Halo Infinite, featuring Master Chief and the Weapon

My favorite games of 2021

It’s odd and feels a little weird to say that I missed part of the pandemic in 2020. To be sure, there were a lot of crappy parts. It was…mostly crappy parts. But for an introvert like me, to have all my social plans scuttled for months gave me some breathing room that I didn’t know that I needed, a silver lining of sorts to the world stopping. To simply fire up my Playstation 4 on a Saturday and play Persona 5 all day because there wasn’t anything else to do was a throwback. It was nice. 

In 2021, normalcy returned in many facets. I began rehearsals for ensembles again. I was back in the office full time. There was a new set of fun games to play. We had a full season of baseball. But my relationship to the media I consumed also grew back to a more normal relationship, where it ceased being a lifeline and shifted back towards its status as a hobby. 

This shift hit how I felt about the video games I played this year more than how I felt about other media. Games take a long time to complete, and as a result, where you are in your life can be a bigger factor in how you remember experiencing them than with other media. For instance, I remember playing Horizon: Zero Dawn after I lost my job. I remember playing Persona 5 when I had been forced to work from home for three months. I remember playing Mass Effect 3 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in my college dorm.

All this is to say that I had my favorite games this year, for sure, but it felt different playing them this year than when I played last year. Maybe this is really all to say that I feel worse now when I play eight hours of one video game on a Saturday, and I enjoyed it when I didn’t feel bad at all. Who knows.

Honorable Mention: Life is Strange: True Colors

The first Life is Strange came out in 2015, and it was somewhat of a revelation. One of the first major “walking simulator” games, its popularity helped pave the way for the similarly constructed Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch. It was also just…completely bonkers, with supernatural time travel powers and a wild, wild narrative that unraveled in unexpected directions.

I was expecting True Colors to be more similar to the first game in the series in that regard, and I kept waiting for the other, crazy shoe to drop, as it were. But once I got over what True Colors wasn’t, I began to appreciate what True Colors was, which is this: an emotional story wonderfully painted with three-dimensional characters that you’ll love. True Colors is more grounded than other games in its series, which is just fine. It is especially good at depicting individual moments of heartfelt character interaction, which it does again and again.   

Bronze Medal: Knockout City

Knockout City is the inverse of True Colors; where True Colors is all about narrative and has essentially no substantive gameplay, Knockout City is all about gameplay and has essentially no substantive story. And that’s ok! Games are unique in that regard, as a great game doesn’t need a great story. Just look at Tetris, or Flappy Bird, or, heck, Candy Crush. A great gameplay loop is all you really need.

Knockout City is a multiplayer only game, but where it differs from other recent multiplayer only games (think Fall Guys and Among Us) is the uniqueness of its gameplay. It’s dodgeball! And it’s really, really good dodgeball. The core mechanics are excellent, the variety of stages and ball types make every game different. Plus, and very importantly, every game is fast and fun even if you’re losing. 

Silver Medal: Persona 5: Strikers

Persona 5: Royal is a heaping gob of a game, with an average playtime that’s equivalent to seven and a half seasons of your favorite 22-episode, hour-long cable drama. I love it, but I don’t know if I’m ever playing it again. So, along comes Persona 5: Strikers, presented as a true sequel to Persona 5, but whose gameplay is in a completely different genre and with a playtime only a third as long. Can it hold up to Persona 5? 

Strikers passes with flying colors. Its combat is, in many ways, more rewarding than the turn based style of Persona 5. It smartly adapts the famous parts of P5, such as dungeons and an emphasis on hanging out with your teammates. Plus, Strikers handles the characters brilliantly, building a great story and including some great character writing. There’s one moment in particular that was simultaneously so out of left field and so narrative satisfying that I pumped my fist and yelled “YEAH!” at the screen—and that was with a new character and not a returning one, no less. It’s a great RPG in its own right. 

Gold Medal: Halo Infinite

I’m an interesting breed of Halo veteran: I’ve played the games since high school, basically, but since I never had an Xbox until 2011, my most played Halo by multiplayer standards has been Halo 4. This makes me somewhat of a hybrid, as I love the old games but not so much that I don’t also love even the newer entries, which have not been quite as well-received. Still, the Halo games are my favorite shooters, and I am happy to report that Halo Infinite simply slaps.

Let me describe one quick story here. There’s a new gun in the game called the skewer. It is a power weapon, meaning that it spawns in one spot on a map and then only occasionally. I did not know what it did when I picked it up—though I could guess, considering it was a rocket launcher looking thing with a bayonet at the end—but then I saw an opposing player shooting me. I fired the skewer, which then promptly shot a three-foot metal spike at a billion miles an hour into this enemy, pinning their corpse against the wall they were standing in front of. I let out a hoot of equal parts surprise and primal glee. 

I will remember firing that gun for a very long time, and that moment is a microcosm of why Halo Infinite is so awesome: every single thing in the game is delightful and satisfying to do. The game feels extremely good to play, with a rare level of polish and care. Halo Infinite also has, inarguably, the best Halo campaign. This is in part thanks to its open-world sandbox with Breath of the Wild style exploration and movement options. But it is also in part because it is tightly focused on three characters, each of whom undergoes an honest-to-goodness satisfying arc. And considering one of them is a faceless, genetically engineered supersoldier, that is quite the feat. 

Wave, Listen to Me!

My favorite anime of 2021

It seems almost a lifetime ago, and yet not that long ago thanks to Pandemic Reasons, that I began journaling/blogging about the anime I was watching. That first year was full of well-known titles and legit classics: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Robotech, Toradora, Cowboy Bebop, K-On!, Attack on Titan, and Sword Art Online. But after signing up for Funimation in the fall and paying a little more attention to the social media hubbub, I kept finding and watching new shows.

As a result, I can do something that I couldn’t do before: an honest-to-goodness year-end review of my favorite anime of the year. Just like with my other lists, I’m talking about anime that came out in 2021 (the English dubs that is; fight me, traditionalists). I’ll also be referring to specific seasons of those shows, if seasons are indeed applicable.

