There are many surprises in the first few episodes of Dota: Dragon's Blood, a new eight-episode anime series created by Netflix and Valve. For example: Zombies. It's not a show about zombies, but they show up suddenly for about five minutes and then disappear without explanation. There's also bloody, brutal murder, the occasional casual elf orgy (or foursome—does that qualify as an orgy?), and characters saying "fuck" surprisingly often. None of these are things I immediately associate with the videogame Dota.
I'm not a Dota player, and I'm sure fans will binge this new Valve-sanctioned series no matter what. I do know a few things about Dota, though. I know that Dota has flying donkeys that carry items for you. There are lanes, and there's a hero named Pudge. Sadly, there is no hero named Pudge in the show.
Dragon's Blood tries to use the brief backstories of half a dozen Dota heroes as the foundation for a serious drama. There are two elf factions at war, a few family tragedies, and plenty of angst from protagonists Davion (the Dragon Knight) and Mirana (disgraced princess of the moon) over their identities and personal demons. Maybe at some point someone pitched a goofy Hunger Games-style action anime about a bunch of outrageous characters zapping each other with colorful magic beams in the forest. That might've been more fun—or at least funnier—than Dragon's Blood, which tries hard to be grown-up but doesn't use its bloody violence or F-bombs as effectively as Netflix's other game-to-anime hit, Castlevania.
Castlevania delights in its gore, and early on it does feel like it's trying too hard to convince you this is a cartoon for adults. But Castlevania also has flair. The writing artfully pivots between silly banter and literary monologues that have me hanging on every word. And then sometimes everyone shuts up and Trevor Belmont serves a vampire the explosive end of his whip for lunch.
I kept looking for some of that spark in Dota: Dragon's Blood, but there was never a moment where the animation had the wow factor of a Trevor whip crack. The Dragon's Blood writers had like 100 "ultimate abilities" right in front of them in the source material, but most of the action is disappointingly tame, even when it's well-animated. A couple scenes do stand above the rest—in one, a veteran dragon knight shows up wearing scale armor imbued with the powers of the many dragons he's slain. The chestpiece of a chaos dragon makes him impossible to strike, and his air dragon boots (aren't all dragons air dragons?) let him fly through the air like a superhero.
Finally, four episodes in, we get to see some Real Anime Shit. Dragon's Blood needs more of that.
The characters get plenty of downtime to talk to one another, but they don't have much to say you haven't heard before. Davion starts as the brash hero who doesn't remember the names of the women he sleeps with, but then he catches feelings for Princess Mirana, who at one point tells him to lower his facade so they can have a serious emotional conversation. If you're blunt enough, the audience will surely catch on that some character development is about to happen.
Despite the title, this is more Mirana's show than Davion's, and she has the makings of a good character. The other standout action scene puts Mirana up against a raging dragon solo, and it's good because she makes Legolas look like a chump with a bow and because there are real emotional stakes built up over the previous episodes. But by the end of the season, she still feels like a character with potential rather than a truly well-realized one. Mirana is on a quest to retrieve a set of lotus blossoms stolen from Selemene, the goddess of the moon, and acts like an outcast. But at one point Selemene says Mirana wasn't cast out—she "made a choice"—and it remains hazy why Mirana alone takes responsibility for the theft, and what the state of their relationship is.
Despite a lot of screen time, it's also unclear why the lotus blossoms matter all that much, in the end. At least once an episode I wondered if the plot was just a little too opaque, or if more Dota lore knowledge could have helped me understand what was going on. What was up with those zombies and the red crystal that seemed to be controlling them? When a sage says to Selemene "a thousand years and these people still don't know who you really are," is he being literal about some established lore, or is he just talking shit?
A bit of wiki sleuthing didn't help much. But even if knowing Dota lore could have helped, better dialogue would've added context to Dragon's Blood's more confusing scenes, which again made me compare it to Netflix's Castlevania. It never once sent me searching for lore because every event is grounded in clear character motivations.
Dragon's Blood over-relies on convenient happenstance to bring characters together or move the story along. I mean, at one point Davion literally vomits up a plot device, a moment that made me hoot and also holler at my TV in disbelief.
Dragon's Blood is conventional, and probably among the safest ways to adapt a game like Dota into a television series. It ends with much more story to tell, and maybe with its cast of characters now established, a second season could shade in the nuances they didn't get in these eight episodes.
The animators at Studio Mir are talented—my favorite character, Marcie, doesn't speak, yet feels just as expressive as most of the cast, and the action really does look fantastic in its best moments. Outside of those moments… well, if you've watched your fill of generic fantasy taverns and dark elves fighting wood elves, you can probably play a match or two of Dota while waiting for the next high point.