Fate/Stay Night is a franchise that should need no introduction considering it’s a hugely popular visual novel with an intensely devoted fan base and several anime productions to its name, including the runaway success prequel series Fate/Zero. However, because so many adaptations of the original game exist, trying to get into the story can be very overwhelming. The fact that the title is so long and phrased like a sequel to something pre-existing can just be enough to write off any potential new fans. So let’s first lay it out clearly; the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel had 3 routes (or stories if you want to put it another way) called Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel. Each route contains the same setting and characters but they all tell a very different tale with different ladies being the love interest to the main character. However they’re not just separated by who the male lead gets to court; each route reveals something new in the fictional world it takes place in, focuses on different characters and gets progressively more mature and complicated in content with each route, Fate being the lightest and Heaven’s Feel the darkest. Back in 2006 Studio Deen adapted the Fate route, whilst adding elements of other routes to pad out the episodes, and in 2010 released a film based upon the Unlimited Blade Works route exclusively; both were met with mixed reception. Fast forward to 2014, after the major success with adapting Fate/Zero into an anime series, ufotable announced they would be adapting the Unlimited Blade Works route into a full series, and Heaven’s Feel would get its own movie.
To wrap it all up; this is the third anime adaptation of the original game overall, the second attempt to tell the Unlimited Blade Works story, and a sequel to the Fate/Zero anime. This series is meant to simultaneously appeal to original fans of the game, fans of the Fate/Zero anime and draw in new audience to the Fate/Stay Night franchise. Under that crushing weight of expectations, does ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works succeed? For the first part of the series, it holds its own well enough.
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works tells the tale of Shirou Emiya, who seems like an ordinary teenager aside from having the gift of magic, which he mostly uses to fix broken machinery in his school. One night however, after staying late to clear up the school’s dojo, he witnesses a battle between two weapon-wielding men. He freaks out and runs away but doesn’t get far as one of them kills him on the spot, since witnesses to their battles aren’t suppose to live. Luckily fellow school friend Rin Tohsaka uses her powers to bring Shirou back to life, only to accidently summon a blade-wielding woman of his own by the name of Saber. He learns from Rin and local priest Kirei Kotomine that he’s been roped into the Holy Grail War; an ancient battle between seven powerful mages who summon warriors from the past to fight at their side to claim the power of the wish-granting artefact, the Holy Grail. Shirou at first has no interest in participating in such a bloody battle royale, but when he learns that it was the previous Holy Grail War that got his whole family killed 10 years ago, he reconsiders.
If you’re a Fate/Stay Night virgin and wondering where to start your journey; yes, you can start here if you wish. The prologue and first episode won’t explain the rules of the Holy Grail Wars or magic, preferring to lay down the ground work for the characters and their relationship, but from Episode 3 onwards it does make an effort to explain the rules clearly for the audience and keep the secrecy of the Servants identities, unlike Fate/Zero which ran through all the rules in bullet point form and blurted out names, assuming the audience already knows. Later on there’s a few key words and terms thrown in that a new audience may not completely get but overall all the character’s actions and the plot are easy to follow. Unlimited Blade Works won’t hold your hand throughout the series like Studio Deen’s series does, but it won’t leave you with your head scratching like Fate/Zero either. So starting here is as good place as any.
If you’re coming fresh to the Fate/Stay Night story but straight off the back of Fate/Zero, you’ll be the ones most likely to be disappointed with Unlimited Blade Works. Comparing the two doesn’t seem fair to those who got into the story outside the anime as, technically, Fate/Stay Night existed first. However it’s important to be aware that the two stories, despite being connected, are very dissimilar in a multitude of ways, and not just because they have separate writers at the helm.
Fate/Zero’s story was huge, led by seven magical-wielding adults who came from diverse parts of the world and had been training decades in preparation for the war. Their plans took longer to execute due to their cautious natures, knowing what was on the line and weary of what the opposition could do, but were also far more bombastic and gut punching when they suddenly executed them. They also had their own morals which we saw developed in all shades across 25 episodes, alongside families, friends, loved ones and some even had children they had to be willing to sacrifice. All of that combined added weight to their actions and decisions, and that’s not even getting into their Servants, who also had their personal back stories and reasons for wanting the grail which sometimes conflicted with the interests of their Masters. It was a rich, multi-layered and fascinating story to watch unfold.
