Having now gotten past the half-way point of 2021, I thought it would be a fun challenge to present a total of 14 pieces I have found particular enjoyment in over the course of the last six months. These will cover multiple areas of topics: video games, anime, manga, J-dramas and music are my main areas of interest — and conveniently, those line up nicely with what we cover here on Rice Digital!
A few of my choices will be might be a few years old — but they’re new to me, even if they’ve been around for years!
I’ll split all this up into two separate articles, because as you can probably already tell from how much there is to cover here, it’s going to be a long one.
So I hope you find something worth looking into here, and do let me know what your favourite discoveries have been regarding any kind of Asian popular media as of June, 2021.
TAISHO x ALICE
The first item on this lengthy list happens to be the very last thing I added to it. Yes, I am late to the party on this one — shame on me as a passionate otome gamer!
However, my lateness is due to a particular reason. I have only recently purchased the bundle of all 3 titles, including its epilogue that released on the 24th of this month, at a discounted price during Steam’s Summer Sale. And it has been well worth being patient for the entire package at this price.
TAISHO x ALICE previously got the majority of its coverage when its localisation was first announced by E2 Gaming. As a hotly anticipated release for overseas otome fans, it ended up being a massive disappointment — though not entirely unexpected considering the company’s past missteps.
We talked about many of its notable failings when we first covered it back in 2017, what with its botched translation, poorly implemented text, untranslated main menu and the bizarre decision to make it dub only — with all of its characters voiced by one individual, to boot.
But come November 2019, TAISHO x ALICE was rereleased under Pencil, the parent company of Primula, and this new version provides a much-appreciated makeover of the localisation. This sort of audience-friendly attitude is, in itself, worthy of your hard-earned cash if you ask me — but with a brilliant premise, entertaining main character and dialogue, and a compelling overarching mystery, TAISHO x ALICE has plenty more merits that make it worth exploring.
While I am unable to comment much further on the game as of the time of writing, you can be sure to expect at least one thought piece when I finish a volume or two of the series. TAISHO x ALICE looks to be a knock-out in the genre, with an 8.32 rating on vndb, and a general consensus that its stand-out aspects include the strong heroine, a layered mystery, and final twist worth all the buildup across the multiple volumes.
The installments can be played as stand-alone games if you so desire — each with two different love interests other than the epilogue, which features just one — but its twists and revelations certainly appear as the most exciting elements. With witty and humorous dialogue almost on the same level as the side splitting Fashioning Little Miss Lonesome, and a premise that feels like a romantic take on Pandora Hearts, I’m all pumped up for arriving at its promising climax.
TAISHO x ALICE is available on Steam only.
When I covered my most hotly anticipated visual novel releases, I somehow missed out on noticing MAMIYA’s release back at the end of April. Which I am very happy I rectified.
For a visual novel with an all-male cast that is not a boys’ love story, it already stands out from the crowd. But MAMIYA’s most significant element is its presentation of a disturbing and bleak premise that feels uncomfortably fitting after the year and a half we’ve all just lived through.
I have previously mentioned sweet pool’s Youji as one of my favourite visual novel protagonists due to his silent strength against adversity and misfortune. But with MAMIYA, we have not one, but four tragic main characters to get to know and determine their grim fates. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get overly emotional with this one.
In fact, the sense of penetrating loneliness and existential dread is similar to that of sweet pool, with plenty of psychological horror elements and one of my favourite genre tags of the medium: mind screw — think Remember11, or Chaos;Head.
The world of MAMIYA is dark and bleak, and it excels at delving into real issues that shape extremely grey and complex characters. We have characters who struggle with everything from transgenderism, suicide, rape, abuse, and violence, to name only a few.
Alongside their emotional turmoil, we witness each of them wrap their head around their insignificance, as the game starts with a person they are each linked to having died while the end of the world is set to begin. This one is not for the faint of heart, but the meaning behind it is metaphysical: its exploration of the concept of reality versus illusion along with both religious and societal themes makes it sound extremely promising, despite how tough it may be to experience.
