Type-Moon have made a habit of finding success with their dark blend of magic and supernatural elements in modern day settings, but with the release of the Fate/Stay Night visual novel on the PC in 2004, the developer seemed to have found its flagship title. Unfortunately things never really work out the way people expect, and while Studio Deen's 2006 anime adaptation of the "Fate" storyline was well received by fans, many who were unfamiliar with the source material found it all a bit ... juvenile.
At the end of 2006 the developer began collaborating with Nitroplus in order to create a prequel light novel series, but this time the story was penned by the relatively unknown Urobuchi Gen (with Type-Moon co-founder Takeuchi Takashi providing illustrations). Set ten years before the events in the visual novel, Fate/Zero chronicles the events leading up to and during the fourth Holy Grail War in Fuyuki City, Japan - the same place where the battle will be held in Fate/Stay Night. After three successive failures in the contest, the Einzbern family recruits the notorious mercenary Emiya Kiritsugu, also known as the "Mage Killer" - a man who is willing to use whatever means are necessary to realise his goals.
Meanwhile, the other principal magic families - Matou and Tohsaka - are preparing for the coming conflict, and although the church is taking part as well, they have also sent someone to assist the Tohsaka family - Kotomine Kirei.
At first glance it may seem as though Fate/Zero is just another action anime, but nothing could be further from the truth. The series has a very different tone than either Fate/Stay Night or Unlimited Blade Works, and in many ways it has more in common with the dark, brooding atmosphere of the Kara no Kyoukai movies. That said, the series does assume that the viewer has some familiarity with the franchise, but this is balanced by a much tighter plot than that of either of its predecessors, and more focus on preparation, planning, and even dialogue between the different parties. The result is that the narrative has far more depth and structure than one might expect in a supernatural action anime, and there are layers of subtext that are gradually added as the series progresses.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Fate/Zero is that it's a far more mature story than the original visual novel or its adaptations, and unlike many other shows, there are very few occasions where the characters engage in pointless conflicts or endeavours. The series carefully tries to avoid insulting the viewer's intelligence by adopting a patient, methodical build-up to the action set pieces, and on many occasions the story focuses on information gathering and planning. In addition to this, the battle lines shift constantly as the combatants form short-term alliances in order to counter the moves of other opponents, but there's always the understanding that the foundation of these is nothing more than "the enemy of my enemy".
In truth, this anime has far better examples of tactics and strategy than anything found in Code Geass, and certain plots are Machiavellian enough to give Death Note a run for its money.
When it comes to production values, Fate/Zero could be considered the final evolution of everything Type-Moon and Ufotable have learned from each other during their long collaboration on the Kara no Kyoukai franchise. The series looks every bit as good as one might expect, and the darker colour palette is offset by the high standard of animation. That said, although the action sequences are fluid and very well choreographed, the real testament to the quality of Ufotable's work are the subtle differences in the way the characters move.
While there are plenty of new faces in this prequel, it's actually the design of recurring characters like Sabre that really sets the standard. Fate/Stay Night's popularity turned her into one of the most iconic female leads in anime, but while she may appear to be exactly the same in Fate/Zero, there's an edge to her features and a preciseness to her movements that was missing in the original series. This fact is also true for the characters that are unique to this show, and even Tohsaka Rin's "adventure" has been given the same level of care and attention to detail.
The series opens with a well choreographed sequence that blends action with a montage of the main participants in the Holy Grail War, all set to the rather pacey rock song "Oath Sign" by LiSA. Each episode closes with "Memoria" by Eir Aoi, a bittersweet rock ballad that fits well with the images of the heroic spirits as pieces on a game board and at moments in their own history. Fate/Zero also has one of the most diverse scores in a 13 episode anime, with martial themes, operatic pieces, strange little tunes with drums or pianos as the major instrument, and more besides. The audio effects or of a very high quality, and the clash of steel on steel is as sharp and clear as the sound of the lightning whenever Rider makes a dramatic appearance.
One of the areas where Fate/Zero excels is the dialogue, and while there are occasions where conversations go on a bit too long, the script is intelligently written, rational, and insightful. One of the best examples of this is Rider's discourse on the true nature of kingship and Saber's reaction to it, but even that is nothing more than words on paper as everything lies in the delivery - so it's a good thing that the acting is of a high standard.
Kawasumi Ayako reprises her role as the King of Knights (Saber/Arturia) from Fate/Stay Night and Unlimited Blade Works, but her performance here is markedly different. Her portrayal of Saber is colder, deadlier, and far more focused than before, while Tomokazu Seki's performance as the King of Heroes (Archer/Gilgamesh), is more arrogant, more proud. That said, it's Ootsuka Akio in the role of the King of Conquerors (Rider/Iskander), who really steals the show, and his testosterone-fuelled proclamations and battle-born wisdom are one of the pillars that support the series.
When it comes to development, a large group of characters often means that some will undoubtedly fall by the wayside. Fate/Zero neatly sidesteps the entire issue of development because it's first and foremost a prequel of an existing story, but in addition to this the series has created a set of individuals who leave extremely strong impressions on the viewer, and much like Baccano!, there is a distinct lack of a true main character. Because of these factors the series can focus on showing how each of the combatants became what they are, and this plays a major part in one's enjoyment of the anime.
The emphasis on characterisation rather than development allows for a remarkable degree of definition, and although it's ultimately the personalities of each individual that captures the viewer's attention, standing at the top of them all is the King of Conquerors - Rider. His addition to the franchise has been nothing short of a revelation, and while die-hard fans will continue to worship the ground that Saber and Archer (not Gilgamesh, the other one), walk on, Rider's enjoyment of life, his exuberance and almost boyish eagerness for battle and glory, have captured the imaginations of many fans.
In many respects he, more than any other character, is the epitome of the heroes of old, but simply having a bunch of overzealous combat junkies beating each other to a pulp isn't really entertainment (unless you have an IQ equal to your shoe size), so there has to be something to balance it - and there is. Each of the mages taking part in the Holy Grail War is more like a chessmaster, planning as many moves ahead as possible, whilst preparing themselves for anything their opponents may try.
The simple fact is that Fate/Zero wouldn't work as either a story or entertainment if it was just the mages or the heroes, and it's this aspect of the series that separates it from not just its predecessors, but also many other action anime out there.
Unfortunately it's not all sweetness and light.
One of the main criticisms of this series is the episode about the young Tohsaka Rin, which many people found unnecessary. Now although there's some truth to that perception, one could also have the opinion that Rin's actions tie-in to an event in the previous episode, and together they lead up to the end of the series. Both are fair arguments, but in all honesty the whole thing doesn't really fit with the rest of the anime, and it seems like nothing more than an attempt to allow Matou Kariya some long overdue screen-time.
Fate/Zero isn't a perfect show, but while it does have several minor issues (and one "filler" episode), it does exactly what it sets out to do - capture the attention of the audience and make them want more. The story is intelligent, and while conversations and discussions can sometimes feel a little tedious, the dialogue is often quite interesting - moreso than the show's predecessor's anyway. Although the series can boast stylish, fast-aced action set-pieces, it also studiously avoids combat for the sake of gratuitous violence.
That said, Fate/Zero is still a prequel series, and at this point only half of the story has been told. Unfortunately the anime industry has a habit of messing things up, but given the quality of this show, the fact that the original story was written by Urobuchi Gen, and the knowledge that the series is being produced by Type-Moon's long time collaborators - Ufotable, fans can be cautiously optimistic about the second installment.
All we can do is wait and see ...