Spoiler Warning: There will be some small spoilers from Fate/Zero here since the two are so closely connected. I won’t spoil anything major, but there will be some small details here and there.
Even though Fate/Zero was the first popular Fate adaptation, it wasn’t the first to be released. That honor goes to the 2006 adaptation by Studio DEEN, which has a somewhat dubious reputation. It wasn’t good enough to garner mainstream attention, and it made too many changes to have any appeal to fans of the source material. That said, it’s not a bad show and is still worth watching.
Fate/Stay Night takes place about ten years after Fate/Zero at the start of the Fifth Holy Grail War (I explain the mechanics more fully in my Fate/Zero review). Unlike Fate/Zero, Stay Night has a clear lead, a young, inexperienced magus named Shirou Emiya. Shirou accidently stumbles on a battle between Servants and is barely able to escape. One of the Servants, Lancer, tracks him down and tries to kill him until Shirou accidently summons Saber (the same one from Zero), who saves him from Lancer. Shirou then teams up with his classmate Rin Tohsaka, who is also a Master, and is drawn into the Grail War. Unlike Fate/Zero’s more ensemble based cast, Stay Night keeps it’s focus squarely on team Shirou. The other Masters and Servants have plenty of involvement, but Shirou, Saber and Rin are the main focus. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but it means that the three of them have to be able to carry the show, which is where it begins to stumble. Rin and Saber are both good characters, and Rin’s Servant Archer is memorable in the few scenes he gets, but Shirou is where it begins to have problems.
Shirou was rescued from a fire at the end of the previous Grail War by Kiritsugu and raised as his adopted son (Kiritsugu is dead by the time Stay Night begins). This profoundly influenced Shirou and made him decide to become a “hero of justice.” In Shirou’s mind, this is someone who goes around saving people and never has to make any sacrifices, an obviously impossible idea. This would have worked fine if the show was aware of this and actually called him out on how impossible that is, but it never does that. One of the more memorable scenes is when Shirou is thrown out a window and almost dies, and his first thought was “I can’t die! I haven’t saved anyone yet.” which speaks volumes as to how naïve he is. He also has a bad habit of throwing himself into danger to protect Saber after he saw her get injured once, even though she is far more capable than him and he almost dies every time. He gets a little better later on, but is still a mediocre lead at best and an annoying idiot at worst.
Rin doesn’t get as much development since this adaptation didn’t cover her route, but Saber stands out more than anyone else. It’s rare for a shonen-esqe show like this to have a female character as the main fighter, but Saber does more fighting than anyone else, even though she is injured early on. Her entire arc is based around her getting to know Shirou and slowly opening up. Saber regrets the way her life turned out and her wish for the Grail is to undo it so someone more worthy could take her place. Her relationship with Shirou is what causes her to question this and provides the most interesting part of the series.
It should be noted that this adaptation takes some liberties with content from the visual novel. The Fate route, which this takes the bulk of its story from, wasn’t quite long enough to fill 24 episodes, so the staff did a short arc in the second half that incorporated a mixture of anime original content and information from the other two routes. I know a lot of VN fans didn’t like this part, but I actually think it worked well since it allowed a couple of secondary characters to get more screentime than they would have had otherwise.
Like Zero, Stay Night has plenty of action, which keeps it entertaining when Shirou can’t. The fights aren’t as well animated or directed as the ones in Zero, but they still work overall. The Servants’ powers and the various ways they use them are similar to Zero as well, which makes it fun to see what abilities each character has. The first half moves much more slowly, but the action picks up more in the second half, especially at the end.
The animation for Stay Night is varies from passable to straight up bad. The character designs have a kind of flat, digital look that just doesn’t look good and there are frequent animation shortcuts like speedlines during fights. The absolute worst scene involved a CGI dragon used to replace a sex scene (yes you read that right) and was unintentionally hilarious. The entire sequence was extremely awkward and the CGI would have been bad in 1996, let alone 2006. There are a few nicely animated scenes near the end, but nothing amazing.
The music was done by Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell) and is generally quite good. It’s very atmospheric and the battle themes are good enough to listen to on their own, especially the ones taken from the visual novel. The dub is decent, although nothing amazing. All of the actors do a decent job, although Shirou sound a bit forced, and Saber and Archer both sound especially good, but it’s nothing amazing.
Overall, Fate/Stay Night isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, but it isn’t as good as it could have been. Shirou just doesn’t work in this version and the animation quality can sometimes detract from otherwise good fights. Even with these issues, I still recommend watching it. The setup is interesting, the fights are good, and Saber is a good character. It also provides a nice conclusion to Fate/Zero if you watch that first.
Fate/Stay Night is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and the Anime Network and is available from Sentai Filmworks.
Final Score: 7.9/10