A sequel to a little played PSP game set within a universe that stretches across numerous genres and mediums – yeah, Fate Extella: The Umbral Star isn’t the easiest of sells to newcomers of this increasingly popular franchise, but with its recognisable structure and easy to follow gameplay, there is still plenty here for those that don’t know their Masters from their Servants.
The story will be largely incomprehensible too all but the previously initiated, but thanks to its solid foundations and slick mechanics, Fate Extella: The Umbral Star can certainly be enjoyed by those happy to remain largely ignorant of the expanded universe. Fans of the series will inevitably get the most out of it, but despite their being a decent selection of dialogue breaks, this action-packed adventure is more concerned with getting you out on the battlefield than it is with filling your head full of complicated lore.
Instantly familiar to anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game, this Musou-inspired action game throws your single hero up against armies of identikit foes as you battle for supremacy and attempt to control the bases and territories required to force a battle against one of the games’ more formidable foes.
At a glance, it’s easy to dismiss this kind of game as a mindless button-masher, and while there is certainly a sense of repetition to the core gameplay, on higher difficulty settings in particular, Fate Extella: The Umbral Star becomes as much about battlefield management as it does simple combo-based gameplay. Sure, murdering thousands of enemies is easy enough, but if you overlook the specific requirements of each battlefield, you’ll soon find yourself on the losing side.
Still, there is no getting around the fact that, at its core, this remains a Musou title, one in which you do spend a huge amount of time repeating the same old combos and killing the same old enemies. Fans of the genre are sure to appreciate the subtle depth, but those with only a vague knowledge of the genre are likely to see another mindless button-masher complete with visually uninteresting stages and forgettable enemies. Musou games have always had a bit of a bad rap with the Western gaming community, and Fate Extella: The Umbral Star is very unlikely to change the overriding opinion.
It doesn’t help of course that, for many at least, the story really won’t make any sense. Not only is it lore deep and often nonsensical, but the events of Fate Extella: The Umbral Star follow on directly from the story found in the PSP’s, Fate Extra. I’m sure some people have played that game, but jeez, it can’t be many. Still, the game does a reasonably decent job of getting you up to scratch on both the ongoing story and the more general narrative of the Fate universe. The talking head approach might not be the most interesting way to introduce gamers to the universe (even if it does harken back to the series’ visual novel roots) , but the writing is decent enough and the voice work entertaining throughout.
For those new to the series, the basic premise revolves around you taking on the role of a fully customisable ‘master’ before ultimately working with and controlling a number of pre-defined spirits (or ‘servants’ as they are known in the game). Much like your standard selection of Musou-style warriors, each of the 16 strong selection of servants have unique abilities and powers but still use the same base mechanics that run consistently across all characters. Some are slow and powerful while others employ more magical abilities, but honestly, if you’ve got to grips with one, you should be capable with just about all of them.
Despite the similarities though, there are eight classes in all and a number of different fighting styles to choose from. Of course, it’s easy to stick with one of the classic all-rounders, but the game does at least make you undertake a number of character-specific routes through the narrative ensuring that you try out at least a handful of unique Servants as you progress. It might sound unnecessarily restrictive to some, but it’s a good way to encourage experimentation and an effective way of easing you into the narrative as you move deeper into the game.
Beyond the standard Musou-inspired gameplay, there is also the ‘My Room’ aspect of the experience in which characters can bond and the Servants customised via the ‘Mystic Code System’. These Mystic Codes can be purchased in My Room and go some way toward giving the game something approaching a distinctive set of mechanics. It’s nothing revelatory, but the Mystic Codes work as a load out system that is updated and improved upon as you progress, giving your character a unique set of additional abilities and status-boosting effects. None of these have a major effect on the gameplay, but they do at least add some much-needed depth to an otherwise slightly one-dimensional gaming experience.
While fans of the series are sure to appreciate the ongoing narrative, newcomers are likely to find the story a tad too obtuse, but regardless of your history with the Fate universe, if you are willing to look beyond its lack of ambition and obvious similarities to the array of Musou titles already on the market, Fate Extella: The Umbral Star will deliver an extremely solid and largely enjoyable action game, one that runs beautifully and provides plenty of content. It doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre, but its slick gameplay ensures that this is a fine addition to the ever-expanding and increasingly eclectic Fate series.
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