Alternatively: “Why You Should Watch Fate/Zero First”

Although this is not a review, I felt the format of the following discussion may better fit a video format. Not to worry, because as with all my videos, a full transcript is provided directly below.

*This article contains NO spoilers until the spoiler warning later on*

Okay, this is kind of a touchy subject among the fanbase, to the point where you would likely be verbally attacked for a dissenting viewpoint, so I have to emphasize that everything I say here is my own opinion. I like to think it’s a well thought-out and reasonable opinion, but I’ve met people on the Internet that strongly disagree.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Fate, primarily Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night, has been a popular franchise for years, with visuals novels, anime, light novels, manga and more to its name. In the broadest sense, Fate revolves around the Holy Grail War, a battle royale between seven mages and their summoned mythological figures, with the reward for the last mage standing being the Holy Grail. When people try to get into Fate, the question that almost inevitably comes up is simply figuring out where to start, because it’s not nearly as straightforward as one might think. Broach the topic with five different people, and you could get six different answers. There are a few distinct trains of thought on the “best” way to experience the series, and some fans out there can be downright zealous in defending their own take on the viewing order. Now, in the following paragraphs, I will briefly explain the structure of Fate and leave you with my personal thoughts. By the way, I will only be covering Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero, not any of the spin-offs/sequels such as Fate/kaleid liner Prisma☆Illya, Carnival Phantasm or Fate/hollow ataraxia.

So first, strap in for a brief history lesson.

  • The original Fate/stay night visual novel was released in 2004 by Type-Moon. The game had three separate story routes, called Fate*, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel. (For the sake of simplicity, I will mark “Fate” with an asterisk to differentiate the visual novel story route from the franchise as a whole.)
  • In 2006, an anime adaptation of the Fate* route was produced by Studio Deen.
  • From 2006 to 2007, the Fate/Zero light novels were written as a prequel to Fate/stay night.
  • In 2010, Deen came out with an Unlimited Blade Works movie.
  • This was followed by a Ufotable-produced Fate/Zero anime in 2011.
  • Ufotable then went on to create an Unlimited Blade Works TV adaptation in 2014, followed by a Heaven’s Feel film (which has yet to be released).

Glad this isn’t complicated!

Pretty much everyone agrees that ideally, ideally, you would go through this timeline as it released, starting with the original visual novel and ending with Ufotable’s Heaven’s Feel. However, not everybody has the time or inclination to sit down and chug through a potentially 70+ hour visual novel, plus the Fate/Zero light novels and the runtimes of the respective anime. I get it, there are those that want to watch just the anime, and not be bothered with the source material, and I am completely on your side because I’m often the same way. After all, the whole point of a good adaptation is to open the same story to a wider audience, not to reiterate the story to those that are already fans. (In fact, I think it’s unhealthy to assume that the source material is always, automatically better.) So, for those anime-only people, the real question is this: do I start with Fate/stay night or Fate/Zero? Problems start to arise because each series slightly spoils the other, and neither strictly requires knowledge of its counterpart. Fate/stay night of course spoils Fate/Zero because you already know the ultimate fate of nearly every character, while Fate/Zero spoils Fate/stay night by revealing some of the behind-the-scenes antics and motivations that Fate/stay night itself doesn’t touch on until much later.

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So here’s what I think. Apologies in advance to what I’m sure will be the rabid Type-Moon masses that severely disagree with my opinion, but please, try to consider its merits and my reasoning before immediately rejecting it.

First off, ignore Deen’s 2010 Unlimited Blade Works. There’s no reason to even look at it now that Ufotable has had their hands on the route. Ufotable’s production values are head and shoulders above anything Deen can do on their best day, and the plot in this film is rushed to the point of being nearly incomprehensible for anyone who hasn’t read the visual novel.

Next, let’s take a brief look at Deen’s 2006 Fate/stay night. I had previously said that it is an adaptation of the Fate* story, and that’s mostly true, but it also kind of hodgepodges elements from the other routes (Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel). Personally, taken completely on its own merits, I don’t think it’s as horrible as people say, but it’s difficult to place at any point in this viewing order. On one hand, it tells a story that, by and large, is not present in any other animated form. On the other, there absolutely is a noticeable difference in animation quality (and arguably story composition) between Deen and Ufotable. You couldn’t watch this Fate/stay night between Ufotable’s series, for example, because the shift would just be too jarring, and watching it afterwards would probably leave you with nothing but a bad taste in your mouth.

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By that logic, it would have to be seen first, but that still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not it’s even worth your time in the first place. To me, Deen’s Fate/stay night isn’t that bad, really, but it’s definitely not as good as anything that came after it, and lots of the visual novel fanatics hate it for arguably good reason (primarily what they claim to be a butchering of the plot and characters). So, after spending some time and thinking about it, I would ultimately recommend watching only the Ufotable adaptations: Fate/Zero and Unlimited Blade Works.

