League of Legends is one of the most popular video games of this generation. For over a decade, an estimated 22 million people from across 145 countries can be found the multiplayer online battle arena every day. The World Championships helped transform esports into a mainstream phenomenon, attended by tens of thousands in major arenas around the world with tens of millions watching live broadcasts. However, the emphasis on competitive gameplay means there is no overarching narrative to the game. Interest in the over 140 playable characters, or champions, developed and resulted in the creation of backstories to provide personalities. But fans wanted more, leading to the publication of various literature and numerous animated shorts. Riot Games, the developers of League of Legends, have now engaged in their most ambitious media project to date producing the animated series Arcane.
Within the world of Runeterra, upon the continent of Valoran, there are two neighboring cities: Piltover and Zaun. Once before, the cities were united. Over time, Piltover would prosper and thrive from progressive technological advances. Zaun, on the other hand, descended into filth and ruin while struggling to survive. Divisions festered and before long a terrible battle between the cities left many lives lost. An uneasy truce was brokered and some form of co-existence was left in place, but that fragile peace is now in danger of shattering with the discovery of hextech. The mixing of magic and science has allowed Piltover to grow to greater heights and is leaving Zaun further behind. But placed in the wrong hands, hextech could be far more terrifying as it is majestic. With chaos and destruction seemingly inevitable, the destinies of many lives from both sides come barreling into a catastrophic collision course.
Arcane functions as a stand-alone narrative, so it is not a necessity to have even known anything about League of Legends beforehand. Obviously, those who are knowledgeable of the game would be more perceptive to details and would identify Easter eggs. But it’s clear from the start that the series is designed for everyone to watch, not just players. The game lacking a narrative is perhaps helpful in that there are not a lot of restrictions upon the series towards the storytelling and the world-building. While the game’s champions have pre-established backstories, they were less about being definitive than they were to give them personalities. Arcane serves to flesh out the champions who hail from Piltover and Zaun, bringing them to life in a way that they transcend all medium. I rather believe that when people think of League of Legends going forward they’ll think of the champions as they are in Arcane.
The series is developed by Riot Games creative director Christian Linke and creative designer Alex Yee. They are also among four people who shape the overall story. The other two consisting of senior narrative writer Connor Sheehy and the one outsider brought in to provide fresh perspective, Ash Brannon. Brannon brings along experience from mainstream animation, having previously been a co-director of Toy Story 2 and later director of Surf’s Up alongside Chris Buck. Working together, all four have managed to carefully craft the narrative to ensure that it would appeal to viewers unfamiliar with League of Legends while also satisfying the interests of fans. Moreover, they have placed their focus on making the emotional and exciting tale work so as to pull at heartstrings in fascinating and unexpected ways. It’s very clear that everyone is putting forth their best efforts and it shows quite magnificently.
Arcane concerns the origins of only a small fraction of the over 140 champions in League of Legends while also managing to introduce new faces specifically for the series. The result is the showcase of an ensemble cast of characters. At best, five featured champions from the game receive the most attention in the spotlight. Viktor is a scientist who wants to help mankind, but the terminal illness he has suffered since childhood pushes him to the brink of desperation. Jayce believes wholeheartedly in the potential of what mixing magic and science can do, leading to his discovery of hextech. He is then suddenly thrust into the dangerous waters of politics and is losing sight of who he really is. Caitlyn seeks to escape the shadows of her aristocratic parents, going so far as venture into law enforcement. She gets more than she bargained for upon seeing what the world is like outside of her sheltered life.
The heart of the story, though, centers on sisters Vi and Powder. Being orphaned has forced Vi to do what she can to survive the harsh realities of the world. She’s street-wise and quite strong for her build, but has a short temper and lacks patience. This is to protect herself from feeling vulnerable, particularly if she feels helpless to protect those she cares for. A heart-wrenching tragedy separates them and it is years before Vi is able to look for Powder. Unaware that time and the underbelly of Zaun have shaped the little girl into a whirlwind of mayhem known as Jinx. But even the most vile of people are afraid of just how unstable she truly is, and perhaps always was. Jinx is one of the faces of League of Legends. The game presents her as charming despite being chaotic, drawing inspiration from Harley Quinn. Arcane takes a darker turn, going deep in exploring her schizophrenia that results in some very heavy pathos.
