Bet you didn’t expect to see this review after Homs’ scathing critique of Extella Link huh? Aside from the somewhat ironic entertainment I get from seeing just how wild this series’ ahistorical nonsense can get, it’s undeniable that both the massive reach of this series in the JRPG sphere and its marketing gimmick being historical people and mythology (which is bound to touch on Catholic history at some point) makes it a rather worthwhile series to keep tabs on. That being said, I wouldn’t be here talking about today’s title if it were just any old Fate/ product. Once we got a little more marketing after its initial teaser I started to notice some promise to deliver on the potential inherent to the series’ concept. So with trepidatious interest I rather comically landed today’s title as a birthday gift, and after playing it to near 100% completion I certainly have things to say!
Co-developed by Koei Tecmo, Omega Force and Type-Moon’s Studio BB, published by Koei Tecmo, and released in September of 2023, Fate/Samurai Remnant is a history major’s wildest fever dreams available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, and PC. Its premise involves a swordsman getting caught up in a magical wish-granting ritual built upon a battle royale between facsimiles of history and legend. Players interact with the game by watching cutscenes, battling enemies in action combat, upgrading skills through RPG leveling and customization, and exploring various locales as they journey through the city. Please note that the Nintendo Switch version was used for this review. Keep in mind I will be discussing the quality of the game’s various routes, and there will be some degree of spoilers so be advised.
The story of Fate/Samurai Remnant takes place in the city of Edo, Japan during the 1600s and follows the tale of Iori Miyamoto. Iori was the adopted son of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and presently lives studying his master’s techniques amid an era of relative peace. His peace is shattered, however, when he is assaulted one night by an inhumanly powerful warrior in black and a young samurai. Iori is saved by miraculously summoning forth an equally mighty swordsman who only refers to himself as Saber. Thus begins the Waxing Moon Ritual, a battle between seven mages called Masters and their partnered Servants, powerful familiars which copy the appearances, memories, and powers of legend and history (except for when they don’t).
The bulk of the story focuses on the relationship between the main duo and how they grow from a partnership of convenience to true brothers in arms. Iori and Saber’s relationship is surprisingly organic and it’s quite satisfying to watch them come into their own. But the best part of the game’s narrative is exactly what excited me about Samurai Remnant in the first place, and that would be its understanding of the importance of Masters. Granted, most of the Masters are themselves loosely based on historical figures so the writing team has more incentive to explore them deeper. Nevertheless Fate/ stories often run into the issue of hyperfocusing on the Servants and their incredibly exaggerated depictions, which leaves a lot of juicy material regarding their dynamic as conscripts to mortal men out to rot. The writers manage to avoid this problem by emphasizing the Masters’ characterization and development to a proper degree. The ambitions of the mages bring forth the legends, and the presence of the legends serve to challenge and change the mages as the Ritual rages on. Overall it is a cast of characters that easily outshines most of the series’ other offerings and was very engaging to follow, but this does come with one major asterisk.
Later into the game Fate/Samurai Remnant splits into three major alternate routes, two of which can be gotten on your first playthrough and another which you can disrupt either of the others with during new game+. Unfortunately if you really want my compliments from earlier to fully apply, they only do so during the normal route A Ray of Light. This route ensures basically every character gets a substantial moment to shine in their own way, and has plenty of additional revelations and twists which actively enriches the narrative being woven. By contrast, the other normal route Flames of Resentment pushes almost every character deep into the background in favor of a rivalry consisting of Iori and Saber against a single antagonist pair. In theory this could have worked, seeing as this pair is the most downplayed in A Ray of Light. Alas, the antagonists of the Flames route are easily the most aggressively boring set of characters in the game and the extra focus on them is completely wasted, leading to the route feeling like a hollow action set piece.
Then there is the new game+ route called Entreat the Darkness. While I didn’t hate this route, I do have some criticisms that are worth discussing. How this route works is that new dialogue will appear during various scenes in the game, which thankfully is indicated by the UI itself so that you can fly through the old stuff and read just the new text, and these add insights into Iori’s character that culminate in the alternate ending. I can appreciate the story’s ambition to critically examine the RPG trope of the kind young man studying combat in peacetime and the tension inherent in that idea, but sealing most of this route’s buildup in new game+ strained believability. I genuinely couldn’t help feeling that normal Iori and NG+ Iori were two different characters entirely. Maybe this could have been solved if they had found a way to let the player trigger this ending without new game+, such as including dialogue options which keep an invisible score to determine whether the player’s characterization of Iori allows for the derailment. However the normal endings strongly imply Entreat the Darkness is likely the canon route right at their ends, so including it during a first playthrough might have given players the impression that it was an early bad end when it’s not necessarily meant to be. I don’t even believe the potential meta-narrative of Entreat the Darkness works because not every player’s motivation to boot up a new game+ file will be the same, although I do see where the argument is coming from. Overall the story of Fate/Samurai Remnant follows in the footsteps of its writing team’s most popular work Fire Emblem: Three Houses, in that they are both stories with one amazing route forced to share space with inferior alternatives, but at least it handles Fate/ series concepts with far more mastery than usual.