This is going to be the end of my anime journaling, so I’ll also include some quick hits on some stuff that I’ve watched that’s older. Re:Zero is popular for a reason, and it’s a very, very fun and dramatic romp. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War has the best dub and is the funniest anime I’ve watched, period. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is brilliant and lovable and cute like you’d expect from Kyoto Animation. Honey and Clover ought to be a classic, and is a character driven drama in a nostalgic, early 2000s animation style. And I did not expect to be hit so emotionally by Sakura Quest, a feel-good show that reminded me of my one year I spent abroad in England.

Anyway, let’s get down to business.

Honorable Mention: 86

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for mecha anime; my first real anime was Robotech, and one of my favorite movies of all time is Pacific Rim. Humans piloting robots is just a heck of a lot of fun. In 86, a group of titular second-class citizens–who their country doesn’t even consider human–pilot mechs to fight off a swarm of robots. It’s a blast, but it also covers a lot of really dark themes like racism, PTSD, and the horrors of war. Anime isn’t just “a cartoon,” and 86 is a really great example of what the genre can accomplish.

Bronze Medal: Fruits Basket the Final

Fruits Basket is a slow moving show with a big cast. Each of the main characters has a central struggle and side arcs, and the minor characters have their own arcs, too. With about 50 episodes in the bag after the first two seasons, there’s a lot of pressure for the final season to stick the landing. 

Fortunately, for the most part, it does. The emotional moments have all the weight you’d expect, and it does a masterful job with bringing everything to a close. My one critique, and honestly one of the reasons it’s not higher: it needed one more episode. The final episode is rushed, and it needed a part two in order to match the deliberate pacing of the rest of the show. Still, it works, and it’s wonderful.

Silver Medal: Vivy Flourite’s Eye Song

My least favorite part of anime is how slowly shows adapted from manga or light novels are released. Attack on Titan’s first season aired in 2013. Its final season will air next year–nine whole years afterward. And it’s not like we’ve gotten hundreds of episodes for it, either. Many other shows, including ones I like such as Re:Zero and The Asterisk War, have many years ahead before we see closure in the anime front (if we ever do).

So when a show comes out that’s not an adaptation but an original anime that’s a succinct 13 episodes and has an ending??? Oh man, that’s the stuff. And when you combine killer animation, great fight scenes, and a sci-fi plot that involves an android AI and time travel, well, that’s pretty much what anime was designed for. Vivy’s soundtrack also slaps because it’s about a songstress AI who is trying to save the world. Don’t worry about it, it makes sense. Few anime are as gloriously anime as this whilst also being a legitimately great show. 

Gold Medal: Wave, Listen to Me!

Most anime fans are a decade younger than I, a being whose age, as of this year, starts with a “3.” My taste in anime is informed by this fact, as I’ve been drawn to stories with depth, complexity, and more mature characters. This is not to say that I don’t dislike your mega-popular stuff like Bleach, My Hero Academia, Naruto, Hunter x Hunter, and the like. But they’re just not my thing.

Wave, Listen to Me is a unicorn. It’s about an adult woman in her late 20s, with a cast of similarly-aged adults, as they navigate their adult lives and their adult problems–without needing to resort to cheap sexual content to be interesting. It’s heartwarming, endearing, and laugh out loud funny. The lead character, Minare Koda, is a mess of a human whose natural charisma, creativity, and sharp wit nevertheless haven’t gotten her where she thought she could go in life. 

There is no other show that I desperately want to continue more than Wave, Listen to Me! I had to pace myself to not binge it in an embarrassingly short amount of time. I wish there were more like it. 

My favorite movies of 2020 and 2021

One of the coolest and/or unfortunate parts about getting older is that you live through more and more “oh, I can tell my kids about this” historical moments. Previous generations can talk about where they were when JFK was assassinated and what they were doing during the moon landing. For a while, the biggest singular historical event that met that level of importance for my generation was the September 11 attacks, and it is wild starting to work with people who were babies or somehow not even born yet in 2001. 

Well, congratulations babies and the unborn during 2001, a new historical event just dropped: the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back on the last two years, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, but that initial shutdown and rapidly changing news information and panic will be something we can tell pandemic babies about, annoyingly, for years to come a la the old people in the video that begins in Interstellar. 

Speaking of movies, I didn’t write about my favorites last year because, like, there weren’t any? Very few movies came out in theaters, and for a depressingly long time, Cats was the last film I saw in a movie theater. So, for this year, I’m smashing stuff together: my favorite movies of the Pandemic Years of 2020 and 2021 because it’s my list and I can do what I want.

Honorable Mention: Sonic the Hedgehog

Look, there were better movies I could fit here. But this is the Honorable Mention spot, and it’s a movie that deserves to be mentioned honorably. That movie is Sonic the Hedgehog. I unabashedly had a blast watching this. It’s quick and snappy and uncomplicated and fun, which is something that video game adaptations generally are not. Ben Schwartz does a terrific job voice acting for Sonic, and Jim Carey is an inspired choice for Dr. Robotnitk. It’s just…so fun. Fun movies are good movies. 

Bronze Medal: Greenland

I love disaster movies. Why? I have no idea. I guess it’s because that even bad disaster movies are good disaster movies. You can’t possibly have a bad disaster movie, because bad disaster movies are hilarious. Meanwhile, good disaster movies are also a thing, and a good disaster movie is a fun romp.

Greenland’s premise is simple: there is a comet that is going to impact the Earth and cause an extinction level event. Governments around the world have decided to not disclose this to the populace and instead have designated a very small number of people as survivors, who they will send to bunkers that can withstand the impact. What’s brilliant about it is that the film focuses on one family’s struggle to survive together. This tight focus helps ground the story while simultaneously ratcheting up the tension. It’s great.

Silver Medal: In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda is one heck of a composer, that much is obvious if you’ve ever seen Hamilton or Moana or, more recently, Encanto (which I have not seen because I canceled my Disney+ subscription for a few months; I need to get on that). In the Heights is Miranda’s first musical, good enough to win four Tony Awards including the grandaddy of them all: Best Musical. 

