The Best Anime of 2020
LGBTQ+ Characters & Video Games
by Vrai Kaiser & The ANN Video Game Review Team,
The Best LGBTQ Characters of 2020
by Vrai Kaiser
The watchword for LGBTQ+ representation in 2020 is “pining.” We had the mutual pining of childhood friends Ao and Mira in Asteroid in Love; the one-sided Comedy Lesbian™ pining of Saya in Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina, who seems to have dodged a bullet given whatever the heck was going on in the last episode of that show; and the pining of audiences as Kazuki Akane released a short epilogue fan movie reminding us of the conclusion to Stars Align we were so cruelly denied. Of the three films released by newly formed BL label Blue Lynx this year, only one—the first in a trilogy of films adapting Kou Yoneda's yakuza drama Twittering Birds Never Fly—has made it to online streaming, with the Given film coming to Crunchyroll in early 2021.
Trans fans had an even more scant year than usual on the anime front outside of the joyous arrival of a new subtitle track for Tokyo Godfathers that removed the added transphobia in the old translation and a new dub that cast the wonderful Shakina Nayfack as Hana, but enjoyed a non-binary protagonist in the moe manga Love Me for Who I Am; while Seven Seas continued killing it with, among other things, the long-awaited release of yuri queen Akiko Morishima's beloved anthology series, The Conditions of Paradise. 2020 can go right in the dumpster, but there were a few gems worth remembering before we go.
This grounded character study lets us peek into the lives of two teenage delinquents and shines during its glimpses into the characters' inner monologues as they grapple with their inability to put their relationship into familiar boxes. While the anime itself is somewhat frustrating on the whole, adapting only four volumes of the ultra slow-burn light novel series when the titular girls don't even start dating until the sixth, Adachi herself was a bundle of especially relatable queer anxiety. When she ties herself in knots justifying that it's completely platonic to think about how pretty her new friend Shimamura is, and how she smells nice, and how her feelings are actually completely “pure” and noble…only to spiral into fresh panic at the brief thought that maybe she'd also like to touch her friend's boob, it's hard not to wince in pained recognition. The series cuts off just as Adachi finally starts grasping enough self-esteem to actively court Shimamura, but I'm rooting for them to work it out.
The story of an idol falling for their fan is a fraught one to tell, given the power dynamics that require idols to foster affection with their fans as part of their job and the potential harassment they face for failing to live up to that perceived image in their fanbase's minds. But the series made the smartest choice possible by repeatedly coming back to Eripiyo's strong desire not to overstep the fan/idol boundary and act like a creep while slowly (so, so slowly) coming to the realization that her feelings for Maina-the-person might be different than her admiration for Maina-the-idol.
Poor Maina, meanwhile, is perfectly clear about her own feelings but not sure how to breach her professional role to convey them to her literal only fan, especially as she starts to slowly grow more popular. Despite the show's reliance on a comedy of errors and occasionally contrived miscommunications, its underpinning is an unexpectedly poignant story about struggling to find real human connection that's constantly wrongfooted by constructed parasocial intimacy. While the show might end in a (still surprisingly satisfying) non-confession, at least we have the idol B-couple of Maki and Yumeri, who have an equally fascinating narrative despite their smaller role in the story, doing their best to keep their relationship out of the public eye while also dealing with the fact that their job requires them to compete with one another.
Few series came out of the left field like Princess Connect!, which successfully navigated the usual pitfalls of adapting a mobile game and bloomed into a bright, charming ensemble comedy. A big part of that was its decision not to center on the player-insert character, making him a sweet but naïve sort who's born into the fantasy world unaware that you can't eat money, constantly in danger of being gnawed on by passing wolves, and whose role as “commander” in combat effectively means being an encouraging battery for his friends.
Instead, the heart of the show becomes the knight with the heart of a shounen protagonist, Pecorine, and her tsundere would-be assassin, Karyl the catgirl mage. Their story has all the heart-clutching beats of a traitor character slowly growing feelings for her target, from awkward blushing at compliments to last-minute rescues that explicitly go against Karyl's orders. It's a tender through-line that's often at the core of the show's more dramatic moments, the kind of thing that screams “they're falling in love!” but you brace yourself for them to be written off as gal pals, which is what made it so satisfying when Pecorine threw out a big ol' “I love you!” in the finale. Heart? Melted.
While Villainess' protagonist Katarina was a delight from start to finish, a wish-fulfillment character for every RPG player who pours themselves into getting the happiest possible ending for every single quest, I couldn't quite pick her as the show's nominee. As refreshing as it was to see a bisexual harem show with a fairly equal split of male and female suitors, a few too many of the show's jokes, not to mention the continued existence of its stasis-reliant format, rely on Katarina's total heteronormative obtuseness to the many, many girls doing their best to confess to her and even her own feelings. Much as I love her, it quickly passed from “cute” into “transparent and frustrating.”