As for the gameplay side of things, Samurai Remnant unsurprisingly finds its core DNA in the Dynasty Warriors formula given Omega Force’s involvement. The general combat controls and combo structure is pretty much ripped straight from those games. However if you are expecting the game to be as easy as a Warriors title then you’d be wrong, as you generally only take control of the powerful Saber and other supporting Servants for short bursts. The rest of the game is played from the perspective of Iori, who is significantly more vulnerable when fighting. The prime student of Niten Ichiryu may blow through smaller enemies with relative ease, but anyone remotely tougher demands the player’s attention and respect if they want to actually win. I played the game on Sword Expert difficulty expecting an easier time, and it truly gave off a sense that I was a mere human facing opponents beyond my league. Iori also has access to multiple stances which are unlocked over the course of the game. These completely shift his moveset for different scenarios, keeping gameplay with him fresh even after hours of play. I myself invested heavily in the Earth and Wind stances in order to better survive, but all of them are fun to use in their own way.
Even so, for all the exciting maneuvers you can pull off the combat does have its issues. The main trouble comes in the form of enemy design, as the vast majority of them can be dispatched using the same tactics and really don’t require you to think outside the box. This becomes especially apparent when you re-fight some of the bosses several times. Additionally the main mechanic that encourages coordination with your Servant is a shell gauge that represents a spiritual enemy’s resistance to regular attacks, and while codependency of Master and Servant is exactly what I want out of this battle system, these shells often feel like they slow down the pace of battle way too much until the late game when you have more consistent counterplay options. Lastly, while the game gives ample opportunity to play as nearly every Servant in the game, the other Masters are never playable outside of a little exploration. While I understand that most of them probably couldn’t be as much fun as Iori given their hypothetical lack of stances, their importance in the story makes their lack of playable movesets feel jarring. Maybe the DLC will eventually fix this, but I’m not holding my breath.
The exploration sections come off as mostly busy work to ferry the player between plot beats, but for my two cents there was a sense of immersion brought on by the navigation that I liked. Winding my way through the tight alleyways of 1600s Japan and stopping every once in a while to pet a cat or indulge Saber’s curiosity helped me appreciate the time I spent in the world. In fact, stopping to engage with the world often refills important meters like health and the affinity gauge (which is spent on giving your Servant commands). Weapon customization, the other main thing done in the overworld, usually doesn’t amount to much more than picking the highest numbers at any given point, but the randomly generated weapon parts do have skills attached to them and there is a forge system to strengthen the base stats and skills of your weapons. It’s not something especially practical to engage with unless you are really good at discerning the best stat and skill combinations on top of getting lucky with your drops, but the power gamers certainly have something to shoot for.
The last major mode of play is Spirit Font Conflicts, sections of the story where Iori must move along a network of magical ley lines to gain power as he breaks through enemy defenses and makes for the heart of his rivals’ territory. These add a light strategic element to the game, since maneuvering around the city in a way that cuts off enemy positions from their base allows you to skip fighting them and gain all of their rewards immediately. I really mean it when I say light however, because while the enemy in theory can do the same to you, in practice the game gives you so many get out of jail free cards that you can honestly allow the enemy to invade your territory and still dominate as long as you’re good at managing your affinity gauge. Not the most exciting mode of play save for a few good uses of the mechanic, but it provided variety beyond the endless rooms of enemies and I can appreciate that.
Presentation wise, Fate/Samurai Remnant is a bit difficult for me to judge with perfect clarity since I played the notably more subdued Switch version. That being said, even if I saw the game being run on a higher power system I’d probably call the visuals good but not great. Omega Force is best in class when it comes to satisfying combat animations that sell the weight of the action, both in gameplay and in the pre-rendered cutscenes. The artwork accompanying the visual novel stills is also quite good, with Saber’s facial expressions in particular being top notch. On the other hand though, the character models and environments could definitely have stood to have been a little bit sharper. This isn’t a unique problem for Samurai Remnant as Warriors games typically scale back graphics to account for the number of enemies on screen, but it is a blemish nonetheless. The city of Edo itself feels content to go for a subdued accuracy to the time period over being visually interesting all the time, but in fairness I definitely think the various districts Iori visits have distinct features which gives them some visual variety.
