(This has been adapted from my reddit thread)
In life, one thing is true for everyone: we all have desires. Wanting to be wealthy beyond imagining, finding the love of one's life, obtaining that dream job; there is always a goal, a wish that seems impossible to reach no matter how hard one tries. Aspirations bring about both the best and the worst in people, due to the very nature of what they bring. And if these wishes do happen to come to fruition, they affect not just the winner, but those closest, too. Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Season One is the beginning of such a literal wish-fulfillment journey.
The story begins with Emiya, a high school boy who witnesses a strange fight in a nearby courtyard. After being cornered, he somehow summons Saber, a noble woman who calls him Master. Knowingly or not, Emiya officially joins the Holy Grail War.
UBW (the acronym of choice from here on out) sits in a precarious position. It's not technically a sequel and, simultaneously, it is the first half of a two part adventure. As such, it takes the burden of introducing the characters and spearheading the world-building for what is to come. On this end, the anime holds its own. In order for the audience to completely understand what is really going on, it intersperses the battles it is known for with heavy dialogue and exposition. These moments craft the rules involved, the players of the game, the limitations, the terminology, the magic system, etc. A lot of it is mostly shoved towards the viewers because there isn't much time and the anime wants to focus on other aspects (i.e. the fighting).
The anime has a strange habit of allowing many of its characters to live through seemingly impossible situations. This type of behavior is fine if it's done within reason (no huge deus ex machina or logical reasoning exists). However, on numerous occasions, many cast members, and more specifically Shirou, are permitted to fight another day. Often times, the answer is frivolous: "this was fun, let's do it again," "you were entertaining, so leave," "I can't kill on merit, so walk." The idea is obviously not to eliminate the characters so early, since they play roles later on down the line. But without proper explanations backing their escape, the effect is lost, and it becomes an eye-roll as time and again the battles involved amount to nothing more than pomp and flash.
Beyond the world-building, past the fighting, UBW's core ideals are, in a phrase, less than ideal. Again, it's difficult: the anime is juggling multiple different facets at once, all within what is the first half. Essentially, the show looks at the idea of whether it is possible to fight for pure justice, and what that ultimately entails. What is justice to one person may be defined separately by another. How much of it is considered enough in a given situation? Who delivers the final judgement? These kinds of questions are, sadly, not looked at in-depth within UBW. It begins to present the idea, having two upholders of such morals against one another, but isn't explored enough to warrant it a conversational topic. Because, per usual, the fighting takes the spotlight, preventing any form of thematic merit.
The art and animation within UBW is some of the best in the business.
Starting with the art, the scenic backdrops and amount of detail found within them are usually breathtaking. Bustling cities, panoramic bridge shots, populated parks, and eerie cemeteries are just a sampling of the beautiful art pieces that the anime dishes out.
The character designs are distinct in their lack of facial detail. This seems strange, considering what the art itself has to offer. But this is done for a reason; it provides an accentuating difference between the characters' faces and the outfits they wear. Saber's blue regalia, Rin's red and black mage attire, Archer's trench coat, Emiya's scarf, and Illya's purple winter clothes appear simple in nature, but provide each character with an iconic look that makes them memorable outside of the show.
The actual animation does not falter. UBW contains, without a doubt, some of the best, most well-choreographed fight scenes in all of anime. And it should, considering how much attention it is given. The battles are incredibly detailed, with flying swords, dazzling effects, and a superb amount of variation between the duels. One can feel the immense power that the Servants have, and it is always a spectacle to watch on-screen. Outside of the battles, the show maintains an above average amount of quality. Characters move naturally and small details like the reflection of water, nuanced hair movements, and the 3D enemies bring about more of the animation that has made ufotable famous.
As a shounen and "battle royale," the cast involved is large, with the more important among them garnering the most screen time. Reiterating myself, it is important to remember that this just the beginning of what UBW supposedly has to offer.
The most famous of Servants, Saber is a regal woman of nobility and honor. Fair in beauty, strong of will, and unrivaled in combat, she is considered by many to be the best subordinate any Master could hold. Like the other Servants, her past and namesake are shrouded in mystery, but it's unquestionable that her convictions take the form of exacting justice on the evil and bringing hope to the weak. Emiya is her Master, and their personalities fall in line hand-in-hand. She trusts him and he trusts her, bringing about a duo that, no matter the circumstances, have a bond that cannot be severed.
