While everyone else in the West may have spent the last couple of years quietly abandoning the PSP there are still a couple of developers working furiously away from their unlit bunkers to bring us some of the gems of the East. Ghostlight are probably the most prolific of these companies and their latest offering isn’t even that old, having been released in Japan during July 2010. For a company that we presume should have the pick of Japanese games to port, Fate/Extra is a strange option at first glance; you can usually knock one or two points off of the Famitsu scores for these PSP JRPGs when they hit the Western critics, and coming in with an 8/7/7/7 it doesn’t scream instant classic at you. From the off however Fate/Extra shakes up your assumptions of what a JRPG should be, presenting an innovative combat system along with some refreshing freedom to fail. The ride isn’t without its bumps however, and combined with the lack of gloss in places it ensures that Fate/Extra doesn’t quite make it to the vanguard of PSP RPGs.
The Fate/ universe goes back to the 2004 eroge Fate/stay night, and has been followed by several more mainstream games and anime since. Characters from the series do take pivotal roles within Fate/Extra but the game is essentially a stand alone in the universe, a reimagining if you will, and so you are free to dive right in without requiring any kind of background knowledge. The meat of the story revolves around the Holy Grail War, a fight not for the actual physical Holy Grail but rather for a more modern conception of it, the power to have one’s greatest wish granted. Joined along the way by a powerful Servant you will have to face a series of weekly battles in a grand elimination contest to prove your worth for the Grail. FateExtra emphasises knowledge as well as power, and you would be a fool to battle the toughest foes without having taken the opportunity to fully research them. Interestingly these Servants are in fact the souls of heroes from the past, meaning that both your own Servant and those of your main enemies have distinct personalities that the developers have modelled on a historical figure (or their perception of them at least!).
To get anywhere in Fate/Extra however you will have to read through reams of text. Fate/Extra straddles the genre ground between a visual novel and a JRPG, and you will often be faced by pages and pages of written text before you can progress. Fortunately the majority of this text is well written and advances both the story and the characterisation of the main NPCs. Some bits of the text do stand out magnificently, and yet others manage to feel a little hollow; the series is famed for its use of furigana (explained excellently here) which is essentially the addition of extra or double meanings to the text through the on-page/screen location of certain characters. If you know to look for these then the hunt becomes obsessive, examining every piece of text in your hunt for double-meanings. If you have never even heard of furigana before you will breeze right over them, with the added potential that some pieces of the translation may feel slightly forced if you don’t appreciate the use of certain words.
However, even the scene setting exposition and dialogue can’t save the introduction from feeling entirely forced and unsatisfactory. Before you can even begin your Grail quest you are taken through a dull and uninspired scene-setting that feels like it takes forever instead of a couple of hours. Even worse, when you have finally broken out of this section and entered into the main body of the game you have to progress a good way through your first week to unlock various basic elements of gameplay (such as spending attribute points gained from having levelled up). In reality, it is not until you have vanquished your first ‘boss’ and seen their closing dialogue that the potential of Fate/Extra becomes apparent and by then it may well have been too long for many players.
The thing is, once it gets going, Fate/Extra feels like a unique game and it’s hard not to want to continue. The gameplay is essentially split into two worlds – the Arena and the school that acts as your non-combat hub. Graphically the Arena wins out in looks, its electronic-matrix-esque style and bright colours working well and providing something that little bit different from normal JRPG offerings. Each of the in-game weeks offers you a new Arena with a couple of different levels; these maps are fixed and also contain fixed spawns that reappear a short time after you dispatch them. It’s a basic design but it allows attention to remain on the story, and it also supports the interesting combat mechanic that sets Fate/Extra apart from its peers.
Each battle sees yourself and your enemy choose six actions up front that are then locked in. The actions then run down and are compared to each other in a deadly form of Rock-Paper-Scissors. For instance, choosing Guard when your opponent attacks will see you take zero to minimal damage and then unleash your own counter-attack. If you manage to make three correct choices in a row then you can deliver a bonus attack, and these sometimes make all the difference in the boss fights. At the start of each fight you may see one or two of your opponent’s moves, but you will quickly discover that each foe only has a small range of potential movesets. The excitement for each fight therefore usually comes in the first few encounters before you have had a chance to jot down each attack pattern they will follow, although later fights may well see you having to make a judgement call on which pattern you think they are using.
In another departure from the norm the game then doesn’t expect you to use these combat encounters to grind much, preferring you to fight just enough to power yourself up to around the suggested level before the end of the week. In fact, additional grinding is punished by hugely diminishing returns, meaning that to gain an extra couple of skill points could potentially take you hours instead of a few fights during the next week. For a game not focused on loot and providing only repetitive ‘dungeons’ it is a wise choice, but it does mean that you can’t just ever load Fate/Extra up to dungeon crawl, each and every trip takes up precious time and advances the story. The funny thing is, the balance just doesn’t seem quite right either way – the game doesn’t want you to spend hours upon hours fighting away in an Arena even if you as a player would quite like to, and there is just a little bit too much repetition in having to visit the various floors and fight through the same enemies with the same attack patterns for you to want to zoom through the action to get back to the story. Certainly while Fate/Extra likes to keep a foot in both the visual novel and JRPG camp it would have been better served by deciding which to favour instead of trying to balance entirely for both.
Outside of the Arena the vast majority of your time will be taken up by researching information on your next opponent in the Grail War. This mainly consists of the genre classics such as talking to everyone that you see, walking around to find not-very-hidden scripted encounters and so forth. Each piece of information you find builds into a matrix record of your next foe’s Servant and the more information you discover has a direct impact on the amount of moves you can see when you get to the week’s final combat stage. It’s an interesting notion but there are points in the plot where you just wish you could have had more of the dramatic occasions rather than feeling like you are running around doing homework on your opponent. The whole concept is saved by the writing, with characters and Servants all fleshed out into feeling real through their interactions with one another.
Even for those used to the JRPG genre, Fate/Extra presents somewhat of a difference. The combat mechanic is the most startling departure, but the inclusion of elements from visual novels (such as instant death if you make the wrong 50/50 choice) also provides freshness for a genre that can sometimes feel all too stale. Fate/Extra manages to be both a compelling game but also a frustrating one, encouraging players to engage with the storyline but also not quite delivering on the whole gameplay experience. With three different Servants to choose from and a branching plot Fate/Extra provides plenty of game time for those who wish to fully engage with it, and anyone that can make it past the introductory sequence and play it just the once will find a unique and ultimately rewarding experience. Those with little patience will want to find something a little more accessible to play however or they risk becoming jaded with any future attempts to refresh the JRPG scene.