Now, before I start this very long and in-depth review, I'd like to say three things.
1. As opposed to other people, I actually consider 6/10 to be a decent score. It doesn't mean that I thought that this was a bad show, it's without a doubt decent entertainment. I put a lot of effort into writing this review, so even though my opinion may not be the most popular one out there, you should at least give it a shot and listen to what I have to say.
2. I have read the entire Fate/stay night visual novel and am quite familiar with the Nasuverse in general, having read Tsukihime and Fate/hollow ataraxia in addition to having seen every anime adaptation there is of Type-Moon related works. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a big fan of the original work, I have to admit, but I just can't do this without referencing the visual novel. I will be bringing up the original material on multiple occasions during this review and make comparisons to it, as what lies in there is an integral part of my argument on why I think that this show ultimately failed, both as an adaptation as well as a standalone series, so please bear with me on that, I am not just complaining about things being changed or cut.
3. This review will contain spoilers. So, if you haven't seen the series and don't want to get spoiled, here is my TL;DR version: A flawed adaptation that is brought down by inconsistent direction, misuse of its medium and source material that is very hard to adapt. Good enough in its own right to be worth a watch. Check it out if you like pretty yet short action scenes, ideological conflicts that don't require a philosophy degree to understand and don't mind excessive amounts of exposition.
Now that we got that out of the way, let's start this review proper.
I can't lie, I was excited about this series before it came out. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have been, considering the circumstances. I shouldn't have let the promise of Fate/Zero blind me, I knew that Fate/stay night is way too different from Zero to properly compare the two. Now, nine months later, I am almost certain that we'll never see an anime adaptation of Fate/stay night that will be able to come close to the same level of quality that fans dream of or that Fate/Zero had. The original work just doesn't lend itself to adaptation very well, at least not to a medium that is dependent on visual storytelling like anime. Still, I personally think that the people involved could have done much better with this season than they ended up doing.
As this is a sequel, I think I should state my opinion on the first cour as well: A good representation of the first half of the story that has trouble standing on its own, seeing how it is just the first half and both characters and story are still in an undeveloped state, where you can do little but consider them average and at best intriguing. It also has some of the same problems as the second cour, especially in regards to how it handles its dialogue heavy scenes, but more on that later. Nevertheless, I think that it can be called a good show, which is largely due to how it handled the difficult issue of pacing, which it did relatively well.
And that is exactly where one of my major problems with the second cour lies: The pacing. Seriously, what is up with that? The first episode flies by in a flash, making it seem like a lot of material was cut. Everything just happens way too fast, which results in a lot of things not making sense at all. Why was Shirou in the church? How did he know to go there? Is he psychic? Then episodes two comes around and it is even more confusing. They spend a good half of the episode on anime original content that adds nothing to story or character, but instead cut out major parts from the visual novel relating to actual character development, just to move the story along. Now, anime original content doesn't necessarily have to be bad, as I mentioned before, I am not what you would call a purist and thus far from the kind of person that hails the original material as the Holy Grail (hah, jokes). For example, I really like what they did with Ilya in episode three. But it has to benefit the story in a meaningful way. And I don't feel like that was achieved here. Again, it seems like a lot of scenes fell victim to the cutting room. While the next few episodes are still rushed all things considered, they do manage to find a certain pace within them. Especially the Archer/Shirou confrontation episodes (though flawed, again, I'll get to that) are pretty well paced and it really shows that they wanted to take their time with the central part of the story. Granted, it doesn't fit well with the other fast paced episodes this season had to offer, but as stand alone episodes, I struggle to find serious flaws with them. Now episode ten is where the problems come back. This episode is slow as hell and stands in stark contrast to what we have seen before. Very little actually happens and barely anything is achieved, I could sum it up with one sentence of twelve or less words („Rin implants her Magic Crest onto Shirou so he can fight Gilgamesh“ for example) and you could just skip it entirely without missing a thing. The next two episodes I don't have any particular problems with in this regard, but that is unfortunately not a thing I can really say about the last one. Now, episode twelve pretty much wraps up the story. Problem is that we had to wait an entire week for an episode that is dedicated solely to the epilogue of the story, which is something I have rarely seen before and for good reason. You don't tack on another episode that is really just the story fading out after everything has been resolved, that is not how you end a series. It also lets me ask the question, why they couldn't do episode twelve at double length instead, like they did back in season one. I'll get to what I specifically think about the epilogue later, but its existence as its own episode is a problem in and of itself. Point is that the show's pacing is a mess. There is a huge contrast between episodes that are incredibly fast-paced for no apparent reason like episode one and those that are slow and have very little actual plot or character development happening like episodes ten or the essentially unneeded episode 13. These issues make you wonder whether or not the series was planned out properly with a clear image in mind.
