Ten years before Fate/Stay Night, the Fourth Holy Grail war took place in Fuyuki City; seven mages from around the world gathered and summoned their own servants for a chance to obtain the power of the relic, in hopes of granting a miracle of their choosing. But each family is just as eager as the other to win this prize, leading them to go to extreme lengths, such as the Einzbem family hiring a hated mage killer, Tokiomi Tohsaka secretly working alongside Kirei Kotomine, and Kariya Matou using magical worms to increase his own power regardless of the consequences.
Let me answer your first question: yes, it’s probably wise for you to have seen Fate/Stay Night before tackling Fate/Zero. Despite the opening episode being double the length of the rest of the series and trying very hard to lay down the groundwork such as the rules of the Holy Grail as well as introducing all the important players in the game, it only does so in largely bullet-point form. Furthermore the names of servants that also appear in Fate/Stay Night are revealed in conversation as if the audience already knows them, whereas in the other series it’s a bigger deal, so I would watch Fate/Stay Night before jumping into Fate/Zero.
Unlike Fate/Stay Night that focused on one character’s trials during the Holy Grail war, Fate/Zero is split between all the participants’ points of view. Its narrative has similarities to Game of Thrones; each ‘master’ has their own agenda, their own customs as to how to treat their servants, and all characters are incredibly layered. Even the antagonistic players of the game, portrayed with the obvious grim faces and hammy voices to boot, are given lots of screen time to reveal that not all characters are just black and white, or fall so easily into the trap of obvious stereotypes. It’s clear from the start which characters have darker agendas than others, and which character has the graver fate. But once the chess pieces are put on the board, it’s clear that every character in the show has something to add to the story and the war, there’s no obvious weak link or time waster as plot threads overlap or are woven together, and they’re all very fascinating to watch unfold. On top of this there are the servants, famous faces from history with grand back stories and their own motivations that can sometimes work with or against their master’s wishes. For example, Rider comes off at first as a giant muscular brute who’s more interested in the modern world’s offerings than the Holy Grail, and his ‘master’ Waver Velvet as a snivelling boy from England, completely out of his depth. These characters could have been left as the designated comic relief but as the series progresses Waver uses his small knowledge of magic to his advantage in uncovering an enemy’s base, then Rider’s leadership and prowess comes into play in helping Waver overcome the horror he finds there.
Characterisation is handled marvellously, but like the aforementioned Game of Thrones, the audience will naturally develop a keener interest in one character over another, making the time gaps in between the characters seem long as there’s so much to cover. The good news is that even from the silly moments with Rider to the horrific intentions of Caster; every story that unfolds is worth the audience’s attention. But with many names thrown around, lots of politics, scheming and agendas to account for, it can get a bit overwhelming trying to absorb all that’s happening. This is not a show to watch whilst your attention is elsewhere.
What’s most refreshing is that this isn’t a show led by teenagers, there are no school shenanigans to slow down the plot unnecessarily, this is a full cast of adults with real grown-up issues and stakes on the line. Each adult comes with their own scars and family reputations upon their shoulders, with some fighting for their children’s lives. They have years worth of magical training with the sole intent of winning the grail and killing others who get in their way. Blood is spilt, and there’s much forward planning done by players to catch other opponents out. So consequently there’s lot of dialogue, and with great stories comes equally great exposition to get through. During the slower episodes dedicated to character development or masters preparing for battle, it’s necessary and handled well, but a few battles are awkwardly interrupted by grand speeches of masters saying how powerful they are or servants explaining their special attacks. For the latter, at times it’s essential, for the former sometimes it disrupts the flow of battle or just creates laughable situations where one guy goes all ‘James Bond villain’ on us by having them reveal all their intentions to the opponent pointlessly.
One inconsistency with the show, which is not so much a distraction as an avoidable shame, is the rules of magic. It is enjoyable to have the masters fight amongst themselves as well as the servants, but unlike the servants who have a known set of attacks and ‘Noble Phantasm’, the limitations of the master’s powers are not established. Maybe this is where knowledge of the light novels could come in handy, but as a standalone anime adaptation, nothing is made clear about the full extent of the mages’ powers. This leaves them being capable of casting or conjuring anything as and when the plot or fight needs it to drive it forward. Whilst they do make the battles very intense and fascinating to watch, it also makes some moves performed by certain magi come off haphazardly. Although it is mostly the magi that are guilty of this, I have to mention a scene where Gilgamesh summons a giant jug of wine from nowhere. Amusing? Yes. Random? Quite.
Animation doesn’t make the best impression in the first few episodes which are mostly dominated by talking. A few important political conversations have interesting visuals to accompany them but most of the time animated shortcuts are used, for example, having speaking characters with their backs to the camera so they don’t have to have their mouths animated. It certainly looks a lot more polished compared to its prequel series, but it’s not really until the battle scenes commence that it truly starts to shine. The producers knew where to spend their budget and it shows with the brilliantly animated combat from the sword swipes to the grand magic spells. Even the use of 3D, which normally sticks out like a sore thumb, blends in just right and is used wisely.
The fantastic score is provided by Yuki Kajiura; her signature female vocals and full sweeping orchestra compliments the intense battle scenes flawlessly. But even when the series is in its quieter moments, she taps into the emotion of the scenes every time. The opening theme by LiSA is a high energy rock-pop number that starts every episode on just the right note with the piano intro especially nice. Although I wasn’t as keen on the ending theme by Aoi Eir, the montage of the servants that plays underneath it is worth at least one listen.
The English dub for Fate/Zero is strong throughout. Several of the returning characters from Fate/Stay Night have different voice actors from before but they slip into their roles just as well. I was a little disappointed however that the dub didn’t make any effort to incorporate accents for any of the characters that come from across the globe. It seems like a missed opportunity and the most effort they make is having the British student Waver Velvet throw in the word ‘bugger’ early on; because apparently that’s all you need to show that you’re from England.
Speaking as someone who was impartial to Fate/Stay Night, I found myself immensely engaged in Fate/Zero. The dialogue-heavy first half can seem like a slog to get through at first, but once it gets going, it has you. The characters are significantly fleshed out, the story is greatly paced and gripping with fantastic animation and music to boot. Fate fans should not hesitate to pick this up, and if you love fantastical fantasy stories with great battles and characters, pick this up with its sequel while you can.