The film adaptation differs from the musical in multiple plot points. But, just like any good adaptation, it’s better for it. In the Heights features ridiculously catchy music with R&B and Domincan influences. But that’s not why it’s so good. Its main characters are all three dimensional with relatable struggles, yes, but In the Heights is singular in its depiction of place. Washington Heights is so real as to be a character of its own, and it is clear that Miranda’s love of the Heights drives the musical and the film in a unique and rewarding way.

Gold Medal: Dune

Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy; they’re similarly dense and have been inspirational to countless creatives. Dune, however, is so much more bizarre and weird, making adaptations, ah, tricky. This film is the third significant adaptation of the novel, and it absolutely nails it in a way that the other two do not. Yeah, some things are not present. Yeah, they should have split it into three movies instead of two, reflecting the book’s own trifurcation. However, this film is as perfect as you can get.

Despite decades now of high profile and very popular science fiction movies, Dune feels wholly unique, a nearly impossible achievement that it nevertheless accomplishes. The movie feels real, using CGI to fill in the gaps rather than as a visual crutch like most big budget films these days. Its soundtrack is quite literally perfect, and its cinematography is just stunning. I will remember the Dune movie for a very long time and will happily see it again. 

An anime journal part four: one year later

One year after the pandemic began, here we are, getting vaccinated and trying desperately to go back to what society used to be. You know, with interacting with people, going to places, and whatnot.

The great curse and the great benefit of anime is that episodes are basically 22 minutes, which makes shows easily binge-able and accessible. Got half an hour? Throw on an episode of something. Not quite sure that you want to go to bed yet? Go ahead and watch that extra episode—it’s less than half an hour.

Anyway, you know the drill at this point; here are some shows I’ve watched over the last four months.

A Certain Scientific Railgun

One-sentence description: Teenage girls with superpowers do teenage girl things and also superpower things in a futuristic city full of science crimes

You should watch it if: You just can’t decide between school drama, bigtime action, and wholesome slice of life shenanigans, and want it all with memorable characters

Watch it on: Funimation

A Certain Scientific Railgun is my favorite anime show, something I can say after watching a bunch over the past year. There are better shows out there. There are shows that have meant more, emotionally, to me. But there isn’t a single anime that pulls off quite the balancing act of blending so many different great traits into one show. Railgun is an action show, a drama, and comedy; it’s got lovable characters in a unique and fascinating enough setting for it to nearly be its own character; it has three seasons and over 75 episodes to continue to satiate you; and, it’s the show that I’d be most excited about re-watching. Railgun does right by its main characters, but it consistently finds ways to give great moments to its side characters. It knows when to play it big and play it small. It’s just so much fun in a way that only animated shows can be, and that’s why I love it.

A Certain Magical Index

One-sentence description: A high school boy and a teenage nun with a cavernous stomach find themselves in the middle of magical and scientific battles

You should watch it if: You want to deepen your understanding and enjoyment of Railgun, but you live in a world where there are no other good pieces of media to enjoy

Watch it on: Funimation

First thing’s first: Index is set in the same world as Railgun, and shares some characters with it (the opposite is also true). But where Railgun has a pretty sharp focus on its four main characters and a commitment to a story arc over half a season, Index is…all over the place. By my count, there are six individual arcs in the first season alone, which dilutes the impact that any of them have. That continues through the second season. I understand that this is because of the differences in adapting source material, but you see, I’m a normie dub anime watcher who gives no cares about the original manga or light novel. Index is a show about magic, but it manages to pull of some magic of its own: it has an interesting premise, some interesting characters, and interesting plot, but somehow is significantly less than the sum of its parts. It’s a bad show, is what I’m saying.

The other thing about this show that I will complain about is its repeated sleaziness. In the anime industry, this is generally known as “fan service.” But in reality, that term is just polite shorthand for cheap sexism. We’re talking unnecessary and very male gaze-y shots of boobs and butts, ridiculous female character designs, and an absurd amount of the main character walking in on female characters in varying stages of undress while they’re showering or changing or whatnot. It’s dumb and distracting, and part of the reason why I’ve enjoyed characters with female characters as leads is that those shows tend to treat their characters with more respect, and that truly matters.

Ghost Stories

One-sentence description: An English dub studio with nothing to lose turns a mediocre anime about ghosts into a hilarious spoof of itself

You should watch it if: You’ve ever thought to yourself, “I like Sword Art Online Abridged but wish it was official”

Watch it on: Crunchyroll (no subscription required)

At the turn of the millennium, an anime called Ghost Stories aired in Japan. The anime followed preteens as they fought ghosts with the help of the main character’s deceased mother’s notebook. Unfortunately, it flopped. Unfortunately, they were still contracted to put out an English dub. Fortunately, they gave the dub team leeway to do the dub as they saw fit. Fortunately, the dubbing team decided not to play it straight and to throw any scrap of sincerity out the window. They turned it into a self aware, referential, fourth-wall breaking dark comedy that is simply hilarious. The core story is pretty boring and has shoddy animation. But the dub polishes this particular turd until it shines like a diamond.

I haven’t watched all of it. Probably won’t watch all of it. But man oh man, it’s worth firing up now and again for some laughs.

Carole & Tuesday

One-sentence description: Two young women from drastically different backgrounds have a chance meeting, start to make music, and navigate the music world together in a unique sci-fi setting.

You should watch it if: You enjoyed K-On! but thought it needed more drama, or if you just want a wholesome show with a fantastic soundtrack.

Watch it on: Netflix

From the director that brought you…Cowboy Bebop?…brings you Carole & Tuesday, a show with a heck of a lot of heart and a soundtrack that’s almost too good to be true. In a bit of an odd move, the show’s music is recorded entirely in English as opposed to Japanese. But no matter: that just means that its music is more accessible to English viewers, and good heavens the soundtrack is incredible. The show has some warts, but you won’t notice them, because it’s a feel good show in a time when feel good shows are more important than ever.

Devilman Crybaby

One-stentence description: Start with demon blood, add an irresponsible amount of horniness, stir in just the right amount of extreme violence, and garnish with a heaping of nihilistic absurdism; serve hot and bothered.

