Underground. Overground. All are not free. Tensions are brewing between Piltover and Zaun, you see. The former is a technologically advanced society that has shunned the corruptive and uncontrollable influence of magic.
The latter is the seedy underbelly where all waifs and strays are stuffed unceremoniously into a hard-fought life. Released as an ‘event series’ where three episode ‘acts’ are released over three weeks, Arcane is already far better than its origins may suggest.
Adapted from in-game mythos surrounding the characters and locations from the video game League of Legends, Arcane is an animated show that very quickly establishes itself as something unusual.
The non-Pixar, non-Family Guy style animation (so, European then) that mixes 3D and 2D will likely be the first thing you notice, followed by a rich and varied score. With opening scenes depicting the aftermath of a bloody conflict and orphaned children, Arcane establishes its young adult hardship tone straight away.
Not only have I never played the League of Legends game, but I have also never heard of them. I will therefore be making zero references to it except to say I have seen a large amount of movies and series adapted from video game origins.
These inevitably work in elements from the source material to varying degrees of subtlety and success. The writers of Arcane have clearly focused on plotting and characterisation so that even if there are tons of references that are going over my head, such things are ultimately unimportant: the show works incredibly well on its own merit.
Events are catalysed by young Zaun orphan, Vi (Hailee Steinfeld), who robs a laboratory in the upmarket Piltover area with her young gang of thieves. Also along for the ride is Vi’s vulnerable sister, Powder (Ella Purnell) who unwittingly sets off a massive explosion whilst stealing some very pretty but very dangerous blue rocks. Unbeknownst to her, these represent the efforts of academy researcher Jayce (Kevin Alejandro, Lucifer), who is trying to manufacture an artificial way to control magic.
The failed robbery and resultant destruction worsen the already thinly balanced tensions between Zaun and Piltover, with forces on both sides calling for war. Trying to keep everyone safe is Vander (JB Blanc); former Zaun revolutionary, current bar owner, and guardian to Vi and Powder. Extra forces are at play to complicate matters, with shadowy figures (a nasty turn from Harry Lloyd) pulling strings and dangerous biological experiments reaching human testing stages.
As an exercise in how slight the grip of peace is around the writhing beast of conflict, Arcane excels. The first ‘act’ of three episodes takes the time to explore the characters within their worlds rather than lazily strutting around the worlds themselves.
Our cast have differing and believable motivations which are given due justice so that when they act we can agree totally with their reasoning, and foresee the immediate consequences of such decisions. Think Game of Thrones meets World of Warcraft.
Arcane makes the wise choice to keep its characters central, even if doing so means that it doesn’t go deep on some of the lore of its world. New viewers, such as myself, just have to accept that there is magic and multiple species and races, and that we don’t need to know the backstory to all of these if they aren’t serving the current plot. Presumably, this adds extra flavour for fans of the League of Legends series, but thankfully never feels weighty or confusing to newbies.
Such intriguing content is wrapped up in a gorgeous package. As above, the animation is top class and different enough to current homogeneous styles cocooned duvet-like around our screens. Vi training to fight on a complicated mechanism pops out of the screen with each punch and swerve. The day-glo hideout that Vi and her friends bunker down in is filled with eye-catching inventive designs. And the fights and flights are heart-stoppingly realised through fluid, colourful animation.
Arcane has staked its claim well and left me wanting more for the upcoming acts. Entertainment is entertainment in any medium, but the brain tickling needs of interactive gaming differ from the narrative allure of passive viewing. It is a credit to all concerned that Arcane is no throw away tie in designed to milk the loyal and bamboozle the new. Instead, a fully realised show brimming with promise and intrigue awaits you. Count me in.
Words by Mike Record