The Age Old Question
As with any larger franchise, this question always seems to come up: where should I start? It’s a seemingly simple question without an equally straightforward answer. If you have been following my Fate journey thus far you’d notice that each has a “route” in the article’s title and wondered why I bothered putting it there. In part this is to help you, the reader, navigate the articles in a sensible way as to have my thoughts presented more cohesively, but even more so it acts as a general watch order suggestion. That brings us back to this article which you may have noticed is labeled “route 1 alternative” much like the review of the 2006 and 2010 Deen adaptations, so what gives?
First some Ground Rules
In this discussion of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and the other franchise entries I’m going to be referring to several titles which are quite similar to each other. In order to keep this article readable and easy to understand I want to make sure it is clear what show I’m talking about as I’m discussing to avoid confusion. So here are the terms and what they’ll be referring to:
- Fate (on its own) – This will refer to the franchise as a whole and not any one particular title.
- Deen Adaptation(s) – When using this term I’ll be referring to the original 2006 adaptation and/or the 2010 version of Unlimited Blade Works. For the purposes of this article these separate adaptations are more-or-less treated as one though.
- Unlimited Blade Works/UBW – I’ll use these strictly for the 2014 ufotable adaptation.
Any other terms will be in reference to individual titles such as “Apocrypha” being used to discuss Fate/Apocrypha. In that regard it should be pretty straightforward. Now that this is all settled let’s go ahead and dive right into the article proper.
Wait, Isn’t Zero the Starting Point?
While it is tempting to dive right into the discussion of Unlimited Blade Works I want to address the elephant in the room that is Zero. As I hinted at the start of the article, recommending a singular watch order that will universally work for everyone isn’t a straightforward task. I discussed in my review of the Deen adaptations that deciding whether or not to start there or jump ahead to Zero or the UBW versions done by ufotable is going to depend a lot on your goal. Similarly deciding whether or not to start with the prequel (Zero) or the technical starting point (UBW) is going to depend on a few factors.
Personally I would recommend starting with either the Deen adaptations or Zero but that’s because I’m a completionist who wants an abundance of context. That doesn’t even mention the fact that I have the goal to discuss and review literally every main franchise entry along with several of the spin-off series. However, this may not be the case for you, and in fact, is likely not. Therefore let me purpose a few watch orders for you now:
Let’s say you are like me and want to navigate the series as I’ve been doing so. Here’s the current article order as released along with one projected entry:
- Deen adaptations in release order
- Heaven’s Feel (Parts 1-3)
It’s a pretty simple watch order there. I plan to watch more than this, so my final list will look different than it does here, but for the sake of discussion that is the current order I would recommend watching the main Fate stories along with one spin-off.
Pretty much exactly what this says on the tin. This version leaves out the spin-off (obviously) as well as the 2010 Deen version of UBW. This would provide the most informed viewing experience but would also take away some of the “mystery” the franchise might offer you.
- Deen adaptation, skipping the film
- Heaven’s Feel (Parts 1-3)
Alternatively, you may appreciate lacking some context as you watch and having little revelations later. This would increase the payoff for some of the setup provided in the show but would decrease your initial understanding:
- Deen adaptation, skipping the film
- Heaven’s Feel (Parts 1-3)
New Stuff Only
Basically three options here. Pick either of the previous entry’s options, dropping the Deen adaptations and optionally adding Apocrypha after Zero. This might be the best way for newer anime fans to get into the franchise as it’ll provide you with the appropriate knowledge base without being dragged down by the quirks of the older stuff. I know not all modern anime fans hate watching older titles, but I am aware that it is a hurdle. Not my personal recommendation, but this would be my go-to recommendation for a total stranger.
Are we Talking About Unlimited Blade Works Yet?
Just kidding, well sort of anyway. I couldn’t help myself.
After all this preamble you might be wondering why I am recommending things the way they are beyond the tiny summaries I provided above. This is completely reasonable, in fact your curiosity means you are a particularly clever reader asking the important questions. However, in order to talk about Unlimited Blade Works we also have to discuss the previous Deen adaptations. Each has its pros and cons, overlap, and of course, differences. If you haven’t read my article on the 2006 and 2010 adaptations yet, now would be a good time to do so as I won’t be rehashing that here.
Deen VS ufotable
Okay, that might be a little dramatic but in order for you to understand my overall thoughts on UBW I basically need to tell you what each entry is doing well, and where they aren’t. This will be broken up into sections so you can skip around if you want. I don’t write short articles anymore apparently when it comes to this sort of thing, it’s Love Live! all over again… Now that I’ve gotten my brief mental lapse out of the way, let’s move on with our first category.
