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.
Note: While Fate/Apocrypha is not yet available streaming in English, this review comes courtesy of our Tokyo correspondent who watched these first three episodes in Japan.
Fate/Apocrypha is a bit of an odd duck in the Type-Moon universe. Based off a series of doujin (self-published) novels, it's set in an alternate timeline from the Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero stories, featuring a whole new set of characters and a whole new Grail War. While it's not technically part of the “canon” timeline, it does offer some interesting variations on the Grail War, such as two distinct warring factions, fourteen Masters instead of the usual seven, and a Ruler class servant to acts as a mediator in the conflict.
Although Fate/Apocrypha tells a standalone story, it's probably not a good idea for newcomers to the Fate franchise to jump in cold with this installment. While you don't technically need to know Fate/stay night to understand Fate/Apocrypha, the setup for this story is even more convoluted than previous entries of the franchise, potentially understandable only if you already know the rules behind a "normal" Grail War. The entire first episode is dedicated to exposition that explains in detail how the rules of this particular Grail War (called the “Great Holy Grail War”) differ from all the other Grail Wars, essentially assuming that the audience already knows the basics. It's a testament to just how sprawling the lore of the Fate franchise has become that its premise can't be adequately conveyed in an entire episode of screen time.
That said, if you have a general understanding of how Master-Servant relationships work and why the Grail War is considered a big deal, then Fate/Apocrypha shouldn't be too difficult to understand. If you've seen any other Fate series before, you'll know roughly what to expect from Fate/Apocrypha—dull exposition interspersed with flashy battles and some enjoyable character dynamics. In those latter two aspects, Fate/Apocrypha does not disappoint, making it a worthwhile watch for any Fate fan, or just anyone who likes cool animation in general.
After a tepid first episode, the plot kicks into gear, introducing its main players and building up the stakes of the conflict. The story is still very much in introductory mode, but it has made good use of its first three episodes to develop its sprawling cast of characters. This is an impressive feat when you remember that Fate/Apocrypha has over twice the number of Masters and Servants of other Fate stories. Much like Fate/Zero, Fate/Apocrypha works as an ensemble story without a particular point-of-view character, crafting its characters to service the plot instead of vice versa.
For the most part, this approach works well for the anime. The narrative makes it easy to understand the purpose of each character by sorting them into “red” or “black” camps. And while the individual characters are barely developed, their personalities and visual designs are diverse enough to make it easy to differentiate between them. The standouts so far have been Mordred, the red Saber, and Astolfo, the black Rider, who tend to steal the show whenever they appear. Also, Shakespeare's a Servant in this show, and the result is as hilarious as you might imagine.
However likable some of the characters are, it doesn't change the fact that it's difficult to identify with them or relate to their goals, even after three episodes of introductions. We do learn some of the characters' motivations, but this information is presented in a rather dry and matter-of-fact way. There's no reason to empathize with their situations yet. For better or worse, Fate/Apocrypha also lacks a strong unifying theme. The lyrics of the OP mention Fate's usual themes of “heroism” and “hope,” while the first episode opens with a rather cryptic monologue about time suspended in motion, but it remains to be seen if these ideas will be developed in subsequent episodes.
For the moment, at least, Fate/Apocrypha appears to play its “mythological figures fight to the death” premise straight without any philosophical pretensions. And so far, that's been just fine; as an action show, Fate/Apocrypha has already had some great highlights. The animation has been especially thrilling to watch, eschewing the heavy post-processing and digital effects of ufotable's Fate style for more hand-drawn effects, resulting in the first Fate anime that prioritizes character movement above all else in its action scenes, making for some impressively detailed sequences. This isn't to downplay the excellent visual work in the ufotable versions of Fate, but Fate/Apocrypha does offer an alternative aesthetic that holds up well in its own right.
So far, I wouldn't call Fate/Apocrypha my favorite Fate anime (that honor still goes to Fate/Zero), but it's been a refreshing change of pace. If you like the general premise of Fate/stay night but would rather see different players take the helm, you may be Fate/Apocrypha's ideal audience. The new cast in Fate/Apocrypha has been fun to watch so far, even if the individual characters are hardly developed at all. Plus, the action scenes are some of the best in the entire franchise. If you have the patience to sit through the exposition, the animated highlights are definitely worth your while. After three episodes, Fate/Apocrypha is still finding its feet, but it's shaping up to be one of the better action shows this season.
Overall : B
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Refreshing take on the Fate universe, good use of an ensemble cast, great animated action scenes
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