This Week in Games - Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star

by Dustin Bailey,
Look: Amiibos are dumb. As toys, they're overpriced figures that are too small for meaningful display and too static to be fun to play with. As game accessories, they're mostly just overpriced bits of costume DLC that offer only occasional in-game benefits. This criticism is obviously set-up for the hypocrisy I'm about to display.

I have a bad habit of buying Nintendo games exclusively for their pack-in Amiibo. I held off on Mario Party 10, sure, but I did pick up Twilight Princess HD, Yoshi's Woolly World, and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival all brand new, and have played perhaps a combined 60 minutes of all of them. Gosh if that Yarn Yoshi doesn't look adorable on my desk, though.

And yes, despite owning and having barely played Yoshi's Woolly World, I did just buy the Poochy-enhanced 3DS version. It's… It's just so fuzzy, and warm, and nice, and oh my gosh did you see those theater videos Nintendo added? Woolly World is an ultra-simple 2D platformer, and comparisons to Kirby's Epic Yarn aren't just limited to woolen aesthetic. They're both built around casual exploration, letting you spend as much time as you want in each stage to hang out and collect hidden secrets. There's no particular challenge, and no special need to grab those collectables—they're just there if you want them. You do you, man.

It seems like Nioh is the game to play this week, with its unique take on Souls-inspired structures and systems. It seems my impressions of the betas turned out to be correct—the primary differentiator between Nioh and its inspirations is more Ninja Gaiden-like combo-based action. That's awesome, but it's more stress than I'm prepared to handle right now. I need yarn.

I'm also still playing Yakuza 0, and am getting into a deep friendship with Mr. Libido, who's also known as “Walking Erection,” so that's going great.

Before diving into news, we've got some impressions of the latest Fate game from fellow ANN contributor Gabriella Ekens. Enjoy!

First Impressions - Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star

The first thing to know about Fate/extella is that it's a direct sequel to the 2010 RPG, Fate/extra. While newer fans may think that they recognize some of the characters on the box art, that's actually a bit deceptive – these incarnations of Medusa, Cu Chulainn, and Gilgamesh have little to do with their counterparts from the 5th Holy Grail War, and one of them (the blonde woman in red) is an entirely different historical figure who happens to look just like Artoria. Rather, this game is set in the aftermath of a matrix Grail War that took place in the Moon Cell, which is a giant magical supercomputer on the moon.

Here's the rundown for those unfamiliar with the extended Fate canon: at the end of the game, the player character gets to rule over the Moon Cell – which houses digitized versions of all the heroic spirits – alongside their chosen servant. When Fate/extella starts, that status quo is being challenged by a usurper, resulting is a war between two factions. In the beginning, each faction is led by one of Fate/extra's two heroines: Nero (aka Red Saber) and Tamamo-no-Mae. While the two servants were mutually exclusive in the original Fate/extra canon, this game retcons things so that they were somehow both your sole partner, as well as the war's winner. It doesn't make a ton of sense. Either way, Nero and Tamamo are fighting a turf war, you're allied with them on their respective routes, and as a backdrop to all this, there's the looming threat of a new character – the white-haired Saber Altera – whose goals and abilities are as mysterious as they are dangerous.

This was my first encounter with a Musou-style game. I came in not knowing what to expect, but it turns out that I enjoy this type of gameplay. It's a simple hack-and-slash game where you mow down fields of enemies in order to control territories. When your (or your opponent's) territories exceed a certain threshold, you win the match. At first glance, this gameplay style seems well-suited to Fate – it's a franchise about legendary heroes getting into crazy superpowered death matches. What better way to demonstrate their powers than to show them mowing down enemies by the thousands? The combat was easy enough for a beginner like me to pick up – most of the combos amount to mashing the square button. I'm not sure that there's much depth to it, but I enjoyed picking up techniques and strategies over the course of playing. The characters are a selection of some of the most popular figures from the extended Fate canon. They also cover a wide array of cheesecake/beefcake, and I don't think that there are any significant missteps to the selection, excepting maybe Lu Bu.

