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.