One of the things that I always struggle with when writing these series reviews is who exactly I’m writing them for. For a series like Fate/Zero, that struggle is particularly daunting. Who is this review for, really? Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that most, if not all, of this blog’s active readership has not only seen Fate/Zero but is also infinitely more knowledgeable about the series and the universe it is set in than I will ever be. That’s not the point though. Ostensibly, at least, a review of a series like is meant to be for the uninformed – but the trouble here is, what kind of uninformed are we talking about, exactly? There are so many different degrees of Fate related knowledge – you could be familiar with the Fate/Stay Night visual novel, either of the two anime series or none of them at all. For the purposes of this review, it would be nothing less than criminal to treat those familiar with the Fate universe the same as newcomers and vice versa. Writing two different reviews is out of the question…right? Well, yes and no. It turns out that most of what I want to say about the series can be said without diving too deep into its specifics. Occasionally, I’ll want to go a little deeper and explain my point with some examples and so, with that in mind, I’ve introduced a spoiler bubble of sorts. It’s pretty elementary stuff but hopefully it gives me a little more latitude to talk about the details.
Fate/Zero: what’s it about?
Set in modern day Japan (more or less), Fate/Zero tells the story of the 4th Holy Grail War, a ritualistic contest between different factions vying for control of the eponymous Holy Grail, a mythical artefact that is said to have the power to grant any wish. The war is won by the last man standing and to that end, the contestants fight both directly and through proxies known as Servants. These Servants are magical reincarnations of famous men and women – from Alexander the Great, to Gilgamesh, to a reimagined King Arthur. The main thing you need to know, however, especially if you have never heard about Fate/Zero, is that it is a prequel, specifically to the visual novel Fate/Stay Night. This means that although the series makes some attempt at explaining the basics of the world it is set in, it nevertheless will throw you in the deep end and leave you to swim along. Being a prequel, there are frequent call-forwards and references and tie-ins to other works set in the universe, including but not limited to the history between characters and factions and the laws that govern magic in the series’ universe. Add in the fact that this series was adapted from a light novel but occasionally omits information included in its source material, and you’ll see that the series, for all its excellence, comes with its fair share of baggage. Having said that though, I feel it is possible to enjoy the series without playing through the visual novel but it’s really far from optimal. You would be missing the bigger picture; yes, Fate/Zero tells a compelling story in its own right, but there is no denying that a significant portion of that power comes from the audience’s emotional investment in certain characters’ relationships to other characters from the other works in the series. Basically, you will almost certainly enjoy Fate/Zero even without the context but you won’t be able to really appreciate it.
Fate/Zero: is it worth it?
Resoundingly, yes. I like to think that my stamp of approval doesn’t come cheap and easy and in the case of Fate/Zero, that approval is all the more impressive because of the numerous weaknesses that the series overcomes to earn it. That there are flaws at all should not be up to debate. The series’ strengths are easily evident but there is also plenty of evidence of small, but important, weaknesses. We’ll deal with those weaknesses first to get them out of the way and then I’ll circle back and explain why they are important to acknowledge but ultimately don’t matter all that much.
If you think of Fate/Zero as a story comprising three (unequal) parts, you’ll find that the first and last parts are strong and exceptional, respectively, but that the middle third is startlingly lacklustre. Too many meandering subplots and mini-arcs bog the story’s midsection down and it is only writer Gen Urobuchi’s ruthless narrative cleaver that is able to loosen enough knots for the story to continue to its breath-taking finale. You probably have heard of that old saying – “it’s not how you start a race that counts, but how you end it”. There is a very real risk of overselling Fate/Zero purely on the strength of its ending by saying “sure, the middle portion was decidedly ‘meh’ but did you see that final run of episodes?!” However, while the series undoubtedly recovers from the sloth of its midsection, I don’t think we should be giving that midsection a pass entirely.
As most of you reading this might have guessed, what came to mind when I was talking about the midsection was the Caster plot – it took way too long to resolve, in my opinion – and the general meandering that happened in the early parts of season two, with the exception of the confrontation with Lancer. Now, those episodes weren’t bad enough to make me feel like I had wasted my time on them, but they were certainly far from the series’ strongest moments. In contrast, I felt the first handful of episodes really got the hype flowing – we really saw all the factions lining up, and the early skirmishes were exciting too. I probably don’t even need to elaborate on how much I loved the way the final few episodes brought everything back home and tied it all up. I would also say that the ensemble nature of the piece works against it after a while. For the first half a dozen episodes or so, I could feel the hype of watching the way the different factions were operating, and it felt refreshing to know the various Servants and Masters right from the get go. However, after a while, as the story began to become more complicated, the series couldn’t afford to get bogged down on following each faction’s story but tried to compensate by giving us shorter glimpses of everyone. This backfired because the end result was that we didn’t really get that sense of intimacy that really set Fate/Stay Night apart in my eyes.