Instead, I want to shout out Katarina's two most endearing suitors. Noblewoman Mary skates on the edge of a few “possessive lesbian” tropes but it's hard not to cheer for her given how visibly she's spent her life trying to find a place she can be with Katarina when the nobility still visibly relies on arranged marriages between men and women. Maria might be the more obvious love interest, since much of the story is about Katarina growing closer to her, but it was still a table-flipping moment when she managed to confess in the final episode only for her feelings to go flying right over Katarina's head. Here's hoping season two continues its track record of making the light novels gayer.
A casualty of COVID delays, this dieselpunk adventure series about a cross-country race wound up being one of the year's best hidden gems. At its center is the titular Appare, who starts the show as a car-obsessed “asshole genius” archetype only to slowly learn the value of caring for others, something he manages to convey in the most awkward way possible. And the person he cares about most? Straight-laced samurai Kosame, who was originally assigned to babysit him before they both ended up stranded in California.
Like Karyl and Pecorine, the show's emotional core rests on Appare and Kosame's changing relationship and ends with a blushing confession, as Appare finally manages to convey his feelings to someone. “Reaching my goals won't be worthwhile if you're not there with me” might not sound as romantic as an unvarnished “I love you” to some, but for a character who was completely closed off from his own emotions and solely focused on those goals at the beginning of the story, it's practically a sky-written proposal. And then there's that blushing, which Kosame—who's spent the entire series talking about getting back to his unseen fiancée—returns, mumbling about how she's probably found someone else anyway. It's absolutely disgustingly sweet, a perfect bow on a series that deserves a lot more attention.
The Best Video Games of 2020
I knew from the get-go that attempting to key in on the best game released in a year as busy as 2020 would be no small task, aided only slightly by the fact that my scope here is limited to projects of Japanese origin. There was no shortage of quality contestants. Among many others, Shinsekai: Into the Depths, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim were standouts in terms of offering immensely entertaining gameplay experiences, but these were absolutely outstripped by the following in terms of narrative depth and theatrical scope.
The first half-hour of Final Fantasy VII Remake is arguably the most iconic segment of gameplay from anything released this year. While the game sees plenty of pitfalls – enough to initially put me off from the title – the fact that it continuously finds its way back into this energetic sweet spot makes it a solid runner-up to the top. This first phase of the revamped reboot sat in the oven for half a decade, and it's abundantly clear that it was handled with the utmost care. Final Fantasy VII is a thoroughly cinematic experience, not only visually – with a well-realized world, flashy combat, and cutscenes oozing with shonen swag – but also audibly. The constant presence of soaring orchestrals backed by subtle synths makes for a striking score, and the music always manages to feel like it's building and changing without getting old or cumbersome.
In the discussion of where Final Fantasy VII stumbles, I feel that Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura's involvement is a good place to start. I've gotta say that for once I'm not completely at odds with the story he's weaving here. On one hand, everything that works best in Remake is lifted directly from the original game, and the new plot points are often off-putting. However, without spoiling anything, the new ending to the Midgar arc is executed in a way that gives the rest of the story a blank slate, so even fans returning from playing the original game no longer know for sure where the narrative will head next. And while many were hoping for a shot-for-shot rework of the original, I'm always on board with the idea of telling a new story with old properties. So all-in-all, the writing had some hiccups, but it's the padding that kept Final Fantasy VII Remake out of my top spot. Remake spends a lot of energy dragging its heels by turning segments that were short and sweet in the original sour with the addition of “platforming” sections, monotonous “puzzles”, and uninspired side content that effectively turns a 25-hour game into a 40-hour one. If the next title in this series can manage to improve on some of these pacing issues, Square Enix might have a masterpiece on its hands.
Persona 5 Royal is my standout pick for game of the year. Not only does it stand as an unbelievably powerful experience in its own right, but also as one that outstrips the original in almost every category imaginable. First and foremost, it's worth noting that Royal maintains that stylistic Persona 5 UI that took turned-based combat to the next level. It puts a tangible weight behind player decisions, making the process of navigating menus and selecting attacks just as stimulating and engaging as the combat itself. The soundtrack is, of course, still one of the best that a game has ever had to offer, especially when considering that the base DLC that comes free with this title provides access to extra tracks; any chance of the battle music becoming stale is annihilated by the healthy dose of variety offered here. And much more than an Emerald Version to Persona 5's Ruby or Sapphire, Royal truly innovates itself both mechanically and narratively, adding to the experience in ways that nobody saw coming.
On a gameplay level, Persona 5 Royal ups the ante by thrusting status effects, technical damage, and gun attacks into the limelight. Much more than just being accessible, it now becomes impossible to consistently survive encounters on harder difficulties without using every tool at your disposal – and now that bullets replenish after fights and SP (think mana) regen is much more available, your arsenal is almost always stocked. Changes to the story are just as poignant. While it for the most part follows the original pretty much beat-for-beat, the ending – starring some new characters with truly compelling arcs – makes for one of the most memorable and thought-provoking conclusions to any game ever. There are, however, some drawbacks to playing this game when coming off the heels of beating Persona 5 that must be mentioned. For returning players especially, there are long lulls in pacing that come by all too often. The game is at its peak when it allows you to spend time chasing social links or whaling on shadows in palaces – not going through the paces of a story you've already seen with lengthy text dumps. That being said, for players who pick this title off the shelf blind – the players I had in mind when I decided to give Royal my top spot – I cannot think of a single greater gaming experience offered in 2020.
