The Holy Grail War: seven mages must summon seven heroes of the past called ‘servants’ and fight each other, with the grand prize being the omnipotent wish-granting relic that is the Holy Grail. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be; set in an alternative universe, where, after the Third Holy Grail War, the Grail was taken from Fuyuki City in Japan to Romania and the Fourth War is about to begin with vastly different rules. Instead of seven Masters and Servants there’s now FOURTEEN of both set on opposing teams (Red and Black) plus one additional Servant of the Ruler class to oversee the unique rules of this battle. First the teams must face each other, and then the winning team must fight among themselves for the Grail. With so many heroes and mages on the battlefield however, there’s more people than ever willing to do anything to get their hands on THE Holy Grail.
This series is a spin-off from the massively popular Fate/Stay Night and is, of course, aimed at already made Fate fans, however Fate/Apocrypha does try its best to accommodate non-fans that want to take a peek at the latest anime on Netflix. Unlike Fate/Zero, it tries its best at the very start to explain the rules of a typical Grail War slowly and clearly, and then clarifies why this Grail War is such a special occasion. Also, as this takes place in an alternative reality where the events of Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night never happened, the history and knowledge of those series is not required or relevant here. The War also takes place in a entirely different country and features none of the long-standing families that recur in the franchise, such as the Einzberns or Tōsakas, so we’re effectively working with established but understandable rules on an empty canvas for them to experiment on. That’s not that say that Fate fans aren’t welcomed here, as there is plenty of fanservice to enjoy. Not that kind of fanservice (although there is some of that shoe-horned in there) but the kind that’s aimed at long-standing fans, such as discovering the new twists in famous characters brought to life in the Fate universe, how different sectors of the Magus’ association work outside of what we already know, and a new breed of Masters to watch as they get picked off one by one in bloody combat. The greatest source of fanservice however, especially early on, is from one particular Servant on the Red side as they come from the King Arthur legend; we’ve heard the tale and tragedy straight from the horse’s mouth in previous Fate anime series so far, but seeing it from a new perspective, how they perceive the King of Kings, adds a whole new layer that Fate fans will happily lap up.
Outside of fanservice however, does the series offer anything substantial? In terms of story, it’s the simple Battle Royale that has come to be expected from the series, especially as with many more players on the battlefield, there’s never an episode where an action scene of SOME kind is missing. But that’s not the only draw here, it’s the relationships between Master and Servant, how they grow across the duration of the War, and the backstories for each Servant that make each Fate instalment memorable. Fate/Apocrypha does not disappoint in this regard, mostly because there are so many of them that it’s hard not to find a character that the audience would want to root for. Despite its fast pace and constant sword clashes, it does allow for quieter moments when needed to flesh out its cast. Team Black, in spite of being painted as the villainous party from the start due to them withholding the Grail, get the most focus in the First Season with each Master/Servant pairing offering different shades of companionship: Berserker’s and her Master being one of mutual tender understanding; the antagonizing Master with his Saber crops up early on; Lancer taking control of the whole team with his Master, etc. Team Red are the most mysterious due to the Masters hiding in the shadows for most of the first season, but as with every Fate series, there are also a few ‘wild cards’ such as Saber of Red and her Master (seemingly the main characters of the opening episodes) and Assassin of Black being similar to the Caster of Fate/Zero where she seems more interested in causing chaos and destruction than accomplishing what she was actually summoned to do.
Early on, aside from one or two exceptions, the true names of the various Servants are given to the audience at the start, so instead of playing a guessing game we instead get small glimpses into some of their pasts across the first 12 episodes. The large number of warriors in this Grail War allow for them to take inspirations from a vast pool of myths, legends and histories across from the globe including French, English, Hindu, Greek, German, and of course, Romanian. Some of the Servants are more famous than others but you can’t argue with the variety of personalities, goals and powers used in the show. Due to the sheer volume of them, we don’t get a fully extensive look into each one’s past as there’s no time for it as there might have been if we only had seven Servants to follow, but what we do get is effectively portrayed and enough to get their motivations across. There are a few very surprising choices made, including a few fictional characters and more modern (by Fate standards) heroes thrown in, some of whom are very unconventional portrayals of said characters. But that is half the fun of the franchise and even if one Servant doesn’t win you over, there’s always a high chance you get to watch them paint the battlefield with their blood, because unlike Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night which tried to save it’s battle-turning deaths until later on, Fate/Apocrypha has no such reservations – prepare for them to get picked off one by one!
Fate/Apocrypha hasn’t been given the ‘Unlimited Budget Works’ treatment by Ufotable (known with affection due to their stunning animation for Zero and Unlimited Blade Works TV) but is instead animated by A-1 Pictures. This is their first involvement in the Fate franchise but they have many high-fantasy, action heavy series under their belt from Black Butler to Sword Art Online, so Fate/Apocrypha is visually strong across the first season. Despite a few smaller-scale battle scenes having off-model moments and lame concepts of gravity in place, they do not fail when the real War kicks off in the second half with every Noble Phantasm looking incredibly splendid and the fights choreographed really well. There’s also a lot to admire in the little details they insert across the series; a lot of the set pieces probably don’t look much like Romania but it feels different to every Fate set piece before. Plus, when we get to dive into the past of the Servants they each have a small visual detail that reflects who they are, for example with Berserker of Black whose backstory is grainy like an old black-and-white film, and her speech is represented as text on screen like an old silent movie.
Masaru Yokoyama (Your Lie in April, Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches) is the new composer in the Fate franchise but his soundtrack is very effective: fully orchestral, his score swings from the tender moments to the heart-thumping battles with incredible ease, easily an audio highlight that stands tall against many strong Fate-related soundtracks. As the series can be found on Netflix UK, it’s available in several languages including English, Japanese, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, with subtitles in Arabic, French and more. The English dub contains many established performers from Ray Chase to Erica Mendez; however I’m highly disappointed that, despite numerous characters coming from a variety of countries across the world, NO effort is made to give them accents or vocal flair outside of a few words for a handful of characters. Consider that we have THE William Shakespeare, the one English person that anyone outside of the United Kingdom is most likely to know, as a Servant in the Grail War, yet he’s given no British accent, just a few poetic lines ripped from his famous works and that’s it. It’s incredibly lame, and unacceptable!
UK fans have had to wait a long time for Fate/Apocrypha, first for Netflix to dub it all and then a few weeks AFTER Netflix US got it, but it was worth it. Not just because you get to enjoy it in glorious HD and in a variety of languages so many fans can enjoy it, but it’s 12 episodes complete with grand battles, great animation and glorious Fate-fanservice magic in a new overblown but fun-filled story. The wait for the second season will be a long one, but the first instalment is incredibly enjoyable all the same; if you have Netflix then don’t hesitate to check it out.
Episodes 1 – 12 of Fate/Apocrypha is currently streaming on Netflix UK.