For a long time, I ignorantly assumed that anthro art was…unserious. Anime catgirls and dog boys generally seem pretty upbeat, drawn with bright colors and cheerful expressions. I’d never encountered a furry story with riveting character arcs, having only ever accidentally stumbled upon decontextualized furry porn on the internet. Then I played Arknights, which reversed all of my previous assumptions by going hard on themes like war, class conflict, and discrimination.
Arknights is a mobile tower defense game that uses a gacha system to distribute characters. Each character has a specific combat role that makes them indispensable members of your roster. At first, I only liked the human-looking cat and bunny girls who had major roles in the main storyline. They were cute, and my familiarity with anime had desensitized me to their more common animal traits.
Cat ears felt downright normalized after a while due to their pervasiveness in the roster, but some animal traits were considerably less common, and I took longer to warm up to them. But slaughtering a guerrilla resistance movement was a team endeavor, and I couldn’t afford to pass on Bubble simply because she was the oddball with rhino horns. Nor the ram-horned girl who was acting as my healer.
In most gacha games, characters are designed to appeal to a diverse player base’s aesthetic or yeah, sexual preferences. Every character embodies a kind of aesthetic archetype, such as “cool and refined gentleman” or “exuberant, peppy woman.” Since Arknights is a gacha game, I’ll use the (rather boringly attired) bull guy because I wouldn’t have enough shield characters otherwise. I need someone who can block three enemies, and he’s my man. So right from the very start, I had to familiarize myself with furry and furry-adjacent characters that I might otherwise not have cared for. And in this game, we’ve all got war trauma from trying to stave off a dangerous enemy. Who’s got time to be picky about who they ally with?
Arknights trained me to stop being picky. Whether a character was based on a bird, a hyena, a ram, or a bear, I would use them according to their individual talents. I started to associate each character with reliability within their specific gameplay niche. I was always excited to see my wolf girl come off cooldown, because it meant that I could use her to block a particularly troublesome enemy. They were my dependable squadmates who just happened to have funny-looking ears or a long furry tail.
Even off-field, I was enamoured with the story’s anthro NPCs. The ruler of the Lungmen faction is a total bastard of a dragon man, willing to sacrifice the city’s most discriminated-against population in order to protect it. And his kirin wife, despite her conjugal dedication, was willing to defy him to preserve the things they both loved. They weren’t just interesting characters—they were deeply flawed, contradictory people who just happened to have brightly colored horns and elongated snouts.
And Arknights doesn’t sexualize the cat and bunny characters’ animal features like in some anime media (such as the Fate franchise), or use them to indicate a lesser status like in several Fire Emblem games. They were treated as seriously as any sentient being. It felt strange to me, since even iconic mascots such as Persona 5’s Morgana would often become the butt of cat-related jokes. While Arknights heavily features themes of discrimination, they don’t revolve around species differences but rather prejudice against those with a dangerous, transmissible illness. If you’ve got bunny ears or a leopard tail, then that’s perfectly fine. Normal, even. Arknights didn’t assume that characters in a completely fictional setting would hate each other for being physically different, and I liked that.
Even when the characters are full furs, Arknights doesn’t rely on anime shock value to create compelling characters. Sure, the brawler character Mountain is a full-on tiger. But you know what else? He’s a courteous scion of a wealthy construction company. He hates violence, but he’s also damn good at it. People fear and respect him in equal measures, and not solely because he’s over six feet tall. I trust him more than most human men I’ve met in real life, and he has a more interesting personality too.
Once you get into Arknights, furry or not, it’s a fascinating war story with some of the boldest worldbuilding that I’ve seen in an anime video game. Arknights incorporates its anthro race lore into the plot, but it never uses it as a punchline, which makes the characters much more compelling and interesting than they would be otherwise.