Fate/extra is the dungeon RPG incarnation of the ongoing manga/anime/video game series. The game takes place in a school that does not really exist — the school and its students are part of a computer program that is constantly cycling through a fighting tournmant called the Holy Grail War. Participants — students who have not been weeded out and killed in the “prelims” — ally themselves with a Servant who fights on their behalf. If you die in the virtual world — cleverly called SE.RA.PH. — you die in real life.The winner of the tournament gets the Holy Grail and, most importantly, gets to stay alive. You also get one wish granted by the mysterious Moon Cell. The choices the player makes carry significant weight as different actions result in different outcomes, making for highly personalized gameplay.
Oh, and those Servants? They’re all reincarnations of “legendary heroes,” historical figures that held great significance in our world. At the start of the game (after a lengthy, instructional, and yet extremely creepy intro…more on that later), the player is asked to pick one of these Servants: Saber (the embodiment of crazy ol’ Roman Emperor Nero), Caster (a fox spirit who represents the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu), and Archer (who is not a famous figure, but a nameless spirit from an unknown past who strove to be an “Ally of Justice”).
So what path did I pick? Well…
I would not have played this game had it not been for my roommate, who provided me with my first star-crossed introduction to the franchise. Allow me to explain. My roommate is working towards a PhD in history. A history fanatic, no, a history nerd. She is downright brilliant and cares deeply about our world’s past more than anyone I’ve met.
So one day while we were playing Catherine and I’m barely listening I hear her say something about Arthur Pendragon. She was explaining the Servant system in the Fate/Stay Night series with all the gusto that can only spew forth from a lover of history. “The series is so clever,” she promised, “it’s really quite good and Saber is my favorite and I love the way they develop the characters and draw from history and and and…”
So when Fate/Extra arrived, I bit. The first thing I noticed was the pacing. The game proceeds at a steady clip, and in keeping with the visual novel style of the franchise the inner monologue of the protagonist (that’s you, player) unfolds as words on the screen. Dialogues are kept short and sweet and are also text, with characters sometimes quipping in verbally.
So, back to the path I chose. After the battle tutorial — which was concise and clear, laughably simple — and the initial boss battle that the game makes impossible to win, it came time for me to either let myself succumb to death or refuse to give up. The game presented the option twice and twice I chose not to give up…. It’s something really eerie about this game, choices like this — as though the game itself thinks you’re not good enough for it. Your fellow participants will constantly tell you (and in the beginning your Servant really rags on you) how weak and stupid they think you are. Are you going to take that? No sir, Fate/Extra, I’m not intimidated by your smarmy bully tactics.
Speaking of smarmy tactics, I recommend you create multiple save files for this game. Many choices lead suddenly and jarringly to a dead end. Then it’s Game Over, chuck PSP against wall, hot glue back together, and start over.
Because she was described as “a beautiful woman who acts like a man, ” and because she isn’t wearing pants, I went with Saber as my Servant.
The battle system is a piece of cake. Each turn consists of six moves for both your Servant and your opponent’s Servant. There are three options: Attack, Break, or Guard. Like rock-paper-scissors, each option beats the next. So Attack beats Break, Break beats Guard, and Guard beats attack. That’s not to say you don’t take damage, but using the right option against a weaker one will result in less damage done to your Servant and more done to the opposing one.
Sometimes your enemy — an opponent’s Servant or the random enemy “programs” hanging out in the training grounds, or “Arena” — will display what six actions it will execute. Sometimes you have to guess. Once you’ve fought against a certain enemy enough times, you will hopefully be able to memorize their action sequence and plans your own accordingly. In the long run writing these combinations down is a huge help — but then again, who wants to play a game while frantically flipping through notes? This can get tiresome, as randomly choosing actions doesn’t always work in your favor.
The system could be called impossible, but I’m going to go with not intuitive enough to entice you to stay up until 4 a.m. dungeon crawling. You can equip your Servant and your player character with better garb and accessories, but after a while the rock-paper-scissors action gets monotonous. Some opponents move so fast and keep changing their combinations — keeping track of them all is a nightmare. The learning curve is complete sphere and there is nothing you can do it help yourself ascend it. There is nothing groundbreaking about Fate/Extra‘s combat system. I don’t even know how the system works as well as it does, but if you’re the kind of person that thinks quickly and has a deep seated love for memory games, then you probably know better than I do.
The dungeon setups themselves for that matter, are disgustingly easy. On a scale of one to Water Temple, I’d give them a Final Fantasy XIII. Players find themselves running in straight lines, running to a dead end, retracing steps, and running in another straight line into another enemy. You have to inspect every inch of every damn dungeon, otherwise you may miss out on important information that could help you crush your opponents in the tournament. If you exit a dungeon before finding this information, it is gone forever, and you are probably boned.
You can’t save in dungeons either. Did you grind for two hours and then make a wrong choice or die? You’ll be sent back to your last save so you can dive back into the dungeon and spend another two hours hacking along to the sound of spunky late-90s jazz music reminiscent of every anime staring high schoolers that you have ever seen. Have fun with that, chief.
Nutty battle system aside, the story, character elements, and visuals are fantastic. Players like my history buff roommate will enjoy trying to decipher who the Servants’ real identities are. The intrigue in the cross-family feuds provides a perfect extra level of drama to the whole fight-or-die gimmick. Characters and environment are beautifully rendered with stunning splashes of color, and while it’s not moving art along the lines of Deus Ex Human Revolution or El Shaddai, it certainly adds a brilliancy and appeal to the game.
Fate/Extra is like a stick of gum: you chew too long and it loses its flavor. That’s not to say those first dozen or so chews aren’t amazing, otherwise you wouldn’t want to keep chewing. The story has true gameplay value, especially with so many different routes to take through the story and three different Servants to choose from. The story and challenge presented by the tournament system is great, but many players will find themselves frustrated with the battle system, which is kooky enough to severely retard the enjoyment level of the game. It was a good shot at a throwback-style dungeon RPG, Fate/Stay, but the combat system — a major freaking component of the RPG genre — is its ultimate flaw. I promise, at least, that you’ll get more enjoyment out of it than Persona 2.