Fate series visual

How to Watch the Fate Series: A Guide to Navigating the Rocky Waters of Adaptation

The Fate series is no longer an underground property. Despite starting life in 2003 as an erotic visual novel under the title Fate/stay night, the fascinating concept behind TYPE-MOON’s world and characters has gone on to inform countless sequels, adaptations, and spinoffs. The mobile game Fate/Grand Order, in particular, has given rise to a resurgence of interest in the series, with its English version regularly hitting the top of app store charts and boasting record revenue.

Yet, the Fate series is also saddled with an unfortunate reputation: its lack of accessibility. Popular discourse surrounding the franchise often emphasizes how many different parts it has, alongside its convoluted lore: what the hell does ‘stay night’ mean, anyway? As a result, knowing where to start and in what order to watch the Fate anime in can be very difficult to figure out.

This guide offers three orders in which to watch the various Fate anime, but doesn’t claim to be anything close to objective. Instead, it suggests three different ways in which to view the series, each in response to the series’ production and availability circumstances. It also speaks to three different types of Fate fans, both new and old.

Fate series visual

The Problem With the Fate Series in Anime

The big problem with consuming the Fate series is that the original visual novel, Fate/stay night, isn’t available legally in the west.

Given the series’ exponential growth in recent years, the fact that no one has picked up the license is mind-boggling. Lesser series get released all the time. Unfortunately, we don’t know the full circumstances (lack of a distributor or lack of a platform?) but you can find various unofficial patches on the series’ very useful subreddit.

What’s especially unfortunate about this is that all of Fate/stay night’s subsequent adaptations have been lacking in one way or another. Usually, in these circumstances, it’s easier to simply recommend reading the source material before diving into any adaptations, but we don’t have that privilege when it comes to the Fate series. Instead, we are stuck navigating the rocky waters of adaptation.

If you’re completely new to the Fate series, here’s a brief explanation: In Fuyuki City, seven Masters and seven Servants battle it out to get their hands on the Holy Grail: a magical artefact said to grant the winner’s any one wish. Those Servants, by the way, are figures from real-life history and mythology, meaning that this is a sort of history buff’s battle royale.

Sound good? You’re in for a treat.

Route 1: The Purist

  1. Fate/stay night (2006)
  2. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (2014) and 2nd Season (2015)
  3. Fate/stay night [Heaven’s Feel] I. presage flower (2017), II. lost butterfly (2019), III. spring song (2020)
  4. Fate/Zero (2011) and 2nd Season (2012)

For purists like me, the Fate series has to be experienced this way. Why? Not only it’s mostly chronological but also mirrors how the story was originally written; important when considering the tripartite nature of the narrative.

Like most visual novels, Fate/stay night is composed of three different ‘routes’: the Fate route, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel. Also like most visual novels, these three routes are focused on three different female characters: Fate on Saber, Unlimited Blade Works on Rin, and Heaven’s Feel on Sakura.

Studio DEEN’s 2006 adaptation of the visual novel of the same name is the only series on this list that actually attempts to adapt the Fate route. Even so, it doesn’t do just this: it also incorporates some elements from both Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel, meaning that things are muddled somewhat. Taken alongside its dated visuals, it ends up shaking out as both an imperfect adaptation of the first arc and a perfect way to get spoiled on what happens later.

This is a shame as, if you march straight into Studio Ufotable’s 2014 and 2015 adaptations of Unlimited Blade Works, you’ll arguably miss out on the exploration and development of one of the series’ most iconic characters. There is a reason why Saber has appeared in practically every single subsequent iteration of the Fate series, leading to the term ‘Saberface’: she’s great, and the fans and the producers know it. Given that Unlimited Blade Works focuses on Rin, you won’t find Saber’s development here.

I would argue that Unlimited Blade Works is the series’ best route in terms of both ideas and execution, but it’s also one that works much better in tandem with the three others. This brings me on to the second part: each one of Fate/stay night’s three main routes springboards off each other, with Fate being the ‘introductory’ story and Unlimited Blade Works being the ‘backside’ of that. Heaven’s Feel is then an entire inversion of that structure, meaning that it is probably the worst place to start.

Without a competent Fate route adaptation, the Fate series doesn’t quite function the same way in anime. Hence why this guide started with the problems contained therein. As to why Fate/Zero is placed at the end, the next section will explain.

Fate series visual

Route Two: The New Age

  1. Fate/Zero (2011) and 2nd Season (2012)
  2. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (2014) and 2nd Season (2015)
  3. Fate/stay night [Heaven’s Feel] I. presage flower (2017), II. lost butterfly (2019), III. spring song (2020)

Probably the most contentious part of the Purist’s way to watch the Fate series will be the decision to put Fate/Zero at the very end and Fate/stay night at the beginning. Nowadays, it’s considered common practice to jump straight in with Zero and ignore stay night entirely: while this practice does have its merits, there are several problems.

While Fate/stay night does admittedly look and sound quite dated these days, it delivers important information on the character of Saber that is absent from all other adaptations. That much has already been explained.

In stark contrast, Zero was praised as one of the best-looking anime of all time when it first aired. In my opinion, this still largely holds up today. While ufotable’s production techniques, particularly when it comes to the use of 3D, have certainly come a long way since then, it’s hard to argue that Zero isn’t a solid-looking show: even now, such scenes as Saber unleashing Excalibur at the end of season one give me goosebumps.

