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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gimme fuel ...

...gimme fire, gimme that which I desire! … Fate Stay Night

Sorry Metallica. :)

This kind of rant has been turning and turning in my head for seemingly an eternity. If I don’t let it out, it will certainly damage my brain. Well, certain things were starting to get out of focus, so I guess I have to do something with it while it still has some shape. Saves me the trouble of feeling around in the dark for the missing parts.

Right, how should I make this, a connoisseur’s journal or a noob eye-opener? I’m feeling kinda lazy for option #2, but some introductory thing is still required. Let’s see: according to Wikipedia, the Visual Novel was released in 2004, with a UBW manga adaptation in 2005 and the anime following in 2006. Comparing this to the Tsukihime history, there’s no significant difference … unless we look at the $$ numbers. Type-Moon was no longer a garage affair, but an official game producer (with a little help from the Nitro+ people), and Fate was their major breakthrough. Take that with a grain of salt – they had other successful launches in their doujin period, but this was both their first official commercial work and their first success on the market.

(Speaking of Wikipedia, there's even a Type-Moon Wiki )

I’m just a glorified noob myself regarding VN games, so I can only wonder what it was they brought new and fresh with this game. Genre-wise, Fate is an eroge, and the market is literally paved with these. Perhaps it was the combination of key elements – romantic story, action envelope, supernatural setting, an appearance of strategy – it’s a confrontation of seven teams, after all – and, for what it’s worth, a well thought-out setting with logical consistency throughout (stop laughing, I’m serious here). It is taxing the suspension of disbelief at first, but the longer one plays, the more sound this setting becomes.

As in any ‘straight’ eroge, the protagonist of the game is a (high-school) boy, going by the name of Emiya Shirou. He is an adopted child, with no discernible history before his adoption a decade ago by outsider Emiya Kiritsugu. Did I just say outsider?

Make that outsider magician.

The city Shirou lives in has an actual tradition of magician families. The most prominent among them is the Tohsaka family, who has the rule of land by agreement of the Magi Association. Their current representative is Rin, Shirou’s colleague and school idol (and object of secret admiration, to be honest). The other traditional magician family in town are the Matous, who moved within this territory some 300 years ago. There are two Matou children at Shirou’s school, too: Sakura, Shirou’s underclassman and former colleague in the archery club, and Shinji, her older brother and current captain of the archery club. The Magi Association has an arbiter of sorts in place, keeping the status quo in check: the priest Kotomine Kirei, an apparent double agent as the Church (Roman Catholic, in case you were wondering) and the Magi Association don’t see eye to eye about most things. In this specific case, they both crave something available in this city, and a truce of sorts is maintained.

So, what is this thing they all want, and how is it connected to Shirou, who is also the sole survivor of a devastating fire that almost wiped out Shinto, the town across the river from Shirou’s current residence in Fuyuki? Grab your hardhat people, or this will leave a mark. Ready?

It’s the Holy Grail.

Not THE Holy Grail, mind. As any holy relic, this one shows up at certain intervals – around 60 years per cycle - and only to certain people. To the (presumed) chagrin of the Church, its summoning is intimately linked to a magic ritual devised one thousand years ago by three families/clans of magicians: Tohsaka, von Einzbern and Makiri. The summoning had a greater meaning by its initial design, but the original actors are now almost entirely dead, and the legacy passed down the generations has more to do with the method, not the meaning.

There’s only two more key facts to add to this introduction: the summoning method is an all out war. And Shirou knows absolutely nothing about all this.

The game proper starts with a prologue, narrated from Rin Tohsaka’s point of view. As magic administrator of the land, Rin is getting ready for the imminent beginning of another Holy Grail War. This one is starting early, and Rin is annoyed that she hasn’t stored enough magical energy in her jewels – it’s a family trick of the trade. She plans ahead to summoning the strongest Servant of them all, Saber, the following night.

This episode is cute, in retrospect. It’s both a window into Rin’s personality, and a foretaste of how jumpy things will get in a little while. Despite Shirou’s later claims, it’s his fault that he cannot read her personality behind the superficial façade she has on – Rin is disarmingly honest most of the time. She’s a bit infatuated with her own importance and responsibility, but not annoyingly so. Then again, Shirou is just that bad at reading other people. He’s designed like that, to keep you between facepalming and laughing your head off at how clumsy he is. Don’t hold it against him, because it’s a source of comedy, and even provides a few ‘daww, how cute’ moments.

