigns are supplied, none of them ever provided enough engrossing content to merit more than a, “huh, neat,” from me.
The campaigns also suffer from a problem that is arguably Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star’s biggest fault– repetition. Marvelous clearly played a great deal of Dynasty Warriors between Extra and this entry, because tit for tat, their latest is a shallow reskin of Omega Force’s hit franchise. A map of territories to conquer, allies to protect, hordes of enemies on the screen at one time, it’s all here, and none of it is nearly as interesting as the series it is trying to ape. Killing enemies has no sense of progression to it, and the gameplay feels sloppy – most fights can be won by spamming the same few buttons until one of three ultimate moves can be activated. Painfully linear maps, and a camera that actively tries to murder players don’t help much. The final product feels like something that hasn’t seen the great strides in progress Koei-Tecmo has made in these sorts of games since the mid-2000’s. By consequence, Extella comes across as both unoriginal and dated by the standards of the very thing it’s trying to copy.
Even the art direction, for its occasional interesting boss design (especially the final encounter of the first route,) can’t overcome a feeling of sameness. Everything about the visual design, from the menus to the color scheme to the music, feel a lot of other titles that came out in the wake of Persona 4. That is to say, the same general aesthetic that permeates Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, Devil Survivor, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, to name a few, is on full display here. However, here, it doesn’t really fit the subject matter – especially not the silly moe idol villains and copious fan service. The Fate series has a grim, gothic-meets-modern aesthetic that works, and this take on it just feels cheap and pandering. I’m absolutely willing to admit that boils down to personal preference, but when a franchise has a unifying look that already works, spin-offs like this just don’t feel necessary.
Fate Extella: The Umbral Star is a game that I desperately wanted to like, speaking as a fan of the franchise. It certainly isn’t an awful title, sure, but even for its intended audience, it feels like weak tea compared to the rich blend of engrossing narrative and dense lore that fans love. Furthermore, it betrays what makes the series work, and ties it all together with gameplay that just isn’t fun to play. For fans, it’s a letdown, and for newcomers, there’s nothing here at all. While I might recommend it to franchise diehards at a steep discount, I’d recommend waiting for Apocrypha and passing on this resoundingly mediocre title.