Darkness, Humor, and Heart: A Review of "The Legend of Vox Machina" Season One
The Legend of Vox Machina sprouted from the minds of the cast of Critical Role, a show that follows voice actors playing an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons led by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer.
I have been a longtime fan of the voice actors from Critical Role because they've been behind the screen of my beloved anime--Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fate series, Attack on Titan, and Hellsing, to name a few--and I've always wanted to support their work, but I've always found D&D to be intimidating, and from what I've heard, Critical Role episodes are quite a time commitment.
Enter The Legend of Vox Machina, which animates the story the cast created, using all of the same voice actors for their characters from their first campaign.
I am so, so glad this exists! Now I can support my beloved VAs in a new way, and I won't feel like an outsider to the Critical Role world. I'd been anxiously awaiting this series for quite some time, getting pumped up for it by following all the actors on Twitter, and now the series has just wrapped. Let's discuss!
They're rowdy, they're ragtag, they're misfits turned mercenaries for hire. Vox Machina is more interested in easy money and cheap ale than actually protecting the realm. But when the kingdom is threatened by evil, this boisterous crew realizes that they are the only ones capable of restoring justice. What began as a simple payday is now the origin story behind Exandria’s newest heroes.
Story: Drunkenness! Debauchery! Romance! Horror! Vengeance! If you're looking for a story that offers all of this, then The Legend of Vox Machina has you covered. Right off the bat we are introduced to this group of mercenaries getting drunk and into fights at the local pub, so we get a quick idea of what the world expects (and doesn't) from this misfit team.
Soon they're tasked as a last resort investigating mysterious murders in the countryside, thanks to a terrorizing dragon, and in those scenes we get a sense that there's more to the Vox Machina team than alcohol and sexy times--they have hearts (especially when they recover the bodies of those decimated by the dragon, and a child dies in Vax's arms). They're called to a higher purpose now. Sure, they're still in it for the gold, but they have a conscience, too!
Thus after proving themselves, they get a castle as a reward (their new home base) and then the next adventure immediately picks up, one of vengeance against a demonic duo (the Briarwoods) who slaughtered an entire family and took over a kingdom (aka Percy's story). Being told with that concurrently is Pike's arc, where she has lost her ability to communicate with Everlight, a holy force/entity that she taps into to heal others. She goes on a quest of self-discovery and facing her truths in order to reconnect to this primal force.
In the midst of all of this we get friendship (Grog and Pike are super cute!), the bloomings of romance (Vax and Keyleth, Scanlan having a thing for Pike, and I know there's got to be something between Vex and Percy), raunchy humor (aka ALL THE SCANLAN), and good old-fashioned ghosts, vampires, and zombies. Seriously. There's some creepy happenings in the show.
The biggest creepiness comes to us courtesy of the Briarwoods, a couple united in love and blood, intent on bringing back the mysterious Whispered One from whatever dark dimension it currently resides. It's with the Briarwoods we get our big dose of the supernatural, coupled with Percy's demonic possession with the spirit of his gun, and the spirit of vengeance. It makes for a compelling story overall, with plenty of darkness to balance out the story's lighter scenes. It's definitely worth a watch!
Characters: Ok, there are a LOT of characters in this series, so I'm just going to talk about the main ones--our intrepid heroes, and then the major villain of season one. In no particular order...
VAX and VEX
My favorite character in the show is Vax (short for Vax'ildan), played by Liam O'Brien. He's kind of a rogue character who shows off a multitude of personalities--flirty, brave, serious, and funny, but in my book, still heroic. He's an interesting character to watch and I love his interactions with Keyleth and the shopkeeper Gilmore...I like it when he gets all flirty or shy or romantic.
His sister Vex (short for Vex'ahlia), played by Laura Bailey, is definitely the more no-nonsense of the two, not having room for any bullshit, and seriously has a watchful eye on her brother when he shows his interest in Keyleth. She's an enjoyable character as well and the two make a great duo. I really enjoy their relationship with each other and how strong it is. These two will not be separated.
PIKE and GROG
These two make one of the cutest, sweetest friendships on the show (like when Grog tells Pike farewell before her quest to recover her connection to the Everlight, and how happy he is when she returns in her astral projection form to Whitestone).
