Oddly enough, my first experience with the Fate series was during my stay in Japan back in 2005. I didn’t know the language when I first arrived, but I was adamant on finding ways to enjoy my hobbies and hopefully find someone who was bilingual enough to muck through a conversation. This lead me to finding every arcade within walking distance (didn’t have a bike for my first month) and playing what I could without knowing how to read.
At first, I stuck with games I knew like Initial D (Version 2 was all the rage back home, and Version 3 was standard in Japan), but when I discovered the fighting games, I began to have a bit more fun.
I started with some of the basics, like Street Fighter and Soul Caliber, but the games that really jumped out at me were Guilty Gear and Melty Blood.
Guilty Gear was easy to learn more about, but I didn’t have much luck with Melty Blood at first. All I knew from looking at the games was the phrase TYPE-MOON. As I enjoyed the artwork and the way the characters fought, I kept my eyes peeled and, luckily, found a copy of the first volume of Fate/Stay Night. Little did I know that I was about to walk into a miniature fanboy obsession.
Years later, while trying to find more about Stay Night and hoping for a scanlation, I discovered Fate/Stay Night as an anime and was hooked, and I’ve been working on following it whenever I have the time (not as much as I’d like, though).
Now that I just finished Unlimited Blade Works, I thought I’d get around to talking about it for anyone who’s interested or on the fence.
The series is an alternate storyline from the Fate/Stay Night Visual Novel entitled “Unlimited Blade Works” (thus the name).
The premise of the series remains unchanged from the Fate/Stay Night anime: you follow the story of Emiya Shirou, a young man who was saved by his adoptive father, Emiya Kiritsugu, at the end of the last Holy Grail War ten years ago.
These wars are fought by seven mages, known as Masters, who each summon a single Servant (a being summoned from history/mythology), and the battle does not end until there is one Servant (or in some cases, one Master) standing. The last war ended “incorrectly” as there were two Servants and two Masters still fighting, and this lead to massive destruction and the corruption of a wish.
After living with Kiritsugu for ten years and learning the basics, Shirou isn’t much of a mage, but he is thrust into the new Holy Grail War by accident when his life is threatened by the war and he summons his own Servant, Saber, to protect him.
Where it differs from the original Stay Night series comes about in the plot, as the characters interact slightly differently (different choices in the VN) and therefore change events.
Compared to Fate/Stay Night, a majority of the beginning is close to identical, with a few differences. There’s a larger focus on Tohsaka Rin at the beginning and her motivations for this war. This is important, as her Servant, Archer, plays just as large of a role as Emiya in this series.
In this series, Emiya and Rin grow closer together romantically than in Stay Night. The character of Sakura is a bit downplayed (in fact, the Matou clan is nearly useless), and the semi-romantic connotations between Emiya and Saber are nearly non-existent. Gilgamesh also plays a much larger role this time around, and starts taking an active role before we even get halfway through the series.
The series truly begins to change from the original (outside of the Emiya/Rin romance and a few minor details) somewhere around episode 6-8, as the war really begins to pick up and major choices are being made, as well as more of the backstory.
SPOILER ALERT: In this story arc, it’s quite obvious that Archer is a future Emiya (the similarities come out early and are obvious), and thanks to Fate/Zero, we know that Kotomine Kirei isn’t just a priest overseeing everything, but is still a Master. These two points play a major role, as it explains why Archer hates Emiya and why Lancer is so aloof.
Like Fate/Zero, Unlimited Blade Works sees some artistic upgrades from the original Fate/Stay Night series. It’s not the usual CGI everywhere upgrade, but there’s some obvious changes in the art style and attention to detail that takes the series up a notch.
Even if you haven’t watched Fate/Stay Night, you’ll be just fine with Unlimited Blade Works. In fact, it might actually be BETTER for you, so that you aren’t surprised at who some of the characters really are (knowing mythology and knowing the series put a bit of a damper on that secrecy for me). My wife has seen Fate/Zero, but I might make her watch this before Stay Night.
On that note: if you haven’t watched Fate/Stay Night or Fate/Zero, you can get into this show with ease. There’s a large number of nods to Fate/Zero, but that’s to explain more of the backstory of the two lead characters; Rin basically lost her entire family in the war, and Emiya lost everything but was saved at the end of the war. Otherwise, it almost stands alone beyond a few characters appearing again.
