Every now and then, a piece of media comes along and breaks the mould of the mainstream, setting internet forums and critics ablaze with discourse as it sets its foot down to be a standard for future generations of the medium. The Netflix series Arcane (2021) steps up to this challenge with confidence and style, soon to seal its fate as a modern animated classic alongside the likes of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (2018). From developer Riot Games and French animation studio Fortiche, this passion project is set in the fictional world of the massively popular online game League of Legends but fret not—you do not need any background knowledge from the game to appreciate the beautiful world of Arcane.
Fundamentally, Arcane is a fantasy drama revolving around complex politics, with action sci-fi elements; there’s something in it for everyone. The writers have done a spectacular job balancing and humanising a fairly large cast of characters, giving praiseworthy attention to the most minor characters.
The story is set in the proud and illustrious city of Piltover and its worse-off undercity Zaun, where crime and poverty are widespread. From the get-go, the divide in the lives of the “topside” and the undercity is artfully expressed through carefully crafted dialogue and stunning attention to detail.
The first season of Arcane is divided into three acts of three episodes each, released weekly, running for a total of nine episodes. We follow the sisters, Vi and Powder, children of Zaun, through most of the first act, which serves as a heart-wrenching introduction to a world teeming with diverse, multifaceted characters with intricate backstories. The political state of Piltover is introduced briefly as tensions with Zaun begin to culminate in violent affairs. We are introduced to the “Academy” on the topside—where an aspiring young scientist, Jayce, is making strides in magic and science that is causing tension among its Council. Numerous plot lines and characters intertwine with each other in a riveting dance, setting the stage for the second act—where the consequences of Zaun’s dreams of freedom and prosperity play out in emotional highs. The third act brings us to each character, pushed to their corner of reckoning and challenges—and we are treated to a story told as much through dialogue as through the visuals that accompany it.
If it was the plot alone, Arcane could have gone down as a powerful fictional tale, emphasising the emotional effects of the class divide—told through the lens of flawed characters who react in immensely human ways to extreme situations. But it’s not—alongside its storyline, Arcane is a visual masterpiece. Every frame is an illustrated art piece, breathed to life by a striking blend of 2D art and 3D animation. There is never a still moment: every drop of rain, every muscle in a character’s face is animated with great care—It’s no wonder the show took over half a decade to produce. Each shade of colour is carefully combined with movement to create an immersive experience; from electrifying action to heartbreaking tragedy, Arcane is built on emotion. The show’s stellar foundation is complemented with music crafted and songs made for each specific scene that elevates a spectacular, charged animation series to a new standard for the medium to look up to.
Arcane breaks the curse of video game adaptations—by not depending on the game at all, it firmly stands its own through its gritty, heartfelt story. And yet longtime fans of the game will still derive joy in spotting a variety of easter eggs and teasers, cleverly hidden away throughout the world of Arcane. The film-like quality of its production raises Arcane to its position of being a (literally) once-a-decade gem. But don’t take my word for it—Check out the show yourself. This review barely scratches the surface of what Arcane has to offer; there is only so much one can rave about while avoiding major spoilers. With a second season announced and nine Annie Awards nominations, I am palpably excited for the future of Arcane—and that of the animated medium.