There was a time when Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was deemed uncool and nerdy. But, thanks to hit shows like Stranger Things, and the rise of D&D-centric YouTube and Twitch channels, the fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG) has never been more popular.
Of those successful D&D live-play series, Critical Role has had the greatest impact on the RPG’s emergence as a modern pop culture phenomenon. The award-winning web series’ Twitch live streams regularly draw in over a million viewers per episode. Meanwhile, the group’s 400 million-plus YouTube views are a testament to D&D’s maturation from geeky pastime to globally accepted hobby.
It was somewhat inevitable, then, that Critical Role’s first and most successful campaign – Vox Machina – would be adapted in some way. The Legend of Vox Machina, which arrives on Prime Video on January 28, attempts to introduce D&D (and Critical Role) to new audiences while simultaneously delivering a compelling, animated TV show retelling of events to established fans.
And it succeeds on both accounts. The Legend of Vox Machina finds a wonderfully delicate balance between the first campaign’s greatest hits and original content that’ll please diehards and newcomers alike. Some elements may make long-time fans bristle, but Prime Video’s adaptation does an otherwise stellar job of capturing the essence of Critical Role’s beloved series.
No time to die
Set in the fictional Exandrian kingdom of Tal’Dorei, The Legend of Vox Machina tells the story of a band of mercenary misfits known as Vox Machina. Hired by Tal’Dorei’s king to eradicate an unnamed evil entity that’s plagued the realm for months, the seven-strong group ends up becoming embroiled in a battle against a larger, more menacing threat that may spell danger for the continent as a whole.
If that brief plot summary has fans fearing that The Legend of Vox Machina overlooks the comedy that the original campaign is known for, they need not worry. Amazon’s adaptation retains much of the web series’ humor, with the sibling-like squabbling between the group’s eclectic mix of characters, deadpan hilarity and slapstick moments being carried over to great effect.
Amazon’s desire to preserve the series’ humor is so strong, in fact, that it even gets a little meta at times. The premiere’s opening sequence has Tal’Dorei’s king, advisers and generals standing around a D&D-style war table, complete with figurines, as they debate how they should tackle their nation’s ongoing threat. If nothing else, it’s a self-deprecatingly welcome nod to D&D’s iconic tabletop format.
Amusing moments aren’t the only elements carried over from Critical Role’s series, with the founders and core cast of the web series returning for its animated adaptation. Ashley Johnson (Pike), Travis Willingham (Grog), Laura Bailey (Vex), Liam O’Brien (Vax), Taliesen Jaffe (Percy), Marisha Ray (Keyleth), and Sam Reigel (Scanlan) delight once more in their roles, while Critical Role’s Dungeon Master (DM) Matthew Mercer is menacing and chilling as the villainous Sylas Briarwood.
Much like the original web series, there’s a veritable who’s who of household names voicing the show’s supporting cast, too. We won’t spoil those cameos but, if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and Lord of the Rings, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by who’s involved.
Casting a story-based spell
Speaking of Sylas Briarwood, the show’s plot adapts the Briarwood arc of Critical Role’s Vox Machina campaign to the letter.
Well, almost. As with any adaptation, some creative liberties have been taken with the Vox Machina web series.
For one, an entirely new narrative, which precedes the Briarwood arc, has been created for Amazon’s adaptation. This episodic two-parter not only provides brand new material for established fans to enjoy, but also helps to introduce non-Critical Role fans to the series’ vast fantasy world, intriguing characters, and D&D-style components.
On the whole, it’s a pleasing starter to the main course, aka the Briarwood arc, but this plot divergence may not be to every fan’s liking. Given that there are two story arcs – comprising 23 episodes in total – in the original campaign, some established Critical Role fans may question why one of these prior arcs wasn’t utilized instead.
It’s a valid argument. The Legend of Vox Machina’s first two episodes don’t serve as the group’s origin story, so it’s a curious move to craft a new jumping-in point. Employing an abbreviated version of the Kraghammer or Vasselheim arcs would have sufficed.
For a D&D-based show, the inclusion of some on-the-nose imagery in the first few episodes is a tad jolting, too. Some viewers may appreciate such additions in such a TV serial, but they can feel forced, particularly in earlier episodes.
Those issues aside, The Legend of Vox Machina does an excellent job of covering the best bits of the series, with large swathes of the Briarwood arc precisely copied from the source. Fans will revel in seeing the funniest, most heartfelt, and biggest action scenarios play out in animated form. Amazon’s adaptation certainly captures the essence of the web series, and executes these moments in a pleasingly natural and stylized manner.
The Legend the Vox Machina benefits enormously from an abridged version of events in the original campaign, too. Typically, a Critical Role live stream can last three to four hours – a duration that’s a non-starter for an animated series consisting of 23- to 27-minute long episodes.
As an animated spectacle, though, Amazon’s adaptation foregoes the need for real-life player actions, dice rolls and other D&D-specific aspects. Removing these overly long gameplay elements makes The Legend of Vox Machina’s narrative more concise and, for franchise newcomers, its plot far easier to follow. D&D experts can still subtly spot where corresponding dice rolls and player decisions are made, however, which is a fun little inclusion on animation studio Titmouse Production’s part.
Animated saving throws
What of the show’s aesthetic then? For a company whose previous credits include Star Trek: Lower Decks and Marvel Studios’ Loki, Titmouse has done a good job with The Legend of Vox Machina’s animated and static visuals.
Sure, they’re not ground-breaking in the vein of Arcane, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or The Mitchells Vs the Machines. But the show’s animation is seamlessly fluid, while its 2D aesthetic has a painterly, almost anime-like style to it. Characters occasionally emote and physically move as they would in any anime production. The use of other classic anime visuals, such as facial expression illustrations to display a character’s mood, close-ups on characters’ faces, and over-the-top action sequences, appear throughout, too.
That anime influence also extends to the TV show’s visceral violence. An R-rated project, The Legend of Vox Machina is not family-friendly; its mature content sitting alongside other Prime Video originals in Invincible and The Boys. Visually, though, its level of gore and nightmarish, twisted creatures are a sight to behold and feel reminiscent of acclaimed – albeit visually grotesque – anime productions like Attack on Titan.
The Legend of Vox Machina is a largely faithful adaptation of Critical Role’s prized D&D campaign that’ll equally charm long-time fans and newcomers. It’s both slow and quick to get going – depending on your familiarity with its source material – but you’ll soon be hooked by its relatable characters, fascinating world and anime-style visuals.
For those overwhelmed by Critical Role’s 300-plus episodes, it’s a great entry point to the group’s live-play series – Amazon’s adaptation presenting the Vox Machina campaign’s most memorable moments wrapped up in a neat R-rated bow. For diehard Critical Role fans, there’s enough new content and call-backs to the original campaign to satisfy your needs, too. And that’s even before the already greenlit second season goes into development.
There are plot grievances to be had and, with some episodes clocking in at just 23 minutes, some entries are over just as they start to truly get going. Overall, though, The Legend of Vox Machina may surprise you with how well Critical Role’s spontaneous D&D campaign translates to a different format. And that, regardless of its original form, is the sign of a superb entertainment property.
The Legend of Vox Machina’s first three episodes will launch exclusively on Prime Video on Friday, January 28. Subsequent three-episode bundles will arrive weekly post-premiere.