Now, before we get to the real meat, by which I mean story and characters, let's talk about the presentation for a bit.
First up is the OST and I am honestly experiencing mixed feelings here. This is so because the OST itself is great, with plenty of beautiful pieces, as you would expect from a composer like Fukasawa. But the use of the OST is what bothers me. I'll get to director Takahiro Miura's part in this eventually, so let me just say that his use of the OST is mediocre at best and he certainly could have done much better. A lot of the better tracks are rarely used within the anime, if at all, while some of the less poignant tracks end up being overplayed and some scenes just experience a complete lack of music, when it was desperately needed. At the end of the day though, the OST is still good enough for me to give it a pass. The insert song used in episode eight (Aimer's „Last Stardust“) was a really nice addition to the scene, plus the final few episodes see the use of a lot of good and fitting remixes of classical visual novel tracks such as Emiya, This Illusion and New Dawn, which long time fans will appreciate. Not to forget the opening and ending themes, Aimer's „Brave Shine“ and Kalafina's „ring your bell“, which are great by themselves and compliment the visuals rather well. In addition to the OST the voice acting is as good as you would expect it to be, seeing how these people have been voicing their characters for many years. They all do a fantastic job, special mentions go to Junichi Suwabe as Archer and Tomokazu Seki, who just perfectly encapsulates the nature of the arrogant and prideful Gilgamesh.
Now we get to art and animation and I bet that everybody reading this review will expect me to praise it for looking so damn pretty. You know what? I won 't. Yes, the show looks pretty, very much so, but I don't think that it uses its medium very well. A point of comparison that I like to use is last years sports anime Ping Pong The Animation. Now, comparing Ping Pong with Fate/stay night on a technical level, I don't think that there would be much of a debate which of them looks better. Fate/stay night has way higher production quality, every single frame looks smooth, the characters are never off-modell and the lighting effects are simply spectacular. Granted, some of the 3D is still a little off-putting when mixed with 2D elements, as it is usual for ufotable, but the show looks amazing, no doubt about it. Still, I actually prefer Ping Pong. Why? Because Fate isn't interesting. What does the show get out of being an anime, what does the adaptation add to enhance the story? Pretty fight scenes. That is all. Story and characters don't benefit at all from the transition from one medium to another. Ping Pong has tons of interesting imagery, symbolism and an expressive art style that helps in developing the characters and telling the story. Fate on the other hand has none of that. Fate/stay night is a very dialogue and monologue heavy visual novel, so adapting it into a visual medium like anime isn't very easy. Yet what they decided to do is probably the worst way possible. They either left the dialogue as it is, resulting in a lot of boring exposition that is borderline unacceptable for a visual medium or made massive cuts that affected the characters in a major way. The outright denial to use interesting imagery and other visual forms of storytelling to properly develop the story and portray dialogue and monologues in an interesting way angers me. Sure, there were moments were they actually tried, episode eight serves as a good example, but they were too few and far between to be satisfying. And it's not like this can't be done. The Monogatari series is based off very dialogue heavy source material and it manages to deal with that just fine, so why can't Fate/stay night do the same? Of course, exactly the same style wouldn't work as those two series are very different in both tone and content, but the problem lies elsewhere. First, there is the inexperienced director, who probably just wasn't a good choice for adapting this difficult series. But more importantly, I think that it has a lot to do with the amount of money that was put into this adaptation. Monogatari was a gamble that could have easily backfired. Ufotable couldn't afford to take a risk on this, considering the amount of money spent in production (a.k.a. a lot, that much should be obvious). This had to make its money back, no questions asked. And this ends up showing when looking at the final product. It all just seems so safe, like it was made to appeal to the most common denominator (more on that under characters). I understand why it is so, but that certainly doesn't mean that I have to like it.
Now, the part that I have been waiting to get to: Story and characters. Though to be fair, it should probably only be characters, since the story is nothing to write home about in the first place. Young inexperienced boy is unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) thrown into a battle to the death. There he meets friends and foes, polishing his skills, facing his own weaknesses (quite literally in this case) and also having some romance on the side. At the end of the journey he overcomes his weaknesses, grows into a man and lives happily ever after with the girl of his dreams. The End. Pretty standard stuff, right? Yeah, we have all seen that type of story before, but what makes Fate/stay night great in the first place isn't the core story, but the complex and interesting characters that are often subversions of popular archetypes. And here is where the problem of adaptation comes in. The characters of the original visual novel take their strength from Kinoko Nasu's detailed descriptions. We see them go through a myriad of emotions and grow as a result. This applies especially to Shirou, who gives away his every single though to the reader. Now, of course there are also characters in Fate/stay night that are interesing and entertaining without going all that deep into them, but Unlimited Blade Work's two main characters suffer immensely from the stuff being cut, as they are actually rather generic on the surface.
