Fate is one of my favorite franchises. It’s solid action on top of hardcore conspiracy and worldbuilding on an epic scale. It also includes a few story themes that a lot of people can identify with: fighting to protect something or gain something, striving to remain true to oneself, dealing with past regrets and fear of the future.
I was first exposed to Fate/stay night through the original anime series produced by Studio DEEN in 2006. In hindsight, it was a very poor adaptation compared to the original work and subsequent adaptations. However, it still was a good portrayal of the basic storyline:
Regular (?) teen Emiya Shirou accidentally stumbles on a secret death contest, the Grail War, where magically adept Masters control heroic, historical incarnations, Servants, in order to obtain the Holy Grail and have a wish granted. Shirou himself somehow ends up becoming the 7th Master and summoning his own Servant, and he’s forced to participate in the war just to stay alive. As the war progresses, powerful secrets and disturbing revelations come out, forcing Shirou’s hand in order to protect what’s most dear to him.
Fate/stay night is originally a visual novel. For those unaware, visual novels are simply screens of text set to music and graphics. Sometimes there are full art scenes depicting important events, but usually it’s a background populated by cutouts of the characters speaking. You could think of it as low-form anime crossed with a choose-your-own-adventure-occasionally, you make a choice on what to say or what action to take. This can result in a dead end (literally and/or figuratively), and you’ll have to load from an older save point to figure out which choice you made wrong in order to proceed with the story.
Visual novels are known for so-called “harem” games, which feature bland reader stand-in characters who have no personality living in some setting involving access to lots of cute girls (or, for otome games, handsome boys). As you go about your day or attend school or whatnot, you get to know the girls and can choose to romance one or more of them. The “harem end” is the sometimes illusory “secret” ending where you somehow manage to successfully woo all the girls simultaneously.
While I’m not sure on the precise history of harem games, Fate/stay night deviates very sharply from that convention in one very important manner: you do not actually have a choice of which girl to pursue, because each of the 3 heroines comes with a very distinct plot, and, from a fresh game, you literally cannot choose any option other than to pursue Saber. Thus, you will be locked into the Fate route, which is the general basis of the DEEN anime. After completing the Fate story, you’ll get a message saying something to the effect of “try starting from the beginning again, new options will appear!” And appear it does-after Saber is summoned and is about to attack Rin and Archer, you now have the option to expend a Command Seal to stop her. Thus, you can now proceed down the Unlimited Blade Works route, the focus of the most recent ufotable anime from 2014-2015. (There was also a really poorly paced movie put out by DEEN.)
“So why does this matter? Doesn’t forcing me into the Fate route defeat the point of offering separate heroines? I want to go after Rin first dammit!!!” It might defeat the purpose if this were a time-travel or alternate timeline story; if each heroine merely represents a different perspective on the same overall story, then yes, forcing you down any one path first is counterintuitive and messes with the reader’s expectations. However…
Let’s take a step back first. In the year 2000, Type-Moon released a visual novel titled Tsukihime. In it, a young boy, Tohno Shiki, discovers he has the ability to see death lines, which allows him to “cut” anything, even inanimate objects. After mostly adapting to a normal life, one day he sees a beautiful girl… and ends up following her and cutting her to pieces. He abruptly comes to his senses and runs away, only for her to appear before him again later, perfectly alive, but miffed that she was killed.
Tsukihime is the visual novel predecessor to Fate/stay night. Closer to the harem games I mentioned earlier, it features 5 main heroines who can all be pursued from the start (well… the fifth one is technically locked behind finishing the other four first, but I digress). Each one has her own story, but, similar to Fate/stay night, the experience as a whole revolves around an overarching plot. Completing each heroine’s story only reveals part of the story, and you have to read every heroine’s story in order to piece everything together. While each story is very separate, to the point that one of the villains has a completely different appearance based on which heroine you’re currently pursuing, you can basically treat each heroine’s story as an alternate version of the same set of days. Regardless of which order you read each story, you’ll end up with the whole thing by the end, and each individual story only tangentially informs you about the next one.