I’m amazed at how many things take on new meaning in retrospect. One of them is Rin accidentally summoning Archer instead of Saber, due to a silly mistake in timing – they’ve only just changed to Daylight Saving Time the previous morning, and she missed her window of opportunity by one whole hour. I guess Kinoko Nasu was implying things about himself when he made Arcueid talk about what-if stories. For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost; for want of one hour, things went both bad and good for Rin. Bad, because a Saber/Rin team is really a great thing to behold; and good, because she did summon somebody she’s compatible with, the servant Archer. Not just any Archer, but the one who can help her read her own heart.

Rin and Archer’s cooperation has a bumpy start, but Rin is businesslike and strong-headed, enough for both of them. Their scouring the city for signs of other servants is an attempt at a preemptive strike, and it bears some fruits: they spot Lancer, and run into their first confrontation. The clash of heroes claims a not-so-innocent bystander, whom Rin has to bring back from the verge of death by using the magic stored in her heart-shaped pendant. Can you believe how important that pendant is – it’s still playing a major role in the Unlimited Blade Works route and in Heaven’s Feel route. Not only that – the reason she goes all out to save him is also relevant to the Heaven’s Feel route.

Meanwhile, Lancer takes off at his master’s orders, and Rin has Archer look for him. The pursuit will take them to the lower residential area of Fuyuki, where they have a date with Destiny (absolutely no pun intended). The prologue ends and the story proper begins.

Enter our main protagonist Emiya Shirou and the relevant details that put him so central to the story. It’s been eight years since Kiritsugu died and Shirou inherited the sizable Emiya estate. Although he is the only surviving Emiya, with no known relatives, he enjoys the company of a substitute family made of two girls: his self-styled elder sister, Fujimura Taiga, coordinator of the school archery club and Shirou’s homeroom teacher; and a younger sister in the guise of Sakura Matou, his underclassman and domestic helper. This arrangement has been going on for two years now, ever since an accident at Shirou’s part-time job. At around the same time, Shirou had a falling-out with Sakura’s brother Shinji and quit the archery club (after kicking his butt). Despite Shinji’s frequent jealous bouts, Sakura has taken upon herself the job of domestic aide for Shirou, and they’ve fallen into a pleasant routine of spending together the mornings and evenings, with Taiga-sensei as chaperone and arbiter of proper mores.

It takes about one daily routine in the Emiya household to see the plain obvious: Sakura has an ill-disguised crush on Shirou, and would like this peaceful routine to just carry on forever. Fuji-nee (Taiga’s household name, as she acts the part of Shirou’s elder sister to a T) enjoys freeloading of both of them but shows occasional possessiveness towards Shirou. As the man of the house, he’s trying his best both to earn a living and help out any and all in need. What he cannot tell any of them is that he inherited more than just the Emiya house from his adoptive father; he inherited the use of magic, and his father’s legacy.

The actual Kiritsugu legacy is by far Shirou’s defining trait and the most recursive plot element throughout all three routes of the game. The blasted thing is approached again and again as both key and bane of the overarching plot. The short of it is, Shirou wants to become a superhero in his father’s stead. He can only live by this goal, or go against it with all his might.

What he means by that is that he wants to save everybody, all the time. He knows it is an unattainable goal as he is only human, but he is willing to put anyone’s needs above his own to achieve it. It is why he will always volunteer to help, and take challenges often too big for him. He suffers from survivor’s guilt after the fire of a decade ago, and has bent and twisted this into his very backbone, by making it the center of his sense of worth and self. In a simplistic way, this is what the three game routes are offering him. One, he can team up with a real superhero; or, he can try to become one himself; and, as the third choice, he can chose to act human and fail on purpose, to save something he bears not sacrifice.

As a parting shot to this issue, it is eventually revealed that Kiritsugu left him this legacy on purpose. He tried to generically save Shirou from his own mistakes by giving him this legacy and limiting his use of magic to one and only one skill. By teaching him only incomplete truths, he tried to steer him away from the dangerous research of magic that has wrecked Kiritsugu's life. This didn’t stop Shirou’s fate from taking on a marvelous shape, but it gave him a sense and a purpose without which he could never reach it.


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