Critical Role is a hugely popular actual play phenomenon, drawing in millions of viewers and creating dozens of spin-off projects. The campaigns are run by Dungeon Master and voice actor Matthew Mercer, with a crew of fellow professionals who show up to improv a grand fantasy tale. Critical Role has grown into an absolute behemoth, large enough to raise $11 million through a Kickstarter campaign to distill nearly 400 hours of role-playing down into a season of television with no entry knowledge required. The end result is a solid pulp adventure and a rollicking good time ... once the show gets over its own insecurities.
The Legend of Vox Machina is an attempt to create an on-ramp to the deep lore of Mercer’s fictional setting, a world called Exandria. The first thing we see is a montage of the world, with legendary heroes and dire threats. Just when the big picture has been established, the show throws a curveball at the viewer by instantly and brutally slaughtering a squad of heroic adventurers. They die horribly, shouting cusses the entire way, and this sets the stage for the first two episodes of the show.
The viewer is introduced to our main cast through the reliable trope of a good old-fashioned bar brawl. The adventuring group Vox Machina is made up of half-elven twins Vax and Vex, goliath barbarian Grog, gnomish bard Scanlan and cleric Pike, anxious druid Keyleth, and the traumatized gunslinger Percy. They’re your typical Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party — hot messes with battle axes and magical powers — and their first big fight goes as badly as you’d expect.
It’s frankly a little much. Within the span of a dozen minutes, we get to see our main cast get drunk, puke everywhere, chop off a few limbs, and a gnome seduces an innkeeper’s daughter — bare breasts on display and all. The first two episodes stumble with this repeatedly; the characters aren’t your traditional fantasy cast, the show assures us. They say “fuck,” argue amongst themselves, and prefer gold to glory.
Trying this hard, and going this dark, isn’t always a bad thing — but in both tabletop gaming and adult animation, amateurs can veer too hard in that direction in an attempt to differentiate themselves. For a bit, I worried I was in for a D&D story where the party roll around as murder hobos, slaughtering and swearing their way across the realm, and the eventual joke would be the idea that anyone actually cared in this setting.
Sure enough, the opening episodes spread shock value on thick. It’s rough, especially because once they finally veer off that course, the show suddenly gets really good.
This is a deeply indulgent story, where every character is both likable and also has a secret source of angst. If a party member hints at their deep, dark past, you better believe they’re going to confront it and overcome it with the power of friendship. Even when the members of Vox Machina disagree, you get the sense that everyone generally likes each other; there are no dramatic CW-style fallouts that could be solved with a conversation.
While the season starts with a shorter arc about the time-honored tale of killing an evil dragon, episode three kicks off a long-running story about a homecoming and revenge, when Percy runs into a pack of vampires from his past. This is the Briarwoods arc from Critical Role, and it’s well paced over the six episodes screened for critics (of a total 12 for the season).
The voice cast, who are of course all very familiar with these characters after their original work developing them, do a lot of work here. Keyleth, the nervous druid, is continually checking in for validation with her friends — which only sometimes works. Grog is a comic relief character, but he rounds out the quiet cleric Pike nicely. There’s a scene where Vex and Percy joke about his “magnificent bitch face,” and it’s not high art, but it’s incredibly comfy. Whenever the crew get to decompress together, I get familiar, cozy D&D vibes.
It’s weirdly wholesome for a show that starts so strong with the F-bombs and tits, but I love it. Critical Role’s heart and good intentions overcame a lot of the initial problems with The Legend of Vox Machina, and by the time the season’s major arc kicked off I was fully invested.
The animation carries the plot quite well, albeit not perfectly. Fight scenes are fluid and functional; I was never really wowed, but I could always tell what was going on. The only time my sense of immersion was threatened was when 3D models were used to augment the animation. There’s a particular cart model that gave me a start every time it was on screen; an early dragon antagonist also looks out of place and weird. Luckily, the 2D animation, by and large, makes up for these flaws, including one terrifying sequence where the entire party is attacked by murderous, body-invading wraiths.
When the animation sings and the writing feels natural, The Legend of Vox Machina is perfect popcorn fare. As someone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, it’s like sinking into a warm bath. When a character dramatically explains their backstory or banters with a pal, I clench my fist with satisfaction. There’s even an extended sequence where the party splits in two, and one half is cursed with just absolutely terrible luck and a string of failed challenges. This is D&D pulp at its best, and luckily, you don’t need to delve into the rich canon of Critical Role and its associated projects. You no longer need to wade into 400 hours of deep lore or slow role-playing; the best has been distilled into a relatively snappy tour around the highlights.