The art style reinforces this sense of a penetratingly sad and depressing world, with blurry and pixelated real world backdrops and a simple yet clean UI. At times such production makes it evident how much of a budget the title was on, but it never feels inadequate due to how the package is fitting with the story’s overall tone; even the lack of voice acting somehow feels like it emphasises the sense of loneliness.
MAMIYA’s music is its most impressive feat, with its vocal tracks always ramming in high emotions in the most important scenes. And for a visual novel concerning such important narrative elements and themes delivered by its dialogue, the translation is excellent.
On a final note, its demo is surprisingly lengthy as it covers the first half of the game, FallDown, so be sure to give that a go first as a taster to what you can expect. Or give its creator’s free game a go over on itch for a quicker assessment of their work instead. And look out for a potential, future thought piece on it here when I finally finish it. It’s currently looking like a favourite visual novel of mine.
MAMIYA is available on Steam exclusively.
TROUBLESHOOTER: Abandoned Children
As the only slightly older video game of my three picks, TROUBLESHOOTER: Abandoned Children (No relation to Trouble Shooter – Ed.) released on April of 2020.
The XCOM series has always tempted me with its vaguely Fire Emblem-esque gameplay, but while I was on the hunt for strategic experiences, my eyes were so drawn to TROUBLESHOOTER: Abandoned Children’s vibrant art style that another year ended up passing by without me ever having tried XCOM. I think we can all agree that it is quite tricky to resist a TRPG with an anime art-style.
Developed and published by Dandylion, a Korean, indie studio that continues to update the game even as of this month, the care and love the small team continues to provide their creation and loyal fanbase is most certainly impressive and endearing to take notice of. And the base game, while only the series’ first installment, offers well over 80 hours of gameplay.
With massive maps that can be challenging to clear without dedicating a good chunk of time to strategy, to its complex mastery system that is similar to JRPG job class systems, there’s a lot to love here; the developers have devoted a lot of time and attention to both mechanics and worldbuilding.
And speaking of its world, TROUBLESHOOTER has an engaging and slowly evolving plot concerning Valhalla, a nation where criminal activity runs rampant due to absolving armies in order to maintain peace and control. The job of Troubleshooters is instead introduced in an attempt to slow the rising crime rates.
We come into play as Albus, a recently qualified Troubleshooter who is beginning to start his own company and recruit other Troubleshooters, each with their own origins, ideals and motivations. The world building and lore of TROUBLESHOOTER is well conceptualised and engrossing, and alongside humorous dialogue, charismatic characters, and unique and entertaining transitions during its visual novel-style cutscenes, the game has been more than well worth its asking price.
TROUBLESHOOTER: Abandoned Children is available on Steam exclusively.
As far as what anime shows I have sunk the majority of my time on this year, it has been mostly all new. Other than catching up with Demon Slayer’s first season after watching, enjoying and admittedly being slightly confused by its first movie, Mugen Train, alongside finally starting Monster, Jujutsu Kaisen in particular piqued my interest. It’s been such a splendid watch that I am now saving up for its manga volumes — I simply cannot wait for its next season.
Jujutsu Kaisen has been an extremely refreshing shounen experience. Its surprising lack of care for its characters is almost on the same level as Hunter x Hunter, making every single “fight for your life” encounter feel truly terrifying and unpredictable. The injustice of a particular character who shall not be named for spoilers sake feels as much of a betrayal as Little Nightmares 2 pulled — I am still in the process of grieving already with that one, why must you put me through this again? The anime adaptation handled this sequence particularly well, making the anime easy to recommend over the manga, at least for this part of the story.
But overall, not much else can be added when discussing Jujutsu Kaisen that has not already been said. The gorgeously fluid and jaw dropping visuals from MAPPA has been a highlight of this year’s anime alone for the majority of its watchers, and it has not helped quell my excitement to see more of Toge Inumaki (I will resist falling for Gojou Satoru as much as physically possible). So just head on over to Crunchyroll right now to watch it if you somehow have not already done so. I don’t mind you leaving here so soon if it is for Jujutsu Kaisen’s sake after all.