As for the music in this game, it is fantastic. Blending both western orchestral and traditional Japanese instrumentation in perfect balance, there are very few pieces of music that aren’t a treat to hear. Serene yet sweeping tracks set the mood for the streets and shrines of Edo, and triumphant fanfare blares over the din of combat. Oftentimes the line between these two are blurred as an area’s music will seamlessly transition into a battle rendition of itself when encountering a room of enemies, the strongest example probably being A Common Scabbard. Nothing super complicated or groundbreaking here, but a really good execution of fundamentals nonetheless. 2023 has been a truly stacked year for great video game music!
For our last major section, it is time to make my brother proud and finally talk about Fate/Samurai Remnant’s handling of the historical material it draws from… kind of. Obviously I’m more willing to put up with a little ahistorical shenanigans if interesting ideas can come of it, but don’t think that means I have any less to say because… hoo boy. I think the most charitable way to start this is to address Berserker, whose True Name is… Musashi Miyamoto? Yes it turns out there are two Musashis in this story: the first being the true Musashi who died years before the game takes place and appears in flashbacks, and the second who is a genderbent Servant version of Musashi who travels between parallel universes going on wacky save-the-world adventures. Now to be fair it is not as though Musashi isn’t used effectively in the story because she totally enables a satisfying encounter at the end of chapter 5. However, they could have easily made the Musashi of the game’s timeline the summoned Servant and that same scene could have hit even harder (and perhaps provide other powerful narrative opportunities besides). Why does the game then clearly opt for a convoluted multiverse inclusion instead of this no-brainer play? Well the whole reason Samurai Remnant exists is because the CEO of Koei Tecmo mentioned he liked girl Musashi in the mobile game Fate/Grand Order to the head honchos of Type-Moon of course!
I get that the sheer scale of F/GO’s success weighs very heavily over the brand as a whole, and really I can blame them? That is a 7 year old mobile game with dogwater gameplay, which is only the silver medal in gacha game profitability because we live in a world where Genshin Impact exists. While I and many others probably see the writing of F/GO for what it is, you can’t say it’s not a well made story insofar as the people in the target audience for it are rabidly in love. It makes perfect sense to capitalize upon that property’s success thanks to the huge number of built-in sales the related project will generate. But if you’re going to follow this path then it’s going to be on you when catering to a specific subset of your potential audience both alienates outsiders and blinds your writing to easy improvements. Berserker Musashi is the most obvious example of that. It’s the fact that so many of the more historical problems in the game derive not from malice but service to the fans that makes it so frustrating, and nothing encapsulates this more than the most significant portion of our discussion: Jeanne Alter. Also yes I know this True Name is technically a spoiler, but this is important and I will not be stopped.
Jeanne Alter is a character from the early days of Grand Order who appeared as a disposable Saturday morning cartoon villain for the game’s first chapter. Her concept is that an evil wizard wished on the Holy Grail (the wish granter the Waxing Moon is based on and related to The Cup of Christ in name alone) for an evil version of Saint Joan of Arc to terrorize France. Dragon-summoning chaos ensues. The very nature behind her concept both distinguishes her from the saint and prevents her from logically being summoned into any other serious Fate/ story without some major setup. And yet that is exactly what Fate/Samurai Remnant does, creating yet another servant version of “Jeanne” who is some odd mix between the true and Alter versions of the character, with the absolute most threadbare justification possible. A reason mind you which involves the presence of a Master named Chiemon, a virtually irredeemable character who plays off trite Problem of Evil stereotypes and only exists to make me mad at how they took one of Japan’s darkest moments in the Shimabara Rebellion and reduces it to a plot device in service of producing a character that could summon Jeanne Alter. Said rebellion being a revolt of starving peasants who eventually rallied around their Catholic faith, before being entirely wiped out by the shogunate.
Now, I could go on a long rant about how this game takes the image of a beloved heroine and turns her into a doormat whose rare moments of genuine agape are undercut by some truly disastrous attempts to emulate basic Christian beliefs through dialogue, let alone the beliefs and attitudes of a Catholic saint. But that would be the predictable thing to do and I’d rather show Samurai Remnant’s defenders how you could give the story more historical accuracy and respect for Catholic tradition while maintaining the best parts of the existing story’s ideas. Check the idea out in the spoilery bonus section at the end of the review if you’re curious. For everyone else, know that the use of Jeanne d’Arc here is easily the most offensive part of the game, and weirdly once again it stems more from careless fanservice rather than any actual spite.
