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Continuing with the sprawling Fate franchise I binged my way through the 2014/15 variant Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works.

Unlimited is more or less a direct sequel to Fate/Zero, and builds directly on what Zero set up. I say a direct sequel because there were apparently several routes through the original Visual Novel, and Unlimited covers one of those routes. I understand that the original Fate/Stay Night (2005) covered another route[1].

So, how does Unlimited stack up against Zero? I enjoyed it more, but might struggle on a rewatch, and there are major spoilers ahead.

The Premise

The premise is, fairly obviously, very similar to that of Fate/Zero only with different Masters and Servants competing for the Holy Grail.

The Masters

This is one area where Unlimited was a big improvement for me over Zero. The main characters are much more engaging this time around. For all that he’s an idealist[2], Shirou Emiya is much more likeable than his foster father Kiritsugu was, and his refusal to countenance the end justifying the means went a long way with me.

Rin Tohsaka is just fabulous. I’ve never really been a huge fan of the Tsundere trope, but there’s a reason she’s the page image for the trope on TV Tropes. Rin is basically a lot of fun to watch, and it’s nice to see such a complex character so well realised on screen. Rin is juggling a whole bunch of issues including family traditions, personal ambitions, basic ethics and morality, as well as an attraction to Shirou that she really doesn’t want to admit to herself.

Oh and all of this whilst fighting the Holy Grail War. Can’t forget that little challenge.

The Servants

Two of the Servants stand out in Unlimited.

First up is the new version of Archer[3] who is inadvertently summoned by Rin[4]. The backstory for the new Archer is quite cleverly done, and reasonably subtly foreshadowed[5]. This plays well into Shirou’s idealism in some fascinating ways as well as into Rin’s views of herself and her relationships[6].

Second is the equally inadvertent summoning of Saber by Shirou that dumps him into the Holy Grail War with little warning and less preparation. Saber highlights the differences between Kiritsugu and Shirou: she could never work with Kiritsugu in Zero, but works well with Shirou. This relationship is also well realised, especially in the first half of the series.

Unlimited is very tightly focused on Rin and Shirou and, as a result, most of the other Masters and Servants get relatively little airtime. Caster is the main villain for much of the early series, and is both saner and somewhat more sympathetic than the version called in Zero.

The Plot Armour and the Pacing

I expressed concerns about the pacing of Zero, but these are minor compared to the pacing issues in the 2nd half of Unlimited. The first half essentially ends with Shirou losing Saber, and the second begins with Rin losing Archer.

To lose one Servant may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness[7].

So, right in the middle of the Holy Grail War, the two heroes are without servants and essentially squashable at will. At which point the Plot Armour kicks in for several episodes.

This sequence really did strain my suspension of disbelief. On the information provided in universe about the Holy Grail War, especially with the surviving villains from Zero still in play, there is no way that they should have survived as long as they did.

Essentially Rin and Shirou survive this sequence only because the plot said so. The episodes remain fun to watch, and are individually credible, but in aggregate had me going “Really? You expect me to believe that they’re still in this?”

The Resolution

The finale when it comes is quite well done; it builds strongly on the partial resolution of Zero and brings it to a logical conclusion, as well as providing an answer to the questions raised regarding Shirou’s ideals[8].

Apart from anything else the original Archer, Gilgamesh, gets his and that alone is cause for celebration[9]. An epilogue showing Rin and Shirou studying at the Mages’ Association in London is quite amusing, and shows continued improvements on Shirou’s part.

The brief Sunny Day OAV is even more amusing for what it implies about the relationships between the three in that ending[10].

Overall? I enjoyed Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works but might struggle with the 2nd half on a rewatch.

Question of the Post: Unlimited Blade Works deals with one route through Fate/Stay Night. If you’re familiar with all three, which one is your favourite? Why? Is it because of the characters, or the message, or both?

[1] That version appears to be available in Australia on DVD but I’m not sure I want to commit to spending money on it yet.

[2] And all too often an idiot.

[3] The old one is still around as well.

[4] She was hoping to get Saber.

[5] One of my “close but not quite” guesses early on had me a generation off the correct answer.

[6] It’s… complicated, OK? Also [SPOILER DELETED] doesn’t help in some respects.

[7] Obligatory Oscar Wilde paraphrase is obligatory.

[8] Such is the nature of an anime that only tells one route of a Visual Novel.

[9] Kirei also gets his earlier, courtesy of a Crowning Moment of Awesome on the new Lancer’s part.

[10] Apparently the original Fate/Stay Night Visual Novel was an eroge, and there are definite hints of it in Unlimited, despite the thoroughly Bleached Underpants in play.