Notice: This review covers both seasons. They are part of the same story so they don’t need separate reviews.
Fate/Zero is the adaptation of the prequel light novel to the all famous Fate/Stay Night visual novel. And no, it is not the prequel of the homonymous anime, nor do you need to watch that first in order to understand what is going on in the story. The storyline there was mixed up in a way that is different from the game.
I have very little to say about the story, since in all honesty there isn’t much of a plot to talk about. The first season was about getting to know the characters and see them sparring, the second about seeing them killing each other. There is nothing more in-between those two facts, unless you count as plot endless well-written dialogues and technobabble around in-show terminology that is not contributing in any way to the story.
The premise is about seven people with seven spirit heroes fighting each other and the winner will get his wish granted. Yup, the death tournament routine, it ain’t much and if you are aware of the events in the older show you already know it won’t be about getting the Holy Grail at all. It is more about the character interactions and their chemistry; what does one mean to the other, how do they think and act, where did all their sadness came from. Meaning, the actual story was not good before and it is not good now; it is all about the characters.
It must also be made clear that this is not a heavy on action show. This is not a shounen fighting tournament but a heavy on dialogue seinen. The battles are more about the mentality of the cast and getting to know each other’s tricks, rather than going all out to kill or be killed. If you expect awesome battles you won’t get many, and for those that are indeed cool, they will feel like an eternity for being stretched out with long dialogues during the battles and unimpressive for ending by simply releasing ulti attacks on each other. Some of them will even be resolved out of screen.
It’s not like the talking is bad though; it is very well written to the most part and half the characters are fleshed out well; in just a few episodes I feel like I already know them well. I wouldn’t say many develop though; aside from Emiya and a bit for Saber all the rest are just there and as soon as you learn all there is about them in the first season, what follows in the second is them… dying. Furthermore only half of them were given enough time to become likable, as the other half were thrown to the side and were treaded as minor support despite being presented as very important at first. Several of them are neglected and never manage to make a strong impression on you. Assassin and Kariya are two striking examples; not to mention the whole rivalry between Emiya and Kirei.
I found the whole stalling thing of the first season to be a cheap trick, as constantly and deliberately someone interrupts a duel and macho talks the rest of the duration as means to prolong the so called war. In theory most could have easily stay hidden and let everybody else kill each other before jumping in to finish the tired and wounded survivors. This does not happen thanks to the convenient excuse of “We don’t know what hidden powers the others may have so we just stare at each other waiting for something to happen.” Although in theory that is correct, it still tends to prolong things too much. At the same time it allows the show to invest enough time on fleshing out each character instead of just killing them right away and not making you care about them.
So in case everybody wasn’t so overprotective, the show would have ended in a few episodes. In the first battle for example most Servants and Masters gather in one spot ready to gut each other but Rider was constantly trying to make them his allies, so he didn’t allow anyone to die. Even when nobody agreed to that, they still only looked at each other, exchanged some threats, and called it a day, even when half of them were ambushed and at the scope of snipers. They couldn’t fight to the death yet you see; they needed 26 episodes of material to fill first. They wouldn’t be interesting if they had all died in a few episodes, right? Well thank you very much, this is a very meta-explanation which only translates to The Rule of Cool. That means, it is just brainless entertainment and hardly the “amazing story and characters” every fan of the source material goes crazy about for over a decade.
The above issue feels bad even in terms of directing and storytelling, since what practically happens in each battle scene is the writer gathering over a dozen people in the same place, at the same time. You get the impression only two of them are talking or sparring, while the rest just stand frozen as spectators, until they jump in to stop the spar and macho talk. It feels like very bad handling of the characters, as it’s as if they are nothing more that plot devises and not plausible personalities with free will. Action and suspense are basically sucker-punching. Something is about to happen but it is stomped by something else, with each character (as well as the viewer) being completely autistic and oblivious to the other 10 people being around them. It is one thing to have a couple of characters mostly talking than fighting, and a whole other to have a dozen taking turns to say their punch-line or stopping a duel that would otherwise suit them just fine not to, while in the meantime waiting patiently for their turn. What is this, a turn-based videogame? I could also complain about their constant boasting and showing off; they otherwise retreat when things look bad. If they weren’t wasting so much time in talking and gloating this wouldn’t be a problem.
But I otherwise fully understand how flavour-wise all this blah-blahing/macho talking is what makes the characters sympathetic to the viewer and slows down the pacing, builds up tension, and stretches the story to last as much as the producers feel like it. It is not practical, it is not realistic, and this is otherwise not a show that cares about all that and mostly aims to impress you with the characters and the setting and NOT the battle tactics or the overall plot. Thus there is no problem throwing in even some loli fan service fillers, such as a pointless episode with little Rin. Or a completely far fetched dogfight between magical airplanes.
