Fate Stay Night is a 2004 visual novel written by Kinoko Nasu and illustrated by Takashi Takeuchi. It tells the tale of the 5th Holy Grail War, a great battle royale in which 7 mages, known as masters, summon 7 magical servants from ancient time. The 7 servants are split up into classes: Archer, Caster, Assassin, Berserker, Rider, Caster, and, of course, Saber. The winner of the war receives the Holy Grail, a mystical relic that has the power to grant the user one wish. The game is told through the perspective of High School magus Emiya Shirou, and his Saber class servant of spoilerific origins.
The game is split up into 3 different routes, all of which are roughly 16 days long, and start with the same 3 day loop, before getting into original content. They must be played in a specific order, that order being: Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, then Heaven’s Feel. Because of this structure, I’ll start by going over the base elements, that are in every route, and then talk about each route individually.
The first thing you’ll notice about Stay Night is that it’s more like a fully voiced picture book than a visual novel. Choices are basically non existent, and even the way the screen is structured is different than most VNs. The whole story, with few exceptions, is told from Emiya’s perspective. Because of this, the overall experience maps out Shirou as a human being perfectly. Everything that could be known about Shirou is learned, from how his demeanor changes when around specific people, to his ideals, and how those ideals would change given the situation.
In each route, Shirou develops a romantic relationship with one of three women. In Fate, his servant Saber; in UBW, his classmate Rin; and in HF, his underclassman, Sakura. I will talk about each relationship individually when they come up in the route analysis.
The character designs are extremely expressive and unique, especially for visual novels. Each character has anywhere from 8 to 14 colors used in their palette, and most of them have different body types from one another. The fashion sense of each character is also quite distinct, not just from other designs in the medium, but also the other characters in Stay Night. After all, most of the characters are from different eras in history. The art itself is a bit dated, I will admit, but it gets more and more striking and detailed as the routes go on, with the best art being at the end of Heaven’s Feel. The fight scenes tend to use effects like distorting or shaking the screen, using black screens with slashes and such, and having some special effects, like blood splatter or bloom lighting. All of these are tactics which, while cheap, enhance the experience of a fight scene.
The soundtrack is extremely iconic, memorable, and fitting. I’m just about the worst person to ask when it comes to music, but I really enjoyed the soundtrack of this game. To the legendarily epic “Emiya” theme, to the soothing piano sounds of “This Illusion”, to the cathartic comfortability of “New Dawn” and so on. While all those are certainly memorable, two other tracks deserve special mention. “Ever Present Feeling” which is a gut punch song, that plays during some of the most killer moments in the game; and “Mighty Wind” which plays during the single most badass and satisfying expression of passion and epicness I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life.
The Fate route tells a comparatively simple story about Saber and Shirou, as they take down the other masters together, while Shirou learns to become a true magus. Because it is the introductory route, Fate has a decent load of exposition that gets pretty heavy in the first half, and it may put people off. All the exposition is interesting for sure, but it is a bit tiresome for some readers.
Throughout the route, Shirou is very stubborn about not letting Saber fight, because she is a woman. In Fate, Shirou wants to protect others more than anything, so he comes up with the lazy excuse that “women shouldn’t fight” to make sure Saber is safe. Shirou is also stuck with a bad case of survivor’s guilt from a tragedy about a decade prior to the 5th War, which permeates many of his actions.
Saber is a warrior, and tries to hide her emotions and personality for the sake of battle. However, because of Shirou not letting her fight, a lot more of her human side is shown in this route, eventually leading to Shirou and Saber starting their romantic relationship. While I feel that Saber is a solid character, she is one of my least favorite members of the cast, and her relationship with Shirou is the most basic of them all.
Fate is structured in a very simple way. Shirou and Saber (with maybe some friends) take on a new master/servant pair, they win, then go home and cook food. The whole route is filled with SoL scenes, which, while they act as good characterization and levity, can sometimes kill the pace of things. The fights are extremely well done, and are the highlight of the route. They usually come after a long while of build up to the pair, followed by a strategic and exciting fight. The action is made even stronger by not just the attachment to the characters, but also by Nasu’s writing style, which uses short but concise sentences to describe movements and create tension.
While the master/servant pairs are usually pretty simple, relying on their base personalities and traits to be appealing, the real stars of the route are Rin and Illya, two people that, for one reason or another, end up staying with Shirou. They also happen to be masters, but because of the downtime they get, we really see the human side of them.
The strongest aspect of Fate is just the simple beats of the story, and how Shirou and Saber take the Holy Grail War by storm, as essentially the underdog team. The world here is extremely intriguing as well, considering it’s magical warfare in 2004 Japan.
While Fate is a strong little story the first time through, it improves immensely on a re-read, because all of the characters in the fights are fully characterized and developed. Overall, I think that the first route of this masterpiece is a solid start, and definitely one of the best shonen stories I’ve read.
Unlimited Blade Works is a balls to the wall epic thriller, with elements of Greek tragedy and themes of heroism, the inheritance of ideals, and even, how we learn to admire and love one another. UBW takes the building blocks given in the previous route and takes them to their logical extremes.
Shirou, being fully set in his ideals in Fate, is tested to his limit on what those ideals truly mean for him, and how they affect the people around him. Does his need to help others actually end up harming him more than anything? Is it possible to save everyone? These questions are delivered to Shirou in the most brutal but realistic way that would make any sense in the situation. Suffice to say that Shirou takes a level in intrigue throughout this route, as he struggles with his identity and what his life’s philosophy truly means. He also rightfully gains 40 levels in badass, as Saber takes a huge backseat to him throughout Unlimited Blade Works.
