The Fate franchise is a fantastic and exciting one that I absolutely love. On paper, that is. In practice, it’s something I think I’d really be into, but it’s tied up in a whole bunch of convoluted bullshit that I’ve approached the wrong way, dipping my toes into only enough pools to gain a vague, incorrect understanding of what’s going on.
“Read the visual novel” is what everyone says. Of course, that raises a few problems. First of all, the visual novel isn’t legally available in English. But whatever. That’s never stopped otaku fandom before. More importantly, the visual novel is a gargantuan undertaking that takes over 60 hours to complete. Let me reiterate that: 60 hours. That’s 2 1/2 straight days. That is the length of twelve single-cour anime series. And these 60 hours (by which I mean more than that since that’s on the faster side of the estimates I’ve seen) are absolutely foundational to understanding the rest of the franchise as a whole.
Now, imagine trying to approach all this through anime adaptations.
Okay. So. First of all, it’s important to know that Fate/Stay Night is made up of three different alternate routes, but these three routes are meant to be played in a specific order: first Fate, then Unlimited Blade Works, and finally Heaven’s Feel. These three routes have four different adaptations by two different studios. First of all, you’ve got the Studio DEEN adaptation (often called DEEN/Stay Night), which covers primarily the Fate route, but draws a bit from the other two as well. This is a 24-episode series, which equates to about 10 hours, or 1/6th the length of the visual novel. DEEN also put out a film covering the events of Unlimited Blade Works, which was about 1 3/4 hours long. Then ufotable put out a 26-episode adaptation of Unlimited Blade Works, and has an upcoming 3-film trilogy that will cover Heaven’s Feel.
It should also be noted that there is a prequel to Fate/Stay Night entitled Fate/Zero. Fate/Zero, however, is not even the same medium as Fate/Stay Night. It’s a series of light novels rather than a visual novel. Also, it kind of expects you to be familiar with Fate/Stay Night and consequently spoils major twists from it. And on top of that, the anime adaptation was only the second one legally available to English-speaking audiences, and only came many years after DEEN/Stay Night.
So. With that clusterfuck of releases out of the way, here’s how I approached the franchise.
My anime club watched the Deen adaptation of Fate/Stay Night years ago. It seemed schlocky and dumb so I zoned most of it and only caught little bits from listening to it in the background. I only glanced up now and then hoping to catch the infamous moment of Shiro explaining what happens to people when they’re killed. Most of what I knew of Fate, I only knew through fandom osmosis. My proper introduction to the franchise came through Fate/Zero (i.e., the one you’re supposed to watch after playing Fate/Stay Night), and while I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, I had a good time with it. Because of that, I gave Unlimited Blade Works a chance and watched it as it aired. The result was that I thought it was a complete fucking mess.
So because I had some vague knowledge of the series and had seen Fate/Zero, I kind of had an idea of what was going on in Unlimited Blade Works. But let’s say that this anime adaptation of a visual novel’s second route is someone’s theoretical entry point to the franchise. I’m sure it was for plenty of people. So let’s picture a fairly new anime fan circa 2014 who’s never heard of something like Monogatari or Nichijou and only knows the big, popular action shows that Kotaku recommended to him. Let’s call him “Brian.” Little Brian is jonesing for the next big hype train to jump on after Sword Art Online and Attack on Titan, and hears a lot of buzz for this new Fate/Stay Night thing that’s coming out. He figures it’d be a great anime to watch and assumes you won’t need any sort of background. After all, it’s one of the routes in the first game. Shouldn’t be too hard to follow, right? What do you think our friend Brian would think of Unlimited Blade Works as a stand-alone story?
Brian, of course, would love it because he’s an imbecile who’s incapable of thinking critically and just zones out when the cool fightmans aren’t swinging their weapons at each other in pretty fight scenes. But instead of just burning someone in effigy, let’s assume this theoretical novice entering Fate with the Unlimited Blade Works anime is your average person.
So the show starts off pretty good. You’ve got Shirou and Rin as your main characters, and they’re thrown into something called the “Holy Grail War,” in which mages compete for the Holy Grail, which can grant any wish. They become “Masters” of heroic spirits they summon, who are referred to as their “Servants.” These Servants are sorted into different classes based off of fighting style. There are 7 of these Master/Servant pairs who are pitted against each other in a battle royal. Okay. Pretty straightforward so far.
And then things go off the rails a little bit. You’ve got this backstory where there was a previous Holy Grail War that went bad, and Saber competed in that one. And then you have this whole weird kerfuffle where there are actually two Archers, and the one that’s bonded to Rin is actually Shirou from the future and there’s another one called Gilgamesh who’s horribly OP who competed in the last Holy Grail War and even though by all means he shouldn’t be able to compete because he’s not bonded to a Master he’s still able to because of reasons. Okay, whatever. And then there’s Caster, who had a Master but has some sort of weapon that specifically allows her to fuck with the rules, so she severed herself from her Master and summoned a Servant of her own (Assassin). Then you’ve got Sakura who’s pretty clearly shown becoming a Master early on but that gets completely dropped and her dickbag brother ends up becoming the Master instead, even though he’s not actually a mage and shouldn’t be able to summon Rider. And there’s the guy who’s apparently the old Master of Gilgamesh AND the current Master of Lancer, only to be Lancer’s Master he had to kill Lancer’s old Master because somehow that works? Then Rin’s all “bye Felicia” to Archer or something and Shirou transfers ownership of Saber to her? So yeah, starting with Unlimited Blade Works means you get a bunch of rules established, only for the show to then go “but actually these rules don’t matter.” There is literally one Master/Servant relationship that works as advertised, and that’s Ilya and Berserker.
