Short Version: it feels exactly like playing a good session of Dungeons and Dragons.
To many of us in the nerd fandom, Critical Role is something of a mainstay. It is what’s known as a “live play” DnD podcast/series, wherein people watch “nerdy a** voiceactors” (their words) play Dungeons and Dragons. It started out as a home game, before transitioning into one of the first major series of its type.
A handful of years ago, these voice actors decided to Kickstart an animated series based off their DnD adventures. For many nerds, that’s essentially the dream. It means transitioning something that used to be this hobby that got you mercilessly teased (even my generation experienced that) into something that creates an actual animated show. I, and many others, backed the Kickstarter (I was relatively early in, at backer 5,813; it debuted while I was teaching), hoping that what started as the promise of a few episodes would become a series.
Backers got the opportunity to watch the first few episodes in an advanced screening, and I managed to do my via the VoD yesterday. Which puts me in a position to write this review of the series the day it comes out. And, well, it’s exactly what I said above.
The show isn’t perfect. It often relies on some juvenile humor, including various sex jokes (it’s supposed to be funny that Scanlan, the gnome bad, is naked at at few points) and crude and/or crass humor at times. Some of the animation feels a little stiff, and there’s at least one scene where I couldn’t help but essentially go “ah, that’s where they saved some money on their animation budget.” I’m also not sure how good of an introduction to the primary cast the show is: I can’t exactly expunge my knowledge of the original series (I watched a few episodes and have read all the Origins comic).
But this feels like playing a good session of DnD with your friends.
The story follows the titular Vox Machina, a semi-standard group as far as DnD adventuring parties go. They’re racially diverse, even if most of them appear to be what we might consider not so much (they’re all white). There’s the half-elf pair Vex’halia (Laura Bailey) and Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien), a ranger and rogue respectively who used to be fairly posh nobles but are now “roughing it” after having some issues at school (this is only loosely touched upon). There’s boisterous, obvious comedic relief Grog (Travis Willingham), the Goliath Barbarian. The aforementioned gnome bard, Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegal) acts almost so much like a stereotypical bard it hurts. Reserved and uptight Percival de Role (I am not typing his full name) (Taliesin Jaffre) is a gunslinger and exiled noble seeking revenge. Druidess Keyleth (Marisha Ray) seems out of her place and delightfully awkward (she was, for me, the biggest surprise, as I haven’t liked Keyleth in most other media). And rounding them out is Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson) a cleric who truly desires to do good.
Anyone who’s played DnD recognizes a lot of the tropes of these various characters, and the show portrays them as acting pretty well in line with those tropes. Grog seeks violence and ale; Scanlan wants coin and sex; Pike is a decent person who desires to help other people and is delightfully awkward (why yes, I have favorites). There’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about these characters. But the performers play these characters with the life and eagerness one would expect from characters they’ve designed and embodied for literal years. Every character feels lived in and loved, and that comes across in their spot on performances.
This group is hired by the Council of Tal’dorei to examine rumors of a monster rampaging around a settlement. The previous adventuring parties and mercenaries sent out to figure this out have all been ruthlessly destroyed (a bit they play for laughs that I didn’t give them). Vox Machina show up bedraggled and disheveled, having had a rough bar fight and tavern crawl the night before (Keyleth vomits more than one would expect). They still get the job, because everyone involved is desperate, and they begin investigating.
There’s a few twists and turns in that narrative, but it plays out in many ways exactly like you’re expecting. Again, The Legend of Vox Machina isn’t looking to impress some great moral lesson or convey this tone or anything from what I can see. They’re just portraying what we so often act out in our DnD fantasies: a group of fun loving f**k-ups doing their best to save people because at the end of the day, despite everything, it’s The Right Thing to Do™.
It’s hard to fully explain it, but this really does feel like sitting through a really good DnD session. The characters play to type, but they feel like they’re coming from people who know that type and love their characters. The cast’s chemistry is as good as expected, and most of the various celebrity guests they bring in feel natural (I’ll admit though, it felt a little more natural when Vox Machina is interviewing the Matt Mercer voiced NPCs; he’s their DM).
The adventure is rollicking and a lot of fun. It helps that Vox Machina are portrayed as perpetual underdogs, the kind who get through based on cleverness, luck, and their weird version of working together. The magic and fun of DnD comes to life through some pretty good animation from studio Titmouse (who are responsible for a lot of shows I wouldn’t recommend, as well as The Legend of Korra, a longtime favorite of mine). Yes, sometimes that animation is stiff, but when it counts everything looks stellar, particularly the fight scenes.
Those feel chaotic and engaging, very much like an actual DnD group would be. They’ve done a great job demonstrating how various characters would fulfill their roles in an actual DnD group, likely because that’s where this is all coming from. It helps that they selected a monster that fits almost too well for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (hint: it’s not a Dungeon).
Honestly, if you like DnD at any level, this show should hit for you. But what if you don’t? It’s still a fun fantasy adventure that hits a lot of good notes. The characters feel real, if tropey, and the action is exactly the sort of fun you’d expect. I didn’t care for the crass humor, but there were a few times when the jokes genuinely landed (one of my favorites is a sight gag where the guards are hugging the group’s animal familiar, Trinket the bear). The shows starts strong and sets a good tone.
If you’re a fan of the source, you’re likely already watching. If you’re a fan of DnD, you should at least check it out. Ditto those who are into fantasy animation. Honestly, I’d recommend this to just about anyone who likes the idea of seeing an organic fantasy adventure play out on the screen. It’s not out to make any grand point or have some cool meaning, but it’s an excellently done, thrilling adventure, and sometimes those are exactly what we you need.
(Again, this is just for the first two episodes; I’ll post a season overview when the whole thing drops)
9 it was every bit as good as I hoped for