Tohsaka Rin was characterized as a mysterious, tsundere-esque magus with a lot of experience. In the first half of UBW, she gets a lot of development, as we learn of her trust issues, caused by the way she was raised. In the mid point of the route, we get a beautiful dialogue between Rin and Shirou which perfectly and subtly describes their situations at that point in time. The reasons they are the people they are, and why they feel the way they do about each other. It has a lot to do with trust and extrovertedness, but I don’t want to spoil anything, now do I?
The relationship between Rin and Shirou is very touching and natural. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the only functional relationship portrayed in the game, and it’s certainly the most enjoyable to watch unfold.
The structure of the previous route has been broken down entirely. In UBW, there are little to no SoL scenes, as Shirou dashes through his journey at a blistering pace. Fights are more plentiful, and because of the pre-established set up from the previous route, far more epic and impactful. Suffice to say that my single favorite fight in everything ever happens near the end of Unlimited Blade Works, and it’s as brutal and painful as it is exciting and glorious.
Unlike Fate, many of the side characters and pairs deserve mention here. Archer is the MVP servant, with his cool, calm demeanor, stylish design, and massive amount of screentime. Caster is a broken soul, who fell blindly in love with the only person who ever cared for her, after centuries of abuse. Soichiro is an emotionless wanderer, walking the Earth and committing murder just to kill time. Berserker is a loyal servant, who sticks by his master until the very end. Obviously, these are insultingly oversimplified descriptions, but it just goes to show how much more character there is to everyone here than Fate, which already had a stronger cast than most works in the medium.
I’d be crazy if I didn’t mention the villain of the route, Gilgamesh. While he had a stunningly badass appeareance in Fate, he shines here more than anything. He’s a 4 star badass, and every scene with him radiates with personality, and I couldn’t get enough of him. Not only that, but his elder god tier strength is actually part of his character. Gil’ has been wandering the Earth forever, searching for a worthy opponent. A long time ago, perhaps he found one, but by now, he is hopeless. Killing for the mere fun of it, and not even remotely trying during any fight, as he knows no one will ever be as strong as him. His presence dominates all else, and no other character in the game is quite as enjoyable to watch as this mother fucking psycho.
I briefly mentioned the Greek tragedy aspects of this route earlier, and it’s certainly an important part of the storyline. From the UBW chant that kicks off the route, which mirrors the poems of ancient lore, to the structure, to the literal fact that the main villain is named after the protagonist of the oldest story ever written; Unlimited Blade Works was written to not just feel like an ancient myth, but to feel like an ancient tragedy, which could not be better reflected in the way it ends.
Unlimited Blade Works is a phenomenal story, and is leaps and bounds better than Fate before it. If the previous route didn’t hook you, this one certainly will.
Heaven’s Feel is a deeply personal human drama, focusing on how far people will go to get what they want, what sex and love does to people, and how much someone will sacrifice for the people and things they love. It’s way more methodically and slowly paced than Unlimited Blade Works, favoring rewards that take a long and epic build up, rather than instant gratification. It takes 8 days before Heaven’s Feel gets into its stride, and 14 before it goes into full craziness.
However, you may think that two other full routes and 14 in-game days is a little much for a simple action climax. You are wrong. The last two days of Heaven’s Feel are so unbelievably hype, so utterly masterful and so worth it that I would have been fine if the build up was even longer. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and, despite numerous re-reads, the speed at which your blood will be pumping can never be reached again.
Heaven’s Feel takes full advantage of the characterization from previous routes, along with the character building it does, and delivers emotional moments of the highest impact imaginable. All the little details and foreshadowing from the previous routes lead up to this. Details and little moments from the prequel novel, Fate Zero, which you should read after this visual novel and not before, lead up to this.
Sakura and Kotomine Kirei are the only characters that have not been fleshed out in the previous two routes. Kirei lacks emotions, but unlike Kuzuki, Kirei wants to be normal with all his heart. He kills because it’s the only thing that makes him happy, which makes him feel more and more human. He had a wife, but, despite how hard he tried, he could never love her. Kirei is a tragic character to his core, and it’s painful to watch him struggle and fail to achieve his goals.
Sakura as a character I cannot say anything about that wouldn’t spoil the shit out of the route. I’ll say that she’s one of my favorite characters in the game, and that her relationship with Shirou is awful and upsetting in all the best and most realistic ways, and that she is the cornerstone of Heaven’s Feel; but that’s as far as I’ll go.
Shirou himself is totally removed from how he was in the previous routes. I’d even say that it’s almost like Shirou matures throughout the routes, even though it’s not the same Shirou. In both strength and emotional complexity, it feels as if Shirou is getting older and wiser as the routes go on.
The ultimate conclusion of the story is both bittersweet and natural. It manages to tie up the themes of all three routes, the arcs of all the major characters, and the storyline set up in HF specifically. It ranks among the most mindfuck endings I’ve seen in my time, up there with Utena and Evangelion, but it is also somehow the most simple answer that they could have come to.
Fate/Stay Night is one of my favorite written works of fiction. From its natural and well written, if occasionally bit forced and overwrought, dialogue, to the large, endearing, 3 dimensional cast of characters, to the ungodly levels of epicness, and the almost mythical sense of progression, Stay Night isn’t just a masterpiece, but also a personal favorite. I cannot deny its flaws, but whatever it does mess up on, has never bothered me. All he of the anime adaptations basically suck, and aren’t really worth watching, except the UBW film, but only after reading this VN. The Fate Zero anime is a great adaptation, and I recommend you watch that after reading the VN. That’s all for today, and I’ll see ya next time.