Right, I just want to get this out of the way. The Deen adaptations are quite obviously older with productions of lesser quality. This isn’t to say they are bad, in fact the film is surprisingly well presented both visually and musically, but ufotable absolutely blows them out of the water. This should surprise no one unlike my take on Demon Slayer, in so much that nice visuals and sound isn’t always everything.
What I mean to say is that this category is basically a wash. It should be the least relevant thing to consider in this discussion, but I know if I avoided it that some random yahoo named Brad would show up in my comments saying, “Um, AcTuAlY…” to the whole thing. Naturally resulting in them missing the point, and subsequently walking away with the objectively adequate opinion that media’s goal is to entertain, some stuff just isn’t that deep bro, let it go. Fair enough, pretty colors and nice sound waves do accomplish the brain off, unwind goal. Unfortunately for Brad, he can kindly show himself out as we are here to make meaningful critique.
Whew, finally, some actual discussion on Unlimited Blade Works! So what’s been changed? Having watched both adaptations, not a lot actually. At least at a more macro level. This is to say if you’ve seen the Deen version of UBW you’ve seen ufotable’s. Still, there’s enough variance here and expansion on the Deen material for Unlimited Blade Works to prove worthy of your time, given a major caveat.
If you are like me and watched the Deen version prior to the ufotable adaptation, then you are likely going to be quite bored with a good chunk of this newer anime. It’s not the show’s fault or anything, and I do think that this is a one way problem as, if the reverse were true, I likely wouldn’t have experienced this issue. Here in lies the catch 22 though, going backwards is something I’ve already noted as being difficult with this franchise, but if you want to experience Deen you really do need to start there.
How can that be? I just said there wouldn’t have been this conflict. Yes, that’s true when referring JUST to the story of Shiro/Archer. After all, the Deen adaptation there is mere 105 minutes compared to the 26 (if you count the OVA) episodes of the ufotable version. However, we aren’t. Divorcing the Deen show proper from the equation isn’t correct in this case (I know you can argue it is, but hear me out) as a large chunk of that informs this iteration of UBW.
Confused? Yeah, if you haven’t seen either of these shows or only just one… phew, good luck! Unfortunately Fate is one of those contextual franchises. Each entry informs the next, which in term informs the previous. It’s a big circle of taking what’s needed, throwing out what’s not, and hoping you end up with a good stew by the end. I swear that metaphor sounded better in my head, but you get the point. Fate is inherently kind of a mess.
Good news though! The larger changes to UBW are generally quite good at addressing these issues. However, it might be a little too good at that. Oh, I sense a new section coming on!
Magic or MacGuffin (Why Not Both)?
One of the biggest problems with the Deen anime is the lack of explanation on anything. When I got to Zero there was a notable jump in quality when it came to explaining things both with in-universe language and visual direction. The same holds true in Unlimited Blade Works. The easiest example to use for this case has to do with magic in the Fate universe.
Even after all this watching I can’t really tell you how or why magic works the way it does in Fate. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter it is basically a MacGuffin in much the same way that the Holy Grail is. Strictly speaking, it allows for some cool fights and other creative solutions to plot problems but not much else. Still, these newer iterations have taken care to make it abundantly clear when magic is being used, for what purpose, and why something will or won’t work. This is reinforced by characters vocalizing and visual direction. Personally speaking, this was a dramatic improvement over any of the Deen stuff where there aren’t rules, and even when there are, characters immediately break them or have an exception anyway.
The result of this is a much more clear narrative that is easier to follow for new and veteran viewers alike. While I didn’t necessarily need this added clarification, it was still something I appreciated nonetheless. However, this extreme logic in clarity extends to other aspects of the storytelling…. for better or worse. Allow me to explain.
One of the biggest mysteries of the show, the identity of Archer, is smartly hidden in the Deen adaptation due to the obscurity of information. Astute viewers will no doubt figure it out, and regardless it isn’t a particularly well-kept secret in the same way that Saber is King Arthur, but there is more of a payoff there than in the ufotable rendition of Unlimited Blade Works. Due to how telegraphed everything is in the visual direction there is almost no sense of mystery surrounding any of the more “opaque” plot points, or what should be at first while coming into focus later. Instead, the show doubles down on the visual storytelling to the point where it is basically screaming the identity of Archer to the viewer from the literal rooftops.
Now one could argue that this is hindsight kicking in since I did know this coming into UBW, but I’d be straight up lying to you if I were to say that I wouldn’t have figured this out on my own. As early as episode 2 (if you watched and count the OVA), that’s how quickly you can figure it out. It is beyond blatant by episode 3 or 4. This isn’t the singular area where this level of cohesion in setting and paying off the narrative has a problem, but it is the clearest example. I used this to illustrate my general frustrations with UBW on the whole because it creates a lot of the main issues in this adaptation.
