13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an interesting departure from the action games Vanillaware is commonly known for (while still retaining their distinct 2D art style), even though this isn’t their first foray into the strategy genre. This isn’t even their first time making a game with a strong narrative, but this is the first time where the story takes center stage. 13 Sentinels had an interesting and long development cycle, originally pitched by the developer as a low budget piece of media meant to accompany a toyline, but neither aspect would become of the final product. 13 Sentinels is the result of a ton of ambition and pure passion of the medium.
Starring an ensemble cast of 13 characters, 13 Sentinels takes place across multiple timelines, from as early as 1945 to as late as the 22nd Century. The plotline is that the Deimos, robotic kaiju (giant monsters), attack Japan, and 13 individuals must call upon their giant mecha to save their country. Behind the scenes are three opposing forces who all have their ideas on how to avoid annihilation. They constantly butt heads against each other while using these 13 children for their noble and nefarious purposes. The main timeline and where most of the game is in the 1980s, with many characters from past and present coming to this central point.
Split between three main modes, Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis, 13 Sentinels constructs its non-linear narrative through these game variants. Remembrance is the adventure segment where the majority of the narrative and gameplay takes place. 13 Sentinels is told from a 2D perspective, showcasing Vanillaware’s iconic and beautiful set pieces. Because of the type of game 13 Sentinels is, Vanillaware chose to keep a more grounded approach with their character designs as all the humans have anatomically correct body proportions instead of the greatly exaggerated designs seen in their previous work. The character designs are stunning and the backgrounds are awe-inspiring. The mecha designs are also fantastic, seeming to take inspiration from both eastern and western. An immaculate amount of detail went into the setting and capturing the Shōwa era that the majority of the game takes place in. By the way each character is designed, their personalities shine through their physical appearance and mannerisms. Great care was put into the animations of the 13 playable characters. I adore looking at the unique ways each character moves and thinks throughout their environment.
Similar to point-and-click adventure games, the Remembrance portion controls almost like one. When you choose a character, they’ll walk around the 2D plane interacting with other characters, objects, and scenery to progress through the story. 13 Sentinels lacks more of the cryptic puzzles that the adventure genre is known for, going for a streamlined progression. Exchanging dialogue or going through certain paths in a character’s story may unlock phrases or items in the Thought Cloud database, a special menu where the character’s inner monologue is accessed by pressing triangle. Sometimes, initiating these phrases or items with certain characters can unlock different pathways in the story. The paths and methods to reach them can be tracked through a chart with the press of the square button when playing as the character. Repeated segments can be fast-forwarded with R1 and a log of previous conversations can be referenced with the DualShock 4’s touchpad.
Many segments are meant to be played “out of order” so it isn’t an issue when you find out something earlier than you’re supposed to. You’ll know when the narrative wants you to see a certain event at a specific time as there are certain prerequisites to be met to progress throughout many character’s stories. There are lots of twists and turns, and being able to find out the reasoning of certain events or seeing past events through another perspective is engaging and keeps you wanting to know more. I liked following all the characters' plotlines with my favorites out of the cast being Nenji Ogata's story with how an aggressive delinquent handles a Groundhog Day situation, and Ryoko Shinonome's story with how I sympathized and related to this mentally and physically fragile girl.
Destruction is where 13 Sentinel’s combat takes place. Unlike Remembrance, Destruction is the strategy segment from a top-down perspective. The graphics are much more simplified as a method to showcase the hundreds of enemies that you’ll face on screen. Destruction plays more like a tower defense game. The main goal is to protect the Aegis in the city from the kaiju that attack it. Both your sentinels and the kaiju are represented as symbols and icons on the field, looking similar to 16-bit pixels. This may leave some players disappointed that it isn’t Vanillaware’s 2D art. However, previews for the sentinel’s attacks are all displayed in that wonderful 2D. With the amount that happens onscreen in battles (later ones leading to slowdown on a standard PS4), it’d be impossible to portray that all in the 2D art style.
All 13 sentinels play a role on the field, but up to 6 are active. Those 6 are the ones you directly control, while the rest act as the Aegis’ defensive measures. The ones on defense have certain abilities such as auto-targeting kaiju that come too close or healing allies. There are four different types of sentinels portrayed through the 13 playable ranging from melee, long-range combat, support, and all-rounder, having qualities of the former three. Each sentinel has its own set of skills and abilities. Skills increase in efficiency with meta chips obtained through destroying kaiju. Abilities are earned through leveling up in increments of 5. Whenever a character is able to act, time freezes giving you a chance to plan out your strategies. Attacking lets you utilize the various skills the sentinels have, putting the sentinel on a cooldown period. Defending enhances the sentinel's armor and lets it recharge its energy points (EP) that are tied to the stronger skills. Repairing lets the sentinel retreat and heal up, but leaves the character in a very vulnerable state. Moving allows the sentinel to traverse the map and can be cancelled at any point to enact other actions. Grounded sentinels can only follow the projected paths on the map while aerial sentinels have free reign.