After the shockingly disappointing watch of last season’s surfing anime WAVE!! that left me cold on its finale, sports anime has officially been saved this season with Burning Kabaddi. Well, sort of.
While the show ranges from mediocrity to brilliance depending on its episodes, I draw parallels to my questionable enjoyment of 2016’s All Out!!, a show which fell flat as an uninspiring rugby anime, but which featured highly charismatic characters, great dynamics and brilliantly paced, individual character development.
The major pull of Burning Kabaddi is its central plot concerning the obscure sport of Kabaddi. It’s not only a fresh take for the genre, but was introduced and explained to the audience extremely well at a very appealing pace across just 12 episodes.
Burning Kabaddi does little to differentiate itself from bigger and better sports animes out there. For instance, the manga first started in 2015 and presented many similar archetypes to Haikyuu’s cast; that started back in 2012. While its characters are not all that noteworthy, they still range from likable to lovable and provide plenty of scope for the audience to care about them and pick particular “favourites” that you want to see exceed in their sporting passions.
While the majority of their hardships and arcs are once again be nothing new to the genre, they deliver the emotional storytelling we expect.
The hardest feature of the show to overlook is its animation; it will doubtless look rather poor to the majority of frequent anime watchers. It falls short of delivering impact, especially during the all important matches, as oftentimes these moments appear as stills, with a particularly glaring lack of animation.
But Burning Kabaddi does have plenty of merits that make it worth watching its short run time. The focus on such an obscure oddity of a sport makes for a new exploration into the genre unlike many previously seen sports anime — and allows for the exploration of concepts such as the difficulty of making a career out of a mostly unknown sport with few people interested in it, and how its major protagonist Tatsuya develops as he learns more about it.
Tatsuya turns his nose up at the sport initially, but through building camaraderie with his new teammates, he learns to love sports again after his unfortunate experience on a soccer team; he even uses his talents to develop new tactics in kabaddi.
The main enjoyment of Burning Kabaddi comes down to how brilliantly unique it is for its sport choice, shining light on a sport mostly unknown to the majority of anime watchers with a story that moves at an engaging pace and features easy to love characters. It’s been highly entertaining despite its notable shortcomings, and I look forward to seeing where it goes with a second season; I hope it covers the real origins of the sport after this first season has provided such a fantastic introduction to it.
But for now, it is time to catch up with Bakuten!! and ultimately change my mind about this season’s best sports anime. Probably.
Burning Kabbadi can be viewed on Crunchyroll.
Heaven’s Design Team
Heaven’s Design Team was an absolute blessing to see animated this year. Not only is it a feast for the eyes thanks to the animation talents of Asahi Production (Medaka Box, Shuumatsu no Izetta, Himegoto), it delivers on an educational premise as well as providing a light-hearted and entertaining time for anyone who is not a kid.
Seriously, this anime is what I will be making my own child watch for what it teaches. While its real-world references to animals bring the anime back down to reality for brief moments during intervals where we’re presented with facts, the thoroughly endearing and fantastical premise of the show is where it truly shines. The educational purpose is just the cherry on top.
Our angelic characters are all highly entertaining and a joy to watch on screen, whether they’re enjoying their own comforts or bouncing their animal ideas off one another. While the show follows the same setup throughout its complete run-time, it delivers on what you are expecting — a relaxing and feel-good anime centred on the explanations and eccentricities of our world with a colourful. energetic presentation. Additionally, its opening is one of my favourite tunes of this year. A true knockout, especially with its fun and well-timed animation along with it.
Closing this section off with my obligatory pointing out that Junichi Suwabe voices Mizushima. Splendid.
Get cosy with Heaven’s Design Team on Crunchyroll.
What are your favourite anime and video game discoveries so far this year — whether they came out this year or you’re just coming across older stuff for the first time? Why not pen us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page and tell us all about ’em? Hit up the “Write to Rice!” widget over on the right and tell us all about them!
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