Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
There was once a Holy Grail War waged by seven Mages and seven Heroic Spirits in a town called Fuyuki. However, a certain Mage took advantage of the chaos of World War II to steal the Holy Grail. Several decades have passed, and the Yggdmillennia family, who took up the Holy Grail as its symbol, defected from the Mages' Association and declared their independence. In furious retaliation, the Association sent a force to deal with Yggdmillennia, but they were defeated by the summoned Servants. Now that the Holy Grail War system has changed, a new war breaks out at an unprecedented scale, with seven Yggdmillenia masters and their servants versus seven more opposing mages and their servants: black versus red. And so the curtain rises on the epoch-making Great Holy Grail War.
In a way, Fate/Apocrypha is the quintessential Netflix show. Although the series was released in weekly installments on Netflix Japan (albeit a few days after the TV broadcast), I ended up watching it the old-fashioned Netflix way: binge-watching twelve episodes in one day.
It's hard not to imagine watching Fate/Apocrypha in big chunks. After a slow start, the story quickly escalates into an all-out war, leading to multiple episodes of fighting with little time for the viewer to catch their breath. The momentum never lets up even as the first part of the series draws to a close. This can be a double-edged sword for international fans—if you're following the global release of Fate/Apocrypha on Netflix, you may find the wait for the series' second half even more frustrating than the wait for its debut.
Issues with the show's distribution aside, these first twelve episodes of Fate/Apocrypha are well worth watching, especially if you're a fan of big action set pieces. The Fate franchise is well known for being equal parts action and philosophy, but Fate/Apocrypha skews the balance way more toward action than any previous Fate anime. This does come at the downside of satisfying character development for most of this anime's hefty cast, but if you're here because you like the idea of famous mythological figures beating each other up in super-powered magical battles, you'll probably enjoy your stay.
I've reviewed the first three episodes of this series before, so bear with me as I repeat a few details from that review. Fate/Apocrypha is set in an alternate timeline from Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero, so you don't technically need to have seen those before watching this anime, but it's probably a good idea anyway since the setup is so darned convoluted. Either way, you'll probably find it hard to keep track of all the players in this game, since there are two warring factions with seven servants and seven masters on each side. This is without mentioning the special Ruler class character or the unnamed homunculus boy, both of whom play crucial roles in the plot. Even if you give up on learning all the names, you may need a notepad just to remember who is on which side at any given time.
There's no doubt that this series has way more characters than it can juggle, but it's impressive how efficiently the show makes use of its sprawling cast for the most part. In the first part of the story, the plot is more about factions than individuals, so once you've sorted each character into their “red” and “black” camps, their roles in the story are fairly easy to understand. It also helps that a lot of the characters are simply likable and memorable on a superficial level, such as the androgynous Astolfo or the hyper-aggressive Mordred. There's one episode where Mordred chases a cat around on all fours while her Master talks on the phone about tracking down a serial killer. These delightfully playful scenes pretty much sum up the appeal of Fate/Apocrypha's characters; they're fun to watch even when you don't understand exactly what they're doing yet.
Things get even more difficult to keep track of after a certain reveal midway through the series makes it harder to follow who's on which side. It looks as if the story is aiming for something more complicated than a “black” vs “red” story for the second half as the relationships become more tangled. Also, the reasoning behind Ruler being summoned or a certain character's power upgrade is simultaneously convoluted and barely explained. Unless you're well-versed in your Type-Moon lore and you've read the original novels, you're expected to just roll with it. As Morded's Master quips at one point: “It's a Grail War. Anything can happen.”
It's a good thing that the story eventually develops some thematic coherency. As the episodes tick by, a homunculus boy who is initially introduced as a passive victim of the war eventually gains agency and a will to live. Ruler helps grant him his freedom, even while knowing that his future will not be a happy one. (It's also worth noting that Ruler's character design features chains; she herself is bound by something.) The idea of choosing your own fate yet being chained down by the fate you have chosen is an interesting and compelling contradiction. It's uplifting and yet tragic. Even within the context of a fast-paced story with rushed character development, the pathos of the homunculus's story is still haunting.
Even if you aren't satisfied with the story, I'd argue that Fate/Apocrypha is worth watching just for its action scenes. It's hard to outdo ufotable, especially after the mind-blowing display that was the first Heaven's Feel film, but Fate/Apocrypha's achievements in animation are absolutely worth highlighting. Even after twelve episodes, the quality hasn't slipped up at all. There's also a sense of rawness to the character animation that I really enjoy. Black Berserker's mental breakdown is a standout; her entire face and body contort, and her movements become erratic in a way that feels convincingly spontaneous. As much as I like the polished sheen of ufotable's adaptations, I can't help but adore many individual cuts in Fate/Apocrypha more.
Unfortunately, Fate/Apocrypha is not without flaws in the visual department as well. Some action is difficult to discern, either because it's drowned out by digital effects or because the picture has been dimmed. This is always a shame because the original cuts of animation are quite detailed and technically impressive, but the finished version still feels like a downgrade. I've heard that the BDs will fix these issues to some degree, but that's irrelevant to this initial viewing experience.
Fate/Apocrypha isn't the most memorable Fate anime, but if you're a fan of pure action shows, it's definitely worth checking out. For what it's worth, it's also the least philosophically ambitious Fate anime so far. The focus may change in the second cour, but the first half hasn't really delved into anyone's mindset or explored their core self in any grandiose way. It's mostly been a collection of flashy action scenes so far, and that's been fine by me. What you get out of this series will very much depend on what you're looking for from a Fate anime.
Overall : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Consistently high-quality and expressive animation, likable and charismatic characters, interesting core themes
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