Fate/Zero has a lot of backstory, both in the show itself and regarding its origins. It was originally a novel series by Gen Urobuchi, but that series was a prequel to an existing visual novel by Kinoko Nasu called Fate/Stay Night. That means that it has to both tell its own story and connect it to Fate/Stay Night, since the events it covers take place directly before Stay Night and play an important part in that. That places a heavy burden on the show, which somewhat weakens an otherwise strong story. The Fate franchise has been especially popular lately and Zero is what started all of that (at least outside of visual novel fans).
Fate/Zero tells the story of the Fourth Holy Grail War, a secret war fought between 7 mages who each summon a legendary hero as a servant to fight the other masters to obtain the Holy Grail, a magic artifact that is said to be able to grant any wish. That’s a lot of backstory to cover and a lot of characters to introduce. There’s so much to do that the first episode is an hour long and doesn’t even manage to introduce the entire cast. By the end of the second episode, it has introduced over 15 named characters, all of whom play an important part in the story at some point. This makes the early episodes a bit confusing since there are so many characters and they make up an ensemble cast for most of it, with no real main characters until the second half. The first half in general is somewhat weaker than the second half because of how much it has to do. There are over a dozen characters to introduce, relationships to set up and a huge amount of worldbuilding to do. Type-Moon is known for having a lot of worldbuilding, and Fate/Zero has a lot to explain for everything to make sense. This won’t be much of an issue for people familiar with Fate/Stay Night or its adaptations, but might be confusing to anyone new to the franchise.
Based on the premise, Fate/Zero seems like it would be primarily action based, which isn’t the case at all. There are plenty gorgeously animated action scenes that I’ll get into later, but aren’t the main point of the anime. In between battles, the various masters all plot to try and outmaneuver each other so they have an advantage when they do actually fight. If anything, the characters are the main focus. Every character is given enough screen time to flesh out their ideas and motivations, although some are more memorable than others.
There are really too many characters to cover everyone in detail, but the two most important out of the ensemble are Kiritsugu Emiya, an assassin who’s reason for participating remains a mystery for about half the show, and his Servant, Saber (Servants are referred to by their RPG style classes). Kiritsugu is completely cynical and coldly practical, while Saber is honest and honorable to a fault, fitting as she is actually the historical King Arthur, who was secretly a woman in the Fate universe. Their differing values man that the few actual conversations they have always end in arguments. There’s no place for honor in Kiritsugu’s view of the world, and Kiritsugu’s amorality flies in the face of everything Saber believes. Kiritsugu isn’t actually a bad person per se, but his “ends justify the means” philosophy means he can seem just as bad as the villains at times. The rest of the cast is equally interesting, with each Master and Servant’s personalities bouncing off each other and revealing what kind of people they really are. Some become good friends like the young mage Waver and his Servant Rider (who’s the historical Alexander the Great), while others can’t get along at all, like Saber and Kiritsugu. These interactions, as well as their respective wishes for the Grail, are what provide the most information about each character. The most memorable character is easily Rider, who has more raw charisma than anyone else in the show. He’s not always the most noble person (Alexander was a conqueror, after all) but he’s so likeable that it’s hard not to root for him in every scene he’s in.
Unfortunately, the strong setup and excellent middle are somewhat let down by the ending, which feels like it needed another episode to fully explain everything. The last two episodes bring a major reveal about the Grail that doesn’t get fully explained in Zero since it is an aspect of the lore that comes from Stay Night and is only fully explained there. Add that to a couple of anticlimaxes and one particular character whose arc is started in Zero but not given any kind of conclusion until Stay Night, and you have an ending that weakens a show that could have been excellent
Just as noteworthy as the characters is the action, which Fate/Zero has a fair amount of. Battles between Servants are always interesting to watch, since each Servant has their own magic abilities and weapons that match up in interesting ways. This is helped by some excellent animation done by Ufotable, a relatively new studio that has quickly earned a reputation for top tier visuals. What sticks out the most is the way lighting is done using digital effects, which adds a softness to everything that makes even still scenes look good. There is some ugly CGI used at points, but never enough to completely detract from the 2D animation.
The soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura is equally impressive, full of choirs that do wonders to enhance the battle scenes and plenty of quieter tracks for the slower scenes. Some may complain that it sounds too similar to some of her other work on Madoka Magica and Kara no Kyoukai, but it still stands as a great complement to the show. The two openings were done by LiSA and Kalafina, respectively, and are both memorable and worth listening to on their own. The dub was done by Bang Zoom and is pretty solid across the board, with Rider yet again being a stand out.
Fate/Zero is a show with highs and lows. The beginning is interesting, albeit somewhat confusing because of the sheer amount of exposition needed and the number of characters introduced very quickly, the middle is great, with clever plots, great action scenes and good character reveals, and the ending is rushed and ultimately unsatisfying. Fate/Zero is still a good show, but it could have been great if it wasn’t held back by its nature as a prequel to an existing property. It would have been better if it had been allowed to tell its own story without being forced to tie into something else. I know a lot of people love it, but I just like it.
Fate/Zero is available from Aniplex of America and is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and Netflix.
Final Score: 8.5/10