But let's talk about them separately, too!
Pike, played by Ashley Johnson, is an interesting character because she can also roll with the rowdiness of Vox Machina--drinking and cursing and the like--but can also have more serious facets to her personality, as we see with her solo journey to reconnect to the Everlight. I like her contributions to the group but also the fact that she's got a strong solo arc, too. It makes her more endearing to me.
When it comes to characters, I'm not so into oafish types who are kind of stupid, so I didn't expect to like Grog (played by Travis Willingham) at all. He's a lot of scream-and-fuck-stuff-up, so I didn't think there was much to him. I also didn't expect to find him as funny as I did. I don't know why it had me laughing so hard, but when Grog asks Scanlan to get him a sandwich, the way he says "please" had me giggling. And then, of course, there's Grog's friendship with Pike to lend more depth to his characterization, too. I didn't expect to like Grog, but I do! What a nice surprise!
Keyleth (played by Marisha Ray) is my other favorite character, besides Vax. I just identify with her so much. If I was playing D&D (and I'm really intimidated, to be honest, so I haven't tried it) I would be shouting stuff like, "DID I JUST MAKE IT WORSE?" like she did when they were fighting the dragon. I just love that she can be so powerful, but she still doubts herself and what she can do. It makes her a more sympathetic character. Learning that she has a great responsibility to her people, the Air Ashari, but doesn't feel quite up to the task...I'm all for it. Seeing her become more self-assured and grow into herself has been fun to watch.
Percy (played by Taliesin Jaffe) is a source of darkness in the group. He's got a brutal past, one of two survivors of the massacre of his family (and for the longest time, he thought he was the only one). His plot is one of vengeance, against the Briarwoods and several other key players in the overthrowing of Whitestone, his home. He has such cool, scary magic, where chalky black smoke appears, he puts on his mask, and says, "Your soul is forfeit!" before firing off the special gun he built himself.
He kind of reminds me of Arya Stark from Game of Thrones in that he's got a name list--his tally of offenders he plans to wipe out in his quest for vengeance. What's cool about Percy though is that each name appears on his gun, a bullet saved for them, as you can see in the above picture. Every person who betrayed Percy does not have a chance, and woe to anyone who gets in Percy's way.
Because of the depth of character and his story arc, Percy is also one of the most fascinating members of Vox Machina. His story is basically resolved by the end of the season, and it's a fascinating arc that's been highly enjoyable to watch. And I just know he and Vex are going to hook up (actually, I don't know this...I'm not reading spoilers from the campaign--it's just that the series is clearly setting this up).
Scanlan (played by Sam Riegel) is actually my least favorite character of Vox Machina! GASP! I know he's the comedic relief and an important role with the narrative, but I just find his horny sex-god schtick tiring after a while. Don't get me wrong--he is funny. I just like him best when he's helping the group in other ways, showing his affection for Pike, and when he's a bit more serious. I know there's more to him than a goofy song about anal beads, and whenever they show that other side of him, I like him. I also like the way he interacts with other members of Vox Machina, like when he and Vax tease each other.
There's just more to Scanlan than meets the eye--notice that he's reading the ancient language in the Briarwoods' magic book--and he did a great job setting up the diversion during one of the raids on Whitestone, So I want to see more of that kind of Scanlan, to be honest. I have a feeling things will get a little more serious for him down the road, especially with Pike. I'm looking forward to seeing that.
SYLAS AND DELILAH BRIARWOOD
Lo and behold, the evil sexy couple that overthrew Whitestone and had all of the de Rolos (Percy's family) killed. Sylas (played by Matthew Mercer) is a vampire and Delilah (played by Grey DeLisle-Griffin) is a sorceress, and while there are other villians in the show (like the dragon!), these two are the Big Bad™ of the season. Of the villains, Delilah is the more active of the two, summoning wraiths and the undead and gross wolf monsters after our heroes. Sylas sort of broods silkily and encourages his wife in her dark endeavors. We find out in a series of flashbacks the level of devotion Delilah has to her husband, bringing him back from death (from a plague or illness) in the form of a vampire, Their love seems truly boundless...the question is, why did they do what they do? Why kill the de Rolos and take over Whitestone?
