In a nutshell: For fans of the series only.
Fate/Stay Night is a freaking awesome franchise. Based on a visual novel of the same name (or similar depending which version you're looking at), the anime has made some serious waves here in the States. Originally released in 2006, the Fate/Stay Night anime offered a compelling concept, exciting action, and great character development. It really should be no surprise that it remains near the top of many anime fan's "must watch" lists. If you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out. With that in mind, is Unlimited Blade Works a good starting point?
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is a rather unique beast in its own right. It's not really a completely standalone piece, and yet it is. It doesn't tell a totally new story, and yet it does. Confused yet?
The fact that the series was a visual novel is nothing new, but for American audiences that haven't experienced such a game before, there's always alternate endings and storylines based on the choices that are made. Unlimited Blade Works is one of those alternate storylines. While it's a promising sounding endeavor the reality of the matter is far less welcoming. You see, this DVD release consolidates the entirety of the 24 episode series into 105 minutes. It's fast, flashy, and it's really just a highlight reel with a few new touches in the grand scheme of things. If you're new to the series, there's really no point in bothering. If you're a fan though, you'll like it enough, particularly if you played the visual novel.
Fate/Stay Night takes place in a world with Magi and Servants engaging in the Holy Grail War. Whoever can get their hands on the Holy Grail will gain nearly unlimited power and in most every case the Magi and Servants battle to the death. The series follows and focuses on a rather robust cast, though the action sequences are glued together here with a greater emphasis on the scenes that involve the main character Shiro and Rin, his newfound friend and enemy Magi.
When Rin's Servant, Archer, is in a battle with another Servant and Shiro happens to stumble upon it he gets thrust into their world. Soon he finds himself making a pact with a Servant named Saber and involved in the Grail War. As he works to find out what's happening and seeks the Holy Grail as a way to end the war and senseless killing, he and Saber combat other Servants and Magi such as Rider and Berserker. Naturally Archer gets into the mix as well and doesn't approve of Rin's friendship and relationship with Shiro, but since he's under her direction there's not much he can do.
Trust me when I tell you that Unlimited Blade Works is really a rush job. The action reel has a brilliantly polished sheen to it and to be honest the battles never looked better. In that sense this is a must-have title for fans of the show. The flipside of that coin is a rushed, incomplete feeling as the story jumps from one scene to the next and one fight to the next. It's only near the end that things slow down and start to pan out, but by then one is left befuddled by what came before it. I've watched the series before, but it's been a while and I definitely needed a refresher before stepping into the arena with this one. Still, familiar faces abound and great action takes the center stage.
If you eat, sleep, and breath Fate/Stay Night then Unlimited Blade Works is a release worth picking up. It's basically a clip-show, but it's an entertaining one and there's plenty of action thrown together to keep the adrenaline pumping and the pace moving at a breakneck speed. Even still, this is something better suited for fans that played the game as well. Newcomers need not apply, however.
Unlimited Blade Works hits DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The film looks good with a vibrant production, bold designs, and smooth as silk animation (the fight between Saber and Berserker is particularly breathtaking). With that being said there are compression artifacts to be found, grain, and some softness in scenes. The quality isn't terrible, but it does leave you wondering how the Blu-ray transfer would look in comparison. In the end this is a middle of the road DVD transfer with several positives and a few detractors.
Fortunately the audio presentation for Unlimited Blade Works performs much better in the A/V department. Both the English and Japanese language tracks come with 5.1 surround sound for output. I gave both tracks a whirl and found that they both performed well and offered fine fidelity and presences on the soundstage. The Japanese and English dub both succeeded in terms of cast performances as well. I tended to appreciate the Japanese track a little more, but English dub fans won't be disappointed.
There are no bonus features on this release. I suppose in some senses this release in itself is a bonus feature or accompaniment to the series.
Compilation releases are always difficult to grade when it comes to anime. Something like the Ghost in the Shell compilations are much more inviting than what was put forth in Unlimited Blade Works, which is very direct in the audience member it's trying to entertain. If you haven't seen the series then don't bother with this at all. There's simply no point. However, if Saber is a figure in your collection and you know the series backwards and forwards you'll appreciate this glorified refresher with new material. Ultimately I'd say this is a rental, but your mileage will vary.