Despite a title that sounds like it was cobbled together through a game of darts with an English dictionary, Fate/stay night is one of the most popular and well-known entries in the visual novel landscape. For those that are not aware, Fate/stay night’s story is comprised of three separate routes, essentially three alternate timelines that combined tell the full story of Fate/stay night. The original 2006 adaptation that I reviewed last week mostly tells the story of the first route (Fate), while this more recent anime adapts the second route (Unlimited Blade Works), with the third route (Heaven’s Feel) getting a trilogy of movies in 2017.
The first series put some people off, but the Fate fandom underwent a fairly recent boom thanks to the 2011 ufotable adaptation of Fate/stay night’s prequel, Fate/Zero, which happened to work just fine as a standalone show and was enjoyed by many as such. Naturally, hype for the new version of Fate/stay night began to grow, among both visual novel and Fate/Zero fans. After the series had finished and the dust had cleared, from what I’ve personally seen (and for a number of reasons I will go into later), the ultimate consensus was mixed.
But before we go any further, let me lay all the cards out on the table. I like Fate, and the Nasuverse at large, a lot. I wouldn’t have done this Type-Moon Month if that was anything but the case. So I’m just going to come out and say it: yes, I really like Unlimited Blade Works. If that’s a problem for you, if you want this article to be me tearing the show apart, getting worked up over every possible issue, no hard feelings, but I’m sorry, you’ll need to look elsewhere. I am not in the market of lying to you or myself, pretending to dislike something I like, or like something I dislike. Now that said, this is a review I’ve been writing, rewriting and re-rewriting since literally the day the series ended, almost exactly one year ago. I doubt it’ll live up to the expectations that a statement like that sets, but without further ado, please enjoy this review of Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Honestly, the premise is exactly the same as the original Fate/stay night adaptation, so I’m going to give a very brief summary here, and if you want something a little more detailed, click here to see the relevant section from my review of the 2006 series.
The Holy Grail is a powerful magical device that grants the bearer any wish they desire. Seven mages, called Masters, summon seven familiars, called Servants, mythological figures from the past given new life in order to fight to obtain the Grail. Hence this conflict between Masters and their Servants is called the “Holy Grail War”. Emiya Shirou is a more or less normal guy, excepting his unusual selflessness, who accidentally summons a Servant of his own, Saber, and is pulled into the War, eventually allying with another Master, Tohsaka Rin, who naturally has her own Servant, Archer. Thus the stage is set for battle, bloodshed and betrayal.
At the time of Unlimited Blade Works’ release, it had been over two years since Fate/Zero, and ufotable did not spent it lying down. This series (appropriately dubbed “Unlimited Budget Works” by fans) tops even its predecessor in the visuals department, with production values that are easily film quality and may very well be the best I’ve ever seen in a TV anime. Every shot is polished to the utmost degree; you’ll never see the characters go off-model or the effects team cut corners. It’s not solely the animation itself that’s so great; it’s the whole package. The environments and effects are more gorgeous than ever, every scene littered with lush, detailed backgrounds, and the stunningly fast-paced fight scenes, markedly improved from Zero’s already stellar brawls, will drop your jaw. The actual style is more or less the ufotable norm, which is (to quote my own Fate/Zero review) not particularly outrageous or bombastic, but simply consistent and elegant. I also found the characters’ faces surprisingly expressive, compared to the usual that we see from anime, especially when it came to depicting Tohsaka’s exaggerated reactions.
Additionally, I feel Fate/stay night is much more effective than its prequel at conveying the pure power and ability of the Servants. Servants aren’t just regular guys with cool weapons; they are almost literally magical essence given physical form. It follows that everything from the Servants’ strength and abilities to their speed and reaction time utterly transcends the normal human boundaries, and the battles reflect that. In short, if you want great looking action, you really can’t get much better than Fate/stay night. (Well, arguably you can, but it’s tough.)
My only visual complaint at all, is that I do suspect the money well started to run dry as the show dragged on, because the second season’s fights are both less frequent and generally shorter than their first season counterparts. Still great when they happen, but they don’t happen as often.
Now, the plot of Unlimited Blade Works is ultimately centered on one Servant. Particularly, Tohsaka’s Servant, Archer, a red-cloaked and white-haired man who, despite his name, prefers to duel with two blades. For the majority of the anime, his past and identity are shrouded in mystery, and it’s only after most of the Master-Servant pairs have been eliminated that Archer’s story truly comes to the forefront, but they do drop several hints here or there to help the pieces fall into place.