But, in what order should you watch them? Oh boy, this is where the real meat of the debate comes in. The buzzword that fans like to throw out for this scenario is the “intended viewing order”. After all, the original Fate/stay night released before Fate/Zero, so it only makes sense that you should follow that order for the anime, right? Well, you have to remember that Ufotable reversed it, releasing Fate/Zero before Fate/stay night. In short, you’ve got the original material progressing one way, and the adaptations progressing the other. And so (there are some that may lynch me for saying this), I would tell you to progress through the Ufotable works in the order that they released, starting with Fate/Zero and proceeding to Unlimited Blade Works.

Now, why would I back this sequence, which supposedly “ignores” the original authors’ intentions? Well, it’s quite simple. These anime, as much as some would prefer otherwise, are not identical to the source material. Throughout Unlimited Blade Works, Ufotable has made some changes and additions that turn it into a much more rewarding watch if you’ve already seen Fate/Zero, from subtle things like slight glances or name drops to a handful of entirely new scenes.

Oh, I can hear them, the furious visual novel zealots crawling out of the woodwork to diligently hammer out a retort to the blasphemy that I have just uttered. Common complaints are as follows:

  • Fate/Zero is a Greek tragedy, you’re supposed to know how it ends!
  • Fate/Zero’s ending won’t make any sense!
  • Heaven’s Feel is completely ruined!

To be clear, I do not deny that the source material itself would likely work better in the “Fate/stay night then Fate/Zero” order, but Ufotable’s anime just don’t. I have talked with several anime-only viewers that watched Fate/Zero before Unlimited Blade Works, and all said they couldn’t imagine the series any other way. Listen, I could argue this point much, much more thoroughly (and I will), but if you are interested in avoiding major spoilers, this is the end of the line.

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To recap, skip Deen’s 2006 Fate/stay night and 2010 Unlimited Blade Works and watch Ufotable’s series as they released (Fate/Zero, Unlimited Blade Works, Heaven’s Feel). Take heed of my advice, and go about your day.

*The following segment may contain major spoilers for both Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero, in both text and images.*

If you’re still here, I will assume you either (A) are familiar with the Fate universe, (B) don’t care about spoilers or (C) don’t know how to read. To reiterate, I am going to lay out as much solid reasoning as I can (without completely devolving into a rant) as to why anime-only viewers should watch Fate/Zero before Unlimited Blade Works (and by extension Heaven’s Feel).

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Let’s start with some minor stuff. As I said, Unlimited Blade Works drops many small connections to Fate/Zero, the kind of connections that you could only pick up on with knowledge of the prequel. I’m just going to list some of these off, because they are small and irrefutable. Please note that all are phrased from the perspective of Unlimited Blade Works. For instance, “Caster” refers to Medea and not Bluebeard.

  • Caster’s former Master drops the name of Lancer’s Fate/Zero Master (Kayneth)
  • Saber’s facial reactions and even dialogue indicate she has interacted with both Illya and Kotomine in the past
  • Kotomine has several visual ticks (such as slight hand movements) that imply his deeper role in the last Holy Grail War during his conversation with Shirou
  • There are direct flashbacks to scenes from Fate/Zero (mostly involving Tokiomi Tohsaka)
  • Waver Velvet of Fate/Zero returns for a brief conversation with Shirou in the series finale
  • Illya’s use of magic heavily resembles that of her mother’s

I’m also of the opinion that the flashbacks of Kiritsugu saving Shirou from the Holy Grail are slightly slanted to assume you’ve seen Fate/Zero, but that could very well be my misremembering the visual novel. I’m sure there are several more details to list, but this is what came up off the top of my head. I fully admit all of these are nothing but small bits of plot tissue to connect the two stories. It could be just as easily argued that almost all of these connections are as effective in the opposite direction, allowing Fate/Zero to reference Fate/stay night rather than vice versa. So, let’s step things up a notch.

There is a scene in Episode 3 of Unlimited Blade Works, a conversation between Gilgamesh and Kotomine Kirei, one that clearly establishes Kirei to be much more antagonistic than the uninformed viewer would think. I understand that Unlimited Blade Works is the second route of the visual novel and thus you’re “supposed” to already know that Kirei is a villain, but the fact of the matter is that many, many people will be watching Unlimited Blade Works without playing the visual novel. This is why they’ve incorporated certain elements from the Fate* route (such as Saber’s identity, Berserker’s identity and the whole thing with Avalon) into the Unlimited Blade Works story. They’re trying to make Unlimited Blade Works work on its own, without prior knowledge of Fate*. So, why would Ufotable give away that Kirei is a sinister, villainous character and that he’s affiliated with Gilgamesh? Simple. They designed the scene with the Fate/Zero fan in mind, assuming that the viewer was coming into the series already knowing of Kirei’s treacherous past.

But maybe you don’t buy that. Maybe you think this scene was put in for the new viewers, to emulate the feeling of playing the visual novel, in that you’re supposed to already know Kirei is evil. It’s not supposed to be a twist, so why make it one? Alright, alright. Let’s step things up another notch.