I Hate Shirou Emiya (& Archer too)
For those of you who may be less familiar, Unlimited Blade Works is primarily about Shirou and Archer. Also Rin, but she’s kind of just there after a bit (more on that later). Each version of the main Fate stories focuses on a different arc, or for simplicity, alternate timeline that reflects the various routes in visual novel the game is based on. That checks out, a lot of other visual novels do the same sort of thing, just not usually going as far as to create whole separate shows for every arc (but I digress).
In more layman terms, this is the main story. The bread and butter in which the rest of Fate is built off of. You want to understand everything else that even remotely touches on the events taking place in Fuyuki? Then you kind of need to experience some version of this story or one that at least ties to it. That could be Deen, Zero, or of course today’s topic of conversation. Those will all serve just fine as a foundation. Unfortunately for me (and you by extension), this is easily the worst story that Fate has to offer when it comes to the main stuff that I’ve seen to date.
Before I get too far into this I want to say that the concept of Shirou and Archer is cool. There are cool moments with both of them in the show. I don’t universally hate everything about them, so don’t get the wrong idea. That said, the show knows these two are a problem and does its best given the source material but…
I know I really loved the part of the show where it was the Shirou and Archer hour for like 8 straight episodes. The same stuff over-and-over, skirting around the main point, and just generally being drawn out for far too long. Fate in general has pacing issues, which I can accept, but when the focus is primarily on Shirou, especially if he’s alone with Archer, is when the show comes to a molasses covered crawl.
To get around this problem Unlimited Blade Works actually opens with Rin as our protagonist. She’s an actual character unlike Shirou “Mr. Raging Justice Boner” Emiya. Super awesome, for the one OVA episode they do it. Then they do the same episode again but from Emiya’s perspective. I know that this is kind of silly to complain about, but this is my incredibly long-winded look at this property, so I think I’m afforded some liberties here-and-there. He’s just bland, one-note, and not great for anything outside of a fight sequence.
Giving both versions some credit here as they try their best with Shirou but he’s just not enjoyable to watch at all. Hence my general distaste for UBW on the whole. It’s hard to get excited about a show focusing almost entirely on the narrative equivalent of a skipping record. While this comment may seem damning for the show, it isn’t fully the case. Like anything there are ups and downs, he’s just a big down.
Fleshing Things Out (Hehe, Shinji)
If you know, you know 😉
I could leave this at that and call this a gag section, but in reality I need to give some praise back to Unlimited Blade Works after the rather scathing review of its headlining characters. The show improved a lot of the side cast stories ranging from minor (Shinji) all the way up to Caster and Illya being dramatically improved (for the most part). Getting 26 episodes though, I would hope that to be the case.
Here’s a quick rundown of what I liked and what I didn’t like about these changes and additions for each of the characters:
- Shinji – He was always awful, but in that entertaining sort of way. Now he just has a bit more of a character beyond twirling a mustache, not a lot, but just enough you can follow his motivations. This is helped by seeing Zero and I suspect that Heavens Feel could also give him a little more punch but that last bit is purely speculative.
- Caster – What we got in the Deen version wasn’t bad, in fact the ending of that story is actually pretty great. Sadly, that is the one area where ufotable falls flat. Other than that though, much clearer storytelling allowing for more of a build up to the climax. Other than the fumble at the end, gotta stay true to the source I guess, I’m 100% on board with these changes. For context the Deen ending for Caster’s narrative has some emotional weight and dramatic implications for her master’s character (along with hers), but instead you get the narrative equivalent of this:
- Illya – They added a whole backstory here, gave her attendants, and generally just improved every facet of her character given how little screen time she is supposed to get in this arc. She goes from being a plot device to a plot device you might actually feel something for. Not just saying this as a resident Illya lover, but in general it is a considerable improvement. Plus Hercules is just awesome here.
Not everyone gets this consideration though. However, in order to understand that we need to temporarily talk about Zero again and how it is a “prequel” to UBW.
With and Without Zero
Here’s the rub with that last part, some of this only works if you’ve seen Zero. Alternatively, having seen Zero makes some of what we are about to discuss fall completely flat. So where’s the improvement? Let’s start there as it is more positive.
The big ones are anything to do with Illya, Saber, and Gilgamesh. All of these characters greatly benefit from having this knowledge in a way that I’d argue almost makes it mandatory viewing beforehand. That and this story is going to spoil a lot of that story while making weird, seemingly out of place references to it as well.
Simultaneously a boon and a bane, we have to talk about the issues this breeds. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that not having this knowledge is going to lead to some strange moments in UBW that might seem out of place or random. Not to mention your enjoyment of Zero may dramatically decrease as this will spoil a fair bit. Worst of all though is Kirei and his character.