After all of that though I think I’d like to end off on a high note as there is actually another character from Christian history who gets treated with such respect in the game that you’d hardly believe he exists in the same story: Rouge Berserker. While his True Name is as obvious as day to most, I will actually refrain from using it here on the off chance you’re for some reason unfamiliar with the Old Testament. Maybe go read the Bible before playing? Anyhoo, Berserker characters are generally difficult to get wrong because inhabiting that class suppresses a Servant’s ability to speak most of the time (unless you’re Musashi, then you get developer favoritism). This means they generally have to be understood though more subtle interactions, and what can be gleaned from those scenes is always fun to piece together. Rouge Berserker is thankfully depicted with a lot of care and flattery, and stars in easily the best, most memorable sequence in the entire game. There are liberties taken to be sure, but only liberties that played into the story’s strengths, and certainly nothing that ruins the experience. Overall the historical content of the game is definitely more frustrating than it is delighting, but it has some merit compared to the wholesale butchery of stories like Extella Link.
Finally, as for what we can take away from Fate/Samurai Remnant as Catholics, it can be difficult to isolate any one thing since stories with multiple endings generally have wildly different messaging depending on the specific conclusions the player reaches. If there is one thing I think the game can be used as a good example of though, it would be the destructive reality of temptation. So many of the alliances and pleasantries which exist between the characters of this story come with an underlying understanding that at the end of the day, everyone has some wish worth killing anyone who gets in the way, and you ultimately are no exception. The sheer tension of this arrangement informs many of the game’s darkest, most hauntingly human moments. The call of power once again comes into focus for this game, and the faithful Christian’s response is clear. Before Jesus changed everything many people in the world probably did believe in an anti-ethic where the ability to get what you want is the mark of strength of character. But by the Word of God and the life of Christ we are shown time and again that real, lasting victory comes when we recognize the higher good and strive to raise everyone towards it. “If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.” (Romans 12:18) While the degree to which the characters of Samurai Remnant ultimately come to realize this themselves varies depending on the route, echoes of this truth nonetheless permeate the deeper conflict of the game. Stay strong in the face of shortcuts to power like the Waxing Moon, for ultimately such power runs dry, and in the end it is only trust in the one truly exhaustible power of God’s Love which shall make all salvation possible.
So in conclusion, is Fate/Samurai Remnant worth playing? Sort of. The series has rarely gotten anything as well executed as this action RPG and there are genuine improvements from the previous game which I argue make it the better one by a lot. In that sense I think if you have preexisting interest in the series then you’ll find it mostly enjoyable. But for general audiences things aren’t quite so simple. The gameplay which still needs more depth to be truly great over a 40+ hour game, the story quality being rather all over the place, and a slew of Fate/Grand Order pandering weakening everything in-between, all come together to leave the product decidedly wanting. There are probably worse uses of your disposable income, but I would not blame you for seeking either more accurate history-based titles or more wholesome Japanese games. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Samurai Remnant, but Iori Miyamoto’s tale hasn’t moved his series into a passing grade so much as it reduced the number of summer classes I expect it to take.
Art and Graphics: 3/5
Fate/Samurai Remnant’s chief point of concern is in its depiction of magic. While magecraft is derived from spiritual circuits in the body, classical imagery of the occult certainly permeates the fantastical side of the setting’s world. The Servant characters are traditionally summoned by creating a specific magic circle and making an incantation, and other things such as Bounded Fields use magic circles to represent the person who made them. The Masters make their bases in magical workshops, demons and/or their Japanese equivalents are drawn to the city by the Waxing Moon Ritual, and references to classical Japanese divination and conjuring are made in the presence of the Onmyoji. Overall it does technically exist in the realm of not necessarily being a case of dealing with the devil and focusing more on crazy elemental blasts, but the imagery is closer than usual so greater discretion is advised. The title of “god” is given to a few different beasts in the game that you fight, and while exploring the player can have Iori pay respects at Shinto landmarks, often encouraged as a part of filling out the local mission boards. One of Iori’s hobbies is carving Buddhist statues and the player determines the quality of these statues through a minigame. Berserker Musashi also hails the name of a god the real Musashi was said to be devoted to during her Noble Phantasm. Some other characters also have the title of “demigod”. Combat involves facing lots of enemies using primarily swords and spells, however blood can be turned off in the options menu (although it still appears in pre-rendered scenes).