You should watch it if: You like your stories dark, violent, and depressing, or if you watched Game of Thrones and thought to yourself “I want that much sex and violence, but animated and infinitely weirder”

Watch it on: Netflix

A coworker of mine kept bagging on me to watch this, so fire it up I did and get through half the episodes I did. Look, it’s not my cup of tea. It is gratuitous in so many ways, and its hyper-stylistic nature that invokes 300, Watchmen, and Sin City wasn’t enough to hook me. The story is about a crybaby teenager who gets a devil implanted inside him and becomes a devilman, rather than a devil, because of his crybaby-ness and empathy. But watch the first episode or two if what I’m writing here sounds remotely intriguing, because there is absolutely no way you would believe me about anything that happens if I told you. You’re just gonna have to experience it yourself.

Darling in the Franxx

One-sentence description: A mech pilot loses his piloting skills but finds out he can still pilot with one intriguing, horned woman in a dystopian future

You should watch it if: You want to watch Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Pacific Rim, but all at once and with even more teenage hormones.

Watch it on: Funimation

On its face, Darling in the Franxx is an exceedingly dumb name, but the female lead calls the male lead “darling” and he pilots a mech called a “Franxx” so it’s as literal as you can get. The show’s plot is messy, especially in the second half, and it never quite pulls the details together. Additionally, it at times feels like a Neon Genesis Evangelion ripoff, at least at the surface. However, the show’s emotional core remains true throughout, as it follows a group of teenagers who are trying to grow up in a hostile and difficult world and its two leads who are just trying to figure out what it means to be human. It makes you want to watch the next episode, and that’s always a great trait.

Wave, Listen to Me!

One-sentence description: An extraordinarily witty, train wreck of a 26-year-old gets a radio hosting gig in the wee hours of the morning and struggles navigating her new job and her life in general

You should watch it if: You’re a fan of The Office, Parks and Rec, or any other workplace comedy, but want it set in Japan because anime

Watch it on: Funimation

Most anime feature young protagonists in their teens. Wave, Listen to Me! is rare in the anime world because it features 20-something professionals navigating work and life. It’s an adult comedy, not because of sex or violence but because it’s about adults in the real world, and that is extremely refreshing. Its writing is truly excellent, and actress Terri Doty almost literally breathes life into the charismatic and relatable lead character of Minare Koda. I desperately wish this show was longer than its 12 episodes, not just because its subject matter is rare, but because it’s hilarious and poignant in a way that few other shows, anime and otherwise, are. I desperately hope it gets a second season, so go out and watch the dang thing so it does, I beg you.

My favorite games of 2020

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? The last time I had a full favorite games list on this here blog was in 2016, when I crowned Titanfall 2 with my Gold Medal. But after job changes and life changes and whatnot, here I am again, because why not.

Look, this is not the place you want to go to find a games journalist who has played dozens of games this year. I, on the other hand, played one dozen or so games that came out in 2020. But I’m good at self-selecting, and rarely there is a game that surprises me. So if you think you share similar taste to mine, these will be very helpful.

One other note—I bought Hades on Steam during the Winter Sale. I have not played it yet. But everyone I know loves it, so it could very well make its way into this list. But for now: onward!

Honorable Mention: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

Games aren’t what they used to be. That’s true in almost every way you can consider, from graphics to size and scope and, well, everything else. But it is particularly true in terms of what types of games are popular. Generally, modern high profile games tend to be a blend of two main flavors: in-depth, story-driven adventures or online multiplayer experiences.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater—the original series, released at the turn of the millennium—was neither of those things. The games lacked a story mode. There was obviously no online multiplayer, and a very minimal splitscreen multiplayer. It wasn’t a shooter, racer, or adventure game. They were just about, like, doing sick combos on a skateboard, racking up combos, and exploring the available levels.

So, transporting the Tony Hawk games to a modern HD gaming space seems at face value like transporting the dodo bird to a chicken farm, but you know what? It works! The remasters capture everything the originals were about, modernizing the gameplay while retaining the original feel. I’ve seen this remaster described somewhere along the lines of “it looks and plays like you remember it looking and playing,” which is just a really solid description.

There’s just nothing that feels quite like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and it’s an unbeatable throwback to an era that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Bronze Medal: Doom: Eternal

How does one describe Doom: Eternal? Well, it’s like playing a high speed racing game, except you’re driving a gun and the turns are demons. It’s like shotgunning a few cans of Red Bull, putting on some metal music, and sprinting around your neighborhood blindfolded while you try to kick over the mailboxes. It’s like juggling chainsaws as you jump out of an airplane in an attempt to catch your parachute, which had been tossed out of a second airplane further down.

Doom: Eternal is unbelievably over the top, but since everyone involved with creating the game also understands that its purpose is violent, melodramatic, inherently ridiculous action, it works. The game also perhaps boasts the best first person shooter gameplay of any game I’ve played. It is beautiful in its complexity, difficult but fair, and somehow both reliable and unpredictable at the same time.

There are very few games that make you feel as awesome as you do in Doom: Eternal, and it iterates on its predecessor with more complexity and even more polished gunplay. It’s the perfect shooter, is what I’m saying, so obviously it makes this list.

Silver Medal: Persona 5: Royal

Persona 5 Royal_20200305134005

You spend a lot of time with RPGs, especially JRPGs. First, you need to want to spend dozens and dozens of hours with the characters. Second, the music and sound effects have to endure those same dozens of dozens of hours without getting old. And third, there needs to be a gameplay hook that keeps you wanting to come back for, again, dozens and dozens of hours.

I’m hard-pressed to remember a game that nails those three facets more than Persona 5: Royal. The game has a famously wonderful jazz-funk fusion soundtrack that is on the shortlist for best video game soundtrack of all time. And the game hooks you with a calendar system that has you saying “just one more day,” and the way it hooks you with neatly organized dungeons and truly snappy battles, is amazing.

But, of course, the real star of P5R is its characters. Every single member of your party is a true three-dimensional character, with unique quirks, clear motivations, and relatable fears and flaws. You spend those dozens of hours in the game because of Ryuji, because of Morgana, because of Ann, Haru, Makoto, Futaba, Kasumi, Yusuke, and more. Yes, the combat is great. Yes, the story is fascinating. Yes, it’s such a well-polished experience. But it is what it is because of its wonderful cast of characters, and I loved every second I spent with them.