I’m glad for the Archer focus, because I’ve always been a fan of his character (since first being introduced to him in, yes, Studio Deen’s 2006 Fate/stay night). I find Archer’s backstory intrinsically compelling and enjoy his dry, sarcastic personality, even if his tendency to monologue can get grating. I wish I could say more about Archer, but we would start to veer heavily into spoiler territory, so let’s take a look at someone else.
Shirou and Tohsaka
The leading duo of Fate/stay night are Emiya Shirou, the adopted son of Fate/Zero’s Emiya Kiritsugu, and Tohsaka Rin, the daughter of Fate/Zero’s Tohsaka Tokiomi (and a minor character in that series herself). Put simply, the two are good characters, and bounce off each other well enough.
Oooh, before I get lynched for calling Shirou a good character, let me explain. At the outset, Shirou plays the role of a “regular guy” who, despite inadvertently becoming a Master and joining the Holy Grail War, has little knowledge or experience in magical affairs and isn’t exactly cut out for a grueling deathmatch to begin with. Shirou gets a fair amount of hate for being a “generic shonen protagonist”, with his fixation on justice and helpfulness, as well as some questionably convenient power-ups and feats of strength as the story unfolds. While I understand the sentiment, I certainly do not agree with it. Shirou as a person was left broken and incomplete by the events of Fate/Zero (which I won’t elaborate on further because, again, spoilers), so he latched onto the hopes and ideals of the one man who appeared to him in his hour of need.
Over the years, this has led to an individual that is fundamentally flawed as a human being, a body that values all other lives over his own and believes that it is his duty to “save everyone” and become a “hero of justice”. A recurring theme of Fate/stay night as a whole, and Unlimited Blade Works in particular (as well as the eventual Heaven’s Feel adaptation), is the conflict between Shirou’s ideals and the harsh reality of the Holy Grail War, a battleground where saving everyone is literally impossible. That dissonance comes to a head in some surprisingly literal ways by the series finale, and Shirou’s confrontations with his impossible ideal make for some of the show’s best moments (if rather long ones).
The other side of the coin is Tohsaka, popularized as Fate/stay night’s resident tsundere, though that’s far from her sole personality trait. Like Shirou, she carries a lot of emotional baggage from the previous Holy Grail War, especially considering her more active role in the conflict than her counterpart. A powerful mage by birth, Tohsaka has trained herself as a Master for ten long years. Early on in the War, she attempts to maintain a facade of stoicism and act as heartless as a Master supposedly should, but her kinder personality repeatedly shines through (usually under the veil of “returning a favor” or “repaying a debt”). Tohsaka’s more familiar with the ins and outs of magic and the War than Shirou could ever hope to be, but their alliance is eventually a strong one. Though Shirou’s naive attitudes and flawed idealism can get on her nerves, it’s clear that she cares for him (and that the feeling is mutual).
Effective Use of Original Content
On paper, the plot beats of this anime mirror the source material quite closely. However, they are certainly not identical. ufotable went into Unlimited Blade Works with greater intentions than just parroting the visual novel, and I think, in some ways, it turned out for the better. A handful of original scenes were added, or pre-existing ones modified, to serve various purposes. Sometimes these new scenes expanded on the backstory of a specific character. At others, the changes simply made the conflict’s scale grander and more fantastical.
Either way, these modifications commonly altered the context of events such that either (a) Unlimited Blade Works incorporates minor information from other routes of the visual novel, to tell a more complete story or (b) Unlimited Blade Works functions as a more effective sequel to Fate/Zero than its source material. This was a smart move on ufotable’s part, because quite a few modern Fate fans were introduced to the series solely through Fate/Zero. Considering that, it simply wouldn’t make sense for the series to be too detached from the Zero storyline. ufotable fully realized this and shaped their presentation of Fate/stay night to accommodate that fact.
(Some of) The Sound
Unlimited Blade Works, as per the norm for a two cour series, has two openings (set to Ideal White by Mashiro Ayano and Brave Shine by aimer, respectively). Both are alternatively solid or very solid musically and classic ufotable visually (which is to say, awesome). In my opinion, I wouldn’t consider either superior to Fate/Zero’s second opening, but it’s nice eye candy to rev up each episode, and what more could you want?