Without getting a proper look into Shirou's mentality, he seems like nothing more than a generic Shounen protagonist with a case of extra dumbassery. Of course on the inside he is a way more complex character that you could easily describe as mentally ill in comparison to normal society, which is the entire point, since one of Unlimited Blade Work's major focal points is the deconstruction of „Shounen heroism“, but we get to see very little of that during the anime. When Rin confronts Shirou about his mentality in episode four it comes out of nowhere, since it lacked proper build up. Then we get to the big ideological confrontation between Shirou and Archer and honestly, I really like most what they decided to do with this part, but, again, it lacked any punch since we know so very little about Shirou at this point. Naturally a lot of the blame should be put on the first cour for missing out on proper character development, but it brought down the series as a whole, so I am still going to use it as a point of critique here. Nevertheless, I think that the aforementioned confrontation was done rather well and episode eight is by far my favourite episode from the entire season. After this we get to episode nine and here is where I really struggled as „Answer“ is probably my favourite scene from this route. But again, this really lacked the impact that it originally had. It goes by way too fast and seems kind of half-assed, making you question why it is that both Archer and Shirou suddenly came to their respective conclusions. It is still a somewhat epic scene, thanks to the visuals and the way the dialogue is delivered, but as the emotional climax to the story and what is supposed to be the point where Shirou's character achieves maturity, I found it to be disappointing.
Look, I don't think that Shirou is a bad character, but I definitely do not like what they did with him and I think that he comes across as rather bland here. As said before, a lot of this is due to the problem of adaptation, but as I mentioned in the art and animation section of this review, this only excuses so much. There was far too little character development for him.
Now onto someone who I think actually qualifies as a bad character: Rin. Again, the problem here is that Rin is little more than your typical tsundere love interest on the surface that turns out to be a more interesting character once you look past the facade, which is something this adaptations allows us to do on too few occasions. As opposed to Shirou I can't say that I was ever a big fan of Rin's character in general due to me not quite buying her as a romantic partner for Shirou. I always felt like their romantic development felt a little forced. To me their relationship seems to be more similar to that of friends, fellow mages or student and mentor. Yes, they have great chemistry with each other, but it was always more comedic chemistry than it was romantic. That is why I prefer Heaven's Feel's Rin over Unlimited Blade Works' Rin. And this problem wasn't alleviated in the recent adaptation, no, it was exacerbated. Nowhere is the lack of romantic chemistry more apparent than in episode ten. This is supposed to be the height of romantic interaction between the two, but it felt nothing like that. Of course, this has a lot to do with the removal of all sexual interactions, which I'd say isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the scene just lacked any kind of emotional impact as a result. Of course we also have to go back to the problem of too little build up. When Shirou says that he likes Rin in a romantic way in episode one, it, again, comes kind of out of nowhere, because he showed little signs of actual affection towards her up to this point. Of course, reading the visual novel, and thus reading Shirou's thoughts, this makes sense, but we're not doing this right now and at this point in time it seems forced that Shirou would say such a thing in a supposedly honest manner. My main problem with Rin though is that they decided to really play up the tsundere part of her character and make her far more „moe“ than she needed to be. This even goes as far back as the character design, which ufotable decided to change for this adaptation. They did have another Rin design before, just look at some of the visual novel trailers they have made, which makes you wonder why they decided to change it. Well, my best guess is that they saw what Deen Fate actually managed to accomplish: It made its female lead insanely popular. Yes, we are not talking about Deen Fate here, but it certainly gave Saber's popularity around the world a huge boost, turning her into the incredibly popular character she is today. This is probably why they decided to really play up the „cute“ part of Rin's character to make her more appealing. She looks very different from all the other characters that ufotable have animated during the last few years, considering her nose, pointy chin and the shape of her face in general. She also has a lot of facial expressions that go way over the top in relation to the rest of the series, excessive blushing at every possible opportunity included. Not to mention all the obnoxious tsuntsun violence that was added for no other purpose other than to make her more stereotypical (take episodes one and ten as an example).
While I do not like Rin as a character in general, I can definitely appreciate her relative depth and the relationship she has with Shirou within the realms of the Visual Novel. But when it comes to the anime, I cannot say the same. They just went too far in playing her up as the cute tsundere instead of the tough mage, cutting out rather hefty chunks of story and important dialogue directly relating to the struggles that she goes through. As a result she appears to be almost flawless, which is rarely a good thing. We really don't get to see a lot from Rin, rarely does the anime decide to give us insight on what she is actually thinking and large parts of her back story and motivation are merely glossed over. All of these points lead up to me just finding her character to be flat and annoying.