Fate/stay night, again, forces you to read each heroine’s story in a specific order. That’s because each story is not treated like an alternate timeline of another story-they actually build on each other. It’s almost like a new game+, you actually go into Rin’s story with more information after completing Saber’s story and that information “helps” Shirou make different or better decisions, and conversely entwines him more deeply in the Grail War. This is what really makes Fate/stay night so unique, as it’s almost a deconstruction of the typical visual novel format to the point that it’s almost back to just a novel again. However, it’s also not exactly appropriate for a simple novel format, since it does involve starting the story over from a specific point in time.
In my opinion, this is a major factor in why it’s taken so long to do a proper anime adaptation. Studio DEEN attempted to mash all 3 routes into one super route, but ultimately failed because 24 half-hour episodes is barely enough time to delve into one route, and the viewers are sorely missing a lot of key information in order to understand the events mashed in from the non-Fate routes. Unlike a shounen blockbuster like One Piece or Naruto, there also isn’t just a continuous, connected story to keep adapting, it’s actually 3 retellings of the same timeline with new information in each timeline. In anime form, it would odd for the audience to actually reset the story every so often. I don’t know… it’s complicated :x
However, in reality, that is what kind of ended up happening anyway; Studio DEEN’s adaptation, while flawed, is still a somewhat grudgingly acceptable version of the Fate route. Setting aside the UBW movie, ufotable then adapted the Unlimited Blade Works route as a separate entity in and of itself, so the story was reset and it really wasn’t necessary to have seen the DEEN anime to watch it. Now, with the upcoming Heaven’s Feel movies, it will be resetting again to now cover the final Fate/stay night route.
I suppose things could have worked out if one studio just did 3 separate “seasons” of Fate/stay night and took a break after each route. The way things actually happened isn’t so bad, though. ufotable does gorgeous work, and I personally feel that they will do true justice to Heaven’s Feel, and it might not have been possible to get this if a more decent original adaptation had happened, enough to get all the routes animated. I don’t know, it’s hard to say, chaos theory and all that jazz. Anyway, I am happy for what we did end up getting.
So, finally, we get to the topic at hand: what is the deal with Heaven’s Feel? Why do so many people call it the best route? Even if it is new Fate anime, is it really worth getting so excited over?
The true genius of Heaven’s Feel is how it expands on the framework set up by the Fate and UBW routes. Fate establishes a basis-the Grail War is generally explained, basic magic is explained, Shirou’s connection to Saber, and you get to know most of the characters and their roles in the war. UBW follows the same basic story but now focuses on Shirou and why he became the seventh Master. Rin having main heroine status also gets us more into magic as Shirou becomes her student and he has so much exposure to Archer. Like I mentioned for Tsukihime earlier, we also see Gilgamesh in modern clothes the entire arc, unlike in Fate where we only see him in his golden armor. Kind of amusing :)
So what does Heaven’s Feel have to add? I recently rewatched UBW and I know there were a lot of hints that a clever watcher could identify as outstanding questions to be answered. If you don’t mind some minor spoilers, I can give a broad outline.
Heaven’s Feel dives into why the Grail War was conceived in the first place. You could almost view Fate as focusing on the present, UBW focusing on the future, and HF focusing on the past. There is much, much more history that is unveiled in HF than in any other route. History that is sadly spoiled if you watched Fate/Zero, but still. The main reason I personally like Heaven’s Feel the most is that it’s a complete reversal of the other two arcs. Fate establishes a baseline, UBW tweaks that formula, then HF comes in, throws the baseline out the window, and says “shit is gonna get messy.” If you like spectacle, so much amazing stuff happens in Heaven’s Feel, things get super crazy, and it is just great.
It is a gross understatement to say that I am excited for the Heaven’s Feel movies. This is going to be absolutely amazing on so many levels. Aside from the reasons Heaven’s Feel itself is a wonderful route, Kajiura Yuki is reprising her role as composer for Fate/Zero to write HF’s soundtrack, which you can hear in the most recent preview video I linked above (the third one). Having more than 30 minutes at a time, or even an hour as UBW did on numerous occasions, allows for much better planning and pacing of the story, which is something UBW slipped on in the second half of the show. ufotable also has already proven itself to do the movie format very well with Kara no Kyoukai. All in all, I just think things are set up for Heaven’s Feel to succeed without question. Obviously things can happen, but I am very optimistic.