Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (2014) Review

It’s impossible to talk about UBW without mentioning the hype surrounding it. Fate/Zero was a massive hit, and people were talking about UBW months before Ufotable even announced which route they were adapting. Ufotable’s reputation and Fate/Zero’s popularity meant that expectations for UBW couldn’t be higher, which ended up being its biggest downfall; nothing could live up to those expectations and please everyone.

I won’t go into much plot/character summary since the basic setup and the early episodes are mostly the same as the 2006 adaptation, which I already reviewed and going into detail about the later parts of the story would require spoilers. In any case, UBW isn’t the best place to start watching Fate anyway. Instead, I’ll focus on how this differs from previous Fate adaptations. From the very beginning, the biggest difference is Shirou himself. I wrote before about why Shirou doesn’t work in 2006 adaptation, and UBW has the same backstory and basic character traits: he’s still naïve and obsessed with becoming a hero and still puts himself in danger for stupid reasons. The difference is that both Shirou and the show itself are aware of how unrealistic his dream is. Almost as soon as he’s introduced, it’s revealed that Shirou wants to save people because it’s the only way he can justify being saved from the fire when so many others died. He knows that it’s impossible and unrealistic, but still strives for it, which constantly puts him in conflict with the reality of his situation. This version of Shirou is instantly more interesting and relatable than his previous iteration, which is good since the his ideals and the problems that come from them make up the core of the show. The Grail War is still there, of course, but it takes a backseat in the second half to Shirou’s own issues and his conflict with Archer.

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Indeed it is.

Archer had a few good scenes in the 2006 adaptation, but his role was mostly restricted to “Rin’s snarky servant.” He didn’t get much screentime and we never learned anything about him. UBW completely changes this and he becomes just as important as Shirou. Unlike in the other route, Archer doesn’t get injured at the beginning and plays a more active part. His cynicism and bitterness constantly put him in conflict with Shirou’s idealistic nature and part of the climax consists of the two of them debating their worldviews. This segment is easily the most controversial part of UBW since it goes on for longer than it actually needs to. My guess is that they didn’t have enough content to fill 25 episodes, so they stretched out this segment to fill 3 episodes when it could have easily been done in 1.5-2. Even being dragged out like it was, the conflict between them is one of the strongest aspects of UBW. The ultimate point of this is questioning the nature of heroism and whether it’s possible or even good, with Shirou and Archer representing the two opposing sides.

Rin also plays a much larger role in UBW. The first adaptation was Saber’s route and UBW is Rin’s route. Rin serves as more of a co-lead for the first half and is far more active than her previous iteration. She actually gets involved in most of the battles and gets far more development. Much of it is related to her father’s role in the previous Grail War (AKA Fate/Zero) and how much she’s devoted to winning for his sake. What makes her question this is her developing relationship with Shirou, which is more romantic than their friendship in the 2006 adaptation. The two of them complement each other well and make a cute couple, although Rin plays a much smaller part in the second half.

Because of the nature of visual novels, each route doesn’t have to develop every character and Fate/Stay Night is no exception. UBW is ultimately Shirou and Archer’s story with everything else being secondary to that. Secondary characters like Saber don’t get nearly as much screentime or development here. With this in mind, the best way to view UBW is as one part of a larger story/world (the others being Fate/Zero, the 2006 adaptation and the upcoming Heaven’s Feel movies).

What’s important to keep in mind is that this isn’t a sequel to Fate/Zero, even though there are a few references to it. Not every conflict from Zero is resolved here and the overall style is very different, both in story and how the characters are written. Zero had more of an ensemble cast for most of its run and made sure to develop every character equally. UBW doesn’t do this and devotes most of it’s focus to Shirou and Archer (and Rin to a lesser extent). This doesn’t make it better or worse, but it means that anyone expecting a sequel to Zero is going to be disappointed.

The characters are extremely important in UBW, but the action is just as noteworthy. The first half is full of action and even the second half has plenty of good fight scenes. I’ve already talked about how well done the fights are in Fate, but it bears repeating, especially with how well it’s executed in UBW. Every character has a distinctive fighting style, distinctive weapons and unique powers, so no two fights look the same. All of the abilities and how they match up are well thought out, too. The sheer quality of the animation also helps with this. UBW has some of the best animation I’ve seen in a TV anime and deserves the nickname “Unlimited Budget Works.” The animation is as smooth as it gets, the artwork is great and digital effects are used well so that they enhance the animation instead of getting in the way. The fights also feel like there’s real weight behind each blow, which is hard to do and helps show how strong the Servants really are. There is some CG used, especially for some backgrounds, but it’s very well done and doesn’t get in the way (unlike a certain dragon). Overall, the animation actually tops Fate/Zero, which is no easy feat.

The music for UBW is good, but doesn’t usually stand out as much as previous Fate soundtracks. It’s mostly good action themes that complement the fights well. I say mostly because there are a few excellent tracks from the VN that show up, like Emiya and Sword of Promised Victory. There’s also an insert song by Aimer that plays in the second half and is excellent. Both openings are good, with the second standing out more than the first. The dub for UBW mostly has actors from Zero and the Deen adaptation and is good, but I would actually recommend the sub in this case. The Japanese cast has been consistent through the VN and every adaption, which shows. I don’t speak Japanese, but even I can tell how well every actor fits their role and how experienced they are. The dub is fine if you prefer dubs, but the sub is excellent.

Your enjoyment of UBW ultimately depends on how patient you are with long dialogue scenes and how much you like Shirou and Archer as characters. I thought both were interesting and well developed and the philosophizing was (mostly) interesting. The most important thing to remember is that UBW isn’t Fate/Zero 2 and isn’t going to be exactly like Zero. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think UBW was really good, although not as good as it could have been if the pacing had been better.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is available from Aniplex of America and is available for streaming on Netflix and Crunchyroll.

Final Score: 8.9/10

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