The production values are otherwise very good in detail, colouring, and special effects. The cinematics are captivating and yes, Ufotable is eons ahead of that piece of shit Studio DEEN. I fancy the work they did although I don’t consider the soundtrack to be memorable and the animation is not that fluid.
So in all, it looks like a fine show to watch. The characters are very interesting and since Saber’s master is no longer your average teenage wimp like in F/SN, is all you need to like the prequel even more. It’s just that this is not a show for the impatient viewer or the action lover; the pacing is slow and most of it is dialogues and character flavouring. If you like the slow build up and don’t mind how stupid everybody acts in an otherwise death tournament, you will definitely be impressed with the whole thing. It is otherwise like a series-long moody music video like those shitty Bee Train shows where nothing of importance happens, yet you are just mesmerized with the pretty lights and sounds. Your call if you like that. If it mean anything, it is the best anime to date in the subcategory of action/fantasy/mystery in a modern setting.
As for all those nasuverse fanboys & fangirls out there, let me make it clear that I have no doubt the philosophy of the novels is very complicating and intriguing. My negativity is mostly about plot and the pacing, which are the second most important aspect to get to like a series. The Book of Bantora and Shakugan no Shana also have fancy terminology and a weird world image yet the shows themselves are crap because they did little to nothing in terms of proper directing. Sorry to disappoint you Urobuchi fans, he is a good writer but not a good storyteller. Furthermore Ufotable removed many important scenes from his books and further simplified the already messy plot.
And now for some impressions regarding the characters. Do not read if you are haven’t watched the show.
THE HEROIC SPIRITS
Saber: After you recover by the craziness of seeing King Arthur being a woman, she will be presented as the least capable in battle, as she is constantly losing no matter whom she fights. If it wasn’t for the cheap stalling trick, she would be dead ten times in a row. But, hey, she is the mascot of this show and is constantly saved at the last moment, plus she has a really hax ulti attack that can beat everyone with one strike as means to have a cop-out good ending. I liked it when her shallow morality was completely trashed when Rider criticized her way of thinking. Oh, and because she is a visual novel character, her ulti recharges with semen… Only in Japan.
Lancer: He is constantly presented as the most ideal chivalrous hero of any cheesy Renaissance romance story but I found his honour to be nothing but croc. He will be constantly trying to be fair (no backstabs even when his enemy is flat footed) and that will only be resulting to the usual “I’m letting you live and retreat, so the story won’t end fast.” He even saves his opponent in one occasion just so he can duel him later. When he is finally trying to fight for real, he gets double crossed and that’s it for him. So much for playing fair in a death tournament you idiot. But anyways, the truth is that he wasn’t fair at all half the time and not because he was aware that he was cheating. This was purely bad handling of his character on-screen. There is a scene for example where he is ordered to kill someone. Instead of doing so, he disobeys orders, disarms him, and then gangs up on him with another warrior. And then he calls that playing fair…
“In the name of selfless chivalry, I let my first target escape because I wanted to gloat while seeing him defenceless instead of just killing him as my orders demanded it. Also, in the name of selfless chivalry I let my second target escape as well, because I wanted to help my master instead of spending a few seconds at following my orders by easily killing the weakened opponent who was barely able to walk away. I am so fair and honourable, let me gloat again selflessly.”
Rider: He sure doesn’t look like the pictures in the historic books… He is by far the sweetest servant despite his brute strength and is constantly trying to become an ally with his enemies instead of trying to dominate everything via force. This is his own excuse for not letting anyone die and stalling time. I liked his philosophy but he kept to it regardless of the repeated times everybody refused to ally with him to the point it became stupid. And guess what, he is eventually owned by someone who really DOES try to rule with sheer strength; so much for trying to be friendly. Funny fact: Ufotable deliberately aired the episode he dies at the same day his historical figure died millennia ago.
Archer: Basically, he was just an anti-Rider, having the same goals with him but from a cruel perspective. He was there to be the constant arrogant bastard that drinks wine and calls everybody his dog. Because he can. He was a cool dude with the most hax ulti attack but he was eventually no match for the plot-armour of the good guys. His greatest punishment is when he finds out whom he reincarnates to later on, hehe.
Caster: A psychopath who likes to torture and gut little kids; a role model to all serial killers. He also had a crush on another servant but this didn’t matter much plot-wise. Eventually he was defeated only because he wasn’t playing by the rules and everybody else ganged up on him for acting like a jerk. I was really disappointed at how they never showed us what he was doing while he was trapped inside Rider’s reality marble. That would really help in fleshing out his final battle.
Berserker: A completely undermined heroic spirit. He has no personality or goals for the most part and when he finally gets some towards the end, he gets defeated out of screen with an implied grudge at how he was very angry for not getting the woman he liked when he was mortal. LAME!
