Netflix’s new anime series DOTA: Dragon’s Blood packs a bunch of loose pieces together to form a series that’s a good way to kill time, but is hard to get into. In that way, it’s true to its video game inspiration.
Defense of the Ancients, the original WarCraft III mod that created the MOBA genre, is built out of repurposed parts that were molded into something greater over the years. It’s a game where you’re supposed to believe a trio of goblin pyrotechnics can blow up the literal embodiment of light, and for some reason, Kimahri Ronso from Final Fantasy X is there. It’s a messy, cobbled-together beast, but it’s a captivating concoction, and I’ve played close to 4,000 hours of its remake/sequel, DOTA 2. The story isn’t the main draw of the game, but given that each of the game’s 120 playable heroes, demons, and godlike entities has a personal backstory, it’s easy to wonder what it would look like if they were all brought together in a narrative.
The Dragon’s Blood anime series, developed by Thor and X-Men: First Class co-writer Ashley Edward Miller, doesn’t hide from DOTA’s messiness, but it smartly starts off simple. The story’s premise is drawn from the game: two aspects of the same omnipotent mind use all kinds of powerful warriors to wage war against each other over the philosophical question of whether it’s better to think, or act. After briefly introducing that idea, Dragon’s Blood tells the story of Davion (Yuri Lowenthal), a young member of an order of dragon knights dedicated to hunting down the beasts. He isn’t the most exciting choice among DOTA’s 120 characters, but Davion’s story is one of the more relatable subplots in the fiction, so it makes sense to start with him.
Even in its first episode, though, Dragon’s Blood starts to pull on several of the DOTA games’ lingering threads, and at first, it pays off. The series starts with a kinetic dragon fight where Davion gets to show off his hunting skills in front of a crowd, egged on by his squire Bram (Josh Keaton). The action scenes are well-directed, even if the animation by Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra) isn’t quite fluid enough to keep up with some tricks the direction wants to pull off. While there are some great tracking shots in an airbound dragon fight, the camera shakes are a little too frequent, and the mix of 3D and 2D effects are often distracting.
As the high-level concepts from the opening start catching up with Davion’s story, however, the narrative gets complicated. After a meet-cute at a tavern with the moon kingdom princess Mirana (Lara Pulver) and her mute assistant Marci, Davion is thrust into the pair’s quest to recover a set of magical lotuses stolen from the kingdom of Selemene (Alix Wilton Regan), the usurper goddess of the moon. That’s all minutes before Davion himself is bound to Eldwyrm dragon Slyrack (Candyman’s Tony Todd) and confronts the powerful demon Terrorblade (JB Blanc).
The story only gets more intricate from there, and even for a longtime DOTA fan, there are one too many plotlines to keep up with. The main thrusts of the first season are the intertwining tales of Davion’s search to kick the dragon out of his body and Mirana’s quest to recover the lotuses, which are tied to a longstanding conflict between Selemene and the followers of the goddess she overthrew.
Dragon’s Blood is at its most comfortable when it explores Davion and Mirana’s relationship. Both have faith in the orders they’ve devoted themselves to, and for both of them, that faith wavers in intriguing ways. The writers put some depth into the ways different characters react as their beliefs are tested. Lowenthal gives a decent enough performance as Davion, but Pulver’s Mirana, while going for a very different voice performance than her in-game counterpart, deftly moves between quipping with Davion and struggling with the weight of recovering the stolen lotuses. Marci also acts as a fun catch-all for the show, scoring points with a cool fight scene, or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it facial reaction. Davion’s and Mirana’s incidental conversations and flirtation are a more engaging part of the season than their backstories.
But when the story veers away from that trio, it loses focus in favor of packing in layer after layer of plot. Davion, Mirana, and Marci eventually have to seek out the Invoker (Troy Baker), a powerful sorcerer who’s kept himself alive through magic long enough to know nearly every kind of magic. Of all the major characters from the game, Baker’s take on Invoker seems furthest from the original, and he’s given the least interesting arc. (His in-game dialogue paints him as a more self-obsessed scenery-chewer rather than the contemplative mumbler he’s played as here.) Another short side story involves Mirana encountering a glowing red stone and the zombies it’s driven insane, a thread that only lasts around one episode before it’s discarded. DOTA players will know this is likely meant to set up a plotline for something down the road, but newbies are going to have a hard time knowing what’s wheat and what’s chaff.
More importantly, while these story threads offer clever ways to show off game elements like Town Portal scrolls and the Gems of True Sight, while giving the DOTA characters a more fleshed-out world, they don’t do enough to set this fantasy world apart from any other. Fans of the game franchise may get a thrill of seeing familiar characters face off (especially in the last episode), but in general, fantasy fans have probably already seen most of what this show has to offer. Elves used as a metaphor for racism, men waking up next to prostitutes whose names they don’t remember, women facing the risk of being sold off into slavery — even in in the increasingly crowded “streaming series based on fantasy video games” field, Castlevania and The Witcher make better cases for why their worlds are more than just excuses for beating up monsters.
Dragon’s Blood will have to lean into its strong cast and dialogue if Miller and company want it to be more than an animated backstory for DOTA fans to take into their next match. In spite of the plodding storyline, dense with lore, there’s just enough depth to its writing to make Dragon’s Blood feel like more than a cash grab. But if Miller hopes to bring new fans into the fold and keep longtime fans engaged, the next season will to have to focus more on the characters that define the DOTA world, instead of getting so lost in its myriad details.
The eight-episode opening season of DOTA: Dragon’s Blood is now streaming on Netflix.