The only other character that could be considered a main one is Rin's servant Archer. Now Archer is a character that I personally really like in his role as the literal representation of Shirou's ideals gone wrong. But as it is the case with Shirou, he also suffers from us getting very little insight into his way of thinking. His development feels too rapid, his ideals underdeveloped and he can come across as rather bland. I think that having a few more scenes from Archer's perspective (like the one after the final credits in the last episode), giving us more of an idea of what he is thinking and who he truly is as a person, would have been an absolute necessity for his character to be believable and likeable. He is still alright the way he is, Junichi Suwabe delivers all his lines perfectly and I personally really like the relationship he has with Rin (the last scene of episode twelve is truly a great one), but there is much more they could have done with his character, so I can't help being disappointed.
When it comes to the side characters, I actually have very little to complain about, they all managed to do their job rather well, but none of them truly stand out as great. Shinji is as despicable as he needs to be, Lancer has his moments as a kick-ass side character and I actually liked what they did with Saber and Ilya. I was fine with them being nothing more than plot devices and getting very little screen time, but the way they elaborated on their characters, even though it was little more than service for the people who watched Fate/Zero and were hoping to see those characters get some development, was good enough for me to give it a pass.
My problems come back when we get to the pair of Caster and Kuzuki, who are the secondary villains this cour. As I mentioned before, episode two suffered major cuts, which resulted in Caster's back story being trimmed to very little actual development and a lot of essentially irrelevant anime original content. We barely see any interaction between Caster and Kuzuki, not explaining the bond they share at all. This is a shame, because what we actually got did very little for Caster and could have just been dealt with the sentence „Her last Master was an asshole.“ (or at least a far shorter scene) to make place for more meaningful development, especially concerning the Master/Servant relationship these two have. Thanks to this Caster just ends up being boring and forgettable.
Last but certainly not least there is Gilgamesh and he is still the smug asshole that people love. True, he is not exactly a deep intriguing villain, but I find him to be highly engaging and enjoyable nonetheless. He feels kind of removed from the main narrative for the most part and his part of the story does seem a little tacked on („Answer“ being the big ideological climax and all), plus you probably know close to nothing about him if this is your first time with a Fate series. Still I end up caring very little about those problems since I just find him to be a joy to watch in general. Nevertheless, I have to say that the way he gets defeated seems a little too convenient and hardly believable (even with Shirou being a perfect match for him and Unlimited Blade Works strengthening Shirou's body, he should technically still be blowing Shirou's arm off every time they trade blows given his physical strength) and Shirou pulling a bunch of superhuman powers out of nowhere for the sake of a cool action scene alone kind of bothers me. But the first thing is a problem I also have with the original route and the second did allow for a rather great fight scene, so I will refrain from elaborating on it here. It managed to be a rather satisfying scene and that is most important after all.
Aside from that I actually liked the finale to the series quite a bit. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but they managed to create a certain sense of scale and urgency that I was hoping to see from an anime adaptation and that they did well to portray. It is also much appreciated that they went with the True End to the story rather than going with the Normal End, which I consider to be less fitting. Speaking of endings: The epilogue. As it seems to be the case with this review, I have to directly counter every positive point with a negative one. Deciding that the entire last episode should be dedicated to the epilogue to the story was a poor decision. The original epilogue has far too little content to warrant its own episode, so they essentially stuffed it full of fanservice to make it a full 20 minutes. I would be lying if I say I didn't enjoy it at least a little, I am familiar with the source material after all so I was happy to see characters like Luvia or Waver appear, but this would have been far better suited to just being an OVA. It has no place in a TV series, let alone one that is 13 episodes long and feels incredibly rushed during parts.
Now, why do I think that this show became the relative failure that I consider it to be? I think that most of it is due to too many different visions coming together on one project. To bring together the interests of Type-Moon and ufotable with the ideas of Takahiro Miura and the individual episode directors seems to have been too great a task. It's kind of a mess as a result. This is neither an accurate representation of the visual novel nor very good as its own thing. The pacing is all over the place with the episode quality being very inconsistent, the use of animation is disappointing when it comes to actually telling and furthering the story and the main characters lack the appeal that made them stand out in the first place. As much as I hate bashing one person in particular, Miura might be the person to blame here. He just wasn't fit for the job, too inexperienced and he may have lacked the necessary authority over the production staff to make the product he wanted to. Unfortunately, we'll never know.
At the end of the day, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (TV) 2nd season isn't bad. The OST, the pretty fight scenes and the engaging enough story with its simple yet interesting ideological conflict are enough for me to give this show a pass. Honestly, this is less of a review and more of an essay explaining why I don't think that this show is great and what they could have done (or couldn't have done) in order to make it so. I was entertained. Yet I am still disappointed. If you managed to make it through this review without having seen the series: Go check it out. You'll probably enjoy it. Just don't expect to see a masterpiece. Because as decent as this series turned out to be, it unfortunately missed out on being amazing.