Let me be perfectly clear, in this route I know he isn’t a main player, but spoilers, they sure build him up in Unlimited Blade Works. Given the ties to Zero you can almost get your hopes up that there will be some twist or divergence where Kirei will do more than gurgle in a pool of his own blood after overlooking the simple fact that a guy who’s stabbed can stand back up, but no. This careful plotter is there to dominate the early to almost late stages of the plot in order to bait you into thinking he might be a credible villain because they don’t want you looking too closely at the main event before it gets there.
I’d like to remind you that I’ve seen the Deen version. I knew this was coming. In that version, it felt fine, the runtime is much shorter and the context of Zero serves no purpose. They are separate entities in this case. Not true here as there are direct ties. In short, it is irksome. The plot completely falls flat here, almost becoming comical, just so they can make the final confrontation with the real villain happen… in spite of the fact that the villain and Kirei supposedly get along. I guess it doesn’t really matter, throw it out, UBW is sticking to source and damning any kind of setup and payout that it could (and realistically should) of had.
Even without Zero as context though, I bet this part is going to feel bad to most viewers. Remember how telegraphed everything is in this story? Kirei is no exception, but here it backfires once again. Smartly, they decided to give Kirei almost no screen time. This was a good move as he isn’t the actual focus, however he’s obviously very scheme-y and secretive. You can see the problem, it ends up making him seem even more important. The fact he shows up more than a couple of times as we enter the late stages of the show doesn’t help either. The first time he “dies” would have felt fine, but reviving him only to kill him seconds later is pretty stupid.
Overall I just found this annoying the more I thought about it. I even knew it was going to happen, and in the moment it didn’t bother me too much, but now… You can thank K at the Movies for launching this discussion by the way, it was a complaint he leveled at the show during our discussion of it.
Are we Done Yet?
Asking won’t make the article come to an end faster, but yes, we are almost done here. All that’s left is to give you my final thoughts and tell you where our next destination is in this seemingly endless journey down the Fate rabbit hole. We’ve come a long way from where we started and I’ve made it pretty clear throughout this article that I found UBW to be a mixed bag. There’s some absolutely great stuff in here, but it also can be a frustrating watch. Enough of the vague feelings though, let’s look at HARD numbers!
Looking back at the Deen adaptations I gave the series proper a 6 with the film scoring a 5 out of 10. Flawed works for sure, but there’s a certain sparkle to them that merit you giving them your time. So how did Unlimited Blade Works fair? Given that there are two parts let’s score them individually. The first half, which is primarily setup I gave an 8 out 10 to with the second half (being the payoff) getting a 5 out of 10. Taking the averages of the two that leaves Deen with a 5.5 and ufotable with a 6.5. So ufotable’s adaptation comes out on top, right?
Well here’s the tricky part. Objectively speaking, yes, this version of the story is better. It is competently presented, logically executed, and all around better produced. That’s why it scored so high, it is hard to find fault with something that genuinely improved what came before it. Subjectively though, I have to say I got a lot more out of Deen’s version. It was more fun to watch in spite of its numerous issues. This isn’t to say I was bored with Unlimited Blade Works or that I actually dislike it or anything, it’s more that I find it difficult to care about in general. You’ll note that at the end of the day Deen and ufotable’s versions stacked up more-or-less the same when you focus on just the Shirou and Archer story.
Whether or not YOU should watch this isn’t my place to say. On the one hand, if you haven’t experienced any of the Deen stuff and you want a good place to start diving into the franchise, then this will fit the bill. On the other hand though, the story is weak, which isn’t the show’s fault more than it is the script it is based on. For what’s there, you’ll have a good enough time, at least I can promise you won’t be bored, but beyond that? Well, I just can’t make any promises.
You made it this far and you still want more of my Fate opinions? Why? Regardless of your reasons, here’s what I am thinking for our next stop on the journey: Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya. I considered watching Babylonia because who doesn’t simp for King Gilg-y, but I think I’m due getting to what I’ve been lowkey most excited for in this entire series of articles. That’s right, controversy (and Illya, I mean, come on). I’m curious to see where I land on this one. If you were interested in seeing me take a quick detour into Babylonia though, please do let me know and we may just do it after Illya as her first season is pretty short at only 10 episodes.
Until next time, I’ll continue being the bone of my pen. Steel is my body, and ink my blood. I’ve penned a thousand reviews (actually almost true at time of writing). Unware of beginning. Nor aware of the end. Withstood pain with inconsistent writings, my hands will never type anything. Yet, my flame never ends. My whole body was still Unlimited Review Works.
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