Nevertheless, Zero is not the best to start watching the Fate series. Why? Simply put, the original light novel by Gen Urobuchi (that the series is based on) was written some years after the original visual novel was first released, and takes for granted a certain amount of background knowledge: while this doesn’t have anything to do with the magic system or the Holy Grail War (the series does a good job of explaining this in its opening episodes), the connections between it and the original story will be lost on first-time viewers.

Much of Fate/Zero’s power comes from how it fills in the blanks left by the original Fate/stay night visual novel, such as how the Fourth Holy Grail war was left ‘unfinished’ and why Gilgamesh was somehow able to remain summoned. Nevertheless, the satisfaction of uncovering these answers only works if you’re aware that there are questions in the first place! Heaven’s Feel’s placement at the end has already been explained in the previous section.

Rin from Fate series

Route Three: The Machete Order

  1. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works season one (2014)
  2. Fate/Zero (2011) and 2nd Season (2012)
  3. Unlimited Blade Works 2nd Season (2015)
  4. Fate/stay night [Heaven’s Feel] I. presage flower (2017), II. lost butterfly (2019), III. spring song (2020)

I do understand why modern fans might choose to start their journey into the Fate series with Zero instead of stay night. After all, the latter looks bad, sounds even worse, and doesn’t even function as a proper adaptation: advocating something like that sure is a surefire way to turn off people from watching the series before they’ve even truly begun!

With this in mind, I propose this third, ‘Machete’ order as a compromise. Just like the popular way to experience the original Star Wars saga (disregarding the Disney trilogy), it combines the best of both new and old, while also delivering an interesting enough story despite the inherent setbacks.

We start with Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works season one. While the focus on Rin means that Saber’s absence is still sorely felt, the nearly fifty-minute prologue does a good job of getting the first-time viewer up to speed where it counts. There’s also enough exposition and explanation in the series to make sure that basic things such as the Servant/Master system is properly explained.

We leave off after first season to dip back into Fate/Zero and the events of the Fourth Holy Grail War ten years prior. By now, the viewer should be aware that all is not as it seems: Gilgamesh has made an appearance alongside Kotomine, and Kiritsugu has told Shirou about how he once wanted to become a ‘hero of justice.’ While all the burning questions won’t be as immediately apparent if coming into it straight from reading the visual novel, it’ll have to do, given the circumstances.

After digesting the tragic end of Fate/Zero and the examinations that it makes of various critical characters, we can jump back into the second part of Unlimited Blade Works and discover what happened to Shirou and Caster, Rin and Archer. Luckily, both UBW and Zero are deeply philosophical in nature, so they go well together: while UBW debates the conflict between reality and ideals, Zero meditates on the nature of heroism and what it means to be a leader of men. Although they weren’t supposed to be experienced together, it kind of works.

Unfortunately, this guide hasn’t discussed Heaven’s Feel that much, but that’s because it is the most straightforward adaptation. There are some changes made here and there (mostly to justify the second movie’s existence) but it is faithful for the most part, meaning that it doesn’t really require that much explanation.

I don’t want to give the impression that the story isn’t any good, so I will say this: it subverts the structure of the entire series beautifully, and proves that erotic scenes can (and do) have their place in Japanese media. Ufotable’s movies, incidentally, settled that question once and for all.

Saber from Fate Series

What About the Rest of the Fate Series?

More knowledgeable readers will have noticed that this guide does not cover all different parts of the Fate series. There are, admittedly, some major oversights, particularly when it comes to material made in recent years. Yet, there is a reason for this.

It should be noted that Studio DEEN also did a movie adaptation of the Unlimited Blade Works route in 2010. Everyone pretty much fundamentally agrees, however, that squeezing down a 30-40 hour arc into a movie with a 1-hour-40-minute runtime was a pretty terrible idea, so the less we talk about it, the better.

How about some of the more recent spinoffs, though? The first one made after ufotable proved that Fate could be cool again was Fate/Apocrypha by A-1 Pictures in 2017: it was based on a series of light novels by Yuuichirou Higashide, and ended up being one of the worst anime I’ve ever seen. I have no real problem with the story (it’s more battle royale goodness) but the flat production and uninspired character designs made every single episode feel like the one before it, until I eventually dropped it after number 19. Not recommended.

Here, we run straight into my own personal biases. I said at the very beginning that this guide was far from objective, so here is my own subjective opinion: everything outside of the main Fate/stay night series is pretty much trash, including anything and everything associated with Fate/Grand Order. Fate/EXTRA Last Encore, based on the 2010 PSP game of the same name, is alright, but only because it is directed by Akiyuki Shinbou.

So, what about Fate/Grand Order -First Order-? Lord El-Melloi’s Case Files {Rail Zeppelin} Grace note? Fate/Grand Order Divine Realm of the Round Table: Camelot – Paladin; Agateram? Not interested, and not just because of the stupidly long names: the Fate series has ultimately changed in response to an influx of new fans. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves people like me in the lurch.

TYPE-MOON; Studio DEEN; A-1 Pictures; ufotable
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