❌Some convoluted storytelling. ❌Combat is rather easy on the default setting.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a refreshingly hard title to pigeonhole and one of the more original releases of the year. A mishmash of text-heavy sci-fi adventure and real-time strategy seven years in the making, 13 Sentinels represents a change of pace for cult Japanese developer Vanillaware, best known for fantasy action RPGs such as Dragon’s Crown and Odin Sphere. 13 Sentinels is split into three different modes: Remembrance, Destruction and Analysis. The bulk of the game plays out in Remembrance mode, which resembles a classic 2D adventure game in the LucasArts or Sierra mould, sans the pointing, the clicking, and the kleptomaniacal inventory management.
The game features 13 playable characters, each of whom possess their own separate story arcs split into various chapters with non-linear timelines. Taken separately, certain elements of a character’s story won’t make much sense until the player progresses with other characters to reveal more of what’s going on. For example, one character might come across an incident that has already happened (say, the result of a fight), which will then take place in another character’s storyline at a preceding interval. There are controls in place to stop the plot from becoming too chaotic and keep bigger story reveals in their rightful place. Sometimes, character progression is gated until the player fulfils certain conditions to unlock further chapters. This usually involves playing another character up to a certain point, or playing a few rounds of 13 Sentinels’ real-time strategy battle mode, Destruction.
Luck's for losers…
This ambitious multi-narrative approach is similar in some respects to films such as Pulp Fiction, Short Cuts or Magnolia, where events play out multiple times from different perspectives as individual characters’ relationships with each other are slowly revealed. It’s a bit slow-going at first, but eventually becomes rewarding as the dots start to connect. And what a lot of dots there are — 13 Sentinels’ plot is just bonkers. The ambitious story spans several different time periods, though the bulk of the action takes place in 1985. The basic gist of the story is simple enough; 13 Japanese high schoolers are destined to pilot ‘sentinels’, giant robots built to defend against an impending invasion of mechanical kaiju (giant monsters) called deimos. The lives of this ensemble cast intertwine throughout the roughly 25 to 30 hours it takes to complete the game, revealing several mysteries as they prepare for the impending cataclysm.
The game’s director George Kamitani, better known for his artwork than his storytelling, handled scenario duties here, and his love for science fiction is plainly evident. 13 Sentinels puts its own spin on a slew of sci-fi and pop culture influences in a seamless way, with worldbuilding that feels ripe for adaptation as a manga or anime series. With 13 characters to choose from, it’s inevitable that some arcs end up stronger than others, however, and all indulge various tropes that will be familiar to anime fans. Sleepyhead Iori Fuyusaka is introduced bumping into her crush as she runs to school with a slice of toast in her mouth. Ei Sekigahara is an amnesiac trying to piece together his mysterious past. Yuki Takamiya is the delinquent tough girl with a secret soft side. Nenji Ogata is her male equivalent.
Shu Amiguchi is an effervescent playboy with floppy hair. Renya Gouta is a stoic and precocious high-school detective. Kentaro Miura and Takatoshi Hijiyama are soldiers with a strong sense of honour. Tomi Kisaragi is a curt busybody. Megumi Yakushiji is demure and caring. Several characters are winkingly referential, in particular Juro Kurabe, with his fondness for special effects and kaiju movies, and track star Natsuno Minami, a sci-fi junkie with a fervent belief in the paranormal. Likewise, Ryoko Shinonome, with her bandaged forehead and self-worth issues, will cut a familiar figure to fans of a certain 90s mecha anime.
13 Sentinels’ story has an admirable scope, but is sometimes too ambitious for its own good. Apparently, Kamitani’s initial intention was to focus on a smaller cast of playable characters, but through the creative process eventually expanded to 13. While this variety certainly adds interest to the game’s battles, I can’t help but feel a tighter focus would have helped the game overall. There are so many characters and twists to keep track of it can become mentally exhausting to keep up, particularly given the story’s emphasis on time travel.
