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‘Arcane’ Act 1 Review: In a ‘League’ of its Own

4.5 Stars

Netflix's "Arcane."
Netflix's "Arcane." By Courtesy of Netflix / Riot Games
By Clara V. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

Any TV adaptation of a video game, especially one as beloved as “League of Legends,” must find a way to engage audiences even without the defining feature of gameplay: interactivity. “Arcane,” a Netflix original series developed and produced by Riot Games, overcomes this challenge with spectacular animation and a plot whose fast-paced drama approaches that of the greatest “League” matches — like the 2021 Worlds finals, which took place just hours before the first three-episode act of “Arcane” premiered on Nov. 6.

While “League” fans know Vi (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), one of the game’s 157 playable “champions,” as a gauntlet-wielding Warden in the metropolis of Piltover, the first act of “Arcane” focuses on her difficult childhood in Piltover’s underground counterpart, Zaun. Piltover, a commercial and cultural center, sits on a cliff where the sun reflects off both countless glass windows and the ocean below. In contrast, residual fumes from a catastrophic chemical leak shroud Zaun in a constant state of half-light. Every shot combines painterly, almost rough, strokes of color with seamless movement to create a unique visual style that complements the recurring idea of duality: between not only the twin cities of Piltover and Zaun, but also Vi and her younger sister Powder (Mia Sinclair Jenness).

The siblings’ relationship lies at the narrative heart of “Arcane,” whose haunting opening scene intersperses a child’s plaintive song with violent artillery blasts. After a Zaunite stand against the oppressive Piltovan Wardens ends in fiery destruction, Vi finds her parents among the dead and narrows her eyes in disgust at their killers; the brief changes in her expression last more than long enough to convey the hatred for Piltover that leads her to a rebellious adolescence.

Contemplative moments like these give the series’ character development a level of nuance impossible to achieve in-game, where “you don’t get that close to the characters,” as “Arcane” co-creator and executive producer Christian Linke said in an interview with Screen Rant.

Through plotlines that unite characters from Piltover and Zaun, “Arcane” also exposes the societal injustice that spares no one in either city. Vi crosses paths with Piltovan inventor Jayce (Kevin Alejandro), another “League” champion, when she and three friends break into his luxurious penthouse. Upon the quartet’s return to Zaun, they struggle to protect each other from the Wardens scouring the city for someone to punish. Meanwhile, Piltover’s Council of wealthy merchants threatens Jayce with banishment for conducting illegal research, despite his theories’ undeniable potential to generate life-saving magic. These parallel stories show how Piltovan administrators’ obsession with maintaining the status quo stifles social and scientific progress, to the detriment of Piltovans and Zaunites alike.

Characters’ periodic references to the “Arcane” invoke the forbidden magic Jayce longs to replicate — and, through the fourth wall, the series’ title. Thankfully, with its consistently clear exposition and dialogue, “Arcane” is anything but. Longtime “League” players will surely delight in seeing familiar faces onscreen in situations other than fights to the death, and some newcomers to the franchise might even feel inspired to download the game after watching Act 1. At the very least, both groups should stick around for the next two acts, due for release on Nov. 13 and 20: The brilliant artistry on display in each episode places “Arcane” in a league of its own.

— Staff writer Clara V. Nguyen can be reached at

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