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a gorup of heroes, including one human, three half-elves in the frotn, and a small gnome and a giant goliath in the back, stand in front of a brilliant sunset, looking out into the distance Image: Prime Video

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The Legend of Vox Machina is more D&D than ever, and it works

A Main Character Moment for everyone

I learned very quickly when playing one of my first Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that my character wasn’t always going to be the main character. That was fine by me, since as a timid newbie, I was more than happy to play a supporting role in other people’s stories. But I also very quickly learned that in order for the party to connect, for the story to be as engaging as possible, a good DM will find a way to give everyone their own Main Character Moment — while also furthering along the overarching storyline.

This isn’t easy to do in real life, when you’re trying to wrangle a group of people to play when they have different schedules and live across different time zones. But it’s also not easy in television, when you have to streamline play sessions that are hours long into half-hour episodes. But the second season of The Legend of Vox Machina, the animated show based on actual play web series Critical Role, manages to juggle a cast of seven characters and their individual journeys and dynamics while building up to an epic showdown. It’s a wonderful synthesis of what makes both animated fantasy shows and Dungeons & Dragons so appealing.

[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for season 2 of The Legend of Vox Machina.]

a pale haired aloof human; a redheaded half-elf; a tiny gnome man; a tall, strong goliath with a small gnome woman perched on his shoulders; a grinning half-elf woman; a smirking half-elf man; and a smiling dark-haired human stand in a large crowd Image: Prime Video

The second season of The Legend of Vox Machina picks up right where the first left off — specifically, right when a group of powerful dragons descends upon the capital city of Emon. Our scrappy group of mercenaries — which, as a recap, includes confident half-elf ranger Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey) and her twin brother, sarcastic rogue Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien); plucky half-elf druid Keyelth (Marisha Ray); horny gnome bard Scanlan (Sam Riegel), dim yet big-hearted goliath barbarian Grog (Travis Willingham); brooding human gunslinger Percy (Taliesin Jaffe); and compassionate gnome cleric Pike (Ashley Johnson) — manages to escape the attack.

In order to stop the dragons from taking over the world, Vox Machina needs to collect some ancient artifacts, which just might be strong enough to defeat the new scaly overlords. To do that, they embark on a quest across the land of Tal’Dorei to ancient temples, fortified cities, hidden realms, and beyond.

The very setup of this season — where the characters go from location to location looking for different objects — already feels more in line with the Dungeons & Dragons roots than the first season, which focused more specifically on one location. While there were a lot of D&D-isms in the first season, it felt more like a standard fantasy animated show, which made it more accessible to new viewers. This time around, it’s easier to see the D&D strings pulling at the plotlines, especially with the way each episode shifts to new locations and builds up to different encounters.

a half-elf druid with long red hair holds her arm up, about to unleash a spell; next to her, a brunette half-elf ranger holds up her bow; they appear to be in a strange pinkish forest Image: Prime Video
A dragon in the foreground screeching, with two other dragons in the background conquering a cityscape in a still from The Legend of Vox Machina season 2 Image: Prime Video

I need to emphasize that this is not a bad thing. The way that The Legend of Vox Machina manages to synthesize all these separate character arcs, fetch quests, and moving parts is incredibly impressive. The heart of the show always comes back to the characters, who these voice actors have been playing for a very long time. They are all fleshed out, and even the most outwardly obnoxious characters have fully realized hidden depths. And this season almost all of them get a big Main Character Moment woven into the greater plot. It’s a lot of shifting story elements, sliding around so that one character can rise up for a given episode or two. Instead of the streamlined focus of the first season, it becomes more of a mosaic. And like a mosaic, it works best when all the pieces are locked into place — and in the case of this metaphor, that means when the characters interact. Their dynamics are a joy to watch, with every heart-to-heart conversation, bitter disagreement, and raunchy joke.

And yes, there are a lot of raunchy jokes. But instead of using jokes to pander and elicit an obligatory chuckle in the midst of dealing with more serious topics, The Legend of Vox Machina does the opposite. The show established a crude and lewd tone from the very first episode in the very first season, introducing the characters as a bunch of hot messes — and then slowly peeled back those layers and revealed their insecurities, bonds, and true motives. Admittedly the butt-stuff gags might be off-putting if you want an actually serious fantasy adventure, but then again, the show never pretends to be too highbrow for the well-delivered ass-play joke now and then. When Scanlan conjures up a luminous pair of pink buttocks to cushion the party’s fall, it’s definitely worth the snort. It also looks shockingly good.

a smirking gnome man with his arms akimbo Image: Prime Video

Fantasy just looks better in animation. Fantastical powers and fight scenes look more awesome, spectacular backgrounds look more wondrous, and character designs look cooler. The Fey Realm, where Vax, Vex, Percy, and Keyleth find themselves stranded for a few episodes, is particularly gorgeous. It’s a pity that live action is still the default for American adult-focused genre shows, because Keyleth’s elemental magic, Pike’s glowing healing powers, and Scanlan’s bright pink and purple bardic conjurations are really a testament to why we should see more of these shows in animation.

The second season of The Legend of Vox Machina has a lot that could be considered negatives. There is a hell of a lot of lore based on years and years of gameplay sessions that are hours long, which is definitely intimidating to newbies. The sheer amount of crude and lewd jokes might be a miss for some. And the already expansive character roster only continues to get bigger and bigger. All of this might not fully gel for everyone. But for those it does click for, there is so much heart and fun in the grandiose adventure that it becomes more than just an epic fantasy show and turns into something really special.

The Legend of Vox Machina season 2 premieres on Prime Video on Jan. 20. Three episodes drop every week.

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