Arcane season 1 review – a rare video game adaptation that works

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: November 7, 2021
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Arcane season 1 review - a rare video game adaptation that works


Gorgeous to look at and genuinely compelling regardless of your League of Legends knowledge, Arcane is a rare win for video game adaptations.

This review of Arcane Season 1 is spoiler-free.

The thing about video game adaptations is that they’re rubbish. Well, that’s mostly true. Recently, with The Witcher, Castlevania, and now Arcane, Netflix seem to be making a concerted effort to disprove this longstanding rule. And I’m a fan of this, obviously, since contrary to popular belief critics want things to be good so we don’t have to sit through mediocre garbage. I also like video games a lot, though I must admit that League of Legends, the one Arcane is based on, isn’t exactly a property I’m intimately familiar with.

But no matter! So as to court as wide an audience as possible – while also trying to give established fans plenty to get privately excited about – Arcane has quite a functionally and thematically simple core story about two sisters and two cities on the brink of an old-fashioned punch-up. The setting is obviously a hodgepodge of different sci-fi and fantasy influences, but the worldbuilding never really feels overwhelming, and even though there’s clearly a political drama at play here, it remains rooted in character. It’s largely about boiling down video game “champions” into their constituent parts; exposing the human underpinnings of fantastical excess. In other words, it’s taking an intrinsically gameplay-oriented franchise and making it palatable to the mainstream without any gameplay at all.

The confidence with which Arcane accomplishes this is impressive. It’s a gorgeous-looking show, with a painterly aesthetic and a difficult-to-pin-down merger of 2D and 3D that looks quite unlike most other computer animations, but its real successes are in the storytelling; the way it introduces and develops characters and plot elements, and how it’s paced as three separate “Acts” comprising three episodes, each trio to be released weekly on Netflix. It’s an unusual release strategy for the streaming giant but it makes sense in context. It’ll allow, essentially, for three mini-finales, for each week to provide a sense of build-up and payoff as the characters respond to new developments.

And the first three episodes aren’t shy about developments. They quickly introduce the sisters at the show’s heart, Vi and Powder, and establish the prosperous city of Piltover and its maligned ghetto the Undercity, warring halves of the same whole. Through the death of their parents, the passage of some years, and their adoption by a group of similarly disenfranchised rebels, Arcane positions Vi and Powder as essential pieces in a wide-scale game of politics, science, and impending war that threatens both sides of the rich-poor divide with annihilation.

As the episodes – each running about 45 minutes – progress, new (though familiar to many) characters are introduced along with new nuggets of worldbuilding and backstory. The show moves rather effortlessly in and out of genres, ranging from character study to fantasy-actioner to political drama to crime thriller. There’s usually a lot happening, but there’s almost always a reason for it – a reason that the audience is privy to, not because they’re intimately familiar with the source material, but because it has been efficiently established and explained. It builds to a crescendo in the third episode, the end of the first act, which is a fantastic action sequence and visual treat but also a legitimately moving emotional moment.

It was around this point that I really saw how Arcane’s expressive art and focused storytelling come together, and this was also when I began to wonder where the show might go next, and how good it might become when it gets there. I was shockingly invested in the story after these three episodes, in a way that almost snuck up on me. The frequent action and chase sequences are a kinetic pleasure, but you don’t realize how deeply they’re rooting you in the show’s world until something drastic happens. By then I was hooked. I think most people will be, too.

The downsides are few and far between here. Sometimes, the show’s eagerness to not alienate new fans leads to it being a little tight-lipped for its own good, and I think certain aspects of the world could have done with more explication, if only for the benefit of those of us who don’t have an entire Wiki’s worth of franchise knowledge saved up. And it’s hard to deny that there’s some predictability in what transpires in Act 1, a sense of arch character types performing their intended function. The execution, though, is so stellar that it’s hard to mind, and it’s easy to suspect that Netflix might have a real winner on their hands here. We’ll see in the next two weeks.

You can stream Arcane Season 1 exclusively on Netflix.

Netflix, Streaming Service, TV, TV Reviews
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