Arcane review: slick and exciting intro to League of Legends on Netflix

For years, fans have been wondering just when the heck League of Legends developer Riot would make an animated series. It seemed inevitable. The studio previously created stunning animated shorts to promote everything from new characters to esports tournaments. And with an increasing focus on expanding League’s storytelling — something that’s tough to do within the confines of a team-based strategy game — a show made a whole lot of sense. Now, it’s real, with a nine-episode series called Arcane. The best part: not only is it a lot of fun, but you don’t have to know anything about League to get into it.

Arcane is set (mostly) in a city called Piltover early on, which is on the verge of a big change that could impact the entirety of the fantasy realm of Runeterra: a pair of scientists are figuring out a way to harness the dangerous power of magic to use in everything from weapons to tools to transportation. Amidst this backdrop, the show follows a handful of characters throughout the city. Things start out with a street kid named Vi leading a small gang to a big score, heading to the upper reaches of the city to steal some expensive-looking gadgets. The heist, naturally, goes bad and ends with some exploding crystals. The perspective then shifts to the likes of the aforementioned scientists and an underworld kingpin with lots of scars and a big grudge.

What’s great about Arcane’s fantasy-meets-steampunk world is that it’s pretty easy to understand. The show doesn’t waste time with big lore dumps, nor does it expect you already know who these characters are. Vi, for instance, is one of League’s most popular characters, but the show serves mostly as an origin story for her and a few others. For fans, it’s a cool chance to see how some of these characters came to be — you even learn about Vi’s iconic gauntlets — but for everyone else, you’re being introduced to interesting people at a pivotal point in their lives. No prior knowledge necessary.

It helps that the story is relatively straightforward. There isn’t anything about Arcane that I would call new or revolutionary. It’s a fairly typical fantasy tale that just happens to be really well done. The villains are intimidating, the would-be heroes are messy and relatable, the action is extremely satisfying to watch, and everything moves at a brisk pace. The best thing Arcane has going for it is just how stylish it looks. Each frame looks like a gorgeous piece of hand-painted concept art; in motion, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s also a world that feels lived-in and fully realized. The slums of Piltover have a toxic green look to them (police officers even wear masks when they venture in), while the upper levels are bright, airy, and luxurious. I especially loved all of the strange mechanical creations that help keep the city alive and bustling. What I’m saying is, after watching the first few episodes, I want an Arcane art book ASAP.

One of the more interesting things about the show is how it’s being released. It’s not an all-you-can-watch binge-fest, nor are episodes dropping weekly. Instead, Arcane uses something of a hybrid format. The nine episodes are divided into chapters and are being released as three-episode bundles over the course of three weeks. (It’s reminiscent of Netflix’s experimental Fear Street trilogy of horror movies.) For the first chapter, at least, it works well because the three episodes have their own clear arc, while episode four picks up some time later, though that’s as far as I’ve watched so far.

Early on, Arcane walks a fine line. It’s both a tribute and an introduction to a vast fantasy realm that’s been around for a decade and has millions of existing fans. Those viewers will find a story with some exciting Easter eggs and a deeper look at characters that have been around for ages. Everyone else is in for a surprisingly thrilling adventure that doesn’t skimp on style. Really, the most jarring thing for newcomers might be if they’re inspired to play League of Legends itself, which is decidedly lacking in the style and speed that make the show work so well.

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