Fate/Stay Night however is exclusively Shirou Emiya’s story; we have deuteragonist Rin and a few cut away scenes to other characters but it is still first and foremost Shirou’s journey in the Holy Grail War. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but compared to its sequel, it offers nowhere near the depth and complexity Fate/Zero had. Unlimited Blade Works does try at first to have characters such as Saber react to Emiya’s name but we do not get a moment alone with her, a chance to find out how she feels about the new situation. You can gather from having watched Fate/Zero that she’s probably delighted to have a master who’s far more considerate of her feelings and goals, compared to his father who treated her merely as a tool, but this is not expressed in this anime. Unlimited Blades Works is completely focused on Emiya’s thoughts and feelings on the war, for better or for worse, he is the voice we follow and everyone else merely gets the odd scene here and there to move the plot along when the lead cannot be there to do so.
It’s also important to know that the masters in this Holy Grail War are nearly all teenagers. Put aside the annoyance of having yet another anime taking place in a High School with scenes where they must go to school and have petty conversations about their romantic interests and such; what’s significant is that they do not have the same life experience or make the same sacrifices as their parents did. The weight of their actions does not amount to the same but ufotable uses their younger age as an advantage in one aspect; to increase the pacing. Fate/Zero had a lot of heavilyy weighted conversations and build-up before having the first proper fight in episode 4, and even then the life-changing brawls didn’t occur until the second season. Fate/Stay Night on the other hand has swords clashing within the first episode and the next batches of duels happen one after another. Teenagers are more impulsive by nature; if you give a teen the power of a powerful warrior why wouldn’t they want to try it out as soon as they can? They also less likely to think ahead and take into consideration the consequences of their actions. Why be careful of where or when you battle when you can just kill innocent bystanders and use their souls to increase your own power? It’s thoughtless actions such as these that give Unlimited Blade Works its own edge; whilst we do have several scenes of the students in school doing normal things, there’s always a sense of dread behind it. The school ground is just another potential minefield of danger because they never know when the next attack is going to happen. The Masters here do not have the same resources as their older counterparts; they cannot rely on anyone to help them out if they can’t find a way out alive, they are completely on their own to figure out who the other masters are and how to come out on top.
When it comes to the servants themselves, although the ones in Fate/Zero are far more complex and interesting, those summoned in Unlimited Blades Works are arguably more sinister and dangerous. In Fate/Zero the servants seemed to, most of the time, respect one another for their skill and even in one episode were happy to get together to chat about their previous lives. You cannot imagine any of the Servants in Unlimited Blade Works doing that; Lancer wastes no time in drawing the first blood, Berserker is an unstoppable killing monster at the command of an equally sinister child, Archer is not afraid to do his own thing outside of his Master’s knowledge and Caster wastes no time in taking every rule in the Holy Grail War book and proceed to either bend or break them to her own design. The Masters in this generation’s War are nowhere near knowledgeable or powerful enough to stop these batches of Servants, and that’s what makes them terrifying for the majority of the time, you do not need to know their identity to know that each Servant here is capable of untold damage, whether the Master wants them to or not.
