Fate/Apocrypha (ep 1-12)

Weak

Fate/Apocrypha is an action/drama anime, and the most recent title in the Fate/ series.  It goes through an alternate timeline in which the events of Fate/Stay Night (and its progeny) don’t happen.  Unfortunately, this installment does not live up to its predecessors, becoming something of an unfulfilled, incomprehensible mess.

Purpose: Weak.

Fate/Apocrypha brought together an intriguing set of elements, changing up the tournament-style fighting that is the basis for the other titles in the series.  It also attempted to do interesting things with other elements, such as the characters and how they relate to each other.  Sadly, this was all — the main purpose of the anime was merely to change things up.  In the process,  they lost sight of what the Fate/ series is about — the clash of ideals presented through a literal clash of swords.  While we got to see hints of this in Fate/Apocrypha, such as the idea of what it means to be a hero versus what it means to be a king, it wasn’t capitalized upon in any meaningful manner.  Perhaps worse, due to an overwhelming number of characters and events, it became more clear as the show went on that all balance was lost and show’s ability to manage everything kept slipping.  The result is a disharmonious mess that didn’t allow any particular element to take root and blossom.

Characters: Poor. 

Most Fate/ series have around 14 players (7 pairs) to keep track of, with different emphasis.  For a normal Fate/ series, they focus on character pairs, sometimes with each member having specific goals and ideals.  Their internal synergy (or lack thereof), is what really hones in the bursts of action and gives it real impact.  Fate/Apocrypha attempted 28 players (14 pairs).  While that seems daunting at first, they were able to lower that number through various means. Unfortunately, in the process, they shatter this crucial element and remove much of the summoner/summoned interactions, instead choosing to focus primarily on battling characters.  Of all of these, only one pair is notable, and is unfortunately relegated to rather minor roles.

Again, for the characters and character development, there were seeds of really interesting things, but Fate/Apocrypha failed to capitalize on any of them.  One example is the idea that Vlad the Impaler hates his legend and wants to clear his name.  Another is Frankenstein’s Monster’s struggle to be recognized as a person and not a monster.  Still another is the idea of a created being taking fate into its own hands.  With the lack of proper focus on developing these concepts, they ended up becoming mere spoken lines and not powerful moments.  Many times, even these were simply hints cast aside and then denied fulfillment.  One particular disappointment involves the failure to capitalize on the inevitable clash of two really likable characters, knowing only one can walk away.

Still worse, it’s very difficult to even point to the characters that the anime is really about — there are no real main characters.  The ones you’d want to be the heroes of the story have a tragically minor role, in spite the best synergy and dynamic interactions.  Everyone else, even the ones that get more screen time, end up feeling like unimportant cogs spinning about with no real purpose – no grander machine behind them.  Without anyone to really care about or root for, we end up becoming observers to a relatively unimpressive struggle, bland and monochromatic.

Perhaps the real tragedy is that properly executed characters could have rescued other under-performing elements.  Truly, the characters took the show down with them.

World: Weak

One of the biggest sins of the world is that this is a purportedly standalone series that relies on information not presented to the viewer.  You need to have outside knowledge about how the world works and events that unfold to even have a hope of keeping up.  Even then, it’s a struggle.  This ends up eroding any potential for internal consistency, since the ground rules seem pretty much made up on the fly.  Almost hilariously on-point is the addition of a special “Ruler” class, who’s supposed to observe the battles and ensure all parties adhere to the rules of the holy grail war… except that the rules were never really stated and couldn’t practically be inferred from the happenings.  The Ruler also has a bizarre will of its own that ends up becoming at odds with its stated purpose.  The problem is that, because it lacks consistency to begin with, you’re not sure whether Ruler is going rogue or these things are supposed to happen.

This “anything goes” mentality pervades all of the other goings-on.   Wheelchair-turned-Doc Octopus?  Sure.  Floating fortress of doom out of nowhere?  Why not?  Character suicides only to reappear at a convenient moment?  Yes, please! (I’m being sarcastic, of course.)  When the world is this weak, it ends up undermining the plausibility of the events that happen, resulting in the viewer losing confidence in anything that happens.

Plot: Weak

There were so many plot trajectories, the execution ended up haphazard at best.  In order to fit everything in, individual plots were thoroughly butchered.  The actual thinning of plot points seemed nearly random, since even some major turning points (character decisions, growth, etc) were either glossed over or not shown at all.  Thus, the only time we see plot advancing is when we as viewers are fed a line about something changing.  We don’t get to see how characters arrive at a conclusion or why a particular event is happening, only that it has happened.  This also goes back to all of the unfulfilled character points — their truncated plot made the interactions feel pointless.

Storytelling: Weak

The only saving grace of the storytelling was the beautiful animation.  However, the animation doesn’t make up for a tragic lack of communication to the viewer.  We weren’t fed a cohesive story since all of the connective details were lost.  Worse, the happenings are fed to us at a wholly inappropriate time, meaning it’s very, very easy to get lost, even for those familiar with the story.

One of the problems with the storytelling stems from a serious lack of prioritization of information.  Yes, there are lots of goings-on.  Not everything needs to be shown, and less important events can be disposed of with lines or phrases.  However, it would be a challenge to say which parts of the story were supposed to be more important than any other.  Instead, the story appeared to try to give each bit some sort of equal time, diluting everything.

