Reviewby Theron Martin,
Blu-Ray - Collection 2
Rider has been defeated, but other big threats still loom for Shirou, Rin, and their Servants as the fifth Grail War continues. Possibly the biggest is little Illyasviel von Einzbern and her mammoth Servant Berserker (aka Hercules), who is easily the most physically powerful of all the Servants. Although Shirou develops a new trick, the battle against Berserker comes at a cost, and Shirou's inability to replenish Saber's mana (as a normal Magus could) becomes a problem. An additional challenge awaits in the form of Caster and Assassin, who seem to be working together, and Caster's unusual Master. Caster's dastardly plan to sacrifice a Magus to summon the Grail prematurely also draws out a completely unanticipated presence: an apparent eighth Servant, one whom Saber knows from the previous Grail War and whose presence here can only spell “trouble” for a number of reasons. Backtracking the newcomer also leads to the discovery of Lancer's true Master, a villain more dangerous than any before, and the abominable truth behind the nature of what the Magi call the Holy Grail and what actually happened at the end of the previous Grail War which triggered the destruction that Shirou only barely survived. In the process Saber's true, ultimate Noble Phantasm finally gets revealed and her ultimate motive made clear, but can Shirou – who is falling in love with Saber – really let her fulfill it?
Though it had a fair amount of action, the first half of Fate/stay night only really had one substantive, conclusive battle. The second half has several. It also has more satisfying development of its character interactions, even though it does take another big step towards becoming a harem series. These episodes have flaws in other ways, too, but on the whole they bring the franchise's founding series to a satisfying, if somewhat bittersweet, resolution.
Taken as a standalone effort, the second half tries to accomplish two crucial tasks: dish out a lot of flashy, super-powered battles and develop the central relationship between Shirou, Saber, and (to a much lesser extent) Rin. The former goal it certainly succeeds at, as we get to see both Saber and Archer duel with Berserker, Saber battle against Assassin and the newcomer, Rin wage a Magus's duel against Caster, and Shirou confront the Masters of Caster and Lancer. The thrill level of these battles vary, and achieving a full impact is hampered somewhat by unimpressive animation and mediocre fight choreography (except for the Shirou/Caster's Master fights), but there are no shortage of dramatic swings, strikes, and power releases, as the newcomer's Noble Phantasm is an impressive one and Archer's, while ultimately not as effective, is even more mind-blowingly cool. Each of the combatants also gets his or her chance to shine, to varying degrees of success; Rin, for instance, proves much more definitively why she is a fan-favorite character, but Shirou is much less credible for having the fighting skills that he shows.
The success of the character developments is also prominent but less consistent. Shirou is plausibly enough shown to be genuinely falling in love with Saber, and to the writing's credit Saber does not easily succumb to his minimal charms and somewhat chauvinistic attitudes. (In fact, their relationship does not really start working until he essentially gives up on keeping Saber from fighting.) She remains a strong and dignified character to the end, one eventually willing to acknowledge Shirou's feelings but unwilling to let her actions and goals be driven by them. That makes the ultimate romance feel more honest than most of those seen in harem series and sets up one aspect of the doubly-bittersweet nature of the ending. Although Illyasviel does get added into the mix as a theoretical romantic rival, she is more an outsider looking in, and Rin never progresses farther than seeming like she might be interested but acknowledging that she is merely a friend and ally rather than a love interest. Rin's relationship with Sakura is also defined better here; although the exact nature of their connection is never explicitly stated, it is implied strongly enough that even those who have not seen Fate/Zero can probably reasonably guess. Much more disappointing are the motives of the antagonists in this half. Lancer does show enough pride here to not purely come off as the nasty prick that he was in the first, and the newcomer's monumental arrogance is fully credible once his true identity is revealed, but Illyasviel bouncing between being cutely cloying and cutely sadistic is hard to balance, Caster and her Master's motivations are thin, and the ultimate villain just comes off a stereotypically maniacal nihilist, one whose personality, capabilities, and threat factor seem considerably diminished compared to what he shows in Fate/Zero.
When looked at in the context of Fate/Zero, these episodes firm up F/SN's status as the inferior of the two in every storytelling and production aspect. For those who have seen F/Z prior to seeing this one, the point where spoilers become a significant negative factor is episode 19, where the Rin/Sakura relationship becomes most relevant and the newcomer first appears; without the foreknowledge that F/Z provides, that newcomer is an intriguing figure of mystery. However, seeing F/Z first (or rewatching this after seeing F/Z) causes Saber's status at the end – and, indeed, her situation throughout this half – to deliver more impact, as one does not otherwise get quite the full feel for how much F/SN is a sort of redemption for her in addition to her stated goals. Illyasviel's situation is also more twisted in this scenario, certain issues involving Shirou's adoptive father Kiritsugu and the priest overseeing the Grail War make much more sense, and Shirou's quest to be heroic stands as a more convincing counterbalance to his father. The course of events here does make one wonder where certain other figures known to have survived the Fourth Grail War are, though, and how the Grail is able to manifest again after only 10 years is never clearly explained.
Artistic and musical merits remain mostly the same as the first series. Characters appearing for the first time in this half (Assassin, Caster, and the newcomer) look just as sharp as established ones, and the coloring is still a strength. Fan service is still kept to a bare minimum, essentially limited to one character appearing naked but with nothing showing, one rather suggestive scene involving recharging mana (it was, by all accounts, a full-blown sex scene in the original visual novel), and one character inexplicably dressed in an S&M-style get-up at one point, though the bloodshed and graphic violence quota has been upped significantly. Some CG-animated skeletons look trashy, and the animation in general is not any more fluid. The music also continues the same overall mediocre effort; although it can deliver some highly-charged action scenes and an occasional poignant moment, it never really achieves the grand sound that a series like this should have. New opener “Kirameku Namida wa Hoshi ni" takes over with episode 15 and is an upgrade, while the unremarkable closer remains.
Sentai Filmworks' Blu-Ray release has the same standards as for the first half: little increase in visual quality over the original Geneon disks, a more significant improvement in the audio tracks, and no Extras. Interestingly, the case uses the same cover art as the original vol. 5 and the disks have the cover art from the original vols. 4 and 6. (In retrospect, the Blu-Ray for the first half used the same pattern.) The original Geneon dub also continues, with the feature efforts in this half being a couple of strong scenes by Mela Lee as Rin and a fittingly silky-smooth delivery by David Vincent as Assassin. While not a spectacular effort overall, the dub has no significant weak points and the script has no substantive variations.
Fate/stay night does have a good ending, but it also ends with the definite feel that it could have executed its material better. Those who have seen F/Z may also end with the impression that this series would have been better had it let most of the cast members age at least a couple more years and play this out as adults, as the impression of this series as the junior league version of its prequel is inescapable. Still, those hoping for a bit more out of the series after a relatively weak first half will not be (completely) disappointed.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Saber's characterization, Rin, lots of flashy action, satisfying ending (especially if one has seen Fate/Zero).
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