Like I said, I had some basic knowledge of Fate through Fate/Zero and some general osmosis before watching Unlimited Blade Works and somehow I was still lost through most of it. I feel like it was an abbreviated form of a story that you were required to have played through the first path of the visual novel to understand. Probably because, you know…I was.
And now I’m watching Fate/Apocrypha, which seems to work pretty well as a stand-alone. This one’s apparently set in an alternate universe where the Nazis got their hands on the Holy Grail during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and because the mages have some sort of schism with the new group giving themselves the incredibly stupid name of “Ygddmillenia,” the Grail decides, “fuck it, double the Servants. This time it’s a war instead of a battle royal.” Oh, and then the Grail summons Jeanne d’Arc as the “Ruler” class to act as the mediator for the whole thing, because that thing about there being only seven types of servants was a lie. Oh, and there’s a priest who is spoken of with an ominous “this time he’s on our side” line who has the name Shiro and looks like Archer (albeit with more Yu-Gi-Oh hair) but from what I can tell he’s only maybe an alternate universe version of him. Apart from all that, this actually seems to be a pretty standard. Then again, I’ve only seen a few episodes and I’m sure all sorts of weird hijinks are going to be involved at some point down the road because they always are. That’s the thing with the Fate franchise: there are always hijinks that keep people like me, who only have a fragmented understanding of the franchise through a few anime adaptations, thoroughly confused.
I’m so frustrated when approaching this franchise because it seems so broad, and yet it also seems like everything ties into everything else. There are so many spinoffs and alternate universes (hell, Fate/Stay Night itself creates a three-way branch) and I don’t know how much knowledge I’m expected to have going into each of them. On one end of the spectrum, you have Fate/Apocrypha, which I’m told I don’t really need to have an intimate knowledge of the series to enjoy. And then on the other, you have Carnival Phantasm, which apparently requires extensive knowledge of not only Fate, but also Tsukihime. Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that Fate is somehow connected to Tsukihime and Kara no Kyoukai, as well as some other series? Because apparently it is!
It’s all a web of bullshit that leaves me with so many questions. So we’ve got Saber, arguably the poster child of Fate, who turns out to actually be King Arthur, only genderflipped. I’m with you so far. It creates a neat little twist. But then you move past Fate/Stay Night and things start getting ridiculous. For example, there’s “Red Saber,” who looks exactly like Saber but is someone different. Red Saber is also completely different from “Saber of Red,” who is King Arthur’s son Mordred (but is genderflipped, just like daddy) but looks less like Saber than Red Saber. Red Saber, by the way, is Nero. You know, the Roman emperor who fiddled while Rome burned. Who is also apparently secretly a cute girl. Just like Frankenstein’s monster. Yes, Fate is a series that sparks debates over whether people want to fuck Emperor Nero or Frankenstein’s monster more.
There’s also the question of how the hell classes work. Saber uses swords. Lancer uses lances. Caster uses magic. Then you get to Archer, who naturally uses bows. Oh, except of the two Archers in Fate/Stay Night, one uses a variety of weapons shot from magical gates and the other uses lots and lots of swords. I mean, the second route isn’t exactly named “Unlimited Arrow Works.” And then you’ve got Rider. Rider uses mounts. Except, as of Fate/Apocrypha’s fourth episode, both Riders use lances and only one of them has ridden anything, and if you’re watching the anime adaptation of Unlimited Blade Works, Rider doesn’t use any sort of mount. Until I had someone point out that Pegasus was her mount, I thought the only thing she ended up actually riding was the protagonist’s dick. That’s not a joke. Well, it kind of was but also these are porn games and they do fuck in one of them.
Oh yeah, speaking of which. When do I get my goddamn mana transfer? I’ve learned through my time on the internet that the sex scenes exist because that’s a method for mages to transfer their mana. There wasn’t any in Fate/Zero, which, you know, whatever. But their inclusion in Fate/Stay Night is fairly infamous. I sat through 23 fucking episodes of an increasingly convoluted story hoping I’d finally get to see these scenes everyone was talking about and I get a fucking high jump dream sequence? What the fuck? You’re telling me that explicit scenes of lolis making out in a silly magical girl parody of your franchise is fine, but when it comes to delivering something potentially meaningful between your main characters we’ve spent 23 episodes with, you bitch out and give us fucking high jump?
Look. I don’t think Fate is bad. Despite everything I’ve said, I actually enjoy it more than not. I just have a lot of little gripes that mostly exist because I’m just not well-versed enough to know the answers to all my questions. I’m aware that it probably makes sense when you’re familiar with its extensive lore. It’s just that, well…I’m not. I have incomplete knowledge, and I don’t imagine its fans are lining up to say “well, it’s all really quite simple.” Let’s be honest. It’s a complex, confusing, clusterfuck of a mess.
But hey, who cares if I’m still a bit confused? It’s pretty enjoyable anyway.
 They die.