Arcane Season One: Riot Games’ Animated Masterpiece
Before I actually get into this review, I will preface it by saying that I absolutely detest League of Legends and other games similar to it. Not only did I waste a huge part of my life on these games (I clocked in over 1500 hours in Dota 2, a similar title), but I also don’t recall that many fond memories of actually enjoying the video game as opposed to being tilted by toxic people or having to put up with teammates who don’t pull their own weight. Any kind of game that forces people to cooperate together, under the guise of Internet anonymity, generally brings out the worst in people, no matter how mechanically deep or well-designed the actual game itself may be. With this in mind, a show about League of Legends produced by its developer, Riot Games, is probably one of the last things I would have been interested in, until a friend convinced me to watch Arcane by pointing out its stellar reviews for the first three episodes that dropped. After watching the pilot, getting hooked, and eagerly consuming all the new episodes every week, I have come to an opinion that Arcane’s first season is nothing short of a masterpiece, and fortunately, does not require the audience to be familiar with League of Legends at all to enjoy it, or even play video games in general, despite it technically being a video game adaptation.
Arcane follows an ensemble cast of characters and takes place in the fictional city of Piltover. It is a city with two halves: a bustling, futuristic and progressive upper half, and a ghetto, underdeveloped and crime-ridden underworld. The show’s first season largely covers two separate storylines (with the occasional crossover) that eventually converge by the season’s conclusion. The first is centered around two scholars, named Jayce and Viktor, who try to discover how to utilize science and technology to produce magic, and the second covers a pair of sisters, Vi and Powder, who struggle to carve out a living for themselves in the underworld, known as Zaun.
Now what makes Arcane so good? For one, it is a visual spectacle, and a lot of credit has to be given to Fortiche, the French studio in charge of the animation. The art-style is a unique mix of 2D/3D, which did take me a bit of time to get used to, but it is gorgeous (it actually reminds me of the Dishonored video games). What I appreciated the most was how the show would seamlessly blend intense sequences with various images that are significant to the featured characters without appearing super busy and hard to follow (a great example would be the show visualizing Jinx’s mental episodes every time she hears voices), and it sort of gave me similar vibes from the hit movie Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse a few years ago. The fight scenes are also super slick and well-choreographed, and very entertaining to watch. The best part is that the show also shows restraint; it’s not excessively graphic like a lot of Netflix shows tend to be because they’re too in love with the freedom of not having to censor. Overall, it is quite obvious that Riot Games spared no expense, and it has paid dividends.
As visually impressive I find Arcane to be, in the end the show wouldn’t be that special if it also didn’t have equally competent writing to support its pretty scenes, and Arcane’s quality of writing definitely took me by surprise. The two central storylines following Jayce/Viktor and Vi/Powder are not super original and unique; there have been countless stories told about aspiring innovators or struggling street urchins. However, they are very competently executed, and held up by strong character writing, which ultimately is what I value in storytelling. All of Arcane’s characters are fleshed out and are given ample time to grow and develop over the course of the season, which is not an easy task given the story’s rather quick pacing. No character feels unrealistic, as everybody has their flaws and strengths, and nobody is purely good or evil; the heroes make mistakes, and the villains can do good. I want to give a shoutout to the main antagonists of the season for being outstandingly well-written; they strike the right blend of sympathetic yet still doing undeniably bad things, which makes them feel three-dimensional and not just a token character for the protagonists to defeat.
Arcane is ultimately as good as it is because it more or less nails the core factors of what make an animated show great; it is visually impressive and competently written. However, the show does not just stop there, it is also no slouch when it comes to audio, delivering an impressive soundtrack full of bangers. While great soundtracks are not super unique, and plenty of shows and movies have incredible OST’s, but Arcane’s soundtrack hits different within the context of the show because it is utilized well to enhance the actual visual scenes themselves. The songs are great to listen to casually by themselves, but the soundtrack feels so powerful because the show decides to emphasize the music at thematically appropriate moments, whether it’s an intense fight scene or an emotionally powerful moment for a specific character.
On somewhat of a tangent, but Arcane’s success as a video game adaptation of League of Legends actually reminds me of another show that is also an adaptation, Netflix’s Castlevania, which is another brilliant show. So far, they are the only video game adaptations I have seen that are actually well done, and they both share a few common elements. Both shows feature important characters from the games they adapt, and incorporate elements of their game-defined backstories into their character arcs, but otherwise tell original stories that require absolutely zero prior knowledge of the games. This kind of adaptation strikes a sweet spot that appeals to both gamers and non-gamers; people who have played League of Legends are curious to see how characters like Jayce and Vi will transform into the champions they love to play and are so familiar with, while people who have never touched the game are just interested to see how their compelling stories unfold. With the resounding success of both Arcane and Castlevania, I think future video game adaptations can learn a thing or two from them.
Arcane is amazing, regardless of what your opinion on the game League of Legends might be. Go watch it.