Arcane Act 1 review: Netflix's League of Legends spin-off is amazing

Arcane Episode 1 Recap
(Image credit: Riot Games)

The curse of videogame movies and TV spin-offs being shit is well and truly broken, and Netflix's Arcane has delivered the killing blow. 

It might surprise you as much as it surprised me, given that the League of Legends universe Arcane is set in is a kaleidoscope of different fantasy and sci-fi settings, where iconic League champions can be stealthy ninjas one second and global pop sensations the next. It's not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to watch a gripping political drama about two cities on the cusp of war. And League's larger-than-life champions don't immediately seem like the right soil for emotional character development. But that's partly what makes Arcane so magical—as well as its extraordinary, hand-painted aesthetic. It defies expectations.

If you're not a League of Legends fan—or even if you actively despise it—Arcane is still something you should watch. It's not weighed down by complicated lore or timeline shenanigans nearly as much as, say, Netflix's The Witcher. That's because Arcane isn't about League of Legends' champions, but the regular folk they used to be. In that way, Arcane mirrors a lot of superhero origin stories, like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's also better too. There's epic fight scenes, chemical mutations, and reality-tearing magic, but, unlike a lot of superhero flicks, there's also a humanness to Arcane that makes it especially gripping.

The series, which is available on Netflix, is broken up into three acts, each containing three episodes. The first act aired today, November 6, with the rest airing each Saturday following until November 20. If the first act is any indication, Arcane is going to be one hell of a trip.

Family matters 

The story follows two sisters, Vi and Powder, who live in a desiccated ghetto on the fringes of the gleaming and prosperous city of Piltover. As a mecca of science, Piltover is a dream for aristocrats and academics alike. But the city has a dark underside—literally. On the other side of a wide river is the Undercity, a chemical wasteland full of miscreants, vagrants, and Piltover's refuse.

The violence that routinely erupts between Piltover's haves and the Undercity's have-nots isn't just some background subplot, though. In the first scene of episode 1, Vi and her little sister find the corpses of their parents in the wreckage of a violent clash between Undercity residents and Piltover's cops. It's a somber scene that sets the tone for the next few episodes.

One thing I love about Arcane is its pacing. After that grim intro, we're whisked forward a few years as Vi, Powder, and two other orphans sneak into Piltover to stage a daring heist. Things naturally go awry, kicking into motion a chain reaction that threatens to not only tear Piltover and the Undercity to pieces, but Vi and Powder's adoptive family.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

By episode 2, Arcane's scope is blown wide open with the introduction of Jayce, Viktor, and several other notable League champs. Blinded by idealism and ambition, these two Piltover academics are working to harness the power of magic through science. It's a dangerous endeavour that initially draws the ire of Piltover's governing body, lead by the lovable and quirky Heimerdinger, a tiny, ewok-esque creature sporting a monocle.

As the scope continues to widen, it soon becomes clear that Arcane isn't just about two street rats trying to survive in a cruel world. It's a multidimensional story that dances effortlessly between an intimate character portrait of Vi and Powder, a sprawling high-fantasy political drama, and a seedy cops-and-robbers crime thriller. And it all builds toward a climax that is as intense as it is horrifying.

I won't say much about the third episode at the risk of spoiling it, but what makes it work is largely thanks to how well Arcane fleshes out its characters. You'd think League champs like Vi and Powder would steal every scene (they definitely try), but I was surprised at how attached I got to Arcane's other cast of characters, specifically Vander. He's a character type you've likely seen before: a brooding father figure beginning to buckle under the weight of the responsibility he feels not only to his city, but Vi, Powder, and the other orphans he's adopted. But because Arcane takes such care to explore Vander's motivations and backstory, it's hard not to care about him. So even when I could sometimes guess what tragedies lay in wait, it didn't rob those scenes of their emotional gravity.

Even if Arcane's emotional core doesn't connect at the same level with you, I'd encourage anyone to watch it just for the animation alone. Riot's partnership with French animation studio Fortiche has delivered some amazing trailers, but Arcane is at a level that I've never seen outside of big-budget movies made by Dreamworks or Pixar. The hand-painted art is sumptuous and evocative and there's a masterful use of lighting to create striking bits of contrast—especially in the neon greens of the Undercity. Just as importantly, the 3D modelling of characters is really expressive, which helps sell moments of tragedy. Arcane just looks so damn cool. Every scene is lavish, each character design distinct. Story aside, Arcane is an astounding work of 3D animation.

It's also delightfully kinetic. In one early fight scene, Vi, Powder, and two friends are dragged into a vicious scrap with some rival street kids. It's a chaotic brawl filled with slow-mo closeups of fists breaking noses and faces contorting comically as knees and elbows slam into them. It's also a precursor to much more intense, high-stakes bouts.

Between these fights, quiet moments of Vi and Powder bonding, and the boiling tension in the wake of their ill-fated heist, there's just not a lot I don't like about Arcane. My biggest complaint is that I wish the relationship between Piltover and the Undercity was more explicitly detailed, as it wasn't always clear why the two cities had so much bad blood between them. It's a minor gripe, though, especially when there's still six more episodes left in this series and plenty more time to explore these characters and the conflict they're wrapped in.

Honestly, I can't wait. Arcane's first act manages to pull off what so many fantasy and sci-fi series fail to do. It walks a tightrope between introducing us to a complex new world while maintaining an intimate focus on the people who make that world worth caring about. League of Legends fans rejoice: Arcane's first three episodes are amazing.

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Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.