Gold Medal: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I thought P5R would be my runaway game of the year after the first dozen hours I put into it. It turns out that I was wrong! At the 11th hour (or 9th hour, I guess; I played it in September) a different game swooped in and took the crown. That game was 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

You can read about why I loved 13 Sentinels elsewhere on these digital pages. So here I’ll explain why I chose it over P5R, a game that shares more than a few English voice actors, some DNA, and even the same publishing company.

Ultimately, it came down to personal preference, because 13 Sentinels is not as good of a game as P5R. It is not as polished. Its flaws, such as they are, come directly from the game itself, as opposed to being side effects of its genre.

But I love 13 Sentinels because it is wholly unique. Its story can only be told through an interactive format, and its ambition, in hindsight, is practically unbelievable. It is a game featuring big reveal after big reveal, and yet it punctuates those reveals with intimate character moments and strategy gameplay that is a blast to play.

13 Sentinels ultimately did something that I never thought games could do, and did it in such a compelling and earnest way that I can’t help but love it. If I could erase my memory of one game so I could experience it for the first time again, I would do it for 13 Sentinels without hesitation. That’s why it wins the gold.

An anime journal part three: a modern classic and some duds

As 2020 worn on, the self-imposed quarantine and work from home days blurring into each other, cataloguing the anime shows that I’ve watched has been satisfying and enjoyable. I’ve got a Google Sheets document titled “The Great Anime Spreadsheet” where I list shows that I’m interested in, where I can watch that, and sometimes some additional notes (like if it includes a specific voice actor or is directed by someone of note).

In my first two anime posts, I tackled some low hanging fruit. There are still some low hanging fruit out there—including one big one that’s below—but at this point I’m also trying out some lesser-known shows in order to further narrow down what I like and what I don’t. So there are some duds on this list and some stuff that I haven’t finish and probably won’t. That’s ok! I learned something along the way.

Let’s get going on this here part three. You can find part one here and part two here.

Attack on Titan

One-sentence description: A violent, captivating, bloody action mecha anime in disguise, and if you’ve seen it you know that’s a true description.

You should watch it if: You’re interested in keeping up with hit shows, you like great action shows, you enjoy figuring stuff out about a show’s world

Attack on Titan is a crossover pop culture hit, and is one of the most recognizable anime, along with the likes of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Naruto, that exists. It is a television show version of a page-turner, the type of show where you can’t wait to see what’s next. The characters are good, sure, but you come for the amazing action and stunningly creative worldbuilding. It’s violent and bloody, but that’s part of its allure, and it is for sure not the Saturday morning cartoon that so many people think anime is.

Fruits Basket (2019-2020)

One-sentence description: The kindest soul on planet earth helps an entire family process generational trauma through the power of love and acceptance.

You should watch it if: You enjoy a good character drama, you want to have a good cry every once in a while, you want to watch something extremely wholesome

I would die for Tohru Honda. She is pure good and ought to be protected at all costs. The show is great for two reasons: first, it’s not just a show about high schoolers—the Soma family that Honda becomes involved with harbors a secret, and that secret is the core of the drama. Second, it so wonderfully depicts how even deeply pained characters can grow and change with the help of others who love them.

Cells at Work

One-sentence description: Osmosis Jones, but cute and yet much more violent.

You should watch it if: You’re interested in unique representations of the inner workings of the human body and you don’t care that the characters don’t grow or change

I’ve watched Cells at Work while running on the treadmill and riding the bike. It’s fun, and even topical! But I still haven’t finished it, because though it is a very enjoyable depiction of the human body and the cells at work within it, the premise makes it impossible for any of its characters to have real growth because they don’t have full autonomy and aren’t human. Yeah, yeah, that’s the point, I know, but there’s only so many episodes you can watch before you’re like “yeah I get it.”

However, Cells at Work features the best opening song, non-Neon Genesis Evangelion or Pokemon division, all-time. Bite me.

Akira (film)

One-sentence description: In a cyberpunk future Japan, telekenetic powers prove to be a bad deal when picked up by someone with something to prove.

You should watch it if: You like classic anime or the cyberpunk genre just speaks to you

Akira is one of those pieces of media that’s a touchstone for a generation of creators and consumers. Released in 1988 during the height of the original cyberpunk heyday, it feels a lot like the original Star Wars films do. I actually recommend watching this subbed, because it uses an usual technique for lip movement that closely matches the phonetics of the Japanese script unlike the more generic lip flapping that happens now. As a result, watching the English dub is pretty jarring.

Psychic School Wars (film)

One-sentence description: A trainwreck of a film that is somehow incoherent, boring, and too pretty; there are, like, psychic powers and cell phones and stuff?

You should watch it if: You want to hate-watch something to make fun of it and no other reason

Psychic School Wars is the worst piece of anime I have watched by a rather large margin. Every shot is visually engineered as if someone is yelling in your face that animation is beautiful. But its main problem is that there are three or four completely different movies in here: there’s the love story between the two main protagonists, there’s the whole “time traveler from the future” thing, there’s psychic powers involved, and there’s a whole thing about cell phones. Any two of them would make for an interesting movie. It tries to do all at once. It does not succeed.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (film)

One-sentence description: A girl discovers how to leap through time; shenanigans occur.

You should watch it if: You liked Mirai or Mamoru Hosada’s other films, you enjoy lighthearted time travel flicks

This film is really close to being something special. Unfortunately, it’s merely just a fun ride that is rather forgettable. Unlike Psychic School Wars, which has a bunch of problems, the premise of TGWLTT is crystal clear. There’s just a nagging issue at the heart of it that makes its third act just sort of fizzle out. You can skip this one, if I’m being perfectly honest.

Steins;Gate

One-sentence description: A Dr. Pepper-loving scientist (seriously) accidentally makes a time machine, making the powers that be very angry and causing big problems that he must solve with the help of his friends.