The series’ other weaknesses are more subjective and as a result, a little harder for me to put my finger on. The characters in the series, for instance, aren’t necessarily the most relatable or realistic. Each of them has encountered situations that can really be best described as being at the extremes of human experiences. The level of personal tragedy that many of the characters are familiar with makes them easy to understand on an intellectual level but ironically, harder to relate to. There are some exceptions to this, of course, but by and large, it is difficult to really put yourself in the emotional shoes of characters who have either been through or inflicted tremendous pain and suffering and trauma. Yet for all that, the characters are almost all rich and complex, and they are very effectively deployed throughout the series. The downside, really, comes with characters that are more miss than hit. Certain characters, see spoiler section below for details, feel like they were designed just for the sake of being deviant and often result in a poor mix of goofy and grim. At other times, the characters might feel a little too invested in their brooding, to the point where you want to tell them to lighten up a little. Neither of these are major issues, but again, just annoyances that didn’t need to be there.
The last bit of criticism to be levelled at the series comes from its tone. Anyone who is read this blog for any length of time knows that my approach to these stories and series I talk about is a simple one – a good story has to make you feel things. It doesn’t matter if it warmth, horror, humour or grief; a well told story needs to be able to draw you in sufficiently that you are able to feel emotions caused by something happening to an imaginary someone. This ties in to the conversation that the whole broader genre seems to having regarding the concept of just what constitutes ‘grimdark’. Fate/Zero’s tone as a series is undeniably both grim and dark – I wouldn’t say that it is overwhelmingly so, but neither will I claim that it’s all sunshine and rainbows. I have no problem with either grim or dark but I do believe that they need to be balanced and I do have a particular distaste for those elements being used only for the sake of being ‘edgy’ (another word that has been thrown around to the point of almost losing all meaning). If Fate/Zero avoids that trap of darkness and suffering for the sake of being edgy, it is only by the narrowest of margins. It is a series where you can go from a scene with serial killers merrily celebrating their atrocities in an almost comical, cheesy fashion to other characters languishing in existential angst. There are certainly points in time when you wonder if all the suffering that the characters are relentlessly subjected to is absolutely necessary or if it is simply a consequence of continuously rising stakes. Regardless, it feels like the series is in a misery-pissing competition against itself. It’s similar to the criticism levelled at Game of Thrones, for those of you familiar with that story. The darkness fits the story well, but it wears the audience down if it is never interrupted with good news of any kind. If the good guys never win, it is only a matter of time before the audience begins to desensitize themselves to the characters’ misery. I think it’s fair to say that many viewers will reach that state of callousness by the final set of Fate/Zero’s episodes, which is a shame because the end of the series is when you need to be most in tune with the characters and their feelings.
Let’s talk specifics here.
Ryuunosuke and Caster. I enjoyed their characters and their dynamics but more often than not, they were more meme-worthy than anything else and that begs the question, if you wanted to make the characters comedic to the point that no one could really take them seriously, then why even bother making them serial killers? Just to show that they were “bad guys”? I have a love-hate relationship with that duo because as much as I hate edginess, I do love me some dank memes.
Kiritsugu’s backstory. I can see why the story would need to go to such extremes to explain why he is as broken as he is but this was one of the places where I felt less could have been more. We didn’t need get the time to really get invested in pre-present Kiritsugu but just a few hints of what he had to go through might have been enough to imply without devoting two full flashback episodes to it.
There’s probably more that I’m missing but those are some of my bigger pet peeves. I think the reason for my strong reaction against this particular aspect of the series is because I hate being told how to feel. When the series tries to lead me by the nose and tells me all the awful things Kiritsugu went through and that I simply must feel bad for him (of course, the series doesn’t explicitly say it, but it’s heavily insinuated), I find myself fighting the natural sympathy I would have had for him if they hadn’t laid it on so heavy. I guess my point is that it’s all about balance and there is clearly such a thing as overdoing it and the shame is that in this particular example, I don’t feel it was even necessary.
By this point, you’re probably thinking, “wow, those are a lot of weaknesses, are you still sure this series is worth it?” Yes, I’m still absolutely sure. The criticisms above still definitely apply but this is the part of the review where I convince you that all my incredibly well-phrased and eloquent arguments above aren’t really all that important. The crux of my argument is as follows: yes, Fate/Zero is not perfect but what makes it so powerful is that when it gets things right, it gets them really really right. Below are the things about Fate/Zero that I enjoyed. Some of them extend to the larger Fate universe, but that’s a review that’s already been done (on this very website, no less).
1.) The setting
The mechanics surrounding the Holy Grail War can get fairly complicated, and sometimes it feels like there are more exceptions to the rule than examples, but nevertheless, the essence of the setting fascinates me. Each of the legendary heroic spirits that fight in this war bring a unique perspective, based on their own experiences, in their own time and I find it endlessly fascinating to see how these characters’ perspectives combine and, more often than not, clash, with others’. It would give away far too much to go into specifics but let’s just say that seeing the dramatic tension of having teams where the partners are united by purpose but separated by principle is just delicious. You would think that figures as storied and accomplished as Alexander the Great and King Arthur wouldn’t really have space for growth and character development, given how we tend to think of them as mature and wise, but Fate/Zero’s setting brings them to life and shows us that incredibly powerful though they may be, they are nevertheless only human.
