Right off the bat, I want to say that I am a Critical Role fan, as evidenced by my reviews of Exandria Unlimited on this page. The phenomenon of Critical Role, a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around and playing Dungeons and Dragons, cannot be overstated. By far, the most well-known live-play Dungeons and Dragons game, Critical Role managed to gain the largest Kickstarter in the history of the app for their animated series, The Legend of Vox Machina, which found a home on Amazon Prime.
So, with all that preamble, how is this new animated series?
A good start that stays true to the original live-play campaign but is often times self-indulgent. Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the first three episodes.
Before I get into the actual review, I want to address something about this series and the Kickstarter campaign. The controversial decision that the backers of the Kickstarter who were promised first access to the episodes are now required to get an Amazon Prime membership to access the whole of the series is one that I believe was handed down to Critical Role Productions, LLC. by Amazon. Amazon is not one of the most well-respected companies in the world, largely due to their labor practices and business dealings. I can respect people’s distaste for signing up for Amazon Prime. As someone who’s content is on Amazon (and I am a part of their Associate’s program to help generate ad revenue for my site), there was going to be some kind of compromise when Amazon decided to pick up the series. This is not an excuse for Critical Role Productions’ decision on the matter, merely pointing out that they may not have been able to follow through on the Kickstarter promises due to legal issues from their new distributor.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dive in to the actual review. The first two episodes of the series, “The Terror of Tal’Dorei Part 1” and “Part 2” are an amalgamation of some of the pre-stream adventures in Campaign One (which picked up well after the party of adventurers known as Vox Machina had earned their place on the Tal’Dorei Council and their Keep). It becomes immediately apparent that this is not an animated show for kids, as a band of red-shirt adventurers are quickly killed in gruesome fashion. When we meet Vox Machina as a group, they are drowning themselves in ale at a rundown pub. The party members are easily the main reason to watch this show and are voiced by the actors who played them during the original Campaign.
Percival de Rolo (voiced by Talisin Jaffe) is the erudite, snobbish gunslinger; Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan (voiced by Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien, respectively) are sharp-tongued half-elven twins; Keyleth (voiced by Marisha Ray) is the naïve and gentle half-elven druid who is deeply unsure of herself; Grog Strongjaw (voiced by Travis Willingham) is the lovably dumb giant muscleman of the group; Pike Trickfoot (voiced by Ashley Johnson) is the hot-tempered but generally good-natured gnome cleric (and best friend of Grog); and Scanlan Shorthalt (voiced by Sam Riegel) is the lecherous gnome bard, who is first introduced serenading a naked woman with only a guitar for modesty.
Cursing and bad behavior abound in this group, who are less interesting in fighting the good fight than they are in making money. When they see a notice requesting adventurers for a dangerous mission (a well-worn cliché of Dungeons and Dragons to begin an adventure), they are tasked by Sovereign Uriel Tal’Dorei (voiced by Khary Payton) to investigate a beast that is terrorizing the countryside (the same beast that killed the redshirt adventurers in the opening minutes of the first episode).
The first two episodes follow this arc of Vox Machina attempting to overcome what we discover is a massive blue dragon while also coming to grips with the fact that they are a dysfunctional group. Only when they put aside their differences and work together are they able to overcome the dragon. Distilling the quirks and clichés of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign into an animated story is difficult in the best of circumstances. By its very design, Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative storytelling system, where decisions made moment by moment at the table can drastically alter how the game plays. Streamlining this in to a strict narrative structure is not an easy task but the first two episodes manage to capture the essence of Critical Role as well as showcase the fine animation talents of Titmouse.
The third episode of the series, “The Feast of Realms” kicks off the actual story arc of the first season, which for fans of the live-stream will recognize as The Briarwood Arc. Lady Delilah Briarwood (voiced by Grey Griffin) and Lord Sylas Briarwood (voiced by Matthew Mercer) are consummate villains, with Sylas being a vampire and Delilah being a powerful sorceress. For a fan of Critical Role, seeing these two characters brought to life is a real treat and the voicework for them is exceptionally well-done. It’s established quickly that Percival is tied to these two people in a deeply tragic way: the Briarwoods murdered the De Role family, leaving Percy as the only known survivor. Stuck between his need for vengeance and upholding the decorum of a state dinner held by Sovereign Uriel, Percy and the rest of Vox Machina seek to discover why the Briarwoods have come to Emon, only to find themselves in a life-and-death struggle against the powerful adversaries.
There are a significant number of easter eggs throughout all three episodes, as well as appearances by characters that are well-known to fans of the live-stream, such as Lady Kima of Vord (Stephanie Beatriz), Lady Allura Vysoren (Indira Varma), and even David Tennant getting in on the act as General Krieg (the dragon terrorizing Tal’Dorei). The main self-indulgence I see in the series is that since this is an adult-oriented show, the writing takes full advantage (sometimes to its detriment). Cursing is used rather liberally (which was true of the live-stream sessions as well) and there is no shortage of nudity in the first few minutes of the first episode. Crass humor is used a bit too much in the first two episodes, namely Keyleth being drunk and vomiting everywhere (including in the mouth of an attacker). My hope is that the rest of the series will avoid utilizing the freedom of the streaming platform to over-indulge in this sort of storytelling. Not that I don’t enjoy the ribald humor on display but sometimes, it does feel like a bit too much.
Despite the controversy surrounding the release and the Kickstarter campaign, I feel that The Legend of Vox Machina is a fine adaptation that still needs to work out of its sometimes-puerile indulgences. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Briarwood Arc is adapted (since it is one of the darkest story arcs of the original campaign).
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