You should watch this if: You are a time travel and Groundhog’s Day scenario fan, you’re tired of watching anime in school settings, you like a well-constructed mystery/thriller

Steins;Gate has a couple of big problems. One, its main character is kinda sorta insufferable a lot of the time. And two, that it takes a very long time to set up its chessboard before the pieces get put into motion—11 episodes of time. I wish someone had told me that those setups would all be worth it, because when the show finally gets going it gets going. So if you’re ok with the slow setup, you’ll enjoy it. If not, then you won’t.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is Something Special

Every once in a while, a video game will make an appearance that reminds you why you enjoy gaming so much in the first place. Maybe it has a fun gameplay loop that is inherently fun, rewarding, and addictive, such as Rocket League. Maybe it’s in how it connects you to its characters, such as in Persona 5. Maybe it’s how it unfolds a story to you, like in Life is Strange. All the games I mentioned have a special place in my heart for those reasons.

But 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, a title I had never heard of before a few months ago, is truly something special. It’s an example of how video games can tell a story in a way that no other media can, connecting you to its themes, characters, plot, and world through unique gameplay devices and storytelling. The game isn’t perfect, but no game is. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, however, achieves something special as a greater entity than the sum of its parts.

Sentinels, as I will refer to it for the rest of this here blog, tells its story through the eyes of its 13 protagonists, all high schoolers in 1980s Japan, via gorgeous 2D interactive novel “levels”. Additionally, it features a strategy element that comprises the core gameplay of the game, where said 13 protagonists fight in giant mecha against a kaiju invasion. In other words, it’s one part Persona, one part Fire Emblem, and one part Pacific Rim, with some Robotech thrown in.

Robots, just a Seaside Vacation away

Of course, describing what the game is similar to is selling it short. Sentinels simply has one of the best sci-fi narratives I have ever experienced in any medium. Not only does it include nearly every trick in the book—time travel, artificial intelligence, nanomachines, artificial personalities, you name it—but Sentinels tells its story in a nonlinear fashion that simply can’t be accomplished in any other medium.

The true brilliance of Sentinels is in how it carries out its nonlinear narrative. It’s up to you to decide in what order to tackle the stories. Are you interested in Natsuno Minami and her quest to aid an E.T.-like robot in search of a data core? Go for it. Want to figure out alongside Shu Amiguchi how and why a pop star is talking to him from his television set late at night? Select his story!

As you’ll quickly find out, not everything is as it seems. By splitting the core narrative between so many protagonists whose stories intertwine and weave across each other’s, it creates an endless parade of “aha!” moments as you discover things both big and small about the world and the story. Furthermore, the game does a brilliant job of revealing its biggest secrets how it wants to by locking certain events behind specific gates, which provides an irresistible incentive to explore every character’s story. It also makes it as easy as possible to keep track of what’s going on with a codex of sorts that you can further unlock by going through the narrative and strategic portions of the game.

Gotta put on a show for Yuki-chan…

Yes, sometimes the light puzzle aspects in the narrative portion of the game can be obtuse. Yes, the strategic gameplay is not quite complicated enough to be enough to truly stand on its own, and you have to play it on the highest difficulty setting for it to be remotely challenging. Yes, even with an extended codex that has information about every event, character, place, and item in the game, it can be hard to remember what exactly is going on, especially if you don’t play it for a few days. However, these are ultimately minor quibbles.

Sentinels manages to pull off a narrative structure that would be impossible for any other medium, but its story also happens to be excellent. Sentinels manages to juggle many different protagonists, but its protagonists also happen to be distinct, lovable, and memorable characters. Sentinels features a delicious Chili’s Triple Dipper of sci-fi concepts, but it also happens to employ them in wholly unique ways. And that’s not even mentioning Sentinels’ absolutely stunning visual aesthetic, or its pitch-perfect soundtrack, or its excellent English voice dub, or its ability to evoke nostalgia at will. Oh yeah—it sticks the landing in the ending, too.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an unforgettable experience and it deserves far more accolades and attention than it has accrued—though it was just nominated for the Game Award for Best Narrative, which is nice. But its niche status almost makes me love it more. It is a wonderful experience at every step of the way, and I’m so thankful that I pulled the trigger on buying the game. If you have a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play this one.

Anime journal part two: movies and more

A few years ago, a game called Doki Doki Literature Club swept through the internet. To explain it properly would take a while, but it was mostly just a psychological thriller/horror game disguised as a dating simulator. It was set in Japan, as its name would suggest, and had some really sharp writing and interesting characters.

While the twist of the game made it great, I was honestly surprised I enjoyed the slice of life aspect of the game as much as I did. Before I started it, I was prepared to mock that part of it. But the whole package was interesting, not simply the thriller part of the game for me.

I started Neon Genesis Evangelion and Robotech for different but specific reasons—Evangelion because it was highly recommended by multiple friends, and Robotech because I wanted to relive a part of my childhood. But I continued watching more anime because I realized that I liked it. American animation is great, but Japanese animation has a distinct quirkiness and style that makes its worlds and its characters just that much more colorful.

So in 2020, when everything has sucked, watching a bunch of cool new shows and movies in a shiny, brand new medium has been one of my anchors to things that don’t suck. Here is part two of my anime journal.

A Whisker Away (film)

One-sentence description: Girl becomes an adorable cat to escape her problems only to encounter different ones, aka Life Goals: the Movie

Should you watch it: Yeah, especially if you like cats or pets.

One of the reasons why I didn’t get into anime initially was because I thought that there were so many elitist fans who championed subs over dubs. Throughout this process, I have been only watching dubs. A Whisker Away came out this year, and my wife and I watched it before there was dubs available. And while the movie was loads of fun even subtitled, I watched portions of it dubbed when it was available, and I just wish we could have watched it dubbed initially. But I think it’s wonderful that this medium has two very distinct ways of consumption, and that’s something special that other mediums just don’t.

Mirai (film)

One-sentence description: Insufferable child is jealous at his baby sister, but time traveling shenanigans help him come to terms with his new life.

Should you watch it: Maybe; your mileage will vary whether you think the protagonist is pitiable and empathetic or the anime equivalent of nails on a chalkboard

While Mirai is a creative movie that fully earned its Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, watching the protagonist of Mirai is an exercise in restraint because I certainly wanted to strangle the poor kid for being so annoying at every possible moment. The structure of the movie is fun, and the story is good. Again, your mileage may vary.

