13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review – A Love Letter to Classic SciFi

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a Visual Novel / Strategy RPG developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus. It was first released on the PS4 in September 2020 and later released on the Nintendo Switch in April 2022. MSRB is $60. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Ever since I played their games Muramasa: Rebirth and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir on my PS Vita, Vanillaware has become one of my favorite video game developers. Not only have they created the most beautiful 2D games I’ve ever seen, they’ve kept me coming back with their slick action and a unique storytelling method. Vanillaware games put you in the shoes of different protagonists, each with their own perspectives on the story’s plot. In order to figure out what’s going on, you’ll have to tie all of their stories together. Muramasa accomplished this with two protagonists, and Odin Sphere upped the ante with eight. As you probably guessed from its title, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim sports a whopping thirteen protagonists to follow. It sounds like a lot, and at first it is, but Vanillaware managed to create a masterful basket weave with all of these characters, creating a narrative I’ve never seen before.

This game showcases some of the most beautiful 2D artwork and animation I’ve ever seen.

A Jigsaw Puzzle Story

Tokyo, 1985. Crowds of people flee in the streets as giant monsters decimate the buildings behind them. However, one person turns around and begins running towards the beasts: a lone schoolgirl. Her leg glows with the words “START,” and a colossal mech lands beside her. The city may fall at any moment — the only ones who can save it are a handful of teenagers who can pilot these robots called Sentinels.

This game’s story is like a SciFi smoothie with every trope you can think of, but that’s what makes it unique.

SciFi media has played this song and dance hundreds of times. Thankfully, 13 Sentinels is well aware of this. In fact, the game pays homage to many classic SciFi movies throughout its multi-faceted adventure, including Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, E.T., and of course, Godzilla. Besides kaiju, the game features time travel, nanomachines, and alternate realities. That sounds like a confusing mess, but Vanillaware ties it all together under one common “umbrella plot” to help it make sense. Soon the game emerges with its own spin on SciFi’s common tropes, thanks to the way these normally separate concepts interact with each other. This story is definitely for anyone who loves SciFi movies.

Most of the “gameplay” in the Graphic Novel section boils down to basic choices, or finding the right clue at the right time.

In fact, you should rely more on your taste in movies than your taste in games to determine if you’ll like 13 Sentinels. One-half of this game is a Graphic Novel, meaning you click through scenes, dialogue options, and environments to progress. You could say the gameplay is “shallow,” but it’s necessary to have that extra brain space to process the story. This chronicle flows with all of the key events out of order, and to complicate matters even further, the game throws in false identities, betrayals, and revealed conspiracies. If you only look at my hands as I play the game, you’d think it was barely a game at all — I just push the A button and occasionally move the D-Pad. However, in my head I’m continually making guesses, asking questions, and re-evaluating what another person said to me beforehand. The story is its own kind of puzzle game.

With so many playable characters, it’s a miracle that Vanillaware made the story work as well as it does.

And that puzzle is remarkably well-designed considering how many balls are being juggled in the air. You can progress through any protagonist’s timeline in any order, provided that you unlocked that character’s chapter requirements. Vanillaware balanced these chapters perfectly. You see enough choice that you feel like you’re making the discoveries on your own, yet the pacing and reveals make sense in sequence. At least… they will eventually. Sometimes you end a chapter with more questions than answers, but the game smartly lets you cross paths with other protagonists, giving you clear landmarks to keep you grounded. Additionally, the game offers quality-of-life features like an encyclopedia and a thought bubble to help you remember every character you’ve met and every scene you’ve unlocked.

Conspiracy after conspiracy made this game feel like one long rabbit hole I was falling down.

I love the story of 13 Sentinels. It’s a wild ride. Once I think I have a footing on who everyone is and what’s going to happen next, the game reveals its twists and turns, spiraling ever further down the rabbit hole. As more pieces fall into place, what’s once befuddling becomes satisfying to figure out. Even then, the final picture still surprises me. Considering all the balls the game juggles, the fact that it never drops even once is an achievement.

It may not be as flashy as Fire Emblem, but the Strategy RPG part of the game is solid fun.

Rockem Sockem Kaiju Robots

But that’s only half of the game. The other half is a Strategy RPG revolving around these teenagers fighting the kaiju. The game blends both turn-based and real-time elements. In every mission, you must prevent the enemy from destroying your terminal. Every character’s actions are on a cooldown timer, so you’ll have to wisely choose what skills to and when, to keep the kaiju at bay.

Visually, many critics disliked how the battles looked, and I admit it’s not as flashy as XCOM or Fire Emblem. It looks more like the interface of a computer, with you giving orders like a commander far away from the battlefield. However, the gameplay soon sucked me in. I compare it to the “HD-2D” aesthetic of Octopath Traveler, where at first glace the pixel animation is rather basic, but it’s in the special effects that you’ll find satisfaction with every character’s move. While the basic objective is always the same (defend the terminal), the enemy variety and placement leads to a satisfying variety of strategic scenarios. As a Strategy RPG veteran, the battles were quite easy, but I still enjoyed them. They were a welcome change of pace from the Graphic Novel half. The separate modes complimented each other well.

Overall, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an outstanding game that showcases the best of Vanilleware’s unique narrative design. If you like mysteries, if you like Science Fiction, and if you like exploring the possibilities of storytelling in video games, then I highly recommend you play this game.

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