"If it weren't for the visual novel elements, I would have quit playing this game after the first chapter because the maddening combat and monotonous dungeons irked me so much."
The Fate/ series enjoys a cult following among import gamers. It all started with an H-game called Fate/Stay Night for PC, but the all-ages version for Playstation 2 exposed it to a wider audience. Since then, there have been more visual novels, a couple of fighting games, a manga series, an anime series, and even some light novels. Fate/Extra, localized by Aksys, is the first RPG in the Fate/ mythos and takes place in a parallel universe to the other Fate/ titles. Therefore, anyone with zero knowledge of the mythos can enjoy it, but those in the know will enjoy cameo appearances of staple characters like Rin Tousaka. The skill from the series' visual novel background is showcased in this game, but the RPG elements suffer from some glaring issues. In short, Fate/Extra is a decent visual novel, but a lousy RPG.
The Visual Novel Elements: Thumbs Up
Visual novels are harbored in their writing, and Fate/Extra's localized English script is well written. Even though the storyline isn't wholly original (it reminded me of the stories in The World Ends With You and Chaos Rings with a little bit of .hack thrown in), the involved writing and clever event scripting make it feel fresh. I liked the playable introduction where players follow a nondescript NPC in a virtual school going through the same motions day after day. But when mysterious, seemingly omnipotent, strangers show up in the world, the fabric of space and time starts to unravel. When players relive this sequence with a male or female avatar of their choosing, a deadly life-or-death game (like in TWEWY or Chaos Rings) presents itself where the only way out of this illusory world is to defeat all the other players in it. The ideas of a world removed from reality, but connected to it, where participants engage in a life or death game is not all that new. Nor is the idea of self-awareness in a world-within-a-world where the line between reality and virtual reality is blurred. However, Fate/Extra's writing puts it above, say, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time with its infamous plot twist.
Another thing I like is that although the player character is an amnesiac compelled to recover his/her erased memories, key NPCs offer differing arguments of whether amnesia is an asset or a liability in the game. I'm surprised this isn't touched on more often in JRPGs, especially since many lead characters are amnesiacs chasing their lost memories. Viewing a common RPG trope through a slightly different lens is a plus. I also like that the dialogue is distinct depending on the player character's gender. I've played RPGs in the past where I selected a female avatar only to find that the dialogue was the same as if she were a guy. That kind of verbatim transposition is just plain lazy. I was almost fooled into thinking Fate/Extra did that too, but the game coolly showed me otherwise. I opted to play as a girl and early on, my chosen "Servant" (a companion/familiar akin to a persona in Persona or a Stand in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) spoke to me in a flirty manner as if I were a guy. My kneejerk reaction was, "Are you serious?!?! I'm a girl, dammit! What kind of lazy script cop-out is this?!?!?!" But after my Servant said her piece, I was presented with dialogue response choices, one of which was "Uhh, you know I'm a girl, right?" That made me smile because I was thinking the exact same thing! It's subtleties like that in the writing that make the game for me.
And since this game comes from a visual novel pedigree, there are multiple endings based on your choices. There are also a lot of dead ends, so players should heed the game's warning of keeping multiple save files.
Players will spend a good amount of time reading in Fate/Extra, so kudos to Aksys for their great localization of this mountain of text. If there is anything that will keep players engaged, this is it. Unfortunately, the solid visual novel elements are not enough to save Fate/Extra from being a blasé dungeon crawler with off-putting combat.
The RPG Elements: Thumbs Down
Who remembers the "Break Zone" system from Xenosaga II's battles? It's okay if you don't want to remember it; I don't want to either. Targeting certain parts of an enemy in one and only one particular sequence to do any kind of damage without any sort of hint that you're doing anything right was absolutely grating. It made combat feel random, tedious, and cheap. Fate/Extra's combat also feels random, tedious, and cheap due to its Break Zone-esque mechanic.
In battle, players select six moves for their Servant to make from a selection of three actions that work like rock-paper-scissors. Initially, the game reveals only two or three of an enemy's moves, but gradually reveals more as you keep fighting. Getting to that point, though, seems to take forever, and predicting the patterns of new enemies, even the most menial, is a crapshoot. Patterns are inconsistent, it's difficult to get a bead on how best to defeat foes, and one bad guess leads to heavy damage and possibly getting a cheap Game Over. Instead of a stupid luck-based system, a stock "attack/defend/skill/item" turn-based system would have been a better choice. Or, since battles are 1-on-1 affairs, a realtime or semi-realtime battle engine would have worked too.
To add insult to injury, there is no way to save within dungeons. I'm sorry, but handheld RPGs should allow players to save anywhere or at least offer a quicksave option. An autosave mechanic would be most welcome in this game as well, since I often lost valuable progress thanks to cheap deaths.
Dungeons don't help matters. They look simplistic, feel lackluster, and there's not much to do except grind for levels and maybe find a treasure or two. Okay, the average RPG dungeon is based around those mundane activities, but good RPG dungeons also have appealing design and some je ne sais quois that make the mundane a little more engaging. Some people might compare the dungeon component in Fate/Extra to Tartarus in Persona 3, but I felt a more pressing sense of purpose and investment in Persona that I did not feel here. For all intents and purposes, Fate/Extra is an RPG and a dungeon crawler at that. A dungeon crawler with drab dungeons is a failure, since that's where players spend copious amounts of time during their 25-30 hour journeys.
In sum, the RPG elements in Fate/Extra feel half-baked and tacked on. This is too bad because the visual novel components, by contrast, are more refined and appealing. If it weren't for the visual novel elements, I would have quit playing this game after the first chapter because of maddening combat and monotonous dungeons.
The Aesthetics: Thumbs In-Between
To quote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the graphics and music are mostly harmless. The 3D polygon graphics are on par for what I would expect from a current-generation PSP RPG, and the music is innocuous though completely forgettable. Nothing really stands out for me stylistically. The character and environment designs are nothing specia,l and the music is barely a step above elevator music. Music is a crucial part of my life, so if a game has forgettable music, that's a big strike against it. When I'm playing a life-or-death game, I want some gravity and a sense of urgency in my music, not sleep-inducing elevator music. I wish I could write more about the graphics and music, but how much can I write about aesthetics that are about as exciting as plain oatmeal? The one silver lining is that the occasional voiced scenes feature their original Japanese format. No English dubbing here.
The Fate of Fate/Extra
I cannot help but look at Fate/Extra as that student who could have had a much better report card had he gone to his teachers for extra help throughout the marking period. Fate/Extra gets a B+ in English for its solid writing and scenario scripting. Aesthetics are subjective, but I offer a C for graphics that are technically sound, but lack complexity or originality. Unfortunately, I'm rather critical of music and I give a D for music that's phoned-in, forgettable, and smacks of lacking effort.
The worst, though, is the F in math for its poorly designed combat and blah dungeons. Since a key component of RPGs is building levels through extensive combat and dungeon exploration, battles and dungeons have to be engaging or the RPG is a dud. If Fate/Extra had done its homework on what makes an RPG appealing, this poor excuse for a combat engine would not have gone out the door and the skeletal dungeons would have been more developed. There are better visual novels and better RPGs out there than Fate/Extra, and with similar themes to boot, so skip this title and play The World Ends With You; Chaos Rings; or 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors instead.