I’m sometimes asked where one should start when diving into the (ever-growing) behemoth that is the Fate franchise, and, as a sub-question, if the Netflix-nested Fate/Apocrypha is a suitable jumping-in point. The answer to that question is that there is no wrong answer*, and if the epic-action-adventure tone and structure of Apocrypha is the one that most calls to you, go for it! I would say, however, that while it can probably stand on its own as a fantasy action thrill ride, the series does have an added layer of enjoyment if you’re familiar with other, earlier works in the storyworld. It’s a spinoff, for one thing, a canon alternate universe based on a “what if?” that diverts from the original formula. Even beyond the premise, though, Fate/Apocrypha’s bread and butter is intertextuality—it revels in its connectedness to other stories, making use of familiar aspects and then playing with expectations for all sorts of purposes within the show. Spoilers ahead!
There are two levels of intertextuality going on here: Apocrypha’s deliberately-highlighted relationship to myth and history, and Apocrypha’s deliberately-highlighted relationship to the rest of Fate. Let’s start with that first one. Fitting with the franchise’s premise, the cast is full of characters from legend and figures from history magically summoned into a modern setting, which gives the series a pile of already-well-known people and stories to play around with. You don’t need an extensive knowledge of the Heroic Spirits’ lives and tales to enjoy their Fate versions, but I’d argue that it adds a new dimension.
Sometimes this creates a fun sort of cat-and-mouse game with audience knowledge, especially in the early iterations of the franchise where codenames like “Saber” and “Archer” were there to conceal the Servants’ true identities, leaving said true identities as a fun guessing game for Those In The Know. For example, viewers/readers/players who are familiar with the ins and outs of Greek mythology will likely recognise abilities, design elements, story references, and other “clues” and pick up on the fact that Fate/Stay Night’s Caster is Medea before the characters themselves do. Likewise—but with an added element of tension—folks with know-how of the Arthurian legends might pick up on clues that the mysterious “black knight” Berserker in Fate/Zero is actually Lancelot before it’s officially revealed, adding a fun “oh no!!” factor as you put things together and watch the ensuing disaster unfold.
Since everyone’s pretty open about their true names in Apocrypha, there’s less of this going on there. However, in a cast as crammed-full as Apocrypha’s, this intertextuality and background knowledge becomes beneficial for your engagement with the story. Knowledge of the stories these characters have sprung from will let you pick up on the significance of subtle bits of dialogue or clue you into their motivations before they become clear to other characters around them. Beyond that, too, well, there just isn’t time to develop and explore all the characters in the double-sized cast, so some knowledge of their myths and history becomes a handy shorthand that can add depth to their portrayals. Sure, we’re told that Achilles and Chiron were student and teacher, which explains why them being forced to fight each other is a source of tension and heartache; but a deeper knowledge of Greek myth and the stories they spent together adds some more context and thus some more emotional weight to this conflict.
There are cases like this, but there are also cases like Karna and Avicebron who get very little screentime devoted to their backstory and motives, so knowing the narratives these characters have been plucked from actually gives you an idea of what’s going on with them in a way that the anime on its own just kind of doesn’t. Though I say this with an understanding that the anime cut a lot from the novels on which it’s based—that on its own could be another layer of intertextuality, as viewing Apocrypha as a first-timer versus viewing it as an adaptation of books you know will make for two very different experiences (as evidenced by my viewing-buddy sending me excerpts from the novels as supplementary material to fill in missing character nuances, or sometimes simply to explain what the hell just happened).
But then we come to cases like Mordred where the intertextuality begins to double up like a beautiful layer cake: knowing the Arthurian legends will obviously give Mordred’s character more intrigue (their sympathetic portrayal in Apocrypha is quite a departure from the villainous role they usually get), but so too does knowing Fate. After all, Mordred’s “dad” is the famous Arturia, the original Saber, face of the franchise and all-round hero… portrayed here instead as a neglectful, cold antagonist.
Arturia’s role in Mordred’s backstory is a sharp departure from the usual place she holds in all things Fate, and going in with familiarity with that usual role will make her depiction in Apocrypha all the more impactful. It raises cross-continuity questions about perspective, about heroism, about a character we all thought we knew so well. I’m sure you can still feel a bit of surprise at the subversion if Apocrypha is your first Fate (it’s still a play on King Arthur after all), but that layer of impact and intrigue that comes with the cross-franchise relationship is lost.
