In video games, stacking genre on genre can either be miraculous or abysmal. Shaking an action-adventure or survival horror game up with puzzle elements, for example, can be fun or tedious, depending on the concoction. Fate/Extra is the latest descendent of the visual novel game Fate/stay night, which has spawned sequels, prequels, and the odd fighter, but this one goes in a new direction. It keeps the text-heavy style of its predecessors and mixes in some dungeon crawling and rock-paper-scissors type gameplay. All those fancy ingredients cook up one great game with one mighty flaw.
Gameplay is highly reminiscent of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games, with a high school theme and dungeon RPG flavor. In Fate/Extra, players enter the Holy Grail War as a master with a servant of their choosing. If you die in the virtual world, called the SE.RA.PH., you die in real life, but the victor gets his one wish granted by the Moon Cell. The entirely Japanese voice-acting sounds good, and the English script manages some halfway decent writing. It'll keep you entertained and engaged, even with some cliches and sudden innuendos—or because of it, depending on what you like. Creating multiple save files is recommended and actually imperative, as some story decisions can result in dead ends.
As you move through the school, the seamless camera transitions and quick navigation system will keep you on track. The character sprites, which appear alongside the dialogue, are gorgeously animated, and the dungeons sport a colorful ocean theme. Combat in these arenas consists of filling six slots with either an attack, break, or guard command, leaving success up to random chance or pattern recognition. It's here that Fate/Extra demonstrates the most depth. The more total successful hits you land against enemies, the more of their moves you'll see before a round begins. Keeping a running list of combinations in your head is tricky, so writing them down and amending them as needed is the easiest and safest approach. With enough diligence, you'll soon have all your enemies' six-figure moves visible at a glance. Combat essentially becomes a puzzle and test of split-second thinking as you record hits, counters, and even breaks, learning to spot trends in your enemy's fight style, but the system simply isn't intuitive enough to work well. Playing a game with a pen in hand and a notebook in my lap isn't the most relaxing scenario, and chances are average gamers won't spring for this either, especially if they're impatient.
Thankfully, Fate/Extra apologizes for its tedium with a limited number of enemies per dungeon, and each dungeon supports two floors per match. Each week you face a different opponent and explore a different arena, collecting the two cipher keys and gathering information about the other challenger. The game breaks up the would-be monotony of weekly training and dungeon crawling by giving your opponents unique personalities, which largely influence how your week plays out. A master whose servant is an Archer might try to pick you off from afar, while others will let their egos get the best of them, challenging you head-on and revealing one too many secrets. Each servant represents a historical figure, so determining their origin is more exciting than it would be otherwise.
Fate/Extra is moderately challenging. Since you can't save your game in dungeons, sometimes you'll grind for an hour only to make a mistake in a story decision. Other times enemies will unleash a new string of attacks that overcomes you, costing you all your hard work. As you progress through the game, enemies gain more and more combinations, and for some types it's nearly impossible to make sense of them all. Somehow, the system works, but its learning curve never ceases its ascension.
The jazzy music never exhausts itself, but it could use better variety. The school and battle themes stay the same until about halfway through the game.
Overall, Fate/Extra is a fairly polished game. It succeeds in both visuals and sound, holds the player's attention for 30+ hours, and offers replay possibilities through three selectable servants. Its gameplay is challenging and its story interesting, but ultimately the single flaw that will alienate potential players is its combat design. It's gutsy and experimental but definitely not for everyone. The game does make a nice pick for the dwindling PSP crowd, especially those with plenty of time and scrap paper.