The massively popular multiplayer game League of Legends has never really had much of a story. Developer Riot Games’ (several) attempts at stringing the world of Runeterra and its characters together into a larger narrative have always fallen flat; the game had some charismatic characters and cities, and almost nothing beyond that tying them together. But in that narrative vacuum, Riot and Netflix’s new League of Legends animated series, Arcane, finds plenty of room to add to the world players already know and welcome new fans at the same time.
Arcane centers its story on two of League’s most important locations: Piltover and Zaun. These two occupy the same area of the world and are sort of like sister cities, with one on top of the other. Pilotover is the idealistic and scientifically minded metropolis that has self-branded as “the city of progress” on top, with the crime-ridden, unregulated technological dystopia of Zaun (though it was only known as “the Undercity” in its earlier days) below.
The stories of the two cities are familiar to most League fans. But while the game’s version is mostly good (Piltover) versus evil (Zaun), Arcane paints a more complicated picture. As it turns out, Piltover held down the Undercity for years, forcing its leaders into disadvantageous and unpopular protection deals, wielding immense police power like a cudgel to keep its poorer populace in line. The decades of mistreatment helped push the disgruntled citizens of the Undercity toward the mysterious Silco, who promised to transform Undercity into the city of Zaun, and will do anything to gain power over Piltover.
If this all sounds a little like Young Adult fiction, that’s because it is. Arcane is definitely not a kids show, there’s swearing, blood, a very dark tone, disturbing scenes, and plenty of violence. But none of it rises above a PG-13 level, and the show keeps most of its well-developed themes and characters pretty straightforward and understandable. It’s a rare sweet spot that’s darker than a Marvel movie, but never crossing the line into grimdark or adult fantasy.
That balance allows Arcane’s characters to make the show — which is the way it should be for something based on League of Legends. Outside of its gameplay, what’s kept players coming back to League in the 12 years since it was first released are its characters. League devotees have likely played their favorite characters for dozens or hundreds of hours at least, and whether you like them because of their in-game abilities or flashes of personality, most players form strong attachments to the champions they like playing most.
But as beloved as the characters are, their in-game versions are mostly made up of some exceptional art and a few clever lines of dialogue that communicate a bit about who they are and their personality. Outside of a few short blurbs hidden away on the game’s official website, League of Legends’ characters don’t really have any concrete backstory, which is exactly what Arcane solves.
Rather than try to work in dozens of characters from the game, Arcane smartly narrows its focus to a few key champions and a few new characters. Their arcs are broken down into three separate three-episode acts that take place several years apart. These almost function like short movies with their own narrative arcs, and give the show time to dig into each of its characters throughout their lives and journeys.
Through the first four episodes that Riot provided to critics, the show focuses on two separate duos across Piltover and Zaun: the sisters, Vi and Jinx, and the scientific partners Jayce and Viktor. All four are League of Legends champions (of varying popularity), and their stories each neatly reflect the cities they inhabit.
The sisters grow up as orphans in the Undercity but take different paths after childhood, leading to ends that League players will be very familiar with, but may catch some newcomers by surprise. This ability to create two separate but satisfying experiences for the show is one of Arcane’s more impressive feats, and a testament to how well realized each of the characters feel.
Jinx and Vi provide the emotional center of the show so far, and it doesn’t shy away from getting surprisingly tragic. This is especially true for Jinx, whose story has the most narrative ground to cover, and is particularly effective in the first few episodes as she struggles to find her place in her sister’s shadow.
But it’s Jayce and Viktor who are more emblematic of some of Arcane’s larger themes. Both characters are scientific geniuses that throw the city of Piltover into the future with their inventions. But while they are partners in their early days, it’s clear that they’re both still divided on how much they’re willing to risk public safety in the name of science. And as their opinions diverge, Arcane uses the two as voices to explain the ideologies behind Piltover and Zaun themselves, which will hopefully let the show go deeper on the philosophies driving two of League’s most interesting cities.
Between these pairings are smaller stories of recognizable faces from Runeterra like Caitlyn, Ekko, and Heimerdinger, as well as new faces like Vander, Mel, Mylo, and the previously mentioned villain, Silco. While these new characters seem interesting, Arcane spends a disappointingly small amount of time with them in the first chapters (though it seems like their screen time may increase as the series continues). Of course, the series has also hinted at appearances from a few more characters who haven’t shown up — at least in the first four episodes.
These little teases — which may or may not ever come to fruition — are another of Arcane’s clever tricks. Because the League of Legends universe only ever existed in loose sketches and broad strokes in the game, Arcane doesn’t rely on any prior knowledge of Runeterra. The dozens of little Easter eggs, and moments of foreshadowing provide special nods to longtime fans, but the story itself is just as easy to follow and effective for new viewers as for League of Legends veterans.
For a show set in a fantastical world like Runeterra, though, its characters and setting are really only as good as the art that depicts them, and it’s here that Arcane is at its most impressive. The series, which was animated by Riot and Fortiche Production, is absolutely gorgeous — especially among Netflix shows that often feature simpler, less expressive character designs. It has a paint-like style that’s particularly striking in wide landscapes and establishing shots of both Zaun and Piltover’s massive towers and sprawling buildings.
Arcane’s characters also look great, striking a balance between a style that feels cohesive with League of Legends’ art but also feels a little more natural for narrative animation. Characters’ faces are expressive and emotions translate well, even if not all of the physical comedy lands. The show’s battle sequences are also excellent, mixing in slow motion, unique angles, and one terrific use of multiple perspectives during an explosion to help keep the action on-screen clear and readable as well as kinetic and exciting.
There’s a version of a League of Legends animated series that Riot would have debuted on its own website, catered exclusively to fans of the game and spent a whole lot less money on. That version would have been safe and fans likely would have loved it. Instead Riot and Fortiche went for something that could reach a broader audience and managed to create a beautiful and entertaining show that both adds to the world that long-time League of Legends fans love, without leaving newcomers too far behind.
The first two episodes of Arcane’s nine-episode first season are now on Netflix.