Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Saber is in critical condition after overextending herself in the fight with Rider. Shirou is unable to help her regain her strength with his incomplete magical powers, and is left to contemplate his only ugly alternative. He and Saber have begun sharing dreams, and the fact that he now knows something of her past doesn't help to alleviate his dilemma. Before he can act though, he's spirited away by Illyasviel to her mansion. Saber follows, and in accordance with their alliance, Rin and Archer accompany her. Things go wrong and the group find themselves going mano a mano with Berserker, the manifestation of the indestructible Greek hero Heracles. With Saber unable to even stand and Shirou one step away from complete uselessness, do they really stand a chance? One thing is for sure. Blood will be shed. And it won't be Berserker's alone.
They say that pets resemble their owners; sometimes it seems the same is true for shows and their main characters. Take Shana, a scrappy little series prone to unpredictable, mercurial shifts, with a slight structure that belies its powerful wallop. Or Fate/Stay Night and Saber: coldly beautiful and quietly calculating; capable of complete ruthlessness and hell on wheels during a fight, but something of an emotional retard.
For beauty of course, you need look no further than Saber but it extends to every aspect of the production. Even if regular humans like Rin and Shirou pale in comparison to the elaborate aesthetic wonders that are the Servants (Archer is capable of making even straight guys feel just a little bit gay) they're striking by any other standard—especially Rin. The real stars though, are the settings. Illya's castle is a forbidding fortress deserving of the events that it houses, the dark depths of the forest frame a desperate nighttime flight, and drifting mist, ghostly pale moonlight and honeyed pillars of sunlight create an eerie world of lurking menace to match the shadowy occult death-matches.
The fights really are the series' raison d'etre, and this volume once again doesn't disappoint. These four episodes are a self-contained story arc dealing with Illya and the towering threat that is Berserker. The fights with Berserker are powerful—tense, bloody and unpredictable; he's a horrifying beast, and the show doesn't pass up the chance to prove it, again and again. As always, it's a joy to see Saber in battle (where she belongs) and even Rin and Shirou get a couple of chances to prove their mettle, but Archer is the real show, providing the bulk of this volume's visual power and poignancy. His fight with Berserker is littered with images of brutal beauty, and his Unlimited Blade Works is hands-down the series' single coolest combat technique. Also, for the first time, his and Rin's bond gives an indication of some depth. The battles do suffer a bit from animation penny-pinching, not in the form of the usual shortcuts (though magically disappearing backgrounds and sometimes poorly implied movements abound), but from a tendency to cut away from the juiciest—and busiest—parts of a battle to other events before cutting back to show the aftermath. Any dissatisfaction, however, is quickly swept aside by the sheer tension of the confrontations with Berserker, a tension bred from a combination of Saber's weakened state, Shirou's willingness to die for her, and one moment of sheer narrative ruthlessness that proves that the leads' status as main characters is scant protection against a grisly fate.
Where Saber and the show excel at action, they're both at sea when it comes to everyday life and personal interactions. Shirou's newfound willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good manifests itself briefly when he seriously considers the option of using human souls to save Saber, but nothing comes of it (yet). Shirou and Saber's burgeoning relationship has yet to ring true, and the continuing trend into harem territory is getting bothersome. Did we really need to be subjected to such irritating harem tropes as Saber's jealousy at walking in on Shirou innocently sleeping beside another girl or Shirou walking in on Saber in the bath? And no one outside of Berserk has ever pulled off the "you couldn't enjoy looking at my overly-muscled body" line successfully, so stop trying. Please.
Other than the move to a new—and slightly harder—opening song, the music for the show has remained much the same. Kenji Kawai is seasoned pro and knows how to turn out an appropriate soundtrack. His music is every bit a match for the artistry in both atmosphere and beauty. This may well be his most achingly beautiful work outside of his collaborations with Mamoru Oshii, particularly in his use of quiet, eerie vocals.
There is naught to be found in this volume to change anyone's opinion on the dub one way or the other. Everyone handles their roles with a aplomb at times and at other times edge in below the Japanese in quality due to a certain lack of conviction. Archer's incantations, originally in English, are sometime superior due to the loss of the heavy accent, and at other times are inferior due to additions necessary for matching the lip-flaps. The appeal of this show is largely visual, so any deficiencies in acting or liberties taken with the adaptation have minimal effects.
Those hoping for something akin to the Rider's Diary extra from volume three will be disappointed; this is a threadbare release with two extras—a clean version of the new opening, and a short music video for its song—neither of which is worth working up a sweat over.
Some of the plot developments are smirkworthy—Saber's heroic personage is a weird choice, and there's a magical ritual that obviously originally involved sex, its effects on subsequent relationships being rather unjustified once the sex is removed—and it handles emotions and interpersonal relationships with all the skill of a blind photographer, but as long as the series keeps serving up confrontations as taut and deliberately implemented as the Archer/Berserker fight it'll do to keep an eye on.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Archer's battle; a nerve-wracking willingness to imperil the leads.
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