The vast majority of the game’s cast draws from various historical sources with varying degrees of fidelity. The degree to which each can be seen as good or bad may vary depending on your passion for history. The worst offender is probably Lancer, being a bizarre corruption of Saint Joan of Arc who exists solely to please the fans of the series’ other titles, wielding the lamentations of the fallen in her Noble Phantasm. Her Master is a survivor of the Shimabara Rebellion and is used to insert played out tropes of the monster with a broken faith. Most prominently he talks about bringing hell on earth, being damned himself, and doing the vengeance that God won’t. Rogue Rider is also frustrating as despite being based on an evil kitsune demon of eastern folklore, she appears as essentially a ten year old girl who dotes on Iori to the point of innuendo. Saber is in a bit of an interesting spot as his sex is kept intentionally unconfirmed through the entire game, with some people referring to him as a young lady and other scenes using masculine pronouns (I refer to Saber as a man because I trust the sources that used masculine terms more than the feminine ones, and him not being genderbent is just the more interesting and subversive take by Fate/ standards. That is really sad to say out loud). Iori’s adopted sister Kaya also reads a sexual dimension into Iori and Saber’s relationship, and it takes maybe a bit longer for Iori to properly clarify then it should have.
Character design at least is surprisingly modest, all things considered. The only truly aggressively sexual outfit would have to be that of Rouge Caster, with Berserker Musashi tailing behind. There is a district of the city which is a red light district, however the courtesans take traditional Japanese appearances so visually speaking it’s not especially unsafe (although just below the surface, Yoshiwara is very messed up for obvious reasons). Foul language does appear in the game’s script, though not excessively so. You can order alcohol at some of the food stands to replenish certain gauges.
Bonus: How Chiemon and Lancer Could Have Avoided Being Cringe
(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
For Chiemon, aside from changing his design so he doesn’t look like a literal ghoul, you don’t really have to alter much. The main fix: instead of making him a madman who can’t be reasoned with, make him have a crisis of faith that believably feels like it could go either way. This has the added benefit of giving him more potentially interesting interactions with Iori and the other characters rather than simply manically wishing hell on everyone. He could force them to confront the fact that the peace Edo currently enjoys is at least partially due to the brutal slaughter of everyone he loved, for instance. I’m not asking for a full 180 here so much as I want Chiemon to be just rational and sympathetic enough that his story is worth investing in. As he is in the game he’s just an unlikable bully with no outcome other than total darkness, and there’s not much drama in that.
As for the Servant Jeanne herself, summon her as the righteous heroine of France that we all know and love. I see no reason why she couldn’t be included as a Lancer considering the design of her flag already has a spear-like stylization in Fate/ to begin with. Together Lancer and Chiemon would fight in the Ritual as normal, but scenes could be dedicated to having the maiden challenge and counsel the survivor, slowly working to help him overcome his trauma but without the dumb doormatting present in the final cut. Chiemon would in turn use the threat of ordering her to do bad things with a Command Seal to keep Lancer from fully ignoring his wishes (assuming Command Seals weren’t unsatisfyingly hand-waived like with a few other Servant, super annoyed by that), but at least some of Lancer’s words would positively affect him. A Master and Servant pair that is in clear sync is silver, but one that is turbulent and changes overtime is gold.
As for how this all comes to a head, take advantage of the game’s multi route nature and resolve their stories in different ways. In one route Lancer could be defeated and without her guidance Chiemon seizes the Waxing Moon to complete his original aims. Jeanne Alter could even be summoned as the final boss, completing Chiemon’s tragic character arc by succumbing to his wish for destruction and also giving it the shape of the partner he was coming to care about. Sure this is a little derivative of the original version of Jeanne Alter, but this is pretty much the only way to include Jeanne Alter without contradicting what she is. On the other route have Lancer’s efforts pay off and give Chiemon a moment of heroic self-sacrifice, spending his last act emulating the echo of a martyr who helped reconcile him with God in the same way Catholics try to emulate the saints in the pursuit of holiness. Or if Chiemon dying seems too easy then him living to atone also works well, both are effective resolutions. I do realize this complicates his current role in Entreat the Darkness, but his resolution felt a little bit rushed and under-explained there anyways so hopefully the above changes would simply provide more room for other ideas to flourish on that route. On the whole I hope this what-if rewrite demonstrates that its would be entirely possible to have made Chiemon and Lancer have a much more engaging and respectful role Samurai Remnant’s story with only so many alterations, all the while even giving the actual Jeanne Alter a chance to appear as an exciting send off to one of the game’s routes. There’d probably need to be other changes made to accommodate this, but I don’t think it would be impossible.