The Holy Grail War – the constantly re-emerging battle over the omnipotent wish-granter – returns in this spin-off of the highly popular Fate franchise that changes up the rules and allows the series to experiment in a separate world.
Set eighty years after the Third Holy Grail War in Fuyuki City, we swap Japan for Romania as Darnic Ygddmillenia, the current holder of the Grail, declares war on the Clock Tower Mage Association in London. With Darnic and his family already having summoned the seven servants typical of the Holy Grail War, the Clock Tower activates a rule which generates another seven master-servant pairs to stop the Ygddmillennia family monopolising the Grail for themselves; splitting the two factions into a Red side and a Black side. In this game there can only be one, and the Clock Tower enlists a powerful group of people to ensure that they are the faction to claim the Grail; from the mysterious priest Shirou Kotomine to the seasoned necromancer Kairi Shishigou. Yet, as Shishigou is about to find out, there are greater evils at work in this war, and with enemies emerging on all sides, it’s going to be tough just to survive, never mind reach the Grail itself.
If you’ve ever dipped into the Fate franchise before, you’ll know just how confusing a mess it is with all of its different routes, spin-offs and side-stories; yet with Fate/Apocrypha, we have here a series which is actually great for newcomers, with it being largely separate from the central canon. While it does use some common concepts, such as the Grail itself, backstory over the Third Holy Grail War (the one before Fate/Zero), and the summoning of the legendary heroes, it eases these in over the first couple of episodes, so even if you don’t fully know the world of Fate, it’s still easy to understand what is going on in the scope of the current conflict.
The cast is mostly new, and while there are a couple of characters that long-standing fans may recognise, there’s nothing in here that newcomers are missing out on and are just a nice Easter egg (in fact, some characters from Apocrypha have been seen in more recent entries too, so you may have come across them elsewhere first). Although it’s the new characters that give the series a lot of its heart, as it works really well at building them into a strong and engaging cast. Each character, no matter master or servant, has a lot of depth and is decently explored in this first half, allowing you to really connect with them emotionally.
While the setup technically splits the cast into two teams of seven, we actually don’t get to see much of the Red side outside of Shishigou and his servant, Saber of Red, so I naturally found myself being drawn more to the Black side and the Ygddmillenia family. While this has been done to fulfill a specific plot point, it does create a slight gap where the show feels lacking, as its core strength is how well it focuses on the relationships between master and servant. I found it particularly interesting in how it contrasts different styles of managing the master-servant bond and how it affects the story; from Gordes Ygddmillennia’s slave-like treatment of Saber of Black, to the friends-but-rivals vibe you get from Shishigou and Saber of Red, always trying to outdo each other; and the blossoming friendship and inherent trust between Caules Yggdmillennia and Berserker of Black.
Fate/Apocrypha is an action series at its heart, so while there is occasional downtime that shows some of the fruits of these developing relationships, it’s in the battles themselves that they really come to the fore, as emotions run high and are put on full display. Pairing emotional investment with some high-stakes fights makes for some very tense moments; and although A-1 Pictures’ animation doesn’t have the particular finesse that the Ufotable entries have shown in action sequences, they are still as effective in bringing you to the edge of your seat and at least emulating that visual spectacle with a sense of fluidity and ferocity in its motion, along with flashy special moves being pulled off at a dime a dozen.
It does however have a particular issue in bringing these fights to a conclusion, often calling them off for an arbitrary reason, preventing one hero from landing the final blow on another. While this is due to certain characters having to survive for the story; it does end up cheapening the combat and stops you from becoming fully immersed in the world.
All of this is backed by a soundtrack composed by Masaru Yokoyama, whom you may recognise from Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the Summer 2019 anime Astra Lost in Space. While it fits the series well and heightens its many action scenes, I found the soundtrack to be very repetitive and noticed the same common themes coming up again and again. In a way this kind of follows on from the vibes I get from the opening theme, Eiyu Unmei no Uta by EGOIST, which sounds very similar to a lot of their other work. Interestingly, an English version of this song is available on its single release, but it isn’t used in the English version of the anime on either home video or Netflix. Additionally, I found many of the sound effects to be rather distorted, like they were too loud in the audio mix, something I noticed in the opening sequence in Episode 1.
MVM’s release features all 12 episodes of the first half of the series, along with the usual creditless opening and ending, trailers, English dub and Japanese audio. Both voice tracks sound great, with a competent and well-cast English dub featuring the likes of Erika Harlacher (Violet Evergarden, Your Lie in April) as Ruler, Patrick Seitz (One Piece, My Hero Academia) as Kairi Shishigou and Erica Mendez (Love Live!, The Promised Neverland) as both Assassin of Black and Roche Frain Yggdmillenia; while the Japanese features Maaya Sakamoto as Ruler, Miyuki Sawashiro (Lupin the Third, Sword Art Online) as Saber of Red and Natsuki Hanae (Tokyo Ghoul, Food Wars!) as Sieg.
Overall, this first half of Fate/Apocrypha sets itself up as an exciting, tense action show that’s all about the characters and their relationships that are told through the battles that are waged in this new Holy Grail War. Separating itself out and not getting bogged down in the existing Fate lore makes this a great place to start for newcomers, while existing fans will enjoy getting a different look at a conflict they have come to know well.