The actual voice acting of Fate/stay night is similarly strong. A few voice actors lending their talents are fairly well-known in the anime community (Hiroshi Kamiya as Shinji, for example), or are personal favorites of mine (as with Jouji Nakata as Kotomine Kirei), but the rest do just as well. Despite being comprised of almost the exact same cast, the performances are a fair bit better than their 2006 counterparts, which isn’t entirely surprising, because at this point most of the actors have regularly voiced these characters for around a decade, more than enough time to completely acclimatize to the roles. So, yeah, the voice acting is good. I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular “wow, on my god” standout performance, but the displays and portrayals are always consistent and believable, knowing when and how to inject just enough emotion where it counts.
But to be clear, that’s all for the Japanese cast. I’m not going to mention the English dub because I haven’t bothered to watch it, having a personal irrational disdain for Bryce Papenbrook, who plays Shirou.
Listen, I like Kalafina as much as the next guy. They’re responsible for some of my favorite anime themes, such as Fate/Zero’s stellar second opening as well as several solid songs for Madoka Magica and Kara no Kyoukai. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that their work on Unlimited Blade Works’ credits (with “believe” and “ring your bell”) was, well, generic.
They absolutely sounded like Kalafina, but the pieces lacked any real distinguishing features from the multitude of work that the group has already done. Make no mistake, these are not truly “bad” songs, but they were a disappointment compared to what Kalafina has led me to expect. There just wasn’t a lot to either piece, and it certainly did nothing to make the credits stand out, which is unfortunate because the visuals were just as uninspired, boring slow pans over images of the cast.
Too Many Hats
I think most everyone would agree that some of Unlimited Blade Works’ largest problems stem from its plot, partially for reasons inherent to the nature of the series. It finds itself in the awkward position of being an adaptation of the intended second storyline to a three route visual novel, while at the same time trying to function as both a sequel to Fate/Zero (for Fate/Zero fans) and a standalone experience (for newcomers to the universe). It doesn’t stick the landing for all of these.
First of all, definitely do not watch this first. Despite how the visual novel was designed, as the first Fate experience, this anime is a terrible place to enter the franchise, for several reasons, but I have a whole other video about that. It’s old-ish and can be a little rough around the edges, but the arguments I put forth still more or less mirror my current thoughts, those being… watch Fate/Zero, or even the 2006 adaptation, first but definitely not this.
Beyond that, ufotable did an admirable job of making Unlimited Blade Works feel as complete a story as possible (and actually filled in more gaps than I was expecting), but, by nature of essentially being only a third of the visual novel, there are still several tidbits left underdeveloped or unresolved. Saber gets shafted, her story goes almost nowhere since this isn’t the Fate route. Same for Sakura; you’ve got to wait for Heaven’s Feel with that. Likewise, the roles and backstories of Fate/Zero’s two survivors (you know who they are if you’ve seen the series) get very little proper explanation, as if it’s assumed you already know who they are. Ironically, this means that many of Zero’s characters just don’t get a proper send-off, by virtue of this simply being not the right story for that. The show also has a habit of plopping Servant identities or other semi-important developments right in your lap, because a straight 1:1 adaptation of the route wouldn’t have told you about them at all, so (without compromising the adaptation) they had to communicate this information through incidental means.
I haven’t even touched on a number of other, smaller questions that also go unanswered, merely because they were not immediately important to the Unlimited Blade Works story. Most of them will get resolved in Heaven’s Feel, but I must warn you that this story, as-is, is not totally complete.
Even putting the whole “incomplete” aspect of the plot aside, it also just isn’t always all that great, making occasional but noticeable use of contrivances or straight deus-ex machina, usually for the purpose of allowing the story to continue and avoiding an abrupt conclusion for our heroes. For instance, on multiple occasions, in wildly different circumstances, enemy Servants and/or Masters will appear, fight for a bit, then disperse for no discernible reason, leaving with a line that says something to the effect of either “I’ll get you next time” or “I could easily kill you now, but I won’t.”