Luckily, this is where the game’s Analysis mode comes into play, providing a comprehensive archive that fills out over time. You’ll find lists of overall story progression and character progression in each timeline. In addition, it includes ‘Mystery Files’, which acts as a glossary of terms detailing the various locations, objects and characters encountered throughout the game. There are 250 entries in all, and while most unlock automatically by playing through the story, others need to be unlocked with ‘Mystery Points’ earned in 13 Sentinels’ battle mode, Destruction.Destruction presents a series of increasingly complex cityscape battles between the mechs and the deimos that feature important story elements tying into Remembrance mode. Battles play out like an elaborate tower defence game where the sentinels vie to protect an ‘Aegis terminal’ (hence the game’s subtitle) from being destroyed by waves of kaiju.
The player can pick up to six of the 13 sentinels as active participants in a battle, with the remaining sentinels providing passive defensive bonuses. Each character is tied to one of four types of sentinel: melee, all-rounder, long-range and flight support. While the first three types are fairly self-explanatory, the fourth-generation flight support sentinels are the only type that can fly, making them the fastest and most manoeuvrable of the mechs on offer. Completion of a round confers ‘Meta Chips’, experience points that can be used to unlock new abilities and upgrade various aspects of the sentinels. These Meta Chips are also unlocked through story progression, so you’ll sometimes find that returning to Destruction mode after binging through Remembrance will give you lots of points to try out different builds.
With great combat, fun plot twists, and ambitious worldbuilding, 13 Sentinels coalesces into an experience destined to become a cult classic.
Pilots also level up independently of their sentinels, granting unlockable passive skills tied to each character’s personality. The Aegis terminal also has abilities that can be upgraded, such as EMP blasts and team heals that can help to turn the tide of battle during particularly tight scrapes. When a Sentinel is immobilised, the pilot ejects and their mech teleports away from battle. The pilot then moves around the map on foot in a vulnerable state until their mech is repaired, at which point they can summon it again and return to the fray with full health. If a pilot dies while on foot, or the deimos destroy the Aegis terminal, the player is defeated.
Grades are awarded upon completing a round, including extra points for fulfilling bonus objectives. The player can’t use the same pilots all the time, as the strain of operating the mechs raises a fatigue bar that can eventually lead to burnout, rendering certain pilots inoperable for the next round. Fatigue levels can be reset to zero between rounds, but their effective management adds further depth to Destruction, as point multipliers are granted for consecutive win streaks. Destruction mode is incredibly fun, and it’s unfortunate that its somewhat austere visual presentation — an isometric map filled with simplistic dots and shapes — belies its appeal. Like nearly everything else in 13 Sentinels, this presentation choice does actually have a thematic explanation, but it would have been nice to see a few more animations showing off the fantastically chunky sentinels, whose designs were inspired in part by Robot Jox, according to Kamitani.
When picking a weapon or ability, an animation of the Sentinel demonstrating the move appears in a small window, and there are a few cool images during pilot summons and the introduction of new deimos types, but that’s really about it. My only real criticism is that it is rather easy on the default difficulty setting (‘S’ grades are generally to be expected rather than earned), so RTS veterans should probably play on hard mode for a bit of added challenge.
13 Sentinels is not perfect, but it stands alone in terms of its cross-genre storytelling and beautifully presented 2D artwork. The written English localisation is also excellent, with English voice acting set to be introduced via a day-one patch to allow for the full sub vs dub experience. In addition, 13 Sentinels features a fantastic soundtrack led by Basiscape’s Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy XII, Radiant Silvergun) that effectively blends electronic and orchestral elements. With great combat, fun plot twists, and ambitious worldbuilding, 13 Sentinels coalesces into an experience destined to become a cult classic.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim - ATLUS
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a cross-genre video game developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus for the PlayStation 4. It was released in Japan in November 2019, and is planned for a worldwide release in September 2020.