In the opening of Fate/Extra, you will be mocked for looking and acting like an NPC. You won’t think it’s fair because you can’t help it: That’s what you are. It’s a creepy ghost story by a clever writer that belongs in a better game.
Another notable line uttered in the opening comes from a character named “Male Student”: “One of my desk’s legs is shorter than the other and it keeps shifting around. ARGH! It’s driving me insane!” Fate/Extra does not have the most breathlessly inane NPC dialogue I have ever read, but even though it comes close, it deserves credit for making banal conversations a plot point. Fate is a story about identity and videogames that tries something brave and new that fails so completely the game cannot recover.
First, some backstory. Like many curious Japanese games, Fate/Extra is based on a popular series that you’ve probably never heard of. Fate/Stay Night is not available through legal channels, but it has been translated into English. It is a visual novel significantly longer than the Lord of the Rings trilogy about a game in which modern-day sorcerers summon famous figures from history and legend to fight over a Holy Grail (but not the Holy Grail) which can grant the bearer a wish. Don’t worry about this part: all you need to know is that Fate is awesome because it’s about who would win in a fight between King Arthur and Gilgamesh.
Fate/Extra hopes to tap into this magic, and with a script by the original writer, Kinoku Nasu, it has a fair shot. The plot is good; twentysomethings that watched Evangelion in their teens will have a certain fondness for being mind-fucked, and if nothing else, Nasu is a gifted mind-fucker. The game falls flat anyway, because the combat is a brave but sad shot in the dark and the story doesn’t have enough cooking.
First, the cooking. Fate/Extra is set not in a high school (like the original Fate, or Persona, which this game resembles in many ways) but in a virtual reality high school. This defeats the entire purpose of setting it in a high school. In Fate/Stay Night, a great deal of the game is spent cooking and talking about food. Fans of Fate’s over- the-top fight scenes find Nasu’s cooking fixation in the visual novel to be amusing, but the quiet moments of Fate pull you into the endearing relationships between the characters, which are the only reason to care about the story at all.
This would be easier on Fate/Extra if its premise, single elimination fights to the death over the course of seven weeks, was given due gravitas. The fights with your opponents are steeped in melodrama, which you should be used to if you’ve ever played an RPG, but absence of those small moments really hurts. Fate/Extra never feels as dark as the reality of its premise.
This premise is where the gameplay comes in. It’s not good to separate gameplay from story, which Fate/Extra understands. Fate/Extra’s combat is (thankfully) very different from most RPGs. Since the late 90s, RPGs have struggled with figuring out how to make themselves fun after is was clear the standard >fight >magic >skill >item needed a bit of added depth. Fate also wants a combat system that can feel a little bit like a tense battle between two legendary heroes, which is a noble goal.
An important plot point they won’t really explain to you in Fate/Extra is that the legendary heroes you summon (they call them Servants) deliberately conceal their own names. The logic being that if you know you’re fighting King Arthur, you’re going to have to watch out for Excalibur, but if you don’t, you’ll never see it coming.
And so Fate/Extra has a interesting side to its gameplay. During the course of a week, you will grind in a terrible dungeon that nearly makes the game unplayable, but you’ll also be searching for clues as to the identity of your opponent’s Servant.
RPGs are often little more than a glorified game of rock paper scissors, and here is a game that reduces the formula to that fundamental level. Near the beginning, you pick one of three Servants to flirt with and fight for you for the rest of the game. Pleasantly, this doesn’t seem to be changed by the player’s chosen sex, so all romance combinations are presented equally. Each turn, you and your opponents’ Servants pick six actions from either break, guard, or attack (read: rock, paper, scissors), or special skills. The weak little protagonist you play as can throw in some support and heals to your Servant, but for the most part this is it.
It is not quite as hideously arbitrary as it sounds, but it is close. The duels against the enemy Servants are both forgiving and tense, as they can be retried and if you do your detective work you can predict their patterns, but the dungeons are frustrating and devoid of tension or fun. Death can come without a single faulty play on the player’s side and will result in an unredeemable loss of time. You must guess what they are going to do, and though they have patterns, they rotate in ways that you can never truly know. Yes, it is possible to fully understand the opponent’s pattern and still lose.
This cannot be forgiven in a modern video game, even if the game was otherwise fun, interesting, or engaging. We forgive Dark Souls for killing us because we knew we could have done better. We cannot forgive Fate/Extra, because it is a game we can lose even when we know what we are doing.
If I was grading Nasu’s story, I would encourage you to read it. As long as this game is attached to it, I cannot recommend Fate/Extra. I can tell those interested in the enjoyable story that playing on easy will make the game more pleasant, but that is the most damning indictment of the gameplay I could make.
Fate/Extra was developed by Type-Moon and Image Epoch and published by Aksys Games. It is available for the PSP.
Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for Gamasutra, as well as the Internet in general. You may follow him on Twitter and read his blog for more about the video games.