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Hugh David gets to grips with the Unlimited Blade Works

Fate/Stay Night is one of those franchises that, while not grabbing critical plaudits in the West, appeals whole-heartedly to fans wanting nothing heavier than some straight-up modern fantasy action with buckets of style. The TV series certainly has a following, enough so that the prequel and the movie have both been licensed for releases outside of Japan. With Manga releasing the feature film incarnation in the U.K., it’s worth casting an eye over the franchise as a whole.

The essence of the storyline across its different versions is that of a teenage sorcerer who discovers there is a war between Magi for the Holy Grail, being fought via Heroic Spirits, individual warriors linked to each magi who can be summoned to do battle. This is the fifth such war in history, and our hero Shirou finds himself with allies in the form of his magi schoolmate Rin, Rin’s servant Archer, and the Spirit who adopts Shirou, Saber – unsurprisingly a beautiful girl, although pretty kick-ass with it. Shades of Harry Potter via Arthurian legend, certainly, but the mechanics and design represent the more recent input of role-playing games, both paper-and-dice and videogame versions.

This is because the first incarnation of the franchise was a “visual novel” (a computer adventure game with very limited choices), and an adult one at that, sufficiently basic in its gaming requirements to be played one-handed. More interestingly, that sort of game is built around a set of story strands, making for different gaming experiences each time a player makes different choices. The TV series adapted one strand (the Fate one), but the movie (released by Manga Entertainment in the UK) goes back to the game and adapts a different strand (the Unlimited Works one – the third one was called Heaven’s Feel). What this means is that for fans who have never played the game, the film is going to seem like a weird beast, starting from the same place as the TV series but then going off in different directions with different outcomes for favourite characters, not always happy ones either. Fans of the novel, however, get to see another strand from it come to animated life – not something many fans do get to see across any beloved media.

This is not a small franchise. There is a manga that adapts the Fate strand with elements of the other two thrown in; a high-school comedy manga, and a spin-off manga. There are the anime – the TV series and the prequel adapting the spin-off light novels. There are audio dramas, and, unsurprisingly, there are proper videogames, the sort that need playing with both hands.

For people who have never seen, read or played any of these, there are still things to enjoy in the film. It is self-contained, tells its story quickly and economically, and gets to the good stuff quickly. The character, armour and weapon designs are gorgeous to look at, the fights ramp up quickly into real brutality, and blood starts to geyser everywhere in fight after fight as the Fifth Holy Grail War heads towards a final showdown. Of course, fans of the TV show will bring far more investment to the characters, and so will get much more out of it, but for the more casual fan looking for magic, swords, battles and blood of a Friday night with pizza and beer, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works delivers.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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