Years ago, as a middle-schooler just getting into online fandom, I would occasionally think, “huh, that Fate/Stay Night thing sure is popular. Probably I should check it out.” I never did, but the release of a free mobile entry in the series, Fate/Grand Order, was tempting as a way to dip my toes in without having to put down a chunk of change — especially with an anime adaptation coming out. I decided to take a 24-hour trial run: mobile games don’t really end, after all, so it felt less important to see All The Content than to learn whether the general experience would be worth checking in every day for.
Here are the things I knew before embarking: the franchise centers around the concept of mages summoning famous historical and folkloric figures in order to battle for ultimate power; it began life as a porny visual novel with approximately eight billion achievable bad endings; there’s a nice cooking anime set in an alternate universe that folks seem to really like; gentlemen swoon over Archer, and; people die if they are killed — by which I mean that the official translations tend to be legendarily clunky, seemingly at the original creator’s behest.
For those curious about the franchise and longtime fans who wants to see an outsider muddle through your life-consuming hobby of choice, allow me to present the chronicle of my Fated day.
The game begins with an update that takes six minutes to download while I sit three feet from my router. I consider the ominous nature of this, then agree to the terms of service without reading them as if to underline my poor decision-making skills.
Before the plot proper the player is dumped into a tutorial battle that’s both instinctive and surprisingly fun (“OH, SABER! I’VE HEARD OF THAT ONE!”). The card battle system is helpfully color-coded in a way that’s easy to grasp, and even if — really, when — you forget the finer details of chaining combos, there’s a simple core appeal to the gameplay. This is good, because the loading screens are a terrifying wall of small print and words that I had no context for, and no matter how often I tap there are always more tips. All of the combat dialogue is in Japanese without subtitles, so while it’s probably fun for franchise regulars or players from its home country, I am left entirely out in the cold.
The player name generator comes with a gender choice that seems 100% aesthetic and can be changed at any time, which is kind of nice. Under the assumption that I will be predominantly interacting with female characters given the series’ history and following my avatar-choosing ethos of “whatever will make it gayest,” I pick a female PC.
For the next hour I am slowly crushed under a wall of exposition, advancing as surely and mercilessly as the miles of water under which the game takes place. The only beacon of hope is Mash, the most prominent female NPC who I am surprised to find that I’ve taken an immediate liking to. For her sake, I avoid the burning temptation to hit the “skip” button on every single scene of expository dialogue. Here is what I have learned:
A Fancy Magical Institute has a machine called Chaldeas, which can see the progress of human history up to one hundred years in the future and is monitored by people trying to make sure we don’t fuck it up too bad. Naturally, the solution to not fucking up human history is time travel.
This is the kind of time travel story that doesn’t want to fuss with the butterfly effect, which I respect. Rather, most attempts to meddle will self-correct, but there are a couple of major turning points in human history that can change the course of the future. I am pretty sure I read this Animorphs book.
For some reason, protecting this whole timeline thing involves summoning famous historical figures, each of whom fits under a “class” a la Dungeons & Dragons: Saber, Archer, Rider, etc. A cloud breaks, and I finally understand why completely different-looking characters keep getting assigned the same name on my Twitter timeline. These are immortal “Servants,” who are commanded by a “Master” who serves as a magical wellspring. I am utterly shocked that this conceit was born from a porn game.
Throwing a wrench into all of this is the Holy Grail, a macguffin that appears every so often and forces everyone to drop everything to have a Grail War and see who gets ultimate cosmic power. Grand Order’s story technically begins in 2004, but quickly pops forward to 2018, where apparently a grail war done wiped out all of humanity.
Most of this information is given in long chunks between turn-based card battles, making up the game’s prologue. It is a one-two punch of being heavily expository and lurching due to the freemium mechanic of paying energy to do battles. Mash is the charming beacon getting me through this, so much so that I do not even ponder how incredibly stupid her outfit as a Servant is.
The battle system allows players to borrow other players’ support characters in battle, which on the one hand is very cool in a Fashion Souls kind of way where newbies marvel at the kitted-out offerings of longtime players, and on the other hand breaks combat entirely, ensuring that I do not lose once during my entire 24-hour run.
I run across at least three usernames that are transphobic slurs. On the other hand, I spy at least one person whose name is a reference to the anime Gankutsuou and feel a deep and eternal kinship to them. We are now best friends, even if they are unaware.
At this point I am allowed to click around on the menus, and immediately regret my decisions — each page prompts a screen of small-print tutorials. Terrified, I return to the main plot, squashing my urge to mine the free battles for premium loot.