Weathering With You (film)

One-sentence description: A teenage weather maiden and a teenage runaway fall in love with the world and each other.

Should you watch it: Yes.

Weathering With You’s only real problem is that it is impossible to evaluate without also thinking of Your Name. It’s a great movie in its own right, but there are enough frayed edges that are so obvious simply because Your Name has no frayed edges and is right there, sharing similar themes and plot points. Both movies, however, inspire a truly special kind of wistfulness as their beauty transports you to another place.

A Silent Voice (film)

One-sentence description: A deaf high schooler and her former, now contrite bully help each other overcome their respective traumas years later.

Should you watch it: Yes, please yes.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a better depiction of disability in a film, especially as it relates to growing up and how it shapes the person with a disability, their loved ones, and the ones they love. It’s a wonderful and empathetic work of art.

K-On!

One-sentence description: Five high school students get distracted by snacks and tea, occasionally playing music along the way (sounds like my life tbh).

Should you watch it: K-On! is not everyone’s cup of tea because it doesn’t have action or great drama, but that is precisely why it’s a great quarantine show.

K-On! is a show about five girls who participate in a music club where they play in a band together, when they’re not eating sweets and drinking tea. In other words, K-On! slaps. There are no stakes. There are no broken hearts. There is no romance. Just adorable girls being great friends with each other, playing catchy music, and having a good time. It is the perfect anti-COVID show.

Persona 5: The Animation

One-sentence description: The anime version of the best JRPG of all time, it is the story of how becoming friends with a weird cat leads to thievery and righteous dissemination of justice.

Should you watch it: If you’ve played the game, absolutely. If you haven’t, I honestly have no idea how much you’ll enjoy it.

I finished Persona 5 Royal in a startlingly short amount of time because quarantine. When the P5A dub was released on Funimation months later, I couldn’t not also experience what it was about. While animation quality was often poor, the show itself did an admirable job of distilling a 100-hour epic into its 20-something episodes. And having a voiced protagonist, unlike the game, was fantastic.

Toradora!

One-sentence description: A tiny ball of fire and an intimidating looking but otherwise kind dude make unlikely friends at school. Rom-com hijinks ensue.

Should you watch it: If you are a romantic comedy fan, yes. If you are not, also potentially yes.

By this point in my anime journey, I had started to see some repeat voice actors who I really liked. I started following Cassandra Lee Morris, who had voiced Morgana in Persona, Leafa in Sword Art Online, and Ritsu in K-On!, on Twitter. She very ecstatically tweeted when the Toradora dub became available on Netflix, and that was enough for me to give it a shot. True enough, it’s a top-tier slice of life show with romance and comedy in equal measures.

An anime journal and recommendations from someone who didn’t used to like anime

When I was in fourth grade, we were slated to watch a movie during the last week of school. Our teacher told us to bring a VHS tape (ah, 2000, how we adore thee) of a movie we wanted to watch—G or PG only, naturally—and we’d vote on which movie we would watch.

I do not remember what we watched. What I did remember was that I brought the direct-to-video Toy Story animated spinoff Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. Nobody voted for it, but it was also the only animated movie up there. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t as grown up as those other kids.

I’m an adult now. I am secure in my knowledge that animated movies are awesome. Still, it wasn’t until late last year that I dipped my toes into anime, specifically. Growing up, I watched some Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh and whatnot, but I thought Dragonball Z was…dumb. I never got into anime. It was too weird, too Japanese, too nerdy. I had too many other non-nerdy things to do, like studying, playing video games, practicing the french horn, and being too scared to ask the cute redhead I liked on a date.

I see the irony. Don’t push it.

Anyway, as Covid-19 reaches into our very core to slowly drag our sanity through our eyeballs as we stay at home for the eighth (or is it 14th?) weekend in a row, I have finally embraced anime as an unexplored facet of animation, an un-mined treasure trove of gems to be watched as the world burns around me.

So, hey, I’d like to let you in on what I’ve been watching and whether it’s worth watching. See, I’m not a ride-or-die anime fan. I like the visual style, and I like aspects about the genre, but I am the furthest thing from a purest you can get and, therefore, a reliable source on anime quality. Here’s everything I’ve watched over the past year, and whether or not it’s worth watching.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

One-sentence description: A mech show and a teen drama show get married and get philosophy degrees before tripping on some serious acid.

Should you watch it: Yes, you should. But it is extremely weird. Be warned.

Maybe don’t watch this as your first real anime like I did, because there is absolutely nothing like this show. Nothing. The first half of the show is a pitch-perfect mech show. The second half rather quickly descends into a psychological horror show, of sorts? It’s hard to explain. You’ll be thinking about this one for years.

Robotech

One-sentence description: A retro 1980s space opera about transforming robots and alien dogfights serves as window dressing for a dope love triangle.

Should you watch it: Yes, but only the first 36 episodes; it’s quite literally a different show after that (but I won’t get into Robotech history here).

I started watching Robotech on Toonami when I was naught but a child. The show ruled. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. On its surface, it may seem like a dumb 80s Transformers knockoff built to sell toys, and in some ways it is, but the show itself is much deeper than would think. Yeah, some of it is hokey, but it’s an iconic show for a reason. Don’t sleep on the love triangle, either, which is the emotional core of the show.

Violet Evergarden

One-sentence description: Former child soldier navigates trauma and emotions in an early 1900s-era alternate world that has metal arm prosthetics for some reason.

Should you watch it: Yes, but don’t expect constant action. It’s not that kind of show.

Violet Evergarden is all about feelings and the power of words. That it sprinkles in some great action at times is an added bonus. It moves deliberately, but not slowly, and it resists the tropes that would hamper a lesser show. Just be sure to have some tissues ready.

Your Name (film)

One-sentence description: An unconventional and earnest high school romance told through body-swapping and some surprisingly high stakes.

Should you watch it: Absolutely.

I watched this in the heart of quarantine, and it really left an impression on me; it’s ultimately about the importance of connecting with other people and empathizing with them. Your Name is sincere, exciting, and visually gorgeous. It also features a great and memorable soundtrack. It was a worldwide phenomenon for a reason—it is a superb movie that connects with everyone.

