The Fate franchise has quickly become one of the biggest anime franchises of the past several years. While the visual novel Fate/Stay Night has been around since 2004 and the first anime adaptation was in 2006, it’s only recently that Fate has exploded in popularity. With all the new adaptations, differing timelines, and complicated watch orders, I’ve seen a lot of people confused about where to even begin. I made this guide to help anyone interested in the franchise figure out where to start and what to watch. There’s obviously the source materials as well, but I’m only focusing on the anime here since a lot of the original games and novels aren’t available in English. I’m dividing this up into the main series, which consists of all the adaptations of Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero, which serves as a prequel to Stay Night, and the spinoffs, which are all set in alternate universes and don’t share any continuity with the rest of the series. For each anime I’m focusing on three questions: what is it, is it worth watching, and can you start here. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m hoping this can serve as a good overview for any newcomers to the franchise.
The Main Series
Fate/Stay Night (2006)
What is it?: Produced by Studio DEEN, Fate/Stay Night 2006 was the first anime adaptation of Fate/Stay Night. This version primarily adapts the Fate route from the visual novel, which is also the first route, although it also takes elements from the other two routes. The Fate route mostly focuses on Saber and her relationship with Shirou Emiya after he summons her and is the most straightforward Grail War of the three routes, largely serving to develop Saber and show what a Holy Grail War is supposed to be.
Is it worth watching?: Contrary to popular opinion, yes. This adaptation gets a lot of flack from fans for its poor production values and annoying lead, but it’s still an enjoyable show and a crucial part of the canon. This is currently the only Stay Night adaptation that properly concludes Saber’s story, and it has several details that come up in the other two routes. It’s also a solid fantasy action show on it’s own, and has a pretty strong cast aside from Shirou. It has its flaws and the animation hasn’t aged very well, but the good still outweighs the bad.
Can you start here?: Yes. This adaption is one of the best places to start because it assumes the audience doesn’t know anything about the characters or the Grail War. It doesn’t reflect the quality of the later adaptations, but it gives a solid feel for what Fate/Stay Night is.
What is it?: Fate/Zero is a prequel to Stay Night that was produced by Ufotable and is based on a novel series by Gen Urobuchi (with input from Kinoko Nasu, the writer of Stay Night). Zero is set several years before Stay Night and chronicles the Fourth Holy Grail War. Unlike Stay Night, Zero is mostly an ensemble cast, and only starts to focus on one character in the last third or so.
Is it worth watching?: Yes. Zero is a marked improvement over DEEN’s Stay Night on almost every front. Its visuals are great, the soundtrack is great, and the cast is more interesting. Unlike Stay Night, Zero devotes time to developing every character, not just the leads. This makes it somewhat convoluted, since there are seven Masters and seven Servants, but almost every character is interesting in their own way. A lot of people will tell you that Zero’s the best Fate, but I never liked it as much as everyone else. The middle is great, but the beginning is somewhat slow and the ending is somewhat confusing and woefully unsatisfying on its own. It’s still a good show, but Zero only really shines when it’s put together with Stay Night, which gives it a proper conclusion.
Can you start here?: Yes, although it’s not ideal. Zero explains everything you need to know about the Grail Wars, but does so by dumping a lot of information on you at the start. It’s easy to get lost in all the names and concepts if you’re not familiar with Fate. It still explains enough for a new viewer to understand, but the DEEN adaptation is a better starting point.
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (Movie)
What is it?: UBW chronicles the Unlimited Blade Works route, the second one in the visual novel. This route focuses less on the Grail War as a whole and more on developing Shirou, Rin, and Archer (Rin’s Servant). Unlike Fate, UBW is more concerned with looking at Shirou’s ideals and his goal to become a hero, both of which went unquestioned in the first route.
Is it worth watching?: No. The UBW movie isn’t bad, but it’s horribly rushed. The UBW route in the visual novel is at least as long as Fate, if not longer, but the movie condenses around 20 episodes worth of plot into a single movie. This doesn’t leave nearly as much time to develop its cast or explain what’s going on. UBW isn’t awful; the fights are good and it’s still possible to understand the main points of the plot. It’s just not the ideal way to tell this story. Additionally, the TV adaptation by Ufotable is superior in almost every way, making this and enjoyable but ultimately redundant entry in the franchise.
Can you start here?: No. UBW skims over all the early explanations, making it incomprehensible to any newcomers.
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (TV)
What is it?: Ufotable’s first Stay Night adaptation covers the Unlimited Blade Works route, same as the DEEN movie.
Is it worth watching?: Without a doubt. UBW is currently the best Stay Night adaptation out there. Unlike the DEEN movie, this adaptation has the runtime to properly dig into it’s cast and the results are the most interesting Fate has ever been. Shirou goes from being an annoying kid to an interesting character driven to justify his life after a past trauma, which fixes one of the biggest issues with the 2006 anime. UBW also gives Archer, who I think is the best character in the franchise, far more attention than any previous adaptation. It has some pacing issues later on and doesn’t give Saber a lot of development, but UBW is the best TV adaptation of Stay Night.
Can you start here?: Maybe. UBW explains just enough for a newcomer to understand, but it also has several references to Zero that you’ll miss if you start here. It’s better to watch F/SN 2006 and Zero before this one.
Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel
What is it?: Heaven’s Feel is a series of three movies by Ufotable adapting the third and final route of the VN, which focuses on Shirou’s relationship with Sakura. Heaven’s Feel has a much darker take on the story compared to Fate and Unlimited Blade Works, and provides a lot of answers that the previous two routes don’t. The first movie is out now with the other two set to release fairly soon
Is it worth watching?: Yes. While I’m partial to Unlimited Blade Works, Heaven’s Feel is definitely the best Fate adaptation yet. It’s darker story has a more horror-oriented tone compared to other Fates, but it never comes off as dark for dark’s sake. The first movie is excellent across the board, and the next two are set to be just as good.
Can you start here?: No. Heaven’s Feel skips over all of the early explanations for who the main characters are and what the Grail War is, so newcomers to the franchise would be lost fast. Part of the movie’s strength comes from how well it subverts expectations set by the previous routes, so you’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with Fate and UBW. You can also watch Zero first, but it’s not strictly required.
Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya
What is it?: Fate/Kaleid is an alternate universe story following Illya Emiya, an alternate universe version of Stay Night’s Illyasviel von Einsbern, who becomes a magical girl and is tasked with collecting the seven class cards that embody each Servant from Stay Night. Kaleid has a fair amount of the type of action you’d expect from Fate, but it’s also lighter in tone and somewhat more comedic. Additionally, Kaleid has quite a bit of loli/yuri fanservice, so be forewarned.
Is it worth watching?: I haven’t seen Kaleid myself, but I’ve heard there’s a good story in there if you can get past the loli fanservice.
Can you start here?: Probably not. Kaleid is pretty different from the rest of Fate, so it’s not a good idea to start off here if you want to get into the rest of the franchise.
What is it?: Fate/Prototype is a one-episode OVA showing a few scenes from Nasu’s original idea for Fate/Stay Night. It features a female lead, a male Saber, and several early versions of other characters
Is it worth watching?: If you’re craving more Fate, then yes. Prototype is less of a story on its own and more of a collection of random scenes. This lets it highlight a few different characters and fights, but means there’s virtually no room to develop a story or characters. If you’re a fan, it’s an enjoyable watch, but there’s not much too it beyond that.
Can you start here?: No. Prototype basically assumes you’ve seen Stay Night and would be incoherent to anyone who hasn’t.
What is it?: Fate/Apocrypha is set in an alternate universe where the Holy Grail was stolen by the Yggdmillennia family, which rebelled against the Mages Association. Apocrypha is the story of the Great Holy Grail War, a Grail War with two factions that each summon seven Servants to fight the opposing faction. Apocrypha began airing in summer of 2017 and is set to run for 2 cours.
Is it worth watching?: So far, yes. Apocrypha isn’t over yet, but it’s been enjoyable so far. Having two factions fighting instead of a free for all adds a new dimension to the typical Fate premise and allows for a larger variety of battles. It’s also managed to avoid being confusing like the early episodes of Zero, even though it has an even larger cast. Apocrypha doesn’t have the same thematic depth as Zero or UBW, but makes up for that with an endearing cast and some nice battles. There’s still room for it to go downhill, but I’m enjoying it so far and would recommend it to anyone who liked Stay Night or Zero
Can you start here?: No. Apocrypha explains the basics of the Grail War at the start, but it goes by quickly and would seem random and arbitrary to anyone who isn’t familiar with Stay Night or Zero. Anyone starting here would also miss a few of the references to Stay Night and Zero. If you’ve seen either one, you can watch Apocrypha and understand what’s going on.
Fate/Grand Order: First Order
What is it?: Grand Order is TV movie adaptation of a mobile game set in an alternate universe where the organization Chaldea exists to monitor the future and ensure humanity’s survival. When the future suddenly shows humanity going extinct, Chaldea calls for Masters to come and summon Servants to deal with the crisis.
Is it worth watching?: If you’re a fan, yes. The actual plot of First Order is pretty convoluted and the main character is as bland as you’d expect from a mobile game protagonist, but the fights more than make up for that. Once it gets into the Servant battles, First Order becomes a lot of fun. Battles include Lancer (summoned as a Caster here) against Archer and Mash (the new main Servant) fighting Saber Alter, both of which are as cool as you’d expect. First Order is only the first part of the overall Grand Order story, but it’s a lot of fun if you enjoy Fate’s particular style of action.
Can you start here?: No. First Order provides a few cursory explanations, but anyone who hasn’t seen Stay Night or Zero would be completely lost.
Fate/Extra: Last Encore
What is it?: Fate/Extra: Last Encore is an adaptation of an RPG set in an alternate universe where the mana on Earth began to dry up. Humanity discovers an ancient supercomputer of sorts on the moon, known as the Moon Cell, which sets up a pseudo Grail War where it will grant the wish of whoever wins.
Is it worth watching?: Yes, but don’t expect it to be like the other Fates. Extra is more focused on atmosphere, and doesn’t give any clear answers about the setting, the timeline, or what’s going on until it’s nearly half over. It’s a good show, but the general tone and emotional distance for a lot of its run means it’s not for everyone
Can you start here?: Absolutely not. Last Encore is even confusing to people familiar with the original game and the Fate series. It would be incomprehensible to a newcomer.