Let’s move away from Fate/Zero comparison and take a look at how it compares to the Studio Deen version; in these first batch of episodes ufotable wins hands down, and not just because of the gorgeous animation. Studio Deen’s version lacked the pacing required to make the blood-filled Holy Grail War exciting, with too many instances of characters wandering around seemingly not caring about being exposed to danger. It relied too heavy on the romance, harem elements and school antics to pad out the run time and suffered for it badly. Shirou and Rin are also far more likeable in ufotable’s version of the story, with Rin being a revelation of a character. In the Studio Deen version she was nothing but a forgettable text-book tsundere, in ufotable’s version however she’s a far more complex female heroine that would have made her father proud. She puts on a distant front for other students and opposing Masters but underneath it all she’s resourceful, intelligent, assertive, caring and knows exactly what it means to be in this Holy Grail War. It’s refreshing to watch her grow into this incredible woman considering the trauma she went through of losing her family during the events of Fate/Zero, and to have her plan out all the strategic elements of battles that take place in Fate/Stay Night is brilliant to see. Plus with her taking control of her situations and being proactive when it comes to her relationship with Shirou, she should have been the lead character. She’s sadly not, Emiya is, but to his credit he’s nowhere near as annoying or sexist as he was portrayed in the Fate route in Studio Deen’s version. In the 2006 anime he spent far too long telling the women in his life to refrain from fighting (even though they were far more powerful and capable than he was) to the point that they ended up being dragged down to match HIS ideals regardless of circumstances. This led to many stupid situations where he ended up endangering himself because he was too hard-headed to consider other options. In Unlimited Blade Works however, he makes one comment about protecting the women beside him, but as soon as the brutality of the wars is made perfectly clear, and both Rin and Saber show that they can handle themselves, he thankfully never speaks of it again and instead tries to bring himself to THEIR level, training his powers so he can be a match rather than pulling them down with him. However the trait of digging himself into avoidable situations is still apparent in this version as the clinging to his ideals brings him to several events where he disregards Rin and Saber’s advice to do as he pleases, much to the audience’s dismay. His idealism is the driving force for his character but despite minor flashbacks to his being adopted by Kiritsugu and knowledge of Fate/Zero backing you, the connecting tissue between then and how he came to be the morally stubborn man he is now is currently missing, making his constant struggles against others who oppose to his view rather testing to watch.
Ufotable have nothing to prove when it comes to animation, considering their collaboration with Type-Moon has brought many gorgeous visuals to life in Fate/Zero and The Garden of Sinners, but they still deliver the goods in their strides for Unlimited Blade Works. The battles in this series have a larger focus on magic, so giant beams of power and large crests blow up the screen with striking detail, and every clash of swords is potent and stunning. The addition of 3D visuals is more frequent here as well; the representation of Shirou’s magic circuits and the familiars summoned to battle blend very well, however if you had to nick pick, the water effects in Episode 12 stick out quite badly compared to the rest of the episode I was genuinely surprise to wince when I saw it.
Soundtrack to the series is provided by Hideyuki Fukasawa; his first offering into the large discography related to the Fate franchise is a solid score. It doesn’t demand your attention like Yuki Kaijura’s score in Fate/Zero did, however it’s probably the better for it. His music emphasises the fear and danger in battles, the warm notes in the tender character scenes and there are even a few Kaijura-inspired pieces when the prequel is referred to. The opening theme is ‘Ideal White’ by Mashiro Ayano who at first seems to be trying to imitate LiSA’s rock prowess like the prequel series opener, but the song stands on its own with thought-provoking lyrics and strong piano melody underneath the heavy beat. Speaking of LiSA, she covers the game’s iconic theme ‘This Illusion’; the big techno swells and her huge lungs make for one hell of a cover, it’s very different to the mysterious vibe the original has, but this version gets the blood pumping, bursting with excitement for the next batch of episodes. Kalafina also return to the Fate franchise with the ending theme ‘Believe’; the song shares many elements with their previous offering ‘to the beginning’ but with a slower build and emphasis on bell tree sounds to give more of a magical feel to the song, rather than a rock track which the full version develops into.
If you can fork out extra, go for the Blu-ray special edition not just to experience the visuals in all their glory but as it comes with key art poster, Command seal stickers, plus a 24 page artbook containing concept art, storyboards and breakdowns by ufotable – a must for diehard fans. If you only stretch to the DVD however you’ll still get clean opening/closing, promo trailers as well as trailers for Beyond the Boundary, Black Bullet and No Game No Life.
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works had a lot riding on it when it came out, and so far the series is delivering the action, world building and the recognisable characters in spades. It doesn’t make enough use of its heritage from Fate/Zero to be a rewarding watch for those who came from that, but Fate fans who have been longing for a worthy adaptation that brings forth what makes the original visual novel so appealing in the first place shouldn’t worry, Unlimited Blade Works is, so far, delivering the goods with stunning animation and excellently choreographed battles to boot.