Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star (Nintendo Switch) Review – A Tale of Missed Chances
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Publisher: Marvelous Europe / XSEED Games
Release: 20th January 2017 (EU PS4, Vita) / 21th July 2017 (Nintendo Switch) / 25th July 2017 (PC)
Price: 54.99 (Switch, PS4) / 44.99 (PS Vita)
As a big fan of the Fate series, the announcement of Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star got me both interested and worried. To see a Fate game entering the big consoles was pretty surprising, yet the idea of being a Musou style game somehow didn´t truly fit into the Fate universe. After a successful launch on PS Vita and PS4 at the beginning of the year, where it got praised as well as criticised by critics, Marvelous and XSEED made the decision to port it to the Nintendo Switch. Not only a great choice to make use of the Switch´s tiny line-up but also for the game itself, as it turns out.
Unlike the general plot of the Fate series, telling a tale about Masters and Servants fighting in a Holy Grail War, Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star decided to opt for a scenario in which we´ve already won the war. However, since the War and the game take place in a virtual world, while the physical bodies are in some kind of machine, the plot doesn´t end here. Revolving around different servants, problems and mysteries, EXTELLA´s plot surprises with quite a huge array of ideas and unique perspectives. Combined, all of the different arcs, the new universe and the systems established in the story can add something new to the Fate universe in general, a best case scenario.
Unfortunately, these aspects come at the cost, Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star can become quite overwhelming in the first hours. Throwing things at you like Reality Matrix, SE.RA.PH and many more, it´s easy to get lost in the extensive lore. Even the extremely well-written dialogues, that nail the balance between cheesy, silly but serious in the right moments at the right time, can´t help at explaining all this in a proper manner. The whole exposition simply feels rushed, leaving me no time to get familiar with the situation before stumbling into the next one.
Luckily, as soon as I got a grip of the scenario, the actual stories told here are pretty great character-driven plots. On paper none of the plot elements are new or particularly interesting, hell, the game even loves the cliché-y amnesia plot, yet mixed with the excellent writing and resulting characters, it was a pleasure to discover the world Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star. Even though I highly doubt newcomers will or can have that much fun with this game.
The Nintendo Switch version Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star is also an excellent port. Surely, it wasn´t one of the most beautiful games to begin with, mainly due to its PS Vita and Nintendo Switch plans, but drives a very neat character artstyle to compensate for it. Character models are surprisingly detailed, equipped with physical clothes, fluid animations, pretty much everything you´d expect.
Along the world and enemy design being inspired by virtual worlds Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star looks surprisingly good in motion. In Handheld mode in particular, I noticed how smooth edges were, the still huge amounts of enemies on-screen and great looking effects and noble phantasms. At the same time EXTELLA offers a rock solid frame rate, lacking any kind of noticeable frame drops in huge encounters and feeling super fluid overall. Oh and it´s also only ~1.2gb big, as far as I´m concerned. Simply excellent.
One of the main reasons may be Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star´s new approach to base capture. Instead of one giant battlefield filled with bases, every level consists of different zones, each one of them being a captureable base and connected to warpgates-like tunnels. The main goal in each level is to complete a Reality Matrix by gathering enough Reality Keys. These are obtained by capturing said zones, which all have their own Reality Key counter.
In order to do so, we first have to kill enough enemies, which then trigger the appearance of so-called Aggressors, bigger, mightier foes. Only after killing them too, a zone is declared as captured. The downside of this system is the lack of feedback, captured zones don´t spawn friendly soldiers that begin to attack other bases, they simply stand there and wait for the enemy to start a counter attack. Also, it´s quite annoying to see an enemy zone preparing an assault on a base, when you need to travel through lengthy warp tunnels before being able to defend it. Certainly an interesting new approach, I´m simply unsure, if it´s for the better or worse.
On the other hand Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star´s combat system is one of the best I´ve seen from a Musou-clone … once you´ve put some time into it. Similar to BERSERK and the Band of the Hawk or Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada to a certain degree, we start out with only 2-3 possible combos, giving us more and more the higher our level. Naturally, this system is one way to implement progression, yet the early hours of each character become extremely repetitive because of the very tiny amount of available combos, leading us to Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star´s main problem, the repetitivity.
By locking so much behind levels, we can spend less and less time with the actual full-blown combat, a damn shame, since it´s actually pretty fantastic. Fluid motions, fast actions, no animation priority, block and dodge buttons, big combos, special AOE attacks and even epic looking Noble Phantasms useable once per battle, if you collect all three keys for it.
The fact Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star only features a little handful of ever repeating arenas, no special missions, no unique ideas in its gameplay nor any other kind of diversity, we´re forced to battle through the ever same mobs for hours and hours. Here, the new capture mechanic begins to actually harm the game, forcing us to actually fight for minutes against these mobs before we can battle the same mobs in bigger and then repeat these steps. Instead of charging in a base, clearing it in 30 seconds and continue, Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star slows us down in every way possible.
At least, it tried to somewhat change things up with a few bosses, sadly, they work as “great” as in BERSERK and the Band of the Hawk, the combat system just doesn´t work in favor for big bosses. Unlike the Warriors-series, EXTELLA fails at delivering enough diversity to keep me engaged without its story.
Between missions we may be able to customize our servant with collected items, craft new items or talk to her but at the end nearly everything boils down to percent bonuses on our numbers. Nothing really feels like it has an impact or enhances our moveset. Combined with the horrible side stories, being neither particularly interesting nor different in gameplay, Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star attempts at delivering a little diversity fail.
As in every other Musou game, Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star biggest problem is its repetitivity, amplified by the lack of arenas, lengthy base captures, boring customization options and lack of any creativity in level design. A shame, truly, considering how great the underlying combat is, once you progressed far enough. Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star gameplay is simply clustered with bad decisions, making it impossible, at least for me, to play it longer than a few hours. No matter how good its character driven story is, how much it adds to the Fate universe and how amazing the writing is.
However, especially on the Nintendo Switch it may have found its ideal place. Not because there are no Musou games yet or not many big games in general but because Fate/EXTELLA The Umbral Star is a perfect game “to-go”. Playing 1-2 hours or just 1 battle in between is a blast, due to the excellent combat and performance, making it a great fit for Handheld power users but not for lengthy play sessions.
[A Review Code was provided by Marvelous Europe]