Fate/extella's biggest problem is that it's very repetitive. There are only five or six stages in the entire game. These appear in all four routes with only minor variations, and they're also used for the 13 side stories. Keep in mind that each stage takes at least half an hour to complete. So while Fate/extella has, in theory, dozens of hours of content, most of it consists of blasting through the same material over and over again. Don't get me wrong - it was all plenty fun to play through the first time. It just gets old when you have to do it ten times, or fifteen times, or even more than that. To make matters worse, you have to play the routes in a specific order. While this works out quite well if you're into Nero – the first available character – it can dampen the fun quite a bit if you'd prefer to play as Tamamo or Altera. The bulk of what the game has to offer is introduced in Nero's route, so the others had the rug pulled out from under them from the get-go.

You're also unnecessarily limited by which servants you can play as in each route. Each heroine has an entourage of three or four other servants, with one serving as a “switch in” who can take her place in combat. (This is EMIYA for Nero, Karna for Tamamo, and Gilgamesh for Altera.) While I'm glad that this option exists, it would have been nice if you could play as more of them in the campaign. The game is already struggling for variety, so this feels like an artificial and easily-remedied limitation. Otherwise, their usage is limited to the Side Stories and Free Battle options, which are unfortunately quite threadbare. Mostly they're just variations on the same five levels, bookended by some simple expository dialogue from your chosen character. From what I've seen, they don't amount to much in the way of “stories,” concluding either with punchlines or bizarre anti-climaxes.

For the purposes of this review, I received the European special “Moon Crux” edition. This version shares its extras with the US-based “Noble Phantasm” edition, but it comes in different packaging. This box is very attractive, measuring about 8 x 10 inches and dispensing with the usual bright blue PS4 header to allow its cover art – a gorgeous concept landscape – center stage. I'll be happy to put this on my display shelf later. There's a transparent slipcase, the reverse of which features concept art of all the playable characters. Goodies include a cloth poster, a hardcover art book, and a set of cards featuring playable servants from the game. I have some things to say about the cards in particular. They're partially transparent and made out of sturdy plastic. I've received cards as extras in a number of special edition releases, and these are by far the nicest I've seen in terms of sturdiness and craftsmanship. At 100 pages, the art book is quite thorough, containing bonus doodles of the most prominent servants as well as an explanatory glossary. I'm least hot on the poster – which features Nero and Tamamo in the midst of combat – because the colors seem a bit washed out. All in all, however, this release lives up to its premium price-point as a thoroughly luxurious way to experience Fate/extella.

Overall, I'd say that Fate/extella is exclusively for fans who are already significantly invested in the series' extended lore. While it doesn't hold up for a long time (at least for gamers who can't stand playing through the same levels over and over), it does make for a good time in those first few hours. It's chock full of fanservice, particularly intimate moments with the game's three heroines, and furthers some rather obscure Nasuverse lore. If you're someone who knows what “Type Moon” actually refers to, you'll dig this game – but then again, you're the type to have purchased and beaten it on day one. As a more casual fan (who's still into it enough to know the plot to Fate/extra), I enjoyed the ten or so hours that I spent with it, although I don't think I'll be finding the time to finish it.

NEWS

E3 IS OPENING TO THE PUBLIC THIS YEAR

After two decades of being the exclusive domain of the industry and press, E3 2017 is opening up to the public this year. 15,000 tickets will be available at $250 each starting Monday, February 13th, though the price on the first 1,000 will feature an “early bird” discount at $150. That ticket gets you access to the show floor from Tuesday to Thursday, as well as yet-to-be-detailed “panel discussions” and other still vague stuff.

Given E3's decreasing usefulness as a media show and the increasing success of the world's PAXes and Comic-Cons, this step seemed pretty inevitable, especially given reports of the show floor's sparseness in 2016. There's also that whole public-facing “E3 Live” thing the ESA ran last year, which despite its general stupidity seemed like a test of just this sort of thing.

Realistically, the era of E3 is already over. The news that matters is at the press conferences, and with the volume of video that publishers can pump out on their YouTube channels, a fifteen-minute hands-on demo is less valuable than ever. Most major press preview coverage happens in private meeting rooms, with the show floor itself serving mostly as an obstacle course in getting from appointment to appointment.

