When we say cult, we mean it: aside from attracting prime ratings on French television since its 2008 debut, Wakfu has an equally rabid fan following worldwide–earlier this year the kickstarter for an English debut surpassed its goal by some 600%, raking in nearly $500,000. The show follows the adventures of Yugo, a boy blessed with Portal-like teleportation powers in a world similar in look and feel to Ragnarok and Maple Story. It debuts on Netflix Sept. 14th, so the question is: to binge watch, or not to binge watch?
As a disclaimer, let me say I’m basing my impressions only on the first three episodes, since I was notified of its existence only two days ago, when its Netflix release was announced. If you’re in the same boat as me, you’re wondering what the fuss is about: how can a little Flash-animated show inspire a cool half-million bucks in fan-love?
On first glance, I suppose I was expecting something similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show that looks aimed at children, but with well-composed action sequences, lovable characters, and a world built with dedication and detail. The art-style definitely seems aimed at a younger audience, what with the wide eyes and cuddly critters designed with merchandising in mind, so how does it measure up for more mature audiences?
My final impression after watching the first few episodes: this is for a specific type of viewer with a rabid love for a specific type of game, namely the MMORPG. By that I mean it’s structured and detailed exactly like an MMORPG, which I guess I should’ve seen coming, since the show itself was made alongside the popular grid-based RPG set within the same franchise. Even so, the degree to which the show cleaves to the video game-format of storytelling is more than a little tiresome.
Predictably, the first few episodes are devoted to party-building and unfolds exactly the same way it has since party-based RPGS were invented: our main group hears a distress call in the distance, rescues the imperiled, and welcomes them into the group without too much questioning or commotion. I get the feeling that most episodes are going to be structured side quest-style as they are in the first 3, in which there’s a conflict of the day, and a quest item or new party member received at the end of the day. Hence, if you’re watching Wakfu for the writing, expect it to be a drag. Expect it to be Maple Story: The Animation and nothing more, nothing less. I understand that for fans of the games and of the general franchise, that’s perfectly acceptable! To see in-game elements expressed in a feature-format can be quite satisfying, but to someone approaching the show just to get a show, it’s quite a letdown.
I think that sentiment was cemented at the end of the first episode, in which our orphaned hero just defeated his first baddie, and afterwards his adoptive father rushes up to him and basically spills the beans on his secret past. Like, spills the beans all over the floor, right when you least expect it, and there’s just bean juice everywhere, on the walls, your ears, it’s like wow: “I AM NOT YOUR FATHER A DRAGON LEFT YOU ON MY DOORSTEP YOU HAVE A REAL FAMILY ELSEWHERE-cutscene-.” I get it, you wanna get to the questing, but a little exposition never hurt anyone.
After three episodes, I had no greater an attachment to any of our partymembers than when I first saw them in the trailer. During other plodding, plot-advancing scenes, I found myself reaching for a dialogue-skipping button that did not exist, and that’s a mildly horrifying sensation.
Sticking to the Ragnarok-aesthetic also hurts the show visually as well as hampering the storytelling. Basically, every character design looks like a pastiche of existing RPG elements, from the dredlocks and gherkins to the pots-and-pans headgear and cat ears; even Yugo, the show’s main protagonist, looks remarkably bland, with nothing to his design but a giant hair-net and . . . wow, off the top of my head I cannot recall any of his other features.
If you’re a giant RPG-nut and you simply can’t get enough of these elements, Wakfu can be a ton of fun, but there is one aspect that most everyone can agree upon: the animation is mostly amazing. It looks extremely slick and professional, and I’d easily mistake it for a animated movie if I caught it on television. The angles and composition of the action sequences are clearly where the creators funneled most of their attention; just in the first three episodes, I remember the blurred sable wings of a mechanical raven steed, crisp static-effects for the main antagonist Nox’s teleportation, and a riveting subterranean vine-attack from a new partymember. Once again: the character designs are completely uninspired, but their movements and action are more than I thought possible of Adobe Flash.
Oh right, and Nox: the other big thing Wakfu has going for it is main baddie Nox, a time mage with a mechanical body, and one delightfully off-kilter voice actor who does a meaaaaan manic cackle. Kinda like the Cocoa Puffs bird crossed with the Joker, that level of batshit manic-ness. His design, while owing a great debt to general steampunk aesthetics, is rendered quite vividly: his lair is lined with projection lenses that swivel and overlap, his attacks involve a chain-extended spear-staff not unlike the Gypsy Danger’s sword in Pacific Rim, and the time-stopping effects are, as I said, crisp and satisfying to watch
So if you’re wondering whether or not to glob down the 52 current episodes when they hit Netflix, the line of questioning goes like this: DO YOU LIKE RPGS (I can’t stress that one enough)? Do you mind if your show is written exactly like an RPG? Can’t get enough of action cut-scenes in said RPGs? Are you interested in seeing the cutting edge of what Flash animation can do? After my little battery of questions, I think you’ll have your answer.