My will breaks, and I begin to click “I understand” when prompted about basic concepts. I do not understand. This is the longest I have ever spent in a prologue on a mobile game. It is the longest I have ever spent in a prologue for a game not created by Square Enix.
While I am not enjoying the prologue plot, I am intensely dazzled by each NPC I summon. “OH SHIT” precedes a great deal of my comments. “OH SHIT, that guy’s bow is a harp!” “OH SHIT, that guy’s super-move is a reference to The Wicker Man!” “OH SHIT, that lady is MADE OF SNAKES!” And so on.
I do get a chance to do a prompted summon of my own, which nets me a cat girl, two walking eight packs, and the Chevalier D’Eon, a favorite historical figure of mine who appears to be done up in a Rose of Versailles-style look and not — as would be accurate — one of history’s most famous trans women.
I suspect Cu Chulainn’s entrance would be more impactful if I hadn’t pulled him from a random summon not twenty minutes ago.
The game has not told me how to level up but has awarded me approximately twenty different kinds of crafting material. Some frantic menu clicking leads me in basically the right direction, although I am plagued by the feeling that I am somehow shooting future-me in the foot. Probably that would be thematically appropriate anyway.
Hours Five to Twelve
I sleep, knowing that I am weak and have failed in my mission as a farm for mobile game money.
I finish the prologue. While comforting myself that Mash is doing her best, I am keenly aware that I am probably wasting resources by leveling her up and should instead be using the higher-rarity summons I’ve obtained.
Mash makes me tea, and I am rent asunder by the force of my guilt. I take a moment to google the upcoming anime adaptation, realize that it will be using the male rather than female player character, and am intensely disappointed in the anime industry.
The plot is now “go to history’s major turning points and make sure we un-fuck up humanity’s future.” I am on board with this. I am less on board with the casual transphobia that follows the introduction of adorable tech specialist Da Vinci, who is apparently a trans woman in this universe. I weigh my choices between lamenting the long history conflation of gay men and straight trans women and dealing with the hi-larious “he/she/it” jokes and am infuriated that there is no option to beat Dr. Roman aka Mission Control into a fine paste.
It is currently difficult for me to argue against Dark Jeanne D’Arc’s crusade to raze the Earth into so many fine ashes.
I appreciate the marketing gusto of the game insisting that multiple versions of a character can be summoned from all sorts of different timelines. In this case it means a good and evil Jeanne D’Arc, but who knows how many versions of that character you like they could put out! For a limited time only, even!
I have settled into the rhythm of battle-then-story but mostly find myself wishing that I could take part in the fancy new release event going on involving a silver fox of a gentleman carrying a coffin that shoots rockets oh my God. If nothing else, the game’s setup is very good at provoking a sense of FOMO that I assume is meant to drive players to finish plot missions faster.
The novelty of seeing anime versions of historical figures has not yet worn off, though I am disappointed that after an extremely gay introduction Marie Antoinette is primarily interested in lassoing good Jeanne into talking about boooooooys. Between this and several other bits of dialogue about How Girls Are, I am prepared for the game to throw a gender reveal party in my general direction. On the other hand, being confronted with the image of Marie Antoinette, dragon-punching idol, is a delight from which I may never recover.
Terrified that I might have missed a daily bonus in Dragalia Lost, I set the game aside and then take a minute to consider how deeply phone gaming has begun rotting my brain.
By the end of a full day with Fate/Grand Order, I felt more exhausted than invigorated. In fairness, I was pushing myself somewhat harder than the average mobile player in order to reach the post-prologue content, but I also hadn’t hit the natural stopping point that running out of energy usually signals. The sheer number of mechanics and fiddly collectibles was daunting and felt like a suspicious road to eventual long grinds for that one thing you’re still missing to max out your best Servant.
While I liked certain elements of the main story, I found myself wishing someone had taken an editorial hammer to it, and there were few original characters for me to warm up to — brash director Olga was dispatched pretty quickly and almost cruelly, and I’m still waiting for my opportunity to smother Dr. Roman while he sleeps.
Overall, it felt like a functional mobile game meant to hook longtime fans into long grindfests with just enough fanservice to tide them over and an okay-to-mind-numbing gameplay loop. Even as a fairly regular player of gacha games, it had me yearning for Nintendo’s comparatively generous, rewarding output.
Still, this experiment left me with an invigorated desire to crack the mystery of Type Moon, and I guess that’s a point in its favor. I think I’ll set my sights next on Fate/Extella. Or, as it was pitched to me, “warrior lesbians on the moon.”