Fate/Stay Night, or simply Fate, was originally released back in 2004 and it still commands a respectable pop culture presence, having sparked the flowering of an urban magical universe that is easily the equal to those such as Buffy or X 1999. The premise is that, once every generation, seven mages gather in Fuyuki City and summon seven ‘servants’; these are powerful familiars who are facsimile of famous heroes from across the whole of human history. Both the servants and the mages that summoned them, who are called ‘masters’, enter into a battle royale, to whom the winner will go a powerful artefact called ‘The Holy Grail’ which has the power to grant any wish the victor desires. This can only happen when the other six servants have been defeated. A young aspiring hero, Shirou Emiya, and genius mage, Rin Tohsaka, both enter into this death match where they will, not just stake their lives, but also their way of life.
Unlimited Blade Works is a storyline, or ‘route’, from the visual novel Fate/Stay Night and if you asked me to rate in order which routes should be adapted into an anime, Unlimited Blade Works would come in right at the bottom. It is mainly about a single conflict between two characters in a large cast. Thus the rest of the cast, who are all interesting and charming in the novel, must play second fiddle to this central plot element. It leaves Unlimited Blade Works seeming very flat, especially when compared to the other routes that appear in Fate.
It was unusual to hear that, with three storylines to choose from, this was chosen to adapt into an anime. Studio Deen had already adapted that story into a movie that was impossible to watch as the story had to be cut to the bone for time. So the Unlimited Blade Works brand wasn’t even in high demand.
Firstly, Unlimited Blade Works was animated by Ufotable who had earlier brought us the amazing looking Fate/Zero. They have upped their game even more, with fantastic character models and a lot of interesting CGI backgrounds that are used for Fuyuki when everyone is walking about in the daytime, rather than killing each other at night. As for movement, especially in the early episodes, all the action scenes are fine examples of what is possible today; you really feel the sense of speed and impact when everything starts getting violent.
This has also been the most likeable and understandable portrayal of Shirou Emiya. It was a definite attempt to show how overcoming the trauma of Shirou’s childhood has changed him to be very different from a lot of people, to the extent that his priorities and decisions seem ridiculous or self destructive to others.
Something I did not expect to find amazing is Rin Tohsaka’s face. An explanation: throughout the story, Rin is constantly disappointed, annoyed, or infuriated by Shiro’s actions. There was nothing especially unique about these scenes in previous versions of the story but now they are brought to life with some of the most hilarious faces ever put to animation. I am not joking around when I say that the expressions the animators have given Rin are worth the price of admission on their own.
Conversely there are some decisions that seemed like good ideas but end up weakening the whole product. The back story of Caster, a main antagonist, is only barely discussed in the novel, while in this anime we have half an episode to understand how nasty the master who initially summoned Caster was, and how and why she betrayed him. While this is lovely to see, it comes at the expense of seeing the more positive relationship between Caster and Kuzuki, Caster’s second master. This was an important and humanising element to Caster and it is lost here.
Other problems arise, as Ufotable has clearly patterned Unlimited Blade Works as a sequel to the previous Fate/Zero. The viewer is expected to know of the relationships that were forged in the earlier work and so this can make certain parts seem thin or confusing to someone who is watching this as their first TYPE-MOON work. This makes it inaccessible to new people who might not want to watch a whole extra show beforehand. Indeed, to properly understand the final villain of either you have to have watched Fate/Zero or read the original work. Their presence is not something deeply examined here and that is dropping the ball when your final big villain has less development than two other antagonists who hang around to the climax.
But if you get on board with its action-downtime-action rhythm and are not put off by its occasional techno-babble solution, Unlimited Blade Works is the best kind of urban fantasy action series. A story that can dig down to very dark places but does not let it infect moments of brevity and humanity is what has made Fate such a lasting franchise, and is on full display here. You really do live though the days with these people so that, when events change, you are solidly on the same page as them. It was what was so compelling in the novel and has been thoroughly replicated here.
If it were not for dropping the ball on accessibility and a bit of characterisation, I would have seriously considered giving this a perfect score. But, all things considered, it is a tremendous achievement that after ten years there is a Fate/Stay Night anime to be proud of.