Plus, like Fate/Zero before it, Unlimited Blade Works can be way too talky for its own good. Several characters (some more than others) love to take reprieves from their epic fights to spout pseudo-philosophical lectures, and these moments can feel anywhere from awkward and hamfisted to outright boring. In certain scenes later in the series, you even get the impression that the same things are being repeated over and over, but phrased in minutely different ways in a blatant attempt to make it seem like the conversation has actually progressed, when in fact nothing has changed at all besides wasting your time reiterating five to ten minutes of babble. To repeat myself from my Fate/Zero review, talk is fine! I have no problem with talk, but you need to have a point. You can’t just keep going in circles, feigning some kind of greater importance despite saying so very little.
Being so frickin’ roundabout with its dialogue affects, and in some cases, dramatically affects, Fate/stay night’s pacing. The show was already deliberately paced, but when it decides to spend episode after episode on superfluous conversation (especially in the back half of its second season), things get tiring very quickly. Even now, when you can blitz through several episodes in a single sitting without having to wait ‘til next week, the wonky pacing is a noticeable damper on the experience.
Where is Everyone?
The last thing I’ve got for the plot is less a complaint and more a warning. If you want more of exactly what Fate/Zero gave, a score of Masters that receive relatively equal focus with no clear initial protagonist, this is not the place to find it. Fate/stay night is the story of Emiya Shirou, not the Holy Grail War as a whole. You will see nothing of certain Servants or Masters for many episodes on end, making the Holy Grail War feel less like a free-for-all between mages and more like a shounen tournament with Emiya at the center. Whether this is inherently good or bad depends more on your taste in entertainment than anything else, but since the two shows are so different despite being prequel and sequel, it is very much worth noting.
The Soundtrack (or lack thereof)
Lastly we come to the music. Fate has had a strong track record with soundtracks, including Kenji Kawai’s compositions for the 2006 version and Yuki Kajiura’s usual greatness with Fate/Zero. It is then unfortunate that the music of Unlimited Blade Works, while not bad, is so forgettable. First off, as some Fate fans would tell you, Unlimited Blade Works makes disappointingly infrequent use of tracks from the visual novel. I don’t believe an adaptation should be faulted for this, but it would be easier to defend that argument if the new soundtrack was up to snuff. And, well, it’s not. It’s kind of just generic dramatic music. Of all the original material composed for the series, I only ever really noticed two, maybe three songs, all for their use as character themes. Certainly, a lackluster soundtrack is better than one that actively detracts from the scene, but it is disappointing nonetheless. (There are a few exceptions, but most are either versions of visual novel songs, like the compulsory Emiya remix, or vocal insert songs, like a Lisa version of This Illusion and Last Stardust by aimer).
I will say though, while listening to the soundtrack on its own (independent of the show), I quite liked it, which implies that the composition itself is not to blame, but rather its use (or lack thereof) during the series.
That seemed like a long list of “Bad”, yeah? Maybe, but the “Good” were just as numerous. Unlimited Blade Works is certainly not a perfect show. There’s an argument for it being a deeply flawed one, but personally, as it was airing, I loved Unlimited Blade Works. I was infatuated with almost, if not every, episode. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get enough of the show. The sheer visual prowess, for me, elevated a series that may have felt noticeably worse with lower production values, though in the first place I was not nearly as bothered by the issues of pacing and writing as some. However, despite that, when I took a step back for this review, rewatched the series, started laying out the mistakes and the missteps, I realized I couldn’t just handwave them all away.
As much as my pure enjoyment wants to override everything else and slap Fate/stay night with an S rating, I can’t bring myself to do that. However, I still enjoyed the series a lot, with its strengths for me far outweighing its weaknesses.Therefore, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… haters gonna hate, but I have no problem giving Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works an A rating. Doubtless there are people out there that feel even this rating is far too high, especially considering how much time I spent discussing at length the show’s admittedly noticeable faults, but this is my review, my opinion and my enjoyment. You can’t tell me I’m incorrect for liking something, especially when I’ve spent the past six pages or so expanding on that.
It does bear repeating that if you are fairly new to the Fate franchise and somehow haven’t already heard, you can’t come into this expecting “Fate/Zero 2”. Unlimited Blade Works is more in-line with a (well-done) shonen action show, while Fate/Zero is a darker and, frankly, more mature piece. However, for you Zero fans that didn’t like Unlimited Blade Works, I implore you to wait and give Heaven’s Feel a shot before writing Fate/stay night off entirely. In many ways, it is the route that’s closest to being a true sequel to the pieces Zero set up, tonally and otherwise.
For a second (and third) opinion, you can check out some other reviews of Unlimited Blade Works below:
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