It's all about the great Whispered One, the being who Delilah first called on to save Sylas when he was dying...it was the Whispered One's magic that turned Sylas into a vampire. Delilah swears fealty to this being and she and Sylas took over Whitestone to bring about a great ziggurat underground Whitestone to be used in a ritual to bring the Whispered One physically into their realm.
The promise to the Briarwoods? That they can stay together forever. (I don't know why Delilah just didn't become a vampire herself, since vampires are immortal and all, but...oh well).
The Briarwoods' relationship has been very fun to watch, and they're definitely a dark duo that enjoys causing pain and suffering where they see fit to.
As an aside, one of my favorite scenes is when Sylas Briarwood bites Vax. That was pretty hot. And the internet came up with the best fanart ever for this moment. I love fandoms!
Animation: The series is animated by Korean studio Production Reve who have done work on several series through Netflix (sometimes pairing with Studio Mir). I thought the animation style was reminiscent of what I'd seen on Invincible (another Amazon Prime Studios production), but I couldn't find any direct links confirming that.
Anyway, the characters are well-designed and visually interesting, and the background characters (which fans call NPCs, just like in gaming) are fun to watch, because it's a game of "when does Matthew Mercer pop up in the show?"
In terms of scenes that require a bit more complicated animation, The Legend of Vox Machina delivers. Just look at the animation for this scene when our heroes are being attacked by the dragon Brimscythe (played by David Tennant!!).
I have only positive things to say about the style of animation in the show. It's very colorful and engaging.
Also, from what I understand, there are Easter eggs all over the series for fans who watched the campaign come to life. I for one appreciate the treats where there's foreshadowing. Like this:
Voice Acting: It shouldn't surprise you, but I'm going to gush about the cast. Critical Role consists of voice actors who love playing Dungeons and Dragons, so...of course the voice actors are going to do a brilliant job with the voice acting.
As I said in my introduction, I already love these actors from what they've contributed to anime and video games. In fact, watching The Legend of Vox Machina was a little bit of a culture shock to me, because it was the first time I've heard them go into adult territory. But it's been great!
I in particular love it when men have silky voices, so Liam O'Brien (Vax) and Matthew Mercer (Sylas Briarwood) are my favorites in terms of male actors, but honestly, all of them are incredible! British accents and aristocratic voices sound really good, and I didn't know these actors had it in them. I also wasn't aware Sam Riegel could sing (and those high notes!), so that's been fun.
Low Points of the Season: I really can't think of a low point, so I'll just say that if there's anything I'm disappointed about, is that there was not enough Vax and Gilmore.
Ohh, and maybe I'm a little bummed that Keyleth turned Vax down after he confessed his love to her.
High Points of the Season: The last four episodes of the season were a treat to watch. Vax's sudden confession, Cassandra's betrayal (due to Sylas's control on her, but still), Vax and Vex battling each other, Grog risking himself by diving naked into a pool of freaking acid, Pike showing off some badass fighting, and Scanlan showing some brilliance by tossing Percy's demonic gun into the acid at the end...lots of stuff to like.
But most of all, I really loved that the series spent all of this time showing the cost of vengeance and what it can do to someone's mind and soul...and just when we think the that has been resolved, VENGEANCE COMES BACK IN THE FORM OF A DRAGON!
I love that we're not done with this theme yet.
Final Thoughts: Honestly, I can't believe characters and a narrative this rich came from a game. That probably indicates I don't know enough about Dungeons and Dragons to understand the depth of creativity involved in playing, so maybe I'm underestimating everyone who plays. But the fact that something this entertaining and loveable can come out of friends gathered around a table playing an RPG--I'm impressed. Sure, there has to be tweaking to compress hundreds of hours of gameplay into a taut, finely tuned story, but the source material is rich to begin with. I'm so glad Critical Role opted (with the help of a Kickstarter, as I understand) to bring their story to life as an adult animated series. This way, they're making their work more accessible to people who might otherwise be intimidated by or unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs.
I've enjoyed myself immensely as I've watched the episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina. I've looked forward to every Friday, and I've always streamed episodes back-to-back when they've come out. I can't wait to see what else is coming up. Here's looking forward to season two!