Learning to love the hell you’re walking into - Fate Grand Order
A behemoth stuck in the past
The stakes are sky high within the mobile gaming industry where the lifeblood primarily hinges on keeping players engaged. To truly stand the test of time is, without doubt, a tall order - particularly the older games that are more susceptible to irrelevance by the shiny sheriffs in town. Or they could easily meet their downfall by being the architect of their own demise when it comes to game design. Over the years, we have seen popular titles come and go, such as Brave Frontier, a downfall marked by the release of the sequel. Contributing to the death count are mobile games based on a well-established IP that are more prone to having the plug pulled.
Of course, we have successful outliers such as Monster Strike thriving well in its domestic market and still raking in the big dough while going toe to toe with the latest games such as Genshin Impact and its array of high-end features. As a digital nomad who hops from one game to another, there is one game I always find myself returning to, bound by a string of bittersweet relationships. And that game is Fate Grand Order, an enormous juggernaut basking in an amicable yet dubious light.
Into the mushroom universeFans of anime and visual novel enthusiasts will come to know the Fate series. It is the lovechild of the eccentric Nasu Kinoko, whose mighty penmanship gave birth to a sprawling singularity spanning a cluster of spin-offs and convoluted timelines. Its humble origins can be tracked all the way back to 2004 as an eroge, vying to garner appeal in the budding industry.
Fast forward to 2015 and it's back to square one for the Fate franchise as it takes a gamble in the mobile gaming industry with home-grown indie studio DelightWorks and robust backing from Aniplex. Its early years are defined as a hodgepodge of mess in terms of gameplay and technicalities, from the janky performance, the irksome crashes, the gruelling gacha rates and an appalling prologue story.
Fate emerged from the rubble following the intervention from Mushroom Man and singlehandedly ushered in the Golden Age with the release of Camelot - a story chapter set in a fictional Arthurian kingdom featuring the Knights of the Round Table. Owing to Nasu's beguiling writing style that delves into the deep philosophical and ideological debacle that manifests between characters in the show, it quickly gained a cult following and topped the charts consistently between 2018 to 2020.
The fault in our stars
With the darkest hours behind it, FGO was on a roll for a few consecutive years before grinding to a crawl when Genshin Impact came along. Despite its downward spiral, its revenue still occasionally blazes through up the charts every once in a while with the release of a highly-anticipated servant.
The road down FGO is a craggy one. Its initial state is a patchwork of flimsy duct tapes and band-aids, having gained notoriety for championing the industry’s appalling rates that even its Wikipedia page couldn't resist lambasting it. The indie studio - now reformed as Lasengle - in charge of its operation isn't celebrated either where cracks gave way when Sakura Kakumei, their second game, got the axe after just six months of operation against all favourable odds in their hand.
There is no end to the barrage of flak raining upon FGO from long-time players for its lack of modern conveniences, and they are largely justified. To harp on, it lacks an array of quality-of-life features, such as an auto-sweep/battle system or offline resource farming. The game is not easy on the eyes either, with its antiquated UI that hasn’t seen an overhaul since its release. Perhaps my greatest pet peeve is the erratic and inconsistent animation update schedule. Some servants are still sporting hideous basic animations of swinging their ordnance nonchalantly, or hurtling balls of magical energy comically dubbed as “Caster Balls”.
For all its flaws, I still adore the game for a variety of reasons, tipping my fedora hat to Fate Grand Order. It knows what type of game it wants to be and sticks to that rigid categorisation to a tee. In fact, unbeknownst to the majority, it pioneered and engineered some fair features that have seen wide-scale adoption in many successful and popular games.
An extension to the Big Mushroom franchise and humanity in jeopardyWe have seen our fair share of mobile games based on popular Intellectual Property, and it can range from anything from trendy anime to catchy retro game franchises past their prime. Through files and ranks, we have top guns such as Dokkan Battle and DB Legends, both of which have their roots in the Dragon Ball franchise. Over these years, we also bear witness to the uprising of newly minted ones such as Eminence in the Shadow, Black Clover, and One Punch Man Road to Hero.
However, these games tend to rest on their laurels when it comes to plot and contend with just doing the bare minimum of slotting in an amalgamation of popular scenes, offering a recap while adding no new substance to the series. This is where FGO differs by a mile as it tells a new story with a brand new setting and a robust cast of likeable characters, teeming with Nasu Kinoko’s flair and a well-crafted storyline, abundant with humour and organic chemistry between its characters.
To oversimplify, the main storyline is separated into two arcs, both of which see you playing as a hapless blank slate of a protagonist. You are joined by the surviving staff of Chaldea to prevent a mass extinction event choreographed by a Biblical entity in the first arc, further continuing on with the ongoing second arc with darker tones that see the group clashing with the formidable forces of an extraterrestrial God, racing against time to restore Earth and humanity.
While its first five singularities aren't anywhere near stellar, the quality leapfrogged with Camelot, and since then, it's on an upward trend - save for some bad apples (such as Agartha) rife with extreme social ideologies. And it only gets better with the second arc. For the most part, the pacing is well-organised and the stakes are always high. During lull periods in the story, you develop your relationship with the Chaldea crew, between the permanent servants affiliated with Chaldea such as the prestigious Sherlock and art extraordinaire Da Vinci, plus Goredolf who has gradually grown on me as beneath that elitist veneer lies a capable and goofy heart.