You know what else we have in excess these days? Retro-style new games. Every month seems to bring another side-scroller or RPG paying homage to the classics of decades past with pixel artwork and Metroid-like gameplay. Panzer Paladin sets itself apart not so much by staking new ground, but rather by borrowing everything so sure-handedly. Even though the developer, the unpretentiously named Tribute Games, is based in Quebec, their creation perfectly embodies the best Japanese offerings from the days when all a 2D action game really needed was a giant robot and an anime heroine to pilot it.
Panzer Paladin puts the rescue android Flame and her magnificent '80s-anime hairstyle at the controls of Grit, a towering mechanical soldier wielding swords, spears, axes, clubs, and other melee weapons. Grit does the majority of the fighting, but Flame can exit and explore tighter spaces with her grappling laser-whip. So much of Panzer Paladin seems pulled from older games, but it's all material that stands up: the Bionic Commando swinging, the Blaster Master duality of an armored vehicle and a smaller pilot, the intro seemingly pulled from a 1992 PC Engine CD game, Grit's M.U.S.H.A.-ish chestplate, and so forth. Yet Panzer Paladin isn't without invention, as Grit's limited-use weapons serve as money and magic spells. It's a solid game on its own, and among neo-retro throwbacks it joins Shovel Knight and the Blaster Master Zero series at the top of the heap.
We certainly don't want for remakes these days. From the predictable re-imaginings of Resident Evil and Demon's Souls to inexplicable revivals like XII, you can take comfort in the fact that the majority of remotely popular games will be remastered, remodeled, and re-sold eventually, whether they need it or not. That's what makes Final Fantasy VII Remake so involving: it's not only excusable, it's necessary. Final Fantasy VII is still perfectly enjoyable, but it's always been the crudest of its series, from the uneven, blocky character models to a translation full of typos, awkward lines, and unconvincing profanity.
Final Fantasy VII Remake sweeps all of that aside with a gorgeous vision of the original game's best moments: the first few hours spent in the city of Midgar. In Remake, of course, we get a full-length RPG from that, detailing the rebel group Avalanche's campaign against the Shinra Corporation in a world shoved into industrial revolution by exploited mystic energy. Both the characters and the city gain new depth, the battle system lets us flip from frantic action to slower menu-driven play, and it all looks and sounds superb. The remake also avoids strictly retelling things, introducing antagonist Sephiroth much earlier and hinting that his showdown with Cloud Strife, Aerith, and the rest of the cast won't play out exactly as it did back in 1997. Even the profanity works better this time around; when Aerith says “shit,” it's perfectly natural.
Moon: Remix RPG Adventure is technically not a new game: it dates back to 1997, and this year's Switch version is mostly unchanged. Yet this is the first time it's been translated into English, and aside from one unfortunate vignette, the game holds up exceptionally well with its humorous take on role-playing staples. You're a child trapped inside an RPG where the hero's conventional video-game behavior has ruined lives and damaged the world, and you must make it right by helping everyone you encounter. Moon had a reputation as an untranslated masterpiece in the West for many years, even inspiring Toby Fox in making Undertale, and now's the perfect time to see why.
I've said plenty about this game in my review, but I'll say a little more here!Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a delight, offering an engaging, drama-filled story with an extremely likable protagonist and a crew of misfits fighting for people on the fringes of society. It's got hard-hitting action, strategic combat, great writing, and plenty of bizarre humor to go alongside the hard-hitting drama. It also takes classic JRPG tropes and applies them in creative, often hilarious ways to its modern Japan setting, making for a game that's inviting to both old and new Yakuza series fans. Final Fantasy VII Remake might have the name recognition, but in terms of creativity, engagement, and sheer entertainment value, YLAD is tops in my book.
We've all had the experience of a truly great piece of media sinking its claws into us and refusing to let go, consuming our minds and free time until we are able to see it to its conclusion. That was my experience of playing 13 Sentinels. From the very beginning, I was hooked by the gorgeous visuals, the mysteries of the story, and the charming cast of characters hailing from across space and time. Every time I booted it up, 13 Sentinels was nearly impossible to put down: I wanted to hear more dialogue, solve another mystery, or make the progress needed to unlock the next batch of story scenes – which would only unveil more tantalizing plot details to learn about. While it may not have been the game I put the most time into, 13 Sentinels completely consumed me more than any other game this year, and for that it absolutely deserves my Game of the Year pick.
discuss this in the forum (132 posts) |
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history