When it comes to video games being adapted into TV shows, there’s not exactly a deep bench for mature fare. For every Castlevania, there are five times the kid-oriented animated series like Carmen Sandiego, multiple iterations of Sonic the Hedgehog, or those Angry Birds. Which is why Netflix and RiotGame’s Arcane, based on the decade-old League of Legends multiplayer online battle arena game, is such a revelation.
Stunningly crafted in a mix of 2D and 3D by French animation studio Fortiche Productions, Arcane is created and showrun by League video game architects Christian Linke and Alex Yee. For 10 years, the duo and their studio have cultivated a passionate and massively dedicated community of eight million players who have immersed themselves in the games, tie-in comics, and music videos that make up the complex mythology of the world. But as so many videogame-to-movie adaptations have proved, even hit games have a rough time translating to a new medium. It’s the perpetual challenge for even the best creatives: finding the right balance of fan service while engaging non-gamer audiences.
And perhaps that plays into why Arcane succeeds. Linke and Yee’s years of character building within a constantly evolving narrative (in the have and have-not cities of affluent and enlightened Piltover and the poor and depressed underground of Zaun) means they’ve been steeped in this rich mythology for so long that their instincts for extracting meaty characters and conflicts translate well into this series. They’ve also purposefully made an adult animated drama that unflinchingly utilizes violence, adult language, and very dark storylines when needed to make the lives of the large ensemble cast resonate.
In the first four episodes reviewed, the series introduces audiences to the world initially through the lives of sisters: Older teen Vi (Hailee Steinfeld) and young Powder (Mia Sinclair Jenness). Orphaned, they’ve been raised in a part of Zaun called The Lanes by local gritty bar owner Vander, (JB Blanc). Vander’s made sure the girls have compassion and street smarts, which helps when they and their two friends climb up into Piltover to steal items from the wealthy to sell on the black market. A tip leads them to boost a cache of odd blue gems from the home of a young Piltover scientist named Jayce (Kevin Alejandro), which inextricably connects their stories as the dominoes of happenstance, simmering class wars, and the introduction of magic (or the arcane) conflate into an epic tale of ambition, trauma, heartbreak, and destiny.
Not unlike other heavy world-building series like Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone, Arcane mostly concerns itself with political and familial conflicts in a world where magic exists. If you happen to be a gamer, the art deco-meets-steampunk aesthetics of Piltover and Zaun will immediately draw parallels to the lauded Bioshock games. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter because a huge part of the appeal of the series is getting lost in how visually immersive every frame of this show is. The textures, lighting, and color palettes—dank and neon in the under city, which juxtaposes against the more pastel and metallic topside—are a feast for the eyes. Directors Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord take full advantage of this incredible playground by showcasing the dense settings and landscapes with clever camera perspectives and movements. They also present some blisteringly inventive action sequences that are surprisingly well-paced and judicious in execution, especially considering this series is based on a battle arena game. Some blockbuster films could take lessons from this series on analyzing how long and why action beats happens, and the precision in how it moves the story forward.
Another astonishing aspect of Arcane are the performances. The whole voice cast, but especially Steinfeld, Jenness, and Ella Purnell (who voices game-world favorite Jinx by Episode 4), and Jason Spisak’s Silco, make you forget that you’re not watching real people. Even with the heighten, painterly design of each character, the nuance and subtle facial movements Fortiche manages to imbue every single character with achieves “how are they managing this?” levels of great. Pairing it with such great voice work means there is no barrier to getting lost in the emotional stakes of what the characters are experiencing. Often that chasm is what holds many animated stories back—but there’s no such problem here.
Arcane also boasts some fantastic sound design that creates an original aural landscape that’s complex. Every episode also features original music which not only services the emotional beats of the story, but so many of them just slap. Even theme song, “Enemy,” by Imagine Dragons played over the gorgeous titles, is so infectious that you’ll find yourself not hitting that usually welcome “Skip Intro” button.
Even if you have no interest in picking up any kind of gaming console, do yourself a favor and give Arcane a try. It has more mature storytelling and emotional resonance than many live-action shows do right now. And it deserves to be lauded as the new benchmark for what can be done when it comes to successfully translating worthy videogame universes into a different medium while refusing to dumb down or simplify complex storytelling. Arcane is a world worth getting lost within.
Arcane Act One (Episodes 1-3) premieres on Netflix November 6th. Act Two (Episodes 4-6) will follow on November 13th, with Act Three (Episodes 7-9) landing on November 20th.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.