Unlimited Gacha Works or, Help, I Fell Down the Fate/Grand Order Rabbit Hole And I Can’t Get Out

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with gacha games, the genre of Japanese mobile games that want you to spend a lot of money on their virtual slot machines, which yield units. You assemble them into teams and put them to work in a sort of RPG-esque combat. The more you spend, the higher your chance of getting ‘super-rare’, powerful units; free units are handed out but, inevitably, they’re all garbage and you come up against a paywall–past a certain point, the game becomes unplayable without more powerful, premium units.

I pick these games up and uninstall them around the point where I hit the paywall. It helps that most gacha games look and feel like shit. The performance is awful, the art assets and visuals look like dogshit, the female units are scantily clad and endowed with improbable boobs. I tried Fire Emblem Heroes which suffers less than most from the improbable boobs syndrome, but my god it’s a shoddily made, cheap-looking piece of trash and I have no prior attachment to the FE franchise, so all I see is the dullest gameplay this side of Final Fantasy, boring and indistinguishable units, visuals that look fucking terrible even taking into account that it’s supposed to look retro, and some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen even for a gacha. (Why did they bother putting in any dialogue?)

Like all Nintendo-licensed mobile games, FEH is a travesty and a lazy cash-in. The same can be said, really, of most anime- or game-based mobage. So what could be a better use of my time than trying out another mobile game that’s probably just a lazy cash-in to Fate/stay night?

Fate/Grand Order takes after the same formula as the rest of its gacha colleagues: there’s a bunch of units to collect that come out of virtual slot machines, you level them up/upgrade them to become more powerful. But for a nice surprise, the game’s unusually well-made. The visuals are crisp and vibrant, and even the gameplay is… fun? That’s a real shock in a genre where ‘gameplay’ is a thin veil for the ‘buy our premium currency, and buy a lot’ engine. Combat is basic enough: you have a team of three units (with three more optionally in the back row to substitute should your frontliners bite it), their action cards (there are three attack types) are randomly selected, you combo them for specific effects. Repeat until enemies are dead.

Each servant has a set of three skills to buff their attacks, defenses, or decrease enemy defenses. The player character (the ‘Master’) has three skills for similar purposes, the set of which changes depending on the Master’s outfit. Here you see a full party of elegant swordswomen (King Arthur, Ryougi Shki, and Okita Souji respectively) about to take on Lancer-class enemies: the game operates on a rock-paper-scissors combat system, with Sabers strong against Lancers, Lancers strong against Archers, Archers strong against Sabers and so on. As long as you match the right servant classes against the enemy classes correctly, you are by and large pretty set.

I’m going to pause here and harp on the fact that each servant in FGO has a unique combat sprite, unique ultimate attack sequence (it’s a whole cutscene, think Final Fantasy summons), fairly extensively voiced lines, and often their own special attack animations. Here’s what the average gacha is like with regards to unit differentiation:

Uhm, yeah. I mentioned that I gave Fire Emblem Heroes a try, right? So…

This is cheap, shoddy trash. The battlefield sprites are worse. Look, gacha games make their money on exploiting your gambling addiction, and part of that is about collecting units which are visually distinctive. Ones that you can actually tell apart at a glance, not identical-looking blobs.

Meantime, in Fate/Grand Order…

There is a reason FGO is raking in a lot more money than FEH in Japan. (The other reason is that Nasuverse is a much bigger deal there than Fire Emblem, but I digress. The production value speaks for itself.)

The fly in the ointment is that FGO’s gacha is absolutely heinous. The servants come in 1★ to 5★ rarities, with 5★ being the rarest. 1★ and 2★ are colored bronze, 3★ are colored silver, while 4★ and 5★ are gold. You can roll for days without pulling a single gold servant, helped along by the fact that the gacha pool is split between Craft Essences (essentially gear for servants to equip) and actual servants, resulting in pulls that look like this:

Five Craft Essences, three silver servants, and two gold servants (Heracles and Medusa, for anyone wondering). This is an abnormally lucky draw. You can have a 10-roll pull that gives you nothing but silver servants and maybe a couple gold Craft Essences. There is no pity timer that increases your chance of drawing higher rarities. It’s bad. It’s real bad. I’ve heard of people spending thousands of dollars only to draw zero 5★ servants. It’s a terrifying black hole. Did you know that some voice actors who worked on the game have spent more on it than they were paid for the voice work? Jesus. (Ueda Kana was apparently prepared to spend whatever it took to summon Ishtar, whom she voiced. Kawasumi Ayako, the voice of Artoria and her variants, has spent… a lot to collect most of the Artorias.)

The good news is that some of the gold servants are pretty bad and many of the silver ones are fantastic, while some of the bronze ones serve specific but effective niches. Some events also hand out free 4★, the story quests hand out free 3★, and the beginner roll gives you one or two 4★ depending on your luck. The special-class servant Mashu, whom you start the game with, becomes very powerful and a unique tactical asset (her defensives are hard to beat). You can choose a support unit from other people’s collections, and the game will list the highest-level ones at the top; level 90-100 servants can carry you through missions and events easily. The free gacha gives you silver servants. At the absolute worst, even if you’re tremendously unlucky, you should be able to field a small handful of gold servants, supplemented by very decent silvers. (Of the silvers, you’ll inevitably pull multiple copies. Luckily, the extra copies can be used to upgrade the servant’s Noble Phantasm.)

It’s fun, and while the gameplay is basic, figuring out the right combination to beat bosses–how to best use different servants’ skills together or which Mystic Code to wear or which servants to field for a given mission–gives the game a decent strategic layer. And hey, if you’ve got a prior attachment to the Nasuverse, it’s hella satisfying to watch Medusa dropkick enemies or hear the EMIYA theme play. Did you watch Fate/zero? You can’t say no to this.

Oh, and the writing’s not terrible, I guess.