Speaking of Emiya, he is a high school teenager who was saved by a man named Kiritsugu ten years prior to the events. Level-headed and kind, he seemingly cannot deny helping those in need, regardless of their moral status. His status as Master is considered odd. Having only the ability to strengthen objects, one of the lowest forms of magic, he can do little besides lean on Saber and her insane abilities. It's an interesting dynamic, because the one who wants to be the savior, the justice bringer, must first be helped and supported himself. And not just by Saber, too. No, a lot of aid is provided to him by a certain "tsundere."
Arguably the fan favorite of UBW, Rin is a high school girl who descends from a family of magic wielders. Having lost her father and mother, she has trained rigorously for the day the Holy Grail War would come about once more. Extremely playful yet easily embarrassed, she takes pride in not only her magic but also in her ability to manipulate Emiya so easily. Where Emiya wants nothing to do with the War but save others from it, Rin's reasons are more apt: she's in it to win it. She may put up a front, but it's only because she can't bear to lose anything precious to her any longer.
Archer is Rin's Servant. Among the whole cast, he is the most interesting of them all. Seemingly devoid of emotion, he utilizes swords instead of arrows to inflict damage to his foes. His personality is mirrored with Rin's: calm, unapproachable, and chiding. While he follows his Master's orders, he freely speaks his mind. More often than not, he clashes with Emiya, who holds contrasting beliefs. Like a typical bowman, he usually sits on the sidelines, always watching and listening, until he is ready to "fire."
These characterizations have somewhat shown a small connection: the Master's involved summon their initial Servant that best pertains to who they are as a person. Emiya has the kind and determined Saber, whereas Rin has the standoffish and direct Archer. But what of the others? Berserker's Master is menacing and cruel, Caster's goes about its business as she does, and Rider's is every bit as deranged as she is. It's as if each person's characteristics have manifested themselves in spirit form, with the ultimate victor proving just what type of human is deserving to win it all.
The OP is good. It contains a good mix of guitar and violin, with a nice set of vocals. The falling piano playing, catchy beat, and lyrics make it great to listen to both in and out of the anime.
As for the ED, it starts off with an eerie vocal piece. What follows is very float-y instrument playing and singing that seems to invoke hope within the listener. After the halfway mark, the drums and beat do the singer little justice.
The soundtrack is a mixed bag. It is filled with mysterious arrangements for the more "hidden" scenes and acoustic guitar playing for the more relaxed ones. Guitar pieces fill the more "cool" moments, with the battles containing intense choir-like singing. As a final note, the sound effects provided are unique and add further to the overall experience.
Voice-acting wise, everyone involved gave average to above average performances. A special shout-out to Saber, voiced by Ayako Kawasumi, who continues to reprise her role as the top Servant, with the gracefulness and emotion needed during all the right moments.
The reason you, I, or anyone else watches this anime is for the battles. The awesome, killer, amazingly detailed fights that exist at a regular interval from start to finish. I wanted there to be that next fight when the characters were sitting around talking. I wanted to see Saber's Noble Phantasm, watch Berserker crush all matter before him, and view Caster's incredible witchcraft. The fights are the highlight, and they were delivered tenfold.
During the downtime, the skirmishes gave way to talking and world-building. While it was fun to see Rin and Emiya converse, or see Saber acting as her refined yet curious self, my inner conscious was saying, "Let's get back to those fights, now shall we?" Both aspects are done well on their own, but when you are comparing the two within their own show, you really want them to ignore everything else, even if it is technically important.
For now, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Season One contains an okay story, a starting set of characters, and insanely high production value. It's actually very reminiscent of Fate/Zero's first half. The popularity of the anime and the universe it depicts is immense, but this one is still far from a masterpiece. Hopefully the second half, like the prequel before it, can pick up the remaining pieces.
Story: Fine, nice world-building, too many conveniences, unrefined ideals
Animation: Great, stellar across the board
Characters: Good, Emiya and Rin begin their journey, with the Servants being more than just spirits
Sound: Good, good OP, okay ED, okay soundtrack, good VA work
Enjoyment: Good, all about the battles
Final Score: 7/10