Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Blu-Ray - Box Set 1 [Limited Edition]
Mages around the world are preparing for the Holy Grail War—a massive conflict in which the victor obtains the all-powerful, wish-granting Holy Grail. The Grail mysteriously chooses seven "Masters" to participate in the war, who in turn must command seven "Servants" that embody history's greatest warriors: Saber, Lancer, Archer, Berserker, Rider, Assassin, and Caster. The Einzbern family, one of the great magical families, have hired ruthless "mage-killer" Kiritsugu Emiya to command Saber, one of the most powerful Servants. But Tokiomi Tohsaka, patriarch of the Tohsaka family, has entered a shadowy alliance with clergyman Kirei Kotomine; their combined forces of Archer and Assassin are equally formidable. Meanwhile, other participants barely even know of the Grail, and seek only glory and power. Perhaps the War will go not to the strong, but to those who bend (and break) the rules to their will...
Fate/Zero is all about Big Ideas: personal desire versus personal duty, sacrifices made for love and honor, how fighters should fight and how rulers should rule, the destiny of human civilization, and the meaning of life itself. How appropriate, then, that these Big Ideas should be tackled by Big Characters—spiritual reincarnations of history's greatest warriors, meeting on the same battlefield. How many other works of fiction exist where Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and Alexander the Great cross paths? How many heroic sagas can boast a gunslinger trying to outduel a sorcerer, with an enchanted swordsman jumping in at the last minute?
Yet for all its grand ambitions, the first half of Fate/Zero—contained in this 13-episode box set—rarely lives up to such hype.
So epic is the story that Episode 1 lasts 45 minutes, featuring 100% exposition and 0% battle. In an interview included with this box set, the director and producers pat themselves on the back for stepping up to the challenge. However, viewers may see it differently: a challenge of their patience, and not much else. Things do get livelier as the episodes progress, with Servants meeting face-to-face and their magical weaponry lighting up the landscape, but momentum-destroying dialogue scenes still pop up regularly. Kirei Kotomine and Archer drone on and on about personal goals and aspirations. Three Servants meet to talk politics and argue about a ruler's duty toward his or her people—a great topic on paper, but ill-suited to an entire episode of animated entertainment. The series simply never finds the right balance; instead, the pacing is all out of whack as it swings wildly between breakneck action and mind-numbing strategy discussions.
The crisscrossing story threads and overcrowded cast of characters are also part of the problem. Individually, some of the storylines are fantastic: the subplot about boy magician Waver and his hulking servant, Rider, is an odd-couple comedy and coming-of-age tale rolled into one. The tragedies faced by Kariya Matou (who controls Berserker) illustrate the power, and danger, of strong family ties. The horrific actions of Caster and his fellow mage provide a glimpse into the depths of evil, plus it sets up an overall goal for the series' first half: someone's got to kill this guy before he ruins the Holy Grail War for everyone. But smash all these ideas together (along with several others), and the constant storyline-hopping becomes a tortuous high-fantasy soap opera. What's more, the rivalry billed as the "main" one—Kiritsugu and Kirei trying to outthink each other—falls flat. The two characters are too alike, both playing the "silent tough guy" role, and their dreary gray-and-brown personalities make it hard to enjoy the conflict.
If the main characters' mind games get too dull, at least there's plenty of Magical Warfare, which brings out some of the series' finest visuals. Saber and Lancer's duel, the first major fight of the series, is one dazzling special effect after another—and it gets even better when other Servants enter the fray and show off their unique powers. The character designs of the Servants are just as creative as their fighting moves, with history and fantasy blended into iconic costumes. Their human Masters are more hit-and-miss, though; some members of the supporting cast seem to have been pulled straight from the bank of generic anime characters. The animation also loses its creative spark during non-battle scenes, falling back on unimaginative camerawork: too many straight-ahead and side-view shots, usually taken from about waist high, and entire stretches of dialogue that consist of alternating between two talking heads. Sloppy CGI is another visual shortcoming, with poorly modeled cars and a giant magical ball of mercury being the most blatant examples of 3-D models clashing with 2-D animation.
Yuki Kajiura's sweeping music score is one of the strongest elements of Fate/Zero; orchestral strings and operatic vocals help to capture the grandeur of this fantasy universe. Strong, percussive beats during action scenes also contribute to what fans will easily recognize as "the Kajiura sound." But don't be too quick to stereotype it: some of the quieter tracks, used during scenes of everyday life, feature different instrumentation but are just as effective in setting the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the striking melodies of the opening and ending songs should make them instantly memorable for viewers.
The quality of the English dub varies from character to character, but as a general rule, the more interesting the personality is, the better the performance turns out. Most of the Servants are well-acted, with booming alpha male Rider (Jamieson Price) stealing the show and the egotistical Archer (David Earnest) also standing out. However, some of the human characters, due to their more down-to-earth nature, aren't as convincing. On one end of the scale we have the awkward, wooden-sounding Irisviel von Einzbern (Bridget Hoffman), yet there are also highly entertaining performances from characters like Waver (Lucien Dodge).
Aniplex USA makes this pricey Blu-Ray package worth it with numerous extras: a stylish collector's box, a mini-artbook, a soundtrack CD, a DVD containing an interview with the series' top production staff (beware of spoilers), and even a bonus card for the Weiß Schwarz collectible card game. By comparison, the actual on-disc extras are almost a disappointment: clean credits sequences, plus commercials and promotional videos that aired in Japan, round out the additional disc content.
Fate/Zero comes in announcing that there's going to be an epic war involving Big Ideas—but maybe 25-minute episodes and a 2-D screen are too small a space for those ideas. The first half of the series never finds the right balance for expressing the drama and magnitude of the Holy Grail War: thrilling battles are sandwiched in between dry exposition and strategizing, languid dialogue scenes rob entire episodes of their energy, and some of the sideshows and distractions are more compelling than the main plot. The visuals also fluctuate wildly in quality, going anywhere from eye-popping grandeur to dull talking-head scenes. Can this series overcome its unevenness and finish strong? Might as well start saving up for that second box and find out.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Iconic characters, intense action scenes, and multiple thought-provoking storylines reveal a series with grand ambitions.
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