And then we come to cases where Apocrypha uses cross-continuity intertextuality to screw with you. The best example to me is Amasuka Shirou Tokisada, known also as Shirou Kotomine for the first part of the series. First off, the screwiness is in the name: Shirou, of course, being the name of Fate/Stay Night’s protagonist, and Kotomine being the surname of one of Fate overall’s supreme and iconic villains. Shirou Kotomine’s design is also full of a mish-mash of imagery that blend the two: his tan skin, white hair, and wiggly eyebrows make him look like a relative of EMIYA Archer’s, but his costume’s crucifix motif and his use of the Black Key knives favoured by members of the church link him strongly back to Kirei. There are also various narrative parallels, both large and subtle, that hark back to the Emiya heroes one minute and the Kotomine villains the next.
Primed by the clear and deliberate parallels and subversions in characters like Mordred, I thus went through the entire first half of the series squinting at this “Shirou Kotomine” lad trying to fit him into the bigger cross-canon intertextual reference-loving puzzle. Was he a subversive parallel to Shirou, or to Kirei? Or even to Kiritsugu or Archer? So tormented was I by these deliberately-placed visual and narrative nods that I was blindsided by the mid-series reveal of his true identity and the fact that he is, in fact, meant to be a parallel and foil to Jeanne. They found a historical figure with “Shirou” already there in the name, and, I can only assume, decided to embrace the confusion that this would cause for all it was worth. In the case of Amasuka, the careful nods back to the broader, earlier storyworld of Fate are almost cheeky. They know that you know, but you know that they know, and they know that you know that they know that you know… and it’s all a delightful story-within-a-story meta headache that you entirely miss if you aren’t familiar with the franchise.
This is not to say that nods to other works should replace genuine attempts at, say, foreshadowing and character development. As a writer, you have to do the damned work, and it’s a big ask, really, to expect audiences to be intimately familiar enough with both multiple canons of myth and the overarching canon of Fate. Shorthands based on assumed knowledge will fall flat if enough information isn’t provided as a scaffold (like poor Karna, for example, who rang hollow to me since I hadn’t done the homework that was apparently necessary to get where he was coming from). But these cross-references, both presented as quaint little Easter eggs and woven into the text to inform our perceptions of characters and events, make for a fun space to play with narrative expectations.
Awareness of the works that Apocrypha is drawing on and bouncing off will give you an awareness of how it puts twists on familiar archetypes, both from the myths themselves and from Fate. Mordred and their Master seem at first to mirror the dynamic of Arturia and Kiritsugu, except that in Apocrypha the gun-toting mage and the blond Arthurian knight actually end up getting along really well. The head of the show’s resident villainous mage family seems to mirror the scheming, powerful Zouken, but he’s killed off and replaced as lead antagonist partway through the story. In this universe, the Grail isn’t corrupt, meaning the surprising subversion at the end of the story is that it actually works like it’s supposed to. And on it goes.
The more prior knowledge a viewer brings, the more that playfulness in Apocrypha’s story will have an impact. And it is a very playful story in that regard, from the mischievous way it uses familiar motifs as Red Herrings like with Amasuka; to overarching stuff like, well, “what if the Grail War, but even bigger?” which is a “what if?” question that you won’t have had the chance to ask if you aren’t familiar with the usual Fate formula that’s being tweaked. Again, you can probably still enjoy Apocrypha in all its colourful action-movie glory without sacrificing hours of your life to the Fate world if you want to, but I would argue that much of its enjoyment factor comes from that intertextual playfulness snaking around under that “everyone’s Noble Phantasm is an explosion” surface level. Though, hey, that’s plenty of fun too.
*But, since you asked for my personal opinion, I would say that Fate/Zero is a good place to test the waters. I’ve got my issues with it, obviously, but it remains the most straightforward of the Fate adaptations, largely because a) it’s adapted from a linear novel rather than a multi-route VN like Fate/Stay Night, and b) it played a big part in kicking off the current Fate craze in which we live, including successfully getting me into the franchise for the long-haul. While it necessarily dips into the series’ often convoluted worldbuilding and there’s quite a bit of exposition, I find it balances this with enough fun action, dark intrigue, and engaging characters and dynamics that it carries it off, making it an effective introduction to the storyworld.
Then I would say, if you enjoyed yourself and are invested enough to want to know what happens next, jump straight into Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. And I put them in that order because, while you can technically go either way with the original and the prequel, watching them chronologically rather than in the order they were originally written gives you a much more satisfying narrative; i.e. the end of Fate/Zero is depressing as hell if it’s the end of the story, but if you can push forward from it towards the legitimately hopeful ending of Fate/Stay Night it’s more bearable and carries a lot more emotional weight as a multi-generational character/story arc, especially if you launch all the way through to the Heaven’s Feel movies as well.
And then? Then, my friend, you’ve completed what I like to call The Emiya Saga, and if you’re still hungry the rest is free game (including the entries that are literally games, like Fate/Extra and Fate/Grand Order). Just don’t watch Prisma Ilya. Just don’t.