Genre: Fantasy RPG
Synopsis: A group of professional voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons, forming a party of adventurers. The party is currently embroiled in a conflict against an enemy from Percy’s past, a devious, cruel, and powerful couple who’d killed his family. Percy must face them even as they influence all of the people around him and his friends…while trying not to lose himself in the process.
Series: 36 episodes.
I’ve Watched: All of it.
Verdict: Amazingly engrossing.
The last time I talked about this show, I was 14 episodes in. I liked it, I liked the characters, and I fully intended to keep watching. But sometime around the Trial of the Take or Briarwood archs, I fell absolutely in love with the story. And now I can’t recommend it enough.
Critical Role opens up with the party undertaking an intensive rescue mission of a friend of a friend–the paladin Lady Kima, who went on some undisclosed quest, and never came back. They became progressively more entwined with the problem Kima has been sent to solve. It was an adventure story, with the party taking on different quests and growing in reputation. And it was fun, but there was also the potential pitfall of the story becoming static and repetitive. That..didn’t happen.
Because every quest is different, for one. Because the group will find different, creative ways of engaging with the narrative and going through the story. There might be a straight fight, there might be subterfuge, there might be diplomacy. And there might be tactics and tactical errors. There’s the character’s personalities shining through each move they make during an action scene.
But the Trial of the Take impressed me with how it managed to shift the format of the story. After the journey to the underdark, the protagonists find themselves embroiled in a series of quests for the guild, the Slayer’s Take. The party is divided in two and joined by guest stars, played by other voice actors and names in geek culture. This was a fun way to shake up the story, and play with different group dynamics. And throw in some characterization in the form of how these new guest stars get to know our protagonists.
And another cool thing about the Trial of the Take: I watch Tabletop and Titansgrave, so I’ve seen Wil Wheaton’s dice curse in action before–he has a reputation for rolling consistently badly. But either it’s way more dramatic in real time, or he was rolling especially badly during his two episode stint on Critical Role, because wow. He only ever rolls above a five often enough to keep the hope that he might start rolling better alive, only to crush it. Repeatedly. It’s actually really funny to watch, as a viewer. In-story, it really makes his character look amazingly incompetent, but the critical fails make for some great humor moments.
So, Wil Wheaton’s conquered probability. In case anyone was wondering.
But what really shines about the show is that the main characters themselves aren’t necessarily static. They can change, and nowhere is this more evident than in the most current questline, in which Percy’s unresolved past wanders back into his life. This arch is exciting in general–it starts with espionage and deception, then morphs into an insurrection story. But the personal nature of it gives it a lot more power. It quickly becomes dark and psychological, and Percy’s sanity becomes…questionable.
The main enemies for the questline are the Briarwoods, who have previously killed Percy’s family and taken over their holdings, while still managing to pass themselves off as the good guys. They’re powerful, and they’re twisted. Percy himself contends with not only the slaughter of his family and his survivor’s guilt, but a demonic presence with whom he’s made a pact for vengeance. This pact comes out to the foreground now that he’s in the process of obtaining said vengeance, and the rest of the group is getting a little unnerved at what is happening to their friend.
This show has been consistently entertaining from the beginning, and as a bonus, it is always on, rather than being divided into seasons. The storytelling is fun, the DM is amazing, and the cast is great. But wow is it amazing when the characters have to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be going forward, following an earth-shattering personal change. It’s a less conventional mode of storytelling, and also a less safe one. That’s cool in its own right, because the decisions you’re watching the characters make in the moment are changing the story.
This show is really good, and it’s now on my recommendations page. I’ve even started watching it live, because despite the convenience of being able to pause, I can’t bring myself to wait for it to be uploaded over the weekend. It’s on a hiatus for the holidays, but I’ll definitely be watching it live the moment it comes back.