The series is directed by Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord. Two of the three founders of the European animation studio Fortiche, they are no strangers to League of Legends as they have worked on many music videos and animation shorts promoting the game. For those projects, they utilized the game’s visual aesthetic to create some lovely work. Arcane has given them the opportunity to explore their creativity in full and push the animation in a completely different direction. League of Legends is generally seen as colorful, clean, and vibrant. Arcane, on the other hand, is saturated, dirty, and graphic. This enhances the dark atmosphere of the story while allowing Charrue and Delord the chance to showcase a bold style that is mesmerizing to watch in motion. And it is through this show that the directors and their animators shine as unique visual storytellers who have great ideas to show and tell.
The world is brought to life with a fascinating mixture of computer generated imagery and traditional hand-drawn animation. This results in some amazing visuals that are breathtaking to watch, such as smoke emerging from an ignited torch or particularly when Jinx’s schizophrenia starts to overwhelm her. The animation elicits further awe from an astounding utilization of the cinematography. Incredible scenes such as the many fist fights Vi finds herself getting into or the various experimentation Viktor conducts are sights to behold and played out wonderfully. Even subdued moments such as those establishing a growing bond between Vi and Caitlyn are displayed lovingly. Everything comes together so well that they evoke the precise emotion of the scene and the viewer is able to feel it. To call the animation beautiful would be an understatement. It’s actually hard to describe in words just how good it is.
The characters are voiced by a delightful ensemble cast. Hailee Steinfeld perfectly matches the stubborn strength and aching vulnerability in Vi. Katie Leung is heavenly as the soothing and determined Caitlyn. Kevin Alejandro finds the right compelling tones for Jayce. Harry Lloyd in excellent as the suffering and desperate Viktor. Even the voices to a couple original characters have managed to stand-out nicely. Jason Spisak is magnificent as Silco, a man whose willingness to do bad things to achieve his goals masks surprising sympathy. JB Blanc is outstanding as Vander, a street-weary former revolutionist who houses Vi and Powder as children and struggles to maintain peace all-around. But Ella Purnell really shines the most as Jinx. The crackle in her voice adds weight to some amazingly dramatic moments of sorrow and insanity. The cast as a whole do a phenomenal job bringing their champions to life.
Music has played a major part in the popularity of League of Legends and it’s no different with Arcane. Composing the score is Alexander Temple, Riot Games senior composer, and Alex Seaver, a well-renowned musician known by the stage name Mako. The two more than deliver on the challenge of bolstering the drama and intensity of the narrative, creating melodies that are haunting as they are wonderful to hear. Their music adds that extra layer of ambience to further bring the world all the more alive on top of what is visualized. The presence of pop songs, particularly those of the electricpop genre, may not please everyone depending on their tastes. Truth be told, they’re minimal and they are at least nicely woven in so as not to be too distracting. I rather liked “Enemy” by Imagine Dragons as the main theme and the use of “Guns for Hire” by Woodkid is excellent in enhancing the scene it plays through.
Aside from the apparent divisiveness over the pop songs, the one worry about Arcane could be how dark the narrative is. League of Legends is generally colorful and tends to evoke fun despite the competitive nature of the game. Arcane is heavy and surprising emotional. There are light-hearted moments to be sure and not everything is all dour. But when the drama hits, it hits so hard that it will knock viewers down, wait patiently for them to get back up, and then knock them down again. Being the heart of the story, Vi and Jinx go through a great deal of challenging situations in their respective journeys and they often come out worse for wear spiritually. The increasing intensity of Jinx’s schizophrenia does not help. The majority of the episodes end on cliffhangers and they’re quite the doozy. Arcane is tear-jerking, presenting the notion that trying to achieve the idea of hope will have tragic consequences.
Arcane is a marvel to behold. There are not many video game adaptations that have been all that well received over the decades. This show eclipses them all, standing alone in a league of its own. The careful attention in crafting the narrative have resulted in an emotional story that is wonderful as it is heartbreaking. The animation is majestic, mixing computer generated imagery with traditional hand-drawn illustrations to display visuals that are breathtaking and awe inspiring. The champions are developed with great fascination and brought to life by a delightful vocal cast of performers. The music score is as haunting as it is beautiful, regardless of how one might feel about the presence of pop songs. This is one of the best shows to be created and it is merely the beginning. In managing to bring everything together so magnificently, Arcane is definitely an animated series that is, above all, legendary.
Riot Games/Fortiche Production
Available only on Netflix Streaming
Created by Christian Linke and Alex Yee