From something that started as an H-game with questionable writing, the Fate franchise has grown incredibly. This adaptation will be the third anime adaptation of Fate/Stay Night, and all in less than ten years. However, as many fans will argue, it’s a necessary one.
Fate/Stay Night tells the story of the Fifth Holy Grail War, a ritual in which seven mages become Masters by summoning famous figures of the past as their Servants, fighting against other Masters and Servants to win the Holy Grail, a cup which can grant the winner’s any desire. Shirou Emiya is the last Master to join the War, accidentally summoning the Saber-class Servant, called the strongest Servant class.
The original game, a PC visual novel in which the player’s choices affect the story, has three routes: Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel. Each route features a different heroine and builds off of knowledge gained in the previous route. The first anime adaptation, created by Studio DEEN, mostly explored the Fate route, but with quite a few changes to make it a more cohesive stand-alone story. The anime featured elements of all three routes, ultimately creating a confusing mess for both newcomers and fans of the game alike. The second adaptation was also by Studio DEEN and took the Unlimited Blade Works route, this time in the form of a movie rather than an episodic series, resulting in a rushed effort that felt more like a coda than a separate storyline.
The current incarnation is also of the Unlimited Blade Works route, this time adapted by ufotable, the team behind the anime adaptation of Fate/Zero in 2011. Fate/Zero, set ten years before the events of Fate/Stay Night, was written after Fate/Stay Night but still serves as a good jumping-off point into the Fate universe.
The first item of note is that everything is gorgeous. DEEN is definitely not known as one of the cleaner or more attentive studios, but even without that advantage, ufotable leaves them in the dust. While you could argue that there’s a gap in animation skill and technique between 2006 and 2010/2014, and while ufotable definitely utilizes a lot of more modern techniques, there’s more to it than that. The characters’ expressions and body language are a thousand times more effective and expressive, and they are ultimately a better storytelling tool. This is important, because the heroine of the Unlimited Blade Works route is Rin Tohsaka, and she is used as our main entrance into the world of the Holy Grail Wars, which the first episode makes abundantly clear. It’ll be easier to empathize with (the arguably dumb) Shirou with a healthy dose of Rin, combined with better facial expressions for the entire cast.
The second thing to note is that ufotable most definitely assumes the audience has watched Fate/Zero. While knowing Fate/Zero’s story is not fundamentally necessary to understanding the story of Fate/Stay Night, ufotable calls back to it where they can, making for a richer viewing experience (the same way that knowing the story of Fate/Stay Night wasn’t essential in watching Fate/Zero, but it made some interactions and outcomes more emotional). For the purpose of these reviews, I will assume familiarity with Fate/Zero, but I will keep spoilers to myself as much as possible.
This first episode, technically called Episode 0 and titled “Prologue,” sets a good balance between exposition and kicking off the Holy Grail War. Rin, being a Tohsaka, has grown up as a mage, so it’d be easy for the exposition to seem forced, but it actually ends up flowing pretty naturally in conversation with her servant, Archer, as they set up their strategy for the upcoming fights.
It’s too early to say that this is finally the adaptation of Fate/Stay Night that will stop people from looking down on it, but I’m feeling pretty optimistic. The fight scenes are fluid and gorgeous, and—seeing as how a big part of Fate is the fighting between Servants—it’s essential that those scenes be engaging and keep viewers on the edge of their seats (the DEEN adaptation fights were often just tedious). All things considered, this series is off to a great start.