Fate/Zero had some big shoes to fill. Based on a series of light novels that serve as a prequel to one of the most beloved visual novels of all time, animated by Studio ufotable – which has proven itself deft at adapting Type-Moon material with their fine work on Kara no Kyoukai – and with a soundtrack composed by none other than Yuki Kajiura; it's no surprise that fans were ecstatic in their anticipation. Hype is of course a dangerous thing, known to backlash horribly when it spins out of control.
Which makes it a relief that Fate/Zero is quite good. Great, even.
For the uninitiated: Fate/Zero is an urban fantasy action series set in the fictional Japanese city of Fuyuki. A modern day setting where magecraft exists and is acknowledged. The story chronicles the first half of an event called the 4th Holy Grail War: a contest of elimination where seven mages (dubbed 'Masters') each summon an ancient spirit (dubbed 'Servants') into the physical realm with the objective of fighting other contestants until only one remains. The winner is allowed access to the Holy Grail: an artifact of incredible power said to be capable of granting any wish.
It is within the Holy Grail War that we follow a wide range of characters: seven Masters, seven Servants as well as a number of supporting characters, most of whom with a connection to the Masters, be it spouse, mentor or assistant. The show handles its large cast of characters remarkably well: there's a lot of diversity and complexity in the personalities, motivations, designs and abilities showcased. Furthermore, the characters feel human: meaning that they can sometimes do terrible or stupid things, but there's always an idea of where they're coming from. This is because of solid world building in the earlier episodes where it's shown that the mage culture is highly elitist and traditional. Especially emphasized is the treatment of women: they're seen as little more than tools to produce heirs, and arranged marriages are very common. Some might view this as misogynistic, but the show does not glorify or endorse these practices in the slightest, though some women are happier in the circumstances than others.
The great characters inhabit an equally stellar narrative. Magic battles and Highlander-esque contests of elimination are certainly nothing new, but the plot twists tired conventions in clever and often brutal ways. Noteworthy is how Fate/Zero handles the action. Battles are not won by believing in your friends or having willpower, instead victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat through planning, cunning and intelligent use of one's abilities and resources. Kiritsugu Emiya, protagonist and anti-hero to the core, embodies this; and his stunningly vicious pragmatism – which masks a sadness of a man who wishes to better the world by any means necessary - is just one of Fate/Zero's many deviations on the usual clichés. The storyline and characters work in tandem to create a truly gripping action series. One that drives home a very important point: action scenes get better when characters you care about are in the fight, and you can understand why they're fighting.*
Not everything about the storytelling is wonderful, though. The show ends on a massive cliffhanger and has no continuation at the time of writing though it is in production. A bigger problem is that there's a lot of exposition in the story's calmer periods. While helpful, it's often delivered in a clunky way. The show is often guilty of something that's referred to as ''As You Know''-dialogue, where one characters reiterates information to another that both of them already know. Moreover, the composition of these scenes is awkward at times. Absolute low point is the first episode in which a Master in training is receiving instructions from 2 people who, while doing so, are walking in circles. One could make a case for how it's supposed to symbolize the fact that they're trying to indoctrinate him, but the whole thing just looks incredibly silly. The saving grace is that the dialogue itself is consistently interesting, be it a discussion about how society defines one's ethics, a character expressing his self-doubt or a Servant's thunderous proclamation of superiority before annihilating an opponent.
Those familiar with ufotable's work on Kara no Kyoukai were confident that they would turn in good work for Fate/Zero, and these hopes weren't in vain. The visuals are of excellent quality across the board. The atmospheric environments and stunning action sequences in particular are a sight to behold. Though there are some visual blemishes in the form of conspicuous CGI here and there, including an entire character rendered in it. This last bit was supposedly an artistic choice on ufotable's part seeing as the character in question is described as feeling fundamentally alien, and while the actual CGI isn't bad but it's definitely not as fluidly animated as the hand-drawn visuals. The soundtrack isn't so extraordinary. Yuki Kajiura isn't quite as diverse as other acclaimed Japanese composers and it doesn't help that she didn't seem to bring her A-game for Fate/Zero. It's not a bad, but nothing that will have people itching to download it. The opening and ending themes, however, are both stellar.
Fate/Zero has a lot to like in spite of a few downsides, and it comes together so marvelously that liking it is all the easier. The fascinating characters, gripping plot, wonderful animation and stunning battles make this an easy sell not just to action-junkies or Type-Moon fans, but to anyone craving an intense thrill-ride with a bit of extra bite to it.
* (It's almost sad that it bears mentioning that caring about characters and having a feel for what's at stake for them makes fights better. But hey, 'Gurren Lagann' and 'Baccano!' got away with lacking them so there you have it.)