Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 9th 2011
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Ten years ago, supernatural forces came together in the Fourth Holy Grail War—a battle for an ancient artifact that grants any wish to its owner. According to legend, the Holy Grail detects worthy magic-users, then selects who will participate. Seven "Masters" are chosen to command seven "Servants" that represent the great warrior classes: Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider, Assassin, Berserker, and Caster. The notorious "mage-killer" Emiya Kiritsugu has summoned Saber, a swordswoman whose power makes Kiritsugu an early favorite to win the Holy Grail. However, other rivals soon emerge: Kirei Kotomine, a priest whose Assassin has many hidden surprises up his sleeve, Tokiomi Tohsaka, a family patriarch who controls the flamboyant Archer, and Kayneth El-Melloi, a strategy-minded professor with Lancer on his side. Along with other Masters and Servants, they will soon meet face to face in a battle for the ages.
How grand is the war being fought in Fate/Zero? So grand that the first episode has to be a double-length 45-minute feature just to explain the basics of what's going on. Even then, many details are left unclear: the characters spend more time discussing and preparing how they plan to fight than actually fighting. That's how elaborate the world-building is in this series: the centuries of family history, the clan politics, and the strategic mind games make the Fate universe so much more than just sorcerers throwing energy bolts at each other. (Or, as these episodes indicate, legendary warriors clashing with unbelievable weapons.) But in trying to express the breadth of this epic war, Fate/Zero stumbles too often in the beginning, a victim of its own towering ambitions.
Granted, the good parts of Fate/Zero are breathtakingly, wondrously good—hot-blooded confrontations where steel, sorcery, and sheer willpower collide. The showdown between Lancer and Saber is an early highlight of the series, made only better by the arrival of more warriors: Rider and his comical bravado, Berserker and his smoky-black aura of mystery, plus a couple of other lurkers. But these displays of battle-readiness also trigger some doubts about the series: is the grandeur really only superficial? It's one thing to make a dramatic entrance and strut about on the battlefield, but what next? Any anime can look impressive when legendary beings are exercising their superpowers; it's the rationale the behind these superhuman battles that can make or break a series.
Oddly enough, the problem here is that there's too much rationale. Outside of action scenes, the main characters are often found constantly explaining things to each other, to the point of exasperation. Sometimes it's reasonable, like talking about one's reason for fighting, but all too often it snowballs into long-winded dissertations on the entire history of the Holy Grail Wars. Ironically, this causes the side characters to be more appealing, since they're not blowing hot air all over the place. Insecure young sorcerer Waver (Rider's master) provides comic relief as the one "regular guy" in the series, and the serial killer who teams up with Caster makes for an intriguing wild-card element as neither of them are interested in the Holy Grail at all.
This wild inconsistency in the storyline also manifests itself in the visuals: the fight sequences are masterworks of well-timed choreography, while dialogue scenes often leave the animators twiddling their thumbs, wondering what to do. (A couple of times, the characters walk around in circles during conversation, trying to make things interesting—which only highlights just how clunky these scenes are.) A noticeable layer of CGI also works its way into the action, but the flashy special effects, fluid motion, and rich details help to smooth it over. Take away the battles, though, and all that's left is a fairly average effort: the characters do most of their chatting in blandly colored indoor spaces, standing or sitting as still as possible, except when they're walking in circles as mentioned above. The artwork in the series is at its best when the Servants show up in their battle gear—a striking set of character designs meant to represent famous warriors throughout history. By comparison, however, the Masters and other human characters look plain and forgettable, and the background art has only occasional moments of greatness (usually in and around historic buildings).
If you need any further confirmation that all the effort goes straight into the fight scenes, just listen to the soundtrack, which swells with emotion whenever the Servants face off but is sparse or nonexistent during moments of inaction. Obviously, superpowered battles demand a full orchestra (and sometimes a choir) to express just how intense the conflict is; meanwhile, two or three characters just chatting with each other are only going to get some background noise as their accompaniment. The theme songs are standard pop-rock fare, with a bright uptempo number kicking off each episode and a mellower, song to close things out.
It hasn't been mentioned yet, but the usual disclaimer bears repeating here: Fate/Zero is a spinoff series, and as such, is best enjoyed by those who have already seen (or played) the original Fate/Stay Night. There are some brief nods to the main series, including cameos by well-known characters, and fans already understand how the entire Holy Grail War system works. Meanwhile, newcomers and the more critically-minded might have to work harder to find enjoyment in the series. The fight scenes are flat-out great, regardless of context, but the bloated dialogue scenes and endless explanations make for some pretty tall barriers to entry. It's a shame, because most everyone can appreciate a complex, elaborately built world and the showy, fantasy-themed magical combat that takes place there. But when the storytelling is so dense and clumsy that you have to take notes just to keep everything straight, it takes away a lot of the fun.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Animation : B+
Art : C+
Music : C
+ Stunningly produced fight scenes and an intricately plotted premise pull the viewer into the story.
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