2.) The characters
This brings me neatly to the characters. Yes, like I mentioned above, the characterization isn’t perfect but on the whole, the characters definitely fall on the positive side of this balance sheet. Each of them has a convincing reason to be in this fight – some are trying to make amends for their past actions, others are in it just to win it. Almost every character, however, comes with his or her own baggage and the series does a fantastic job of showing the audience how the characters slowly, painfully and often tragically, come to terms with that baggage. The characters all have strong ideological cores – this is part of what makes them more abstract than characters in a slice-of-life type of show, for example – but the series forces most of them to confront those beliefs. I won’t be giving too much away by saying that not everyone’s beliefs hold up to scrutiny; in fact, I would say that the greater part of the value of this series lies in seeing how these characters come to terms with those beliefs not holding up.
3.) The presentation
Anime is a visual medium and often, I’m guilty of not paying the visual element of it enough attention. I think on the whole we tend to underestimate just how much of our enjoyment of a series comes from its presentation. On an episode by episode basis it was a little redundant for me to keep harping on and on about just how much I enjoyed the animation, art and music. Now, I should put in a disclaimer at this point – I’m no artist and my taste in art is plebeian at best. Having said that, even someone like me noticed that Fate/Zero’s art and animation isn’t flawless – there are plenty of ‘derp’ frames in the series (though I probably only noticed them because I would pause to take screenshots for the weekly write-ups). However, when the show decides to pull all stops, you get some really amazing scenes. There is a small handful of scenes where the animation, the soundtrack and the script all line up so perfectly that you can’t help but be absolutely spell bound by the effect. It can be tempting to let the crazy fight sequences steal the show, but don’t count the soundtrack out too early either – Fate/Zero has a soundtrack that not only complements it brilliantly but also is great to listen to by itself.
4.) The big philosophical pay-off
It would be hard for me to overstate just how important this particular point was to my enjoyment of the series. After all the suffering and misery that the characters were put through, I don’t think I would have walked away from the series with a positive impression had its payoff been less rewarding than it was. The question of what to do with omnipotence is not a new one, by any means. Since the dawn of civilization, people have obsessed over the question of what the best wish would be if you had just one wish. The answer of ‘world peace’ is a painfully boring one, but Fate/Zero gives that answer a treatment that I found both thought-provoking and original. Each character in the series has a wish they would make of the Holy Grail if they were to win it but given that there can only be one winner, it’s not much of a spoiler to say there are going to be some very disappointed, and very dead, participants. Yet even the defeated participants are given what they need, if not necessarily what they wanted. Fate/Zero ends on a bittersweet note and the overpowering feeling at the end of the series is one of helplessness. You realize that the series’ cynical conclusion was somewhat inevitable and that an absolutely happy ending was never going to be possible. How could it? The characters that you come to care deeply about are all in conflict with each other and one character’s loss is another’s gain. Any outcome would be best described like this.
Fate/Zero: different doesn’t mean worse
Don’t fret, we’re almost at the end of this mammoth post. I would consider this to be my end to my Fate journey. I will watch the Heaven’s Feel movies when they come out and maybe Hollow Ataraxia after that, but that’s really far away and I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. The reason for this final spoiler because is to talk about Fate/Zero vs Fate/Stay Night the visual novel vs Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and consumption order. If you’re familiar with visual novels, then I really can’t think of any reason not to watch them in the order of release. Fate/Zero would be downright confusing if watched first and while you could watch UBW first, you’d have to play through HF to appreciate Fate/Zero anyway. I somehow still felt like HF was a more powerful story but that might just be because it was more of an emotional rollercoaster whereas FZ plays out pretty much like you know it would. If I place HF as my favourite story in the Fate universe, then the great debate of what comes next opens up and hence this section. In the end, I’m just going to cheat and say that I enjoyed F/SN more than FZ but FZ more than UBW and Fate. The reason for this is because Fate/Stay Night offered an intimacy with the characters that Fate/Zero did not at all. Fate/Zero felt more intellectual and philosophical in some ways but Fate/Stay Night felt more real and personal. [/spoiler]
As always, it up to you, the reader of this review, to decide if the weaknesses offset the strengths but for my part, I strongly recommend this series. I have a hard time putting the impact this series had on me in words (which I realize is the least helpful thing someone reviewing a series can say) but in a way, saying that it left such a deep mark is a stronger recommendation than any attempt at analysing the series piecewise could be. If that sounds like a cop-out from doing the hard work of breaking the series down, that’s because it absolutely is. When I first finished this series, I had a knee-jerk reaction to give it a 10/10 but after pausing to un-hype myself and think about the series as a whole through, I’m going to bring it down to a 9.
Final Score: 9/10