In 2015, voice actor Matthew Mercer livestreamed a Dungeons & Dragons campaign he and his eight friends—each a professional voice actors in their own right—were running from his home. Little did anyone know that in a few short years, the streamed event would grow into a huge entertainment and business venture—dubbed Critical Role—with fans across the globe tuning in every week to watch these well-known voices from games, anime, cartoons, and television roll dice, cast spells, calculate hit points, and otherwise shoot the shit with each other across hundreds of episodes. Critical Role fan art and animations exploded across social media, along with merchandise, cosplays, comic books and two official D&D campaign settings guides.
It was inevitable that it would lead to a full-fledged animated series. After all, much of the prep work is already done, with the setting, story, and characters already in place. (This Polygon article provides a brief but clear history.) A Kickstarter for a proposed 22-minute special netted $1 million within a hour of its debut; the campaign eventually expanded to encompass an entire season of The Legend Of Vox Machina, shattering the crowdfunding records previously set by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Veronica Mars.
But before the series’ Prime Video premiere, a big question remained: How could The Legend Of Vox Machina possibly streamline its source material into a relatively scant 10 episodes, in a way that both eases folks not familiar with Critical Role into this world, and manages fans’ lofty expectations for what the world of Tal’Dorei looks like? The answer: Mainly by keeping things simple and straightforward, but very carefully escalating the stakes and opening up the cast via slightly rushed but expert pacing. The show absolutely works.
It begins with our heroes in the kind of over-the-top bar fight that audiences have seen before—tinged with boredom and scrappiness. But that simplicity is in this show’s favor: the voice cast is already so familiar with the rhythms and vibes of the characters that they immediately jump out as fully fledged and well-drawn, allowing the plot, characters, action, and comedy to play out comfortably and organically. There’s no wasted time with setup, exposition, table-setting, etc.; there’s no need to worry about being bogged down by excessive lore or detailed backstory. (After all, that’s what the first 115 episodes of the webseries are for.)
Vox Machina follows the characters of Mercer and friends’ first D&D campaign: Vex’ahlia “Vex” Vessar (Laura Bailey) and Vax’ildan “Vax” Vessar (Liam O’Brien) are sibling half-elves, snarky but level-headed, with Vex being the closest thing the group has to a “leader.” Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham) is your typical heavy, big but idiotic—the Drax of the group. Marisha Ray voices Keyleth, another half-elf with reluctant, nervous tendencies and unfamiliarity with social cues, and Taliesin Jaffe is Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (a jokey name that doesn’t play into the show thankfully), an oft-silent human with a dark past. Finally, there’s Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), a gnome cleric struggling with her faith and magic, and Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel), a perpetually horny gnome bard.
There’s no explanation how these seven managed to meet, let alone decide to collectively half-ass their way through a bunch of quests for money. But there is an implied sense that these lost and pathetic souls just found and stuck with each other due to a lack of other options. The camaraderie and genuine connection between the characters is palpable—and that’s before a devastating event in the end of the first episode binds them together further. Vox Machina makes it a point to show these characters mean well, even when they’re drunkenly ruining a banquet or pondering betrayal and desertion. A character like Scanlan—who feels specifically built to be rambunctiously, sexually crude for comedic, ridiculous moments—is kept under control when moments grow serious.
That control is what keeps Vox Machina intriguing and moving at a brisk, efficient pace. The show doesn’t bog itself down with extensive lore, only revealing the details of its world when it needs to and allowing audiences to pick up on everything else. The action is well-animated, and while this is indeed an adult show—with plenty of curse words, sexual innuendo, and brutal violence—nothing feels overwhelmingly crass or unnecessarily gratuitous.
When things do escalate, it matters. In particular, the fourth episode is a sharp showcase of nuanced character beats, nerve-racking tension, and horrifyingly, putrid visuals. It’s good stuff, and perhaps most importantly, Vox Machina knows to let its moments–dramatic, comedic, or action-oriented–breathe for themselves instead of interrupting them with forced jokes or funky detours (looking at you, The Dragon Prince).
If there’s a criticism to be made, it comes down to how the show seems to be developing romantic pairings. Vox Machina is wonderfully comfortable with playing around with non-heterosexual and gender-fluid vibes, but the early love-interest pairings are both heterosexual and all of the same species. A show with such a varied cast should be able to work in more diverse relationships.
Don’t expect Game Of Throne levels of multi-continental political intrigue. The Legend Of Vox Machina has more of an Avatar: The Last Airbender vibe–narratively but efficiently pared down, complete with those background touches that made Aang’s world so unique and rich. (Two guards are caught hugging Vex’s cuddly but viscous warrior bear, Trinket; in another episode, two other guards exchange a silent moment that suggest some kind of deeper relationship between them.) The Last Airbender is a fantastic show, but there’s something satisfying about watching a more mature analogue that doesn’t go to extremes to prove its maturity. The tight friendship of the Vox Machina group, combined with sharp animation, funny jokes, rich action, and raw, honest drama, will win over new fans and satisfy old ones. The Legend Of Vox Machina is a critical hit.