Pace: Weak

The pacing was startlingly even, when it really shouldn’t have been.  This meant that instead of establishing a tempo of fast action and quiet, slower scenes to develop characters and plot, everything kept marching on.  One of the problems was the lack of hooks between scenes or cuts, ruining any sort of dynamic flow between them.  Scenes were more like stacked blocks, each a cube, whether it needed to be or not.  This ended up creating a rather bizarre experience that tended to be rather dull on the whole.

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Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (Series)

Excellent

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is a strong character drama with lots of really good action components.  In broad terms, this anime essentially a remake of the 2005 Fate/Stay Night series.  However that’s not quite correct, since the Fate/ series is based off a visual novel (a kind of choose your own adventure style computer game.)  Unlimited Blade works is a different “route” from the 2005 Fate/Stay Night – a different path the story takes, depending on player choices.  All in all, this is likely to be a really good anime for both new fans and veterans alike.  That said, the whole series is probably best watched in release order
2005 Fate/Stay night -> Fate/Zero -> Unlimited Blade Works.  This particular watch order recommendation is supported by the order the original game was supposed to be played.  The first scenario, titled “Fate,” (covered by the 2005 series) had to be completed before you unlocked the Unlimited Blade Works route.  Fate/Zero is necessary in between the two because it contextualizes what happened in “Fate” and sets you up to get the most out of Unlimited Blade Works.

Purpose: Excellent.  Overall, the anime is an interesting character drama about confronting one’s ideals and idealism in the face of reality.  If that sounds too high-brow, don’t worry.  It’s presented in a fairly accessible way, with attention paid to how the issue is presented.  All in all, this is an anime that is quite talkative, with lots and lots of dialogue to read (or hear if you’re a dub fan.)  However, since they paid such great attention to the details, the talking is never really dull.   The talkiness is refined so that it’s generally character personalities bouncing off each other in an extremely witty and occasionally sarcastic exchange of words.  Of course, Unlimited Blade Works is not all philosophical – there are a great many stellar action sequences to punctuate what’s going on.

Characters: Very Good.  The characters were generally strong, with the focus mostly on the three main characters.  That said, the anime does a solid job of making most of the characters involved with the story distinctive and interesting.  More impressive, perhaps, is that the distinctive ways the characters act, react, and interact with the world are all logically consistent with their personalities.  On that theme, the series did an excellent job of rotating in and out different kinds of villain, taking the time and care to develop them and even humanize them.  Even the ultimate villain’s actions and reasoning end up being more interestingly twisted than purely malevolent.

One thing to note – since Unlimited Blade Works relies so much on things that happened before, as a standalone, the characters aren’t quite as strong as if you’re privy to the knowledge obtained by watching the other two series, 2005 Fate/Stay Night and then Fate/Zero.  That ends up adding to the tragedy of several scenes as well as the tragic nature of the idealism at issue.  That’s why I recommend release watch order.

World: Excellent.  For people newer to the Fate/ series world, there’s quite a bit to take in – heroes and magic and general goings-on.  The Fate/ world is extremely large with different players and forces all acting on the story. However, even though very odd and magical things happen, it’s done with a high degree of order – there’s a definite set of rules that govern what’s happening.  Certainly, the viewer isn’t privy to everything, but the world has a sense of realism – that one could understand all of why things are happening.  That aside, the world itself sets up a really interesting stage for things to happen.   More importantly, all of the characters are affected by this world, both in the overall happenings and the impact it has on their personalities – characters are all affected by the “world” they were summoned from, impacting their choices in the story.

Plot: Very Good.  Overall, the plot is pretty straightforward.  Part of its simplicity comes from its focus on the main three characters.  However, this is an example of side-plots and subplots that end up adding a good deal of complexity to what’s going on.  There are several different plotlines that involve different characters, their motives, and their actions.  However, each of them are, themselves, plot points that help shape the trajectory of our main characters’ story and propel them forward.  Basically, they refine our main characters and their choices.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  There’s two main components to this – the character storytelling and the action storytelling.   Starting with the character storytelling, they made a really good decision on ordering the presentation of information, especially by having Episode 0.  While some of the information is review for veterans of the series, there’s enough for newer fans to get the general context.  That’s the really interesting thing about Unlimited Blade Works – its story appears to be designed as a middle ground.  It can be really good without the context, but much better if you have it.  The additional context really sharpens the tragedy of the ideal being presented as well as some of the events involving other characters.

Of course, an essential part of an action anime’s storytelling is the action.  Unlimited Blade Works does not disappoint.  The action has a really solid pace and is strong, but not exactly flashy.  It’s long enough to make it satisfying to watch, but ending quickly enough that it doesn’t grow tiresome.  Furthermore, the action is furious and frenetic without being gritty or over-the-top.  The result is that it emphasizes the heroic nature of these characters – that we are watching some really legendary people clash with each other.  Interestingly, you can see both the skill and the personality of the combatants come out when they clash blades.

On final thing to note – on a purely structural level, the use of color and contrast was absolutely stellar.  The differences in color and hue strongly emphasized the feel of a great many settings.  For example, they used warmer colors to convey safety and familiarity and colder colors to emphasize the unknown and threatening nature of what’s going on.  Contrast as well was employed in a really powerful way to draw attention and focus.  In particular, color change really impacted the sense of a violation when a character was attacked in a place of safety.

Pace: Excellent. There’s not too much to say other than the pace from episode 1 starts out a little slow, but it’s essential.  The pace itself starts getting faster and faster, emphasizing the desperate nature of the events.  One little oddity comes roughly around the 3/4 mark.  The pace slows considerably while our main character faces a large obstacle.  This is done to drive the point home so while it feels a little like it drags on, there really is a lot of new information being presented and action happening at the same time.