Your Lie in April

One-sentence description: Boy with trauma meets girl, girl shows boy how to love music again, show reminds viewer what ugly crying is like.

Should you watch it: Yes, especially if you’re a musician.

Your Lie in April is simply a beautiful show. It tells the story of a piano prodigy who became unable to play after the death of his mother and how meeting a passionate and energetic violinist changed his life. The show depicts music performance unnervingly accurately, and it adeptly navigates themes that would, on the surface, seem to clash tonally. It is the most touching show I have ever seen.

Death Note

One-sentence description: The protagonist does murders with a book, repeatedly, while frantic authorities try to stop him from doing book murders.

Should you watch it: No, but lots people like it (and love it) so you could get some mileage out of it.

If you could kill people anonymously by simply writing their name down in a book, would you? This a fascinating question that Death Note does not ask because the main character goes from “hey, what is this book” to “I guess I’ll kill some people to find out if it does what it says it does” to “I WILL BE THE GOD OF JUSTICE FOR A NEW WORLD” in the span of the first episode. It’s a waste of a potentially fascinating character arc, but that’s not the story it wants to tell.

*I stopped watching Death Note after the sixth episode, though I did poke around and watch some portions of other episodes later

Garden of Words (film)

One-sentence description: Two humans bond over rain, gardens, and dreams, all while blatantly disregarding their social obligations.

Should you watch it: Probably, but you could skip it and not lose out on a whole lot.

A short film that lasts 45 minutes, Garden of Words tells the story of a high school senior who yearns to be a shoemaker and an unexpected yet repeated encounter with a woman in a garden in the rain. It’s unique and has some truly beautiful visuals.

Sword Art Online

One-sentence description: A bunch of poor gamers get trapped in a game that will kill you for realsies if you die, and then decide to play more games afterwards for some reason.

Should you watch it: Sure, if you’re ok with it being what it is (a bit of an empty, visually appealing power fantasy, and not good). Otherwise, no.

This show is infamous. If you decide to watch it, watch the first 14 episodes–the main arc about being trapped in the VR game Sword Art Online–and then stop. After that, the show’s writing flaws, pacing issues, and lack of interesting characterization just snowball out of control. It’s a frustrating enterprise, because it is soooooo close to being really good. It’s a fun watch, though.

*I stopped watching in the middle of season 2

Fireworks (film)

One-sentence description: Start with Your Name, take everything good about it and make it discernibly worse—serve cold or extremely hot.

Should you watch it: No.

Fireworks is pretty! But it’s not good. If you saw the trailer or saw it pop up on Netflix and think about watching it, just go see Your Name again instead. It’s not bad, and I didn’t actively dislike it, but there is no weight behind its narrative.

Cowboy Bebop

One-sentence description: Cowboys and Aliens, but in space; Han Solo and friends, but in our solar system; a Western, but on a spaceship with a corgi instead of a horse.

Should you watch it: Yes; it’s a classic.

I’m in the middle of watching Cowboy Bebop, so I can’t speak to the show as a whole. But it’s definitely a classic for good reason. There’s nothing quite like Cowboy Bebop, and it has been influential to all kinds of anime since its heyday in the 90s. It’s no Evangelion, but Cowboy Bebop is indeed worth a watch.

*I have not finished this one yet

chainsmokers, halsey, 80s, music video, closer

Song remixes are basically music magic

There’s perhaps no other song that represents the 2010s musically than The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey song ‘Closer.’

If you haven’t heard it yet–do you not have radio or go literally anywhere where music is played?–here’s the lyric video. It’s quite catchy, and even if you’re not a fan of this type of electronic synth-pop music it’s the type of song that is somehow much more magnetic than it should be.

Let’s be honest: Halsey is a big reason why this song is successful. She has a unique, colorful, strong voice, and is as confident and purposeful an artist as any in the music industry.

As far as why this is sort of a scion of 2010s pop songs, well, there is a kaleidoscope of reasons. First, it almost exclusively uses synths, keys, and programmed percussion. Second, the synths that it uses aren’t afraid of being electronic, unlike the 80s when synths tended to imitate other instruments like piano or guitar.

Third, the song uses the ‘drop’ in its song form, which is a decidedly recent phenomenon. The term ‘drop’ comes from electronic music and DJs, and you might have heard of the ‘bass drop,’ which is used in dubstep as a sort of chorus. Closer uses a drop, an instrumental break after the pre-chorus, in the same way. Its chorus is not sung, rather being played by the synths, which is an odd choice traditionally but something you’ll find a lot nowadays.

It’s a good song because it’s catchy and, like any good pop song, knows how to ratchet up tension and excitement as the song progresses to lead to an exciting climax.

So you’d think that Closer would be such a 2010s song that it would sound out of place in any other context, right? That its structure and core is definitively in a modern soundscape?

Well, you’d be wrong.

I was clicking around on YouTube and found this. I clicked on it for a few giggles and, guess what? It’s AMAZING.

It’s also fascinating, and it illustrates that pop songs are a bizarre, weird animal. Whether you think that the 80s version of the song is better or not is immaterial, because we can all agree that the 80s version, while completely different, is the same song.

Pop songs, of whatever flavor–rock, rap, metal, whatever (and yes, those all fall under the umbrella of ‘pop music’)–are different from art music because pop songs are their recordings. A Beethoven symphony is what happens when you play what’s on the page, but a Beatles song is the recording that they spliced together in Abbey Road studios.

That difference is gigantic, because any deviation from the written music for a symphony is a deviation from the piece itself. But the same isn’t true for pop music. When Taylor Swift performs a song in front of a stadium of people, she and her band do not just press play on a recording; rather, they play the song live, which everyone agrees is the same song despite it not being a note-for-note and instrument-for-instrument recreation of the song’s recording.

What that means is that even songs tied to a specific decade sonically can be re-arranged to fit an entirely different decade’s structure, harmony, and instrumentation and still retain its soul.

So what is a pop song? What is the song itself? The core part that can be transported and tucked into a snug bag of an entirely different size and color? The amazing part is that I have no idea. I’m not sure anybody else does, either. But we know it when we see it.