All of this culminates in a grand battle against the big bad of the Lostbelt/Singularity with, at times, absurd abilities to pulverise humanity, all of which is accompanied by an excellent score, especially the Tree battles. The fact you’re battling in mid-air against a supposedly omnipotent tree with extraterrestrial motifs while vibing to techno-boss music is truly bewildering.
As much of an oxymoron as it might sound considering my slander at FGO's antiquated graphics, the sprite works for its roster, and the newest ones in particular are eye candy. For starters, they are not represented as chibi blob that flails around - each of them has its unique attack animations, as well as Noble Phantasm.
The Wild West of History
True to Fate fashion, the characters are based on legendary figures or mythological heroes whose deeds are recorded in the annals of history. The strength lies in its ability to never let slip into a dull moment thanks to the bemusing interactions or camaraderie shared between each character. Furthermore, tidbits of interaction between servants can be explored further in sections such as character Interludes or Bond stories. For one, I always enjoy seeing the bitter and bickering rivalry between the DC inventor Edison Thomas and AC proponent Nikola Tesla, carried forward from the Current War that happened during the age of electrical innovation.
Another brilliant characterisation features Britain's most iconic duo - Sherlock Holmes affiliated with Chaldea, as well as his arch-nemesis James Moriarty - first appearing as a major antagonist in Shinjuku and recurring deuteragonist role in subsequent event stories. His presence on screen, from his witty dialogue to his double-dealing existence, is a joy to watch.
Behind the success of every well-crafted story lies the professionalism exuded by the localisation team headed by Albert stationed on American soil. Their choices can be questionable sometimes with regard to naming conventions, such as the uproar about Osakabehime speaking in NEET lingo, a major deviation from her original lines in the Japanese version.
The 90s-style RPG progression systemIf there is a key takeaway after hours invested in innumerable mobile gacha games, it's that crunching too many numbers can quickly devolve into a chore. This number overload is prominent in the equipment system of many mobile RPGs where every piece of equipment has stats associated with RNG modelled on mobile MMORPG. The RNG system provides a carrot on a stick for players to propel toward, as well as vast theory-crafting opportunities. Dialectically speaking, games dial that aspect up to eleven.
With that said, I'm head over heels for the empirical progression system FGO has to offer. If you are familiar with Trading Card Games, Craft Essence is akin to those energy/item/boost cards you attach to your battling character and provides a flat-out stat boost for every card that's the same type. Arguably, the only metrics that are paramount are the card's NP or Critical star provision attribute.
FGO is also an egalitarian paradise - upgrading each character regardless of rarity to the highest possible level is not a pipe dream. That's right - that one-star servant you fancy so much is capable of reaching level 120, the same as that shiny five-star servant, although a hefty sum of investment is required. This saccharine feeling is unattainable in games such as Arknights when I could not take my reptilian bud Ranger past that level 30 threshold.
A bonafide solo visual novel experience
Let’s face it - we seek PvP game modes to flex our sinewy deck of characters in an ultimate showdown. However, as someone who's been in this agonising bloodbath for a long time, I have concluded that PvP does not bode well with mobile games with gacha elements, much like oil and water.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom - some multi-player elements, like co-op, are ultimately beneficial. If careful planning and deliberate management are in place to balance things out, heck, even PvP modes can be considered fun. Although, truth be told, not many mobile games attain mastery, and most of the time, it devolves into a skewed game with the favour tipped to the wallet warriors.
FGO set the momentum going forward when, at the start, it established itself as a self-contained visual novel adventure. Naturally, any semblance of a PvP mode is missing. The same can be said for any social element, which includes the world chat - a virtual hub of sorts for players to flex their treasure, babble nonsense or offer nuggets of wisdom. The coveted guild system hackneyed in other games is missing too.
The only social element that’s not so social is a Friend system and, without exaggeration, it is one of the best friend systems. Not only do they not engage in any form of unbalanced competition with you, but you directly benefit from them thanks to the game's healthy support system. It's as straightforward as it sounds - your seasoned friend puts up a strong servant for rental as a support unit and you borrow them to tackle story content or enable a swift farming stratagem. All in all, with the competitive element not in the frame, it’s a rather healthy system to thrive in.
FGO has boundless generosity in ensuring a level playing field for every servant. Back in the heyday of mobile games, the common consensus always illustrated a linear, directly proportional relationship between the rarity stars and their prowess in battle. As far as the annals of history will remember, many mobile game ancestors like Akayashi Ghost Guild, Shironeko Project, Puzzle N Dragons and Brave Frontier are prime practitioners of the system where lower rarity characters are cannon fodder.
Each individual skill kit has grassroots to its real-world lore. Hence, a large cast of prominent underdogs - one-star and two-star - like Suicide Squad Arash and Chen Gong constitute the fundamental pillars of a functional farming team. Of course, bad apples like Sanson and Eric Bloodaxe are in the basket. But when projected on a larger scale, the ratio is minuscule compared to its peers.
Closing ThoughtsWhile all the swashbuckling babble regarding FGO sycophancy is hardly my nature, FGO is a mysterious outlier that keeps me in that positive feedback loop of nostalgic pangs. However, a degree of bias is not exempt given the jubilant camaraderie I've formed along the way.
The words of a certain red faker, harking back to the title, ring true: "That's hell you're walking into". To paraphrase, this simply means carefully chipping away the tough exterior to discover the diamond in the rough through a magnifying lens, and to be in awe of its casual nature and its immaculately crafted visual novel.