Saber. Saber, Saber, Saber. Unlimited Blade Works really doesn’t do justice to her character, does it? Her identity as King Arthur is kept secret for most of the time, then just plopped in the viewer’s lap without much fanfare. In the visual novel, the majority of her character legwork was done in the Fate* route, so her growth in Unlimited Blade Works is minimal. But Ufotable can’t have that, not for a standalone anime, not for the viewers that don’t know about Fate*. So they had to give her character some kind of payoff, but it couldn’t be at the cost of too heavily warping the script. What they settled on was a few vague flashbacks of Saber about to pull Excalibur from its stone sheath and brief visions of another, possible lifetime where she rejected kingship, followed by an ambiguous conversation with Shirou about how he has “shown her the way” and that she has learned to “put an end to one dream”. Saber even outright says “this surely makes no sense to you”.

So who does it make sense to? It’s a brief conversation in an episode already laden with exposition, and it’s only of real significance to the Fate/Zero viewer. In a way, Fate/Zero fills in the characters gaps that were created by the omission of the Fate* route, because Fate/Zero fans know Saber’s dream. They know how she wished to reset her kingly reign, and later came to believe that she herself was inadequate as the king, concepts that are communicated poorly or not at all in Unlimited Blade Works. Hell, as another bonus, Fate/Zero fans would even understand Avalon’s role in everything well beyond the bare-bones explanation that Unlimited Blade Works provides. What this basically comes down to is that Saber’s character arc across both series is vastly improved by watching Fate/Zero first, because you witness a heap of setup followed by at least something of a resolution, rather than a short resolution (which you might even forget because it makes no sense to you) followed by the relevant setup.

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But I understand. That still might not be enough. I hear you loud and clear, Unlimited Blade Works isn’t supposed to be Saber’s story, so it shouldn’t matter whether or not her character sees any satisfying growth. Well, actually, I take issue with that conclusion, but for argument’s sake… fine. Let’s step things up one final notch.

Shall we recap the role of Illyasviel von Einzbern, in Unlimited Blade Works? Well, she’s Berserker’s Master. She shows up early on for a fight, fades out of the story, and comes back to focus only just in time for the reveal that she is the Holy Grail’s vessel, followed by her immediate death at the hands of Gilgamesh. Okay… other than the loss of life in and of itself, why do we care that she’s dead? In the visual novel, you care because you’d gotten to know her in Fate*, but Fate* doesn’t exist here. Illya had no more than three episodes of screentime, and probably closer to two, for the entire run of the series. That’s not enough to make you care about this person, or what happens to her, beyond the basic “oh my god, a little girl is dead!” gut reaction.

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Like Saber, without the context of the Fate* route, Unlimited Blade Works leans heavily on knowledge of Fate/Zero in fleshing out her character. Illya’s apparent connection with Kiritsugu is made much more explicit in Unlimited Blade Works than any prior incarnations of Fate/stay night. She repeatedly affirms that she hates Kiritsugu for the events of Fate/Zero, a grudge which is extended to Shirou, but we never learn for sure why she acts this way, or who she really is. Only a full comprehension of the connection between Illya and the Emiya family, as Kiritsugu’s biological daughter, lends any actual emotional weight to her story and death. It’s crushing, because you’re seeing another of Kiritsugu’s hopes and dreams trampled and snuffed out by the Holy Grail War, feelings that are completely absent for the first-time viewer.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the major flashback of a young Illya, struggling with her duty as the Grail’s vessel, wherein a manifestation of Irisviel appears to taunt here. This is far removed from any semblance of events in the source material, and would only serve to needlessly confuse a viewer unfamiliar with Fate/Zero. They’d have no idea who Irisviel even is, much less that she was Illya’s mother and became the Grail in the previous war! Ultimately, Illya is in a very similar (if more extreme) version of Saber’s position; her character in Unlimited Blade Works alone feels incomplete, and works much better as a natural, linear progression from Fate/Zero to Fate/stay night. Going the other way, with Fate/Zero second, you’re watching Unlimited Blade Works without any of that character knowledge, meaning that these characters feel flat, meaning that the experience is worse off.

Oh, and for all the whiners out there that are going to complain that Fate/Zero completely spoils the eventual Heaven’s Feel film, and therefore renders it unenjoyable, I disagree. For one, we don’t know what changes, if any, Ufotable will make to the Heaven’s Feel story. It’s entirely possible that they’ll put a little spin on things to make it more appealing to Fate/Zero fans, as they did with Unlimited Blade Works. However, even if they don’t, even if the anime is a line-by-line remake of the visual novel, I still stand by this. I played the Heaven’s Feel route after having seen Fate/Zero, and I still thought it was awesome. Take that for what you will.

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So, to recap one final time, watch the series in this order: Fate/Zero, Unlimited Blade Works (the TV version), and Heaven’s Feel. Skip everything else. Thank you, and good day.

Oh, and if you would like some actual reviews for the various movies and series mentioned here, check out the many links below.


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