See, in the Fate series, Servants are all pulled from history and mythology to participate in the Grail War. Saber is King Arturia (Arthur; this takes some time to realize unless you watched a previous series), while Rider in Fate/Zero was Alexander the Great, and the Assassin in Stay Night and Unlimited Blade works is Kojirou Sasaki (Miyamoto Musashi’s greatest foe). The way the characters are depicted keeps me wanting to watch it, as I’m always curious as to how they will be incorporated, how they fight, what over-the-top powers they are given, how they are envisioned, and how they are eventually defeated (because you KNOW someone’s going to die).
For me, the premise is solid: mythological beings being summoned into the modern day and royally tearing into each other into a fanboy-satisfying slugfest? As a fan of mythology, SIGN ME UP!
That said, the STORY portion is solid. Masters summon Servants to fight in the war, but you have the opportunity to see how each Master treats their Servant (and vice-versa), what their goals and wishes are (on both sides), what inspires them to do what it is they do (again, both sides), and you see how the characters grow and develop because of the events of the story.
The voice acting is also top-notch, at least in the Japanese version. They give proper emotion to the characters, which is important when you go from deep introspection and dark pasts between brutal slugfests between near-deity level legends.
Speaking of the fight scenes, they are beautiful. In some anime, a single fight runs for a dozen episodes, but I think the longest fights here last two or three, and that’s often because we see a great deal of flashbacks or explanations of what is happening (such as why a character isn’t able to use their best weapon, or why a character doesn’t die). They often don’t feel rushed, but they move fast enough that you can see and feel the desperation within them.
As much as I want to LOVE Unlimited Blade Works, there are some glaring issues that I can’t overlook, and some of these are close to deal breakers.
While the story is great, there are a few key character development issues that fell flat. In Unlimited Blade Works, Tohsaka and Emiya apparently have some sort of feelings for each other, but never admit it, even though they never really speak to each other. The entire series goes along the line of Emiya and Tohsaka having these awkward moments caused by their attraction to one another with a heavy dose of teenage misunderstanding.
The problem is, it comes out of nowhere. Emiya’s first words to Tohsaka, ever, consist of a comment that she’s in school early. From there, their relationship grows in an odd fashion and an exponential rate; it’s almost like it hockeysticks on the relationship chart. By the time he even gets close to Tohsaka, he’s already been working a great deal with Saber and growing close to her, and by THAT point, he already had Matou Sakura as a childhood friend that literally comes to his house and cares for him EVERY DAY.
Granted, this is an anime, but with how emotionally charged the previous two were, I was expected a better buildup.
While the series is known for being emotionally charged, it is lacking subtlety this round. In this version of the storyline, it is almost painfully obvious that Emiya and Archer are one in the same. Early on, Emiya begins to imitate Archer’s fighting style instead of Saber’s, begins to consider two-weapon fighting (again, copying Archer), and his first weapon projection is the pair of blades that Archer uses.
This all wouldn’t be too bad if we don’t see the utter hatred that Archer has toward Emiya at the get-go. Archer tries to kill Emiya early on, and the only reason he really survives is his own stubborn will, blind luck, and the healing properties of Avalon.
To make it even more obvious, it is often commented how the two of them are alike. Tohsaka even makes comments like “So that’s how he died,” and begins to treat Emiya differently after she realizes who Archer is. The final kicker was after Emiya projected Archer’s blades, and was unable to use his left side for much of anything (it was “numb” and hard to use). Archer confronts him about it, knowing exactly how many degrees his center of balance is off, knows what caused it, knows how to fix it, and knows that the end result will make Emiya a stronger mage.
When asked how does he know all of this, Archer simply replies with something along the lines of “I went through it myself.”
One of the other big issues is the odd use of the rules. Normally, when a Master dies, their Servant disappears rather quickly. When a Servant takes a killing blow, they are dead and gone. When a Master uses their final Command Seal (they get three of them to order their Servant to do whatever they want), they are no longer a Master. A Master who loses their Servant can make a pact with another Servant to stay in the game (and vice versa), but that Master still needs Command Seals in order to do so.
In this series, we see most of these rules broken. At one point, a Master uses a Seal and orders his Servant to kill himself. After running a blade through his heart, he gets back up and kills his Master, stabs a rapist jerk, and sets fire to the entire building before finally dying; the last time we saw a Master order suicide (Fate/Zero), it happened almost instantly, and the Servant was fading as he was cursing everyone.
Okay, fine, this is acceptable for a dramatic story. But wait, there’s more!
In previous series, we are told, MANY times, that a human (even a mage) is physically no match for a Servant. Yet here, we see a human mage that not only kills a Servant outright, but he is more than an equal to Saber (one of the most prized Servants). In fact, he can basically block Excalibur with his arms and legs.
