At its core, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star is Dynasty Warriors set in cyber space. Three factions battle it out to decide who rules the brightly coloured digital world, and each army is spearheaded by anime-style representations of mythical and historical figures. You'll see legendary Chinese general Lu Bu clashing with Joan of Arc while Greek genius Archimedes fills in as Roman emperor Nero's strategist. Nero's a blonde-haired young woman in a frilly dress, by the way.
If all of this sounds a bit mental, that's because it is – but it's difficult to get hung up on the whys and hows when you're busy cleaving your way through hundreds of enemies a second. The release fits comfortably in the 'musou' genre: games that plop you into the shoes of a super powerful character and have you smash your way through legions of foes. Here in the West, when we think of musou titles, we think of Koei Tecmo and its huge library of Warriors games, so The Umbral Star is something of a rarity, seeing as it's developed by Marvelous Entertainment.
Fortunately, the Japanese studio does a great job of tweaking the typical musou formula in order to suit its needs. Each battle feels fast and fluid, partly thanks to the rapid combat system and partly due to the fact that stages are broken up into relatively small, separate areas. There's little downtime during each scenario as you blast from one corner of the map to the next, and after a few hours of play, you'll begin to appreciate the satisfying ebb and flow of battle.
Victory hinges on your ability to take control of the map. You'll move from area to area, wiping out enemies in order to capture a location. Sometimes, though, your offensive capabilities won't be enough to seize the day; you'll also have to keep an eye on the movements of your foes, as they too will be trying to conquer the battlefield one district at a time. This means that you'll often be backtracking to areas already under your control so that you can help defend them, fighting off invaders before once again leading the charge on the front lines.
The constant back and forth, especially on harder stages, can make for some exciting action. Being pushed to the brink of defeat only to unleash your strongest attacks and force the enemy back at the last minute feels brilliantly empowering, and it helps that every character is fantastic fun to play as.
Combat itself is largely your standard musou affair. You've got access to both light and strong attacks which can be stringed together, and on top of that you've got your super special moves and temporary transformations that grant additional offensive power. It's unoriginal stuff but it's all incredibly flashy, and combos look great in motion.
There's also a slight emphasis on aerial attacks here. Various flying foes can only be damaged by leaping upwards and swatting them, but with some characters, actually staying in the air can be fiddly due to short combo strings. It's not quite enough to take away from what is otherwise a slick hack and slash system, but having to deal with tricky aerial enemies can definitely hurt the game's momentum.
As with any musou title, there's always the worry that sooner or later, the gameplay's going to grow stale, and sadly, The Umbral Star does stumble the further that you get into the release. However, this isn't necessarily because of the game's combat – it's more to do with its lack of stages. The title features a set of full story campaigns that centre on the lead characters, as well as dedicated side scenarios for everyone else, meaning that there's a lot of content to chew through, but all of this takes place across a mere handful of different digital battlefields. More variety would have gone a long way in making each campaign feel more unique, but as it stands, it's hard to shake the feeling that you're just trudging through a reskin of the previous scenario.
Thankfully, there's intrigue to be found in the overarching plot – at least, if you can actually wrap your head around it. We won't go into too much detail here, but it's safe to say that the narrative revels in its complexity. Plenty of nonsensical terms and phrases are thrown around rather recklessly, and although it can seem near impossible to follow at first, key themes start to emerge as you move from one chapter to another; it's ultimately interesting to see how things pan out after viewing events through the eyes of each faction.
A rock solid hack and slasher, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star offers non-stop, totally over-the-top action from a fantastically fun cast of playable characters. Our only real complaint is that repetition can bleed into the experience over time, but give yourself a few days to recover from the fatigue, and you'll come back to a welcoming brawler that's stuffed with content. It's not quite up there with the best musou games on the market, but The Umbral Star scratches that button bashing itch and then some.