Based on promises of things like panel discussions, however, it seems that this new E3 is liable to see a pretty major reformat—and it better, if it's to have any hope of being entertaining to an off-the-street attendee. I wouldn't be paying for a ticket, but it'll be interesting to see precisely what shape this year's show takes, and how successful it is in splitting its focus between the industry and consumers.

HERE'S WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE FINAL FANTASY XV UPDATES

Final Fantasy XV is great, and occasionally terrible, but still great enough that the terrible parts don't seem so bad. Some of the more bewildering parts—like Chapter 13 and the lack of story context—are getting patched to be better. Better in what way? Who knows! But that patch is coming in March.

Before that, though, an update on February 21st will have the game running at 60FPS on PS4 Pro consoles, along with upping the level cap to 120 and raising the photo storage capacity to 200. You'll also get the apparently necessary ability to listen to the MP3 player while on a chocobo, and see new “timed quests,” which are—just guessing here—probably going to be free-to-play style dailies. The first bit of story DLC, Episode Gladio, will be available in March, and will apparently tie into the improved Chapter 13. How? I dunno. Episode Prompto follows in June.

The degree of stuff missing from FF15 is similar in scale to that of Metal Gear Solid V, and I don't know that any amount of expansion content—free or paid—would be able to adequately address the problems. Much as I love big parts of the Noctis ‘n’ the Boys adventure, I've got the feeling I'll still have to come to terms with an improbably messy series of problems even after these updates come through.

PHANTASY STAR ONLINE 2 IS COMING WEST EXCEPT NO, NOT AT ALL, NOT REALLY, IT'S A CRUEL JOKE

I'm not a Phantasy Star Online guy, but I can empathize with the struggles of PSO fans. Years and years after any relevant Phantasy Star game had been on the market, Sega went and made a free-to-play sequel to PSO. It released in Japan in 2012, and promises were made the same year that a Western localization wouldn't be far behind. That was half-a-decade ago. Now, despite Vita and PS4 ports and years awaiting a release, English-speaking fans are still playing PSO2 via translation guides and third-party mods.

So what do Western PSO fans get? A free costume for Kat in Gravity Rush 2. Yep, that's it. Why bother with a North American release for a free DLC tie-in to a game nobody here can officially play? I really don't know. Keep enjoying your modded Japanese downloads, PSO fans. They're still all you've got.

IT LOOKS LIKE NETFLIX IS MAKING A CASTLEVANIA SERIES

Buried deep within a recent Netflix press release was an announcement for Castlevania Season 1, Part 1 coming sometime in 2017. What is it? What's it about? What form does it take? Dunno, dunno, dunno. You might say, if you're a monster, that this production is a miserable little pile of secrets. Absent an official announcement, various reports on Netflix-adjacent production companies suggest that it's an animated series written by comic book veteran Warren Ellis.

Can I confirm that right now? Heck no. I would say that details should be forthcoming, but Netflix has a habit of releasing new series with minimal fanfare and letting the shows build their own buzz. Vampires are as hot as ever, Dracula is still a threat, and animated Castlevania has some real potential, especially given Netflix's solid recent track record.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

FOR HONOR
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / PC
Release Date: February 14
MSRP: $59.99

Taking place in an anachronistic world of perpetual warfare between knights, samurai, and vikings, For Honor is a melee combat game based on carefully observing your opponents movements and maneuvering yourself to parry their incoming strikes while taking advantage of holes in their own defences. While you're not wrecking hordes Musou-style, that is. It's a split of single-player action and multiplayer battles, and a refreshing divergence from Ubisoft's typical big, open-world game formula.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Sniper Elite is in the hands of a new developer for its fourth instalment, and I'm sadly assured that Ride 2 is a motorcycle racing sequel and not a new game for the short-lived Tony Hawk skateboard accessory. Alas.

Definitively not out this week is Persona 5. Love is over, remember? The Valentine's Day release was pushed to April. I know you know. I just wanted to share the pain.

Catch you wonderful folks next time around!


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