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Impressions: Fate/Grand Order: First Order

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Nothing happens in phone games, it seems

I have to admit that I was initially rather disappointed to learn that Fate/Grand Order: First Order was being planned as a one-off TV special, rather than a full-season TV series, as the rumors had originally stated.

After all, it’s been close to a year since we’ve had a new entry in the Fate canon, and through the years Type-MOON has always proved a reliable purveyor of enthralling world-building that looks completely batshit crazy when viewed from a distance. Fate/Grand Order would be the absurdly profitable jewel in the crown (it reportedly makes more money than Pokemon GO in Japan), and the anime would be its ambassador to the world.

As it turns out, perhaps it is for the best that we only have one episode of Fate/Grand Order to deal with.

To get to the core of that assessment, we’ll have to drill down into why Type-MOON, and more specifically Fate and other associated works by lead writer Kinoko Nasu work as well as they do. At a distance, the so-called “Nasuverse” isn’t all that different from the many game- or light-novel worlds that have popped up over the years. Type-MOON’s various efforts may chronologically predate the light novel boom by a bit, but in many ways they’re the paragon of chuunibyou success, with their intricately constructed settings – always dense with obscure Kanji and idiosyncratic readings -  forming the foundation for a number of engaging, rich stories. In Nasu-verse stories, it’s comparatively easy to see the thematic bones at the core of each story. High-level concepts like Nasu’s notions of eternal, metaphysical conflict between humanity and the world itself lurk in the background of Fate and Tsukihime, there to be discovered by fans who read between the lines or fall deep enough down the wiki hole. In short, the absurd quantities of lore, trivia points, and little rules feel like they exist for a reason, rather than for their own sake, something that's not always as clear when viewing shows like 

While flashes of that brilliance can be found in Fate/Grand Order: First Order, the special can’t help but feel far less necessary to the greater Fate canon than even the dopiest Carnival Phantasm skit. Its biggest problem is that it does very little to make the world of Fate/Grand Order – the game – feel like it’s a place worth visiting. That is a huge issue for a show ostensibly made to promote the game.

Problems arise at the very beginning. The episode opens with our hero, Ritsuka Fujimura, lying on the floor for no clear reason. Was he sleeping there? Was he kidnapped and dropped in the corridor? Why is he on the floor? We’ll never know, because the story doesn’t bother to go into that detail, or perhaps because they wanted to copy Saber and Shirou's first meeting, but couldn't find a good enough reason for, well, anything to happen in  away that made sense. This isn’t just nitpicking, mind you. It shows how little care First Order has for anything beyond being something tied to the game. If it did genuinely feel the story was worth paying attention to, It’d try to make that connection, taking the game’s vagueness as a sign to fill that gap, or to deviate from the source.

The hero then meets up with Mash Kyrielight and the game’s mascot, a Carbuncle knock-off named Fou. Mash is one of the few Fate heroines with about as little personality as your average male light/visual novel lead. She’s as much a cipher as the hero is, and beyond a vaguely deferential personality (like Sakura without the tragic edge), she’s a nonentity. The hero is soon enlightened as a member of Chaldeas, an organization dedicated to preserving humanity’s future. There’s one problem, though: The future seems to have disappeared. Their fancy simulation/time machine can’t see past a dark spot situated in the year 2004, right around the time of the Holy Grail War in Fuyuki City that backgrounds the events of Fate/stay night. A bunch of mooks with “Master Potential” - Ritsuka among them - are to accompany Olga Animusphere, Chaldea's Rin Tohsaka-esque administrator,   on a trip into the past to see what gives. 

Ritsuka - again for no apparent reason - falls asleep during this briefing, and is subsequently ejected from the meeting by Olga. But rather than take this as a prompt to have something interesting happen, the show takes this as a signal to kick off another long briefing, this time at the behest of the company doctor. The drama that follows to set up the main thrust of First Order arrives with all the impact of a raindrop.

A series of unfortunate events later, Mash gains a bit of prominence. She gets outed as "Shielder" the Grand Order equivalent of a Starter Pokemon. But rather than being a Fire-, Leaf-, or Water-type, she's "Shielder",

 Just how much the show and game owe to Fate itself is quickly reaffirmed when its most compelling presence comes in the form of Caster. Or rather, it’s Fate/stay night’s Lancer, reimagined as a Caster-class Servant. He carries the rest of the episode, until the pair, rejoined with Animusphere, go off to defeat a corrupted version of the Saber we all know and love. Followed by a rather obvious heel turn, the hero and Shielder are left with one task: Save the world by hopping across time and space to participate in big ol’ grail wars against heavily anime-fied versions of history’s greatest heroes and villains. Gotta catch ‘em all!

And that’s it.

Look, it’s one thing for a free-to-play mobile game not to have much of a story. That's usually a given, all things considered, and there’s only so much one can expect from a transparent tie-in designed to spur downloads on the app store. But it’s hard to see the show as anything more than a damp squib. It adds virtually nothing to the larger canon of Fate lore, and doesn’t even make a very good case for the game itself.

The story scenes in the game itself are far more compelling, and focus not on the absurd contrivances of Fate but on the franchise’s greatest gimmick, namely its superbly exaggerated takes on well-known figures of myth and history. That's why all the absurd terminology and trite rules work, ultimately, but First Order doesn't capitalize on that strength, thinking the people are watching to see a wiki entry come to life. 

Of course, expectations must once again come into play, and it's not as if promotional tie-ins to mobile games are held to an especially high standard, but in the ways that matter most, Fate/Grand Order: First Order is a letdown.


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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoManaging Editor   gamer profile

Josh is Japanator's Managing Editor, and contributes to Destructoid as well, as the network's premier apologist for both Harem Anime and Star Trek: Voyager For high school reasons, he's called "u... more + disclosures


 



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