I watched ep.1 of this last year and it bored me. I didn't continue. This was an instructive mistake, as errors often are. However I've since given it another chance, having fallen in love with this franchise's subversion into magical girls, Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya. I discovered of course that I'd been wrong and that everyone who'd been praising Unlimited Blade Works was right.
I'd better give a road map of the franchise, since it's famous and there's a lot of it. This isn't even everything, by the way. There are more games, manga, OVAs, etc.
- Fate/stay night (2004) = adult visual novel, i.e. pornographic computer game
- Fate/stay night (2006) = anime adaptation, mainly following the Fate route
- Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (2010) = movie, following the second route
- Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (2014-15) = TV series and remake
- Fate/Zero (2011-2012) = prequel anime series, based on a Gen Urobuchi novel.
- Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya (2013+) = magical girl parody spin-off
- Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel (soon) = an upcoming movie trilogy
It's about mages fighting to the death to win the Holy Grail, helped by magical servants who each personify a mythical hero. It's an exotic but reasonably straightforward premise. Could be great; could be boring. As it happens, it's been done well.
Where I'd gone wrong last year was in watching ep.1. There's an ep.0 and I should have started with that instead. Ep.0 follows a mage who's involved in this war as she goes to school, gives her classmates the brush-off, summons a Servant with an abrasive opinion of her, etc. This is quite fun. Rin has her hands full with Archer, who made me laugh with lines like "and you can go to hell, master." However it's also dark, with the magicians' rules including the compulsory murder of witnesses. That happens too.
After that, ep.1 shows us the same events from another point of view. This time we're following Shirou, who's just an ordinary bloke who's not involved in the Holy Grail War and so is wandering through this fairly sinister world without actually doing anything. Last year, I found this dull and empty. Shirou knows nothing. He's a point-of-view on legs. However it's rather interesting as the flip side of ep.0. We're seeing characters and scenes from a new angle and learning how things fit together, while of course we're also waiting for a certain bad thing to happen.
My first reaction to ep.1 was "is Rin insane?" She's chosen to join this deathmatch. Is the Holy Grail worth the one-in-seven odds of being the last survivor of seven Masters and their Servants? (Answer: no. She's fighting for the sake of fighting. She's not interested in the Grail itself, even though it grants wishes.) However it's a bit more complicated than that. You don't need to kill the other Masters, although the Grail's useless if you don't. (God is a bastard.) You only need to kill all the Servants, but unfortunately that's tough since Servants all have magical superpowers and so the most efficient approach tends to be targeting Masters. Furthermore most of the Masters seem to be psychopaths, narcissistic cocks and/or ex-killers who never really cared whether their fellow humans were alive or dead to start with. Archer even thinks being a stone-cold bastard is part of a mage's job description and will praise or scold Rin and Shirou for either conforming to or deviating from this.
This is not a fight for nice guys. Shirou is at a disadvantage. Rin, a bit less so.
It's an epic story that probably works better on DVD. You couldn't call it slow, but it's one big, continuous story that's continually building on what went before, with no filler episodes or side-story arcs. It's also pretty damn bleak in its backstory, its combatants' worldviews and the things certain people are willing to do. That said, though, it's also funny. Saber's so strait-laced that she made me laugh in ep.12 just by being eating taiyaki or discovering baseball. Rin and Shirou have a lively relationship. (They're theoretically enemies, so Rin's endlessly exasperated by Shirou's friendliness and disinterest in trying to kill her.) The show's dark, but it's not depressing. I was entertained.
Ilya isn't a major character yet. She appears, which made me happy, but she's nothing like her lovable Prisma Illya self. She might be the most chilling human character, actually.
I enjoyed this a lot. I've bought the original 2006 anime, the 2010 movie and Fate/Zero on DVD to compare them. I must also rewatch Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya Season 1, since I think the Class Cards they're hunting down are this original show's Servants. That'll be a different experience after this. (Caster, yow. There's a lady to make you want to get in a spaceship and nuke the world from orbit.) What's more, with this franchise you don't have to watch 1000000 episodes to follow the plot. Different series are adapting different routes through the same game. There's also no sex, by the way, in case you were wondering given its origins. I'm really looking forward to the 2015 season.