Competitive games like Magic: The Gathering and League of Legends are absolutely dripping with lore. While they might not tell a story in the traditional sense, they have surprisingly robust fantasy worlds. Usually, you can only catch this in brief snippets through flavor text or character bios. But increasingly, game studios are attempting to build on these fictional worlds through more traditional storytelling, whether it’s comics, short stories, or TV shows.
The latest example is Dota: Dragon’s Blood on Netflix, which fleshes out the world of Valve’s long-running Dota 2 via an eight-episode anime. The good news is that it’s a fun, albeit brief, fantasy romp you can enjoy even if you haven’t played the game. The bad news is that it does very little to explain what makes the world of Dota interesting.
This review includes some spoilers for the early episodes of Dragon’s Blood.
Dragon’s Blood follows the paths of a few different characters, starting with Davion, a dragon knight helping a small town rid itself of some dangerous monsters. Early on, after a strange run-in with an elder dragon, he becomes possessed by a demonic force that occasionally causes him to inconveniently turn into a flesh-hungry dragon himself. Soon after that, he teams up with a disgraced princess named Mirana — who rides a giant cat — on a quest to cure himself and also prevent a war of some kind. There are also elves in search of magical lotus flowers, a goddess desperate to be worshipped, and a handful of other story arcs covering everything from warring elven factions to crazed monsters to the brief appearance of zombies. Oh, and an evil talking sword.
Really, there’s a lot happening, but the show moves at a brisk pace and never settles on a thread for too long. As is common in fantasy stories, there are a few groups with different goals, all seemingly rushing toward each other. But you rarely get to see those threads interact in interesting ways. Just describing the plot is difficult: there are people trying to stop a war, but some of the key elements — like those magic flowers that characters risk their lives for — are never really explained. It’s almost never clear why things that are deemed important actually matter.
There are some things the show does well. Most notably, it’s full of great action sequences — the animation was handled by Studio Mir, best known for its work on The Legend of Korra — with lots of cool special powers and dangerous-looking dragons. You don’t have to understand Dota lore to enjoy a well-choreographed battle between a superpowered knight and the dragon he’s been hunting for decades. The action is fast and fluid, and Dragon’s Blood makes great use of scale and spectacle, with a number of big battles and chase sequences. I should note, however, that things can get pretty graphic. Like Netflix’s Castlevania adaptation, Dragon’s Blood is full of blood and gore, with lots of decapitations and even one sequence where a dragon is butchered.
Essentially, the show is eye candy, quickly jumping from one action-heavy sequence to the next. It looks incredible, but since it’s only eight episodes, this fast pace means it never has the time to fully develop its characters or world. Even worse, Dragon’s Blood never does anything to make Dota stand out from the many other fantasy stories out there. I love ancient dragons and stealthy elf warriors as much as anyone, but they’re not exactly new territory. What is it that makes Dota 2’s universe interesting? As someone who watched the show but hasn’t played the game, I couldn’t tell you. I know it’s a franchise that has an incredibly devoted fan base, some who have played for thousands of hours. But the show reduces it to a bunch of great action sequences covering a generic fantasy story.
Maybe things will change in a second season now that the main cast has been introduced and the magical MacGuffins have been revealed. But after eight episodes, I can’t say I’m any more interested in playing a few rounds of Dota 2 than I was before. Dragon’s Blood is smart in that it doesn’t assume the viewer has much knowledge of the franchise. Unfortunately, it never inspired me to dig deeper, either.
Dota: Dragon’s Blood airs on Netflix starting on March 25th.