Date: November 22, 2021
Adapting a beloved IP is a risky proposition. Of course, you’d never know it from the way all the big streaming services are churning out sci-fi and fantasy adaptations and reboots these days: Wheel of Time, Foundation, and Cowboy Bebop, to name just a few. We probably have the success of Game of Thrones to blame for it; that and the fact that anything that comes with a built-in fan base makes the bigwigs at media companies get dollar signs in their eyes. The latest in this string of adaptations is Arcane, an animated series featuring characters from the globe’s biggest MOBA, League of Legends.
It’s important to note that adaptations of video games are, as a general rule, terrible. From the crime-against-cinema that is the Super Mario Bros Movie to the much-maligned Warcraft film, studios have tried (and failed) time and time again to squeeze stories out of video-game universes. Despite all the missteps over the years, it isn’t hard to see why this happens: video games frequently have deep lore, a wide cast of characters, and novel settings. But despite these advantages, they’re rarely used effectively, and most people roll their eyes when they hear about new video game adaptation – I know I did when I first heard about Arcane.
That’s why I’m so pleasantly surprised to report that, after watching all 9 episodes of season 1, I think Arcane is a really good show; maybe even a great show. Creators/writers Christian Linke and Alex Yee have managed to avoid a lot of the common pitfalls of adaptations: too much fan service, a need for the viewer to be familiar with the game, over-altering beloved characters; none of that happens here. Hardcore League players will enjoy learning more about their favorite champions (the game’s term for playable characters) and getting to see them in action, while newcomers to the IP should be able to enjoy getting to know those very same characters throughout the course of the show.
Arcane takes place in the city Piltover, and the over-arching plot centers on the growing tension between the “haves” of Piltover proper and the “have-nots” of its Undercity, Zaun. However, the show’s true focus isn’t on what’s happening in the city, but rather on what’s happening with and between the denizens of Piltover and Zaun. Arcane deftly weaves together the stories of a wide range of characters from all over the city, and the cast is varied enough that it’s safe to say there’s at least one character for everyone to root for — even if you’re into rooting for the bad guy.
The first thing you’ll notice when you watch Arcane (which I hope you’ll do as soon as you’re done with this review) is the depth and quality of the animation. Arcane uses a combination of 2D and 3D graphics, and the show’s style straddles the line between cartoonish and realistic in a way that I found incredibly visually pleasing. The movement of the characters is so realistic I was certain they’d used motion-capture technology, but apparently their animators are just that good. The animation in Arcane is done by French animation company Fortiche, who’ve had a chance to hone their skills on other League-related projects in the past — and it shows.
These animations are supported by some impressive cinematography. Camera shake and dutch angles are used sparingly but to great effect, action scenes are frenetic but followable, and the framing of scenes manages to be artistic without becoming obtuse. The fact that Arcane is animated is taken advantage of to do things with the way the “camera” pans that would be difficult or impossible with a live-action show. I also appreciated how Arcane toed the line of comic-book action while keeping the fights gritty and at least somewhat believable.
This action takes place on backdrops that also consistently impress. Arcane’s settings are detailed and varied: The gleam and glitter of Piltover is a marvel to behold, and stands in stark contrast to the dank and dark Undercity. The show’s lighting (or lack thereof) is a carefully applied tool, highlighting elements of the scenery or casting a character’s scowl in shadow while maintaining an easy-to-parse visual style.
If Arcane’s plot had simply been an excuse for its well-animated action sequences and beautiful scenery, it probably still would have been at least somewhat successful – but Arcane’s writing seems to have been given just as much care and attention as its art. Frankly, this came as something of a surprise to me. Given the quality of writing generally present in League of Legends’ lore, I wasn’t expecting much from Arcane’s script, especially once I learned that it was Riot employees who’d be handling the show.
After all, this is the studio that wrote the following lore for Yasuo, one of their more popular champions:
As a child, Yasuo often believed what the others in his village said of him: on the best days, his very existence was an error in judgement; on the worst, he was a mistake that could never be undone.via Yasuo’s official lore page
Suffice to say, many fans anticipated more of the same overwrought, amateurish writing when it came to Arcane – but somehow, that didn’t happen. The dialog works well: characters feel distinct and believable, and even the more cheesy, action-movie style lines end up landing more often than not. I was also surprised at how dark the writers were willing to get, considering the source material is rated T/PEGI 12. It might be animated, but Arcane is by no means a children’s show — the writers don’t shy away from violence, drug use, prostitution, or mental illness, though all are depicted fairly tastefully.
Arcane also manages to have a more nuanced plot than you’d expect from a show based on a video game. There’s no BBEG, which is especially refreshing in a steampunk/fantasy setting – usually, some city lord or mob boss is clearly the villain, or else there’s some terrible force of evil called “The Darkness” or “The Fade” that has to be stopped. Instead, all of Arcane’s cast have their own motives, and while they might not all be particularly pleasant or agreeable, they’re at least understandable – every major character’s backstory is given enough screen time that their decisions make perfect sense.
This is important because Arcane is, at its core, a character-driven series. Sure, there are big things happening in Piltover, but they’re all happening because of the people of the city. Arcane does a fantastic job of letting us get to know those people, and never sacrifices character development for plot while doing so.
There’s so much more I could say about the show, but I don’t want to risk spoiling any of the wonderful moments it has to offer. With Arcane, a new bar has been set for not only video-game adaptations, but for animated television as a whole, and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
Watched Arcane yet? Too traumatized from /allchat toxicity to view anything League of Legends related? Share your League horror stories or let us know what you thought of Arcane Season 1 in the comments!