Fate/Stay Night is a visual novel following Shiro Emiya and his classmate Rin. There are numerous ways the story can play out – Fate/Stay Night features three primary scenarios. The first Fate/Stay Night anime, released several years ago, focused on the ‘Fate’ scenario. This one, as the title implies, draws primarily from the ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ storyline.
Fate/Stay Night revolves around a conflict known as the Holy Grail War which takes place every so often in Fuyuki City – usually every sixty years or so. This conflict pits seven mages against one another in secret battles where the last one standing is promised the ability to have any one wish granted. In order to help ensure victory, these mages summon forth Servants – legendary figures from history, myth, and occasionally even from the future – to act as their champions.
After the disastrous Fourth Holy Grail War featured in Fate/Zero concluded, Kiritsugu Emiya found Shiro unconscious among the ruins and adopted him. After Kiritsugu’s passing, Shiro is just living his life – attending school and practicing what little magic he knows. Unfortunately, that idyll is doomed to be shortlived as the Fifth Holy Grail War begins after only a decade and he’s unwillingly dragged into the conflict.
The War of Legends
Masters and Servants
When these mages participating in the war, also known as Masters, summon forth their servants, the servants are given a class – Archer, Saber, Rider, Caster, Assassin, Berserker, and Lancer – which grants them distinct strengths and weaknesses. Each of these classes can only be assigned to one servant during each Holy Grail War, and any servant, regardless of identity or personality, can be summoned as any class. Their identity determines what their most powerful abilities and weapons (known as their Noble Phantasms) will be. Because these can be fairly telling, they typically try to keep their identities concealed except from their Master as long as they can.
When you combine what we would consider to be more typical magic with these servants, who are often anything but, you get an interesting combat dynamic. Interesting, but not as well explored as I was hoping. You do get some impressive expositions of fighting prowess, but it is all relatively tame – and infrequent – compared to others in the Fate universe, and even compared to other similar styles of shows I’ve watched lately. Good, but not great.
The one truly exceptional aspect of this show, much like Fate/Zero, is the visuals. The backgrounds, visual effects, and character models are exceptional. With the slightly diminished frequency of all out combat, you don’t get to see enough of the effects, but those effects are fantastic when they show up. If there’s one thing that this studio seems to understand, it’s how to make this series’ visuals really stand out. The art style is unique, you can immediately tell you’re watching a ‘Fate’ show, with its combination of dark and light that just works properly.
Legends and Myths
With legendary historical and mythical figures and the magi who control them, it can take a lot of time to really build these characters up. At the end of the first arc, they’ve managed to build Shiro and Rin into fairly believable characters – although most of that development happened in the last one or two episodes.
Most of the other characters are fairly underexplored, with neither Shiro or Rin’s servants’ real identities being revealed by the end of the first season. You get some subtle hints as to Rin’s servant’s identity, and I suspect it’s intentionally being left as a mystery for the sake of the show… but Shiro’s Saber is just undeveloped with only a half-assed reason given as to why.
One thing I was really impressed to see was the variety of different ideals and personalities. One criticism I had for the prequel, Fate/Zero, was how polarizing each character was. Each of the characters personified an ideal or personality trait… they simply felt one-dimensional. Fate/Stay Night’s cast come across as people. It’s a nice thing to see, and it makes the show so much more approachable. That isn’t to say these characters don’t have strong ideals – many of them do. But they’re not so focused so as to feel unrealistic. People aren’t one-dimensional, and neither are the characters here.
Building a New Myth
Fate/Stay Night’s story features an elongated prologue episode focused on Rin that gives you enough of the backstory and basic details to understand what is happening going into the series. It’s an interesting way to give introduction, and it actually really works well here. It sets matters up for the rest of the show well, establishes premises and circumstances, and gives you a basic knowledge of the characters as well. The show’s first episode then rewinds back to where the prologue started and you get to see the same days from Shiro’s perspective… Here is where the story begins to unfold.
While the show does a good job of setting matters up, it still does expect a fair bit of foreknowledge from you. Not in terms of the actual main story – it does an adequate job of explaining that to you – but there are numerous references that will completely pass over your head if you aren’t familiar with either the first anime, the prequel, or the source material. While watching this show, almost felt like it was designed as a sequel to Fate/Zero. However, I’m not that familiar with the previous works in the series, so it could just be using references from the source material that also ring true for the prequel.
As a final note, some of the show’s episodes felt weirdly ordered. Perhaps the positioning will make more sense when the entire season is available, but for now it just feels like the pacing was a bit off. There were episodes that felt like they should’ve been earlier, and some that almost felt like they shouldn’t have happened quite yet. It just felt a little awkward.
Despite many aspects of the show giving me mixed feelings… it really is more than the sum of its parts. Fate/Stay Night [Unlimited Blade Works] creates a show that takes a few really strong elements and builds them into a show that is far more enjoyable to watch than it has any right to be given its flaws.