Assassin: By far the worst character in the whole show. He is supposed to use stealth and backstabs, yet all you see him doing the whole show is hiding while looking at people. That was supposed to be part of studying his enemies in order to find the best way to kill them fast. So what happens when he finally decides to attack? He just presents himself, gloats over having outnumbered his targets, and then gets owned easily by an ulti. THAT’S IT! For someone who was studying his enemies for all this time, not only he didn’t use stealth and backstab, not only he didn’t have any cool super attacks like all the rest do, but also died fast and miserably WITHOUT EVEN HAVING A PERSONALITY! I mean seriously, does anyone care about him? Does anyone know anything about him? Where is his machoness? How such a pathetic hero even joined the Holy War??? This sucks!
Emiya: Master of Saber and apparently the protagonist. Really? Up until the 2/3rds of the story he wasn’t even doing anything important and then WHAM I am the protagonist. Where did that come from? I never felt he was even a major character next to Rider and Saber. I was also told how the main conflict of the whole story was to show how his rivalry with Kirei began but COME ON the whole thing was completely underplayed. Anyone aware of the game knows they are mortal enemies but the way it was foreshadowed here just came out of nowhere. It’s like they magically knew they would be enemies in the future and simply hated each other, the end.
I also didn’t like how Emiya was using his special powers. I mean he can make time to move really slow and has bullets that can destroy someone’s magic powers yet he was fighting in a most ridiculous way just for the same of prolonging a battle that could have ended in a few seconds. So imagine that instead of just moving fast as light and stabbing his enemy a thousand times in one second, or firing a magic-destroyer bullet at him right away, he instead prefers to booby trap the whole place with traps that have no effect and to run around for hours while using his exhausting time magic to simply run away. Supposed he was trying to force his opponent into using all his protective magic against him and thus destroying all of his powers with one shot. Because, duh, weakening him to half his magic capabilities would still be impossible to kill him with a second shot or, I don’t know, RUNNING FASTER THAN LIGHT FOR A SECOND and stabbing him countless times wouldn’t work for some reason. And anyways, why was he even willing to waste so many hours playing cat and mouse when reinforcements are on their way to flank him? This was no battle to waste so much time; he should use all his power in a massive attack to kill his opponent and get the hell away from there. But it’s ok, since even after the reinforcements arrived he was allowed to escape because we still have a lot of episodes to fill somehow. Oh, right, and because he is the protagonist for some reason…
Later on he is the only character to receive two whole episodes dedicated to fleshing out his tragic past and how he turned out to be such a scheming bastard. Although he had a very interesting and dramatic background, I just couldn’t accept how fast it was told. It had enough events and context to fill 4 episodes instead of 2. As a result it felt rushed and furthermore forced. The way they presented his life as a paradise full of happy people before it all goes to hell five minutes later? Oh come on, how cornier can this get? But then again what is this whole show if not corny?
Finally, I never bought his whole way of thinking. He was all “the end justifies the means” but he only succeeded into being a jerk who never truly accomplished anything other than killing a lot of good people. He even gives up in the end after he realizes it was all for naught.
Kirei: Master of Assassin, the worst character in the whole show, and later of Archer as well, after he stole him from its original owner. A backstabbing asshole and for some reason the main villain of the show. He looks for happiness by betraying people and making others kill each other but other than that he has no really goals in life. That makes sense… He also gets defeated out of screen but magically survives only to be defeated again.
Irisviel: She is a whole bunch of things, such as an artificially created human, a human experiment, Emiya’s wife, the vessel of the Holly Grail, and someone who reads too much bad fan fiction. Jesus, the way she was talking and mocking her opponents felt like something out of Twilight. And the way she was always so worried and passive was making me want to choke her to death.
Archibald: Master of Lancer and a guy who would brag non-stop. After he is owned in battle his crazy bitch of a wife for some reason betrays him and steals his powers. This part is much underplayed since we never truly feel why she did that. Or why she was found and arrested so easily and he was still in love with her; talk about a wasted plot point. Instead, they give us ten minutes of Archibald reading this magic contract that is presented to be godly important yet means absolutely nothing five minutes later.
Ryonosuke: Master of Caster and equally sadistic. Probably the funniest character in the show despite never doing anything more than being someone Caster can talk to.
Waver: Master of Rider and basically your typical shounen dork. He was funny in the way he was constantly mocked and eventually befriended by Rider but overall a very minor character in the plot, since he was more of a lackey who never accomplished anything much.
Kariya: A very underplayed character. He was looking for a way to avenge what they did to him and his family but only ends up being a pathetic peon in the hands of scheming bastards. He has a very minor role in the whole show despite this interesting premise and even his end is anti-climactic.
Tokiomi: Master of Archer and almost like a stunt in the plot, he just mocked Kariya a bit before being backstabbed; the end.