Wait. . .what?
Yeah…this stuff happens in this series. While it normally takes something drastic (like a pocket dimension that you control the laws of, known as a Reality Marble) to defeat a Servant, this is a guy that can block EXCALIBUR. What the actual f*ck.
Okay, now that that outburst is out of my system, I should be able to move along.
Okay, maybe not.
Other rules that get broken (without spoiling too much): a Servant was able to summon a Servant, which was a big WTF to the rules. Said Servant also steals Command Seals from other Masters and therefore steals Servants. . .and starts with the full fresh amount of Seals (instead of only what was left), giving her a massive number of seals, technically. At one point, a Servant who is technically without a Master makes a deal with a Master…who didn’t have any Command Seals left (and now they get three more Seals to boot). Two Servants that do not have Masters due to death still stay standing and are capable of fighting at almost full power even though they comment their mana is low, and this is after days of going without a connection. In fact, one of these Servants is defeated, but returns days later and is still able to fight.
Again: What. The Actual. F*ck.
If there’s anything I hate about stories, it’s inconsistency to the rules that you create in a setting (it’s one of the reasons why I can’t really love Harry Potter, but that’s a post for another day).
When compared to Fate/Stay Night, a number of characters are shoved into the back burner. While some (like Archer) get far more screen time, some have been completely wiped out. Rider has one combat scene that you see, and it’s not even a real combat. In fact, you don’t even get a chance to learn who Rider is this time before she gets killed off. Rather sucky, there.
The same is true for Matou Sakura. She played a pretty big role in Stay Night, and you see part of her story in Zero, but here she’s sidelined almost entirely, even though you know she is technically a master.
Caster, on the other hand, gets a huge boost in screentime and badassery levels, and becomes a major villain, really. This is pretty cool if she weren’t a walking deus ex machina, as she can do literally anything. She needs an army? She has one. She needs to counter an attack? She’s good. Teleporting? Yup. Flying? Of course. Stealing souls? Absolutely. Reality Marble? Damn right she has one! She’s set up as this unbeatable foe, so when she is defeated it is pretty nice to see, but it feels a bit too forced to proceed with the storyline.
On that note: why are the Casters always the same? “Bluebeard” in Zero was also portrayed as a sadistic character that didn’t care about collateral damage for his power, and his magic gave him almost unbeatable powers. In both Zero and Unlimited Blade Works, it is a joint effort to defeat the sadistic caster, and it comes at a high cost. It seems they love making Caster the target of hatred now, because that was not the case in Stay Night, as Berserker was shown as the nigh-unbeatable Servant that round.
Speaking of, Ilya and her Berserker get more screen time, technically, as more backstory is explained as to how they work as a team. Sadly, their battle time consists of two relatively short fights: one to show how badass Berserker is, and the other against Gilgamesh which felt like a total waste and was forced to end quickly.
On that note, the series has major issues with ending. When Fate/Stay Night ended, a part of me wanted to shed manly tear, partly because of the music, partly because of the way it ended for the characters, and my ability to entirely relate to Emiya over the loss of another loved one.
Unlimited Blade Works just. . .ended. You get an ending of the War, and then it jumps ahead years later to a school in England. Emiya followed Tohsaka around the world to attend a Mage’s School, a school that he feels like an outsider in, just to be with her. . .but they still aren’t together. The final episode tries to wrap things up, but instead leaves more questions unanswered and a number of random tidbits that are just THERE for a continuation. There’s no real closure beyond Emiya saying goodbye to Saber, as the entire school scenario is just this burst of “Let’s add more random stuff and then end it!”
While a friend of mine writes it off as Emiya will always end up as Archer, I have to disagree with this. Yes, he will still end up as Archer, but will he be as bitter? Will he hate himself and everyone around him? Will he actually know what it is like to love and have something worth fighting for (which is clear with this relationship that exists but doesn’t exist)? Those are my problems here: we get their vague ending of character promises and characters resorting to what they are, but no real closure.
I’m giving Unlimited Blade Works 3.5 buns.
While there’s a lot going for the series (great art, great acting, excellent plot), there are just too many holes and too many things that are forced for me to even give it better than this. In fact, I’ve been torn on giving it 3 buns, but the artwork and my love of mythology saves the series from that fate.
If you enjoy gorgeous artwork, epic fight scenes, an intriguing storyline, various nods to mythology, and great acting, pick this up.
If you are tired of watching shows that don’t feel like they have good endings, then you might want to give it a pass or just watch the highlights.