Tied to this system is a mechanic called Brain Overdrive, in which after a character is used enough times, they must sit out one wave. You can circumvent this feature but that comes to the sacrifice of your score multiplier. With proper planning, one shouldn’t have to resort to this method, and keeping the score multiplier high not only earns you more meta chips, but also makes it easier to obtain S ranks, which are crucial in obtaining mystery files. Some people may find the Destruction segments the weaker portion of 13 Sentinels but I found them to be enjoyable with its mixture of both real-time and turn-based elements. The game mode might be easy to cheese as it isn’t difficult to find out which skills and abilities are above the rest and abusing them to lay waste to your enemies. It’s pretty fast-paced and does a good job letting you feel like you're wielding 200 tons of raw power. Shooting giant lasers across the city and littering a city block with hundreds of missiles never got old for me. The conversations and banter between the characters are engaging, funny, and even heartwarming.
The last mode is Analysis and the one where you may either spend the least or most amount of time in. Analysis acts as an archive, keeping a log of the many things you’ll encounter through this story. It gives insight on characters, settings, items, and various other things, possibly filling out the loose ends or answering questions you may have. The events are archived here too so scenes can be replayed, all of them categorized by character.
I played 13 Sentinels in Japanese audio, mainly because I typically like to experience the setting in the language that it matches. I feel it is appropriate to see and hear Japanese in something that takes place in Japan. I liked the casting overall. Of course, some people want to hear their media in English no matter what. (A day one patch is required for the English dub.) I have no issues with dubbing. I did listen to some scenes in English and from what I’ve heard, the English cast did well too. Considering it is Atlus who published 13 Sentinels and are well-known for their good English dubs, it’s to be expected. I liked the music too. There’s a lot of variety in the soundtrack. Some pieces are calming, others are tense, and some are energetic. When listening to the soundtrack, I do remember the scenes in which most of them play. The sound effects are also well done, especially in the Destruction segments, having lots of power behind them.
Getting down to 13 Sentinels morally is a peculiar predicament. It manages to be one of Vanillaware’s least violent games. Many scenes of violence fade to black or white or a flash of white when a hit is made. Very few characters throughout the story are killed. However, there is one noticeable part where a character portrait of an injured person has splotches of what might be blood. It’s a strange moment because it’s the only instance of it in the game. Other than that, most other violent confrontations are in the Destruction segments where the kaiju explode into pixels.
Language is plentiful. There is swearing both mild and strong ranging from ‘a*s’, ‘h*ll’, ‘d*mn’, ‘b*st*rd’ ‘a*s”h*le’, ‘b*tch’, and ‘d*ck.' Blasphemous language only consists of ‘godd*mn.'
There’s a lot of sexual content and dialogue within. The first thing that many players will notice is that the characters inside of their sentinels are naked. Many characters get themselves into some embarrassing situations. One character mistakes the casual relationship between her friend and the boy she’s interacting with as a ‘casual sexual’ relationship. Other dialogue consists of quotes such as “You want to follow her to bed?”, and (paraphrased) “put two meatbuns under your shirt, and boom! Instant Morimura!” Speaking of Ms. Morimura, she is the most well-endowed member of the cast. She typically walks around in skin-tight clothing and many characters make comments on her curvaceous body.
There’s also the relationship between Takatoshi Hijiyama and Tsukasa Okino. The whole thing is that it is a homosexual relationship and is the only instance of homosexuality that isn’t played for laughs. Okino is a crossdresser and Hijiyama falls for Okino when he believes him to be a female. A huge portion of Hijiyama’s plot is his conflicting feelings for Okino.
As the plot is centered around war, there are questionable actions characters take, some of whom you directly control. There’s blackmail, brainwashing, emotional manipulation, and wanting to sacrifice one for another. Most of the characters that commit the more heinous acts are antagonists, but a few playable characters do go against authority and traditional values.
Other miscellaneous moral concerns are stuff like in one scene, two people can be seen in the background that are visibly intoxicated. A Shinto shrine is one of the landmarks (it has plot relevance, but no Shinto gods are ever mentioned throughout the story),
It took me around the 34-hour mark to complete 13 Sentinels, and I ended up enjoying it immensely. I’m not even much of a sci-fi kind of guy and I found it hard to pull myself away. Vanillaware managed to juggle a 13-person narrative very well. Most people have trouble focusing on one, let alone two. I was intrigued in finding out where each character’s plot would go. Some twists I could see coming and others generally surprised me. Looking back, many of the reveals even made sense as there are lots of foreshadowing and it is explained cohesively. Seeing these characters evolve into the role they were more or less forced into is powerful and I ended up rooting for this ragtag group. I loved seeing how at first, a few of the members who at first were openly antagonistic towards each other form a fire-forged bond through the hardships of war and battle. I just wanted to see all of them get out of the cruddy situation forced on them.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a one of a kind game. This is something that only comes around once in a blue moon. It is easily Vanillaware’s best story and possibly Vanillaware’s best game period. I strongly believe years later people will look at it as Vanillware’s magnum opus. It’s a wonderful love letter to the sci-fi genre in general with many homages and callbacks to classic sci-fi such as The War of the Worlds and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and “modern” works such as Star Wars and Terminator. I know a game is special when I found myself so hard-pressed to find flaws with it. They’re pretty minor such as Renya Gouto's story acting more like an epilogue for the whole narrative than a dive into his character. The romance felt a bit hokey and not fleshed out as many characters fall for each other at first glance. I bought 13 Sentinels for half off and I think it’s worth that price. I even think it is worth the standard price. For people who find themselves drawn to the RTS gameplay, you'll be happy to hear that after the game is completed, it will treat you to at least 9,999 waves of kaiju-smashing action with new enemy variants and tactics that weren't available during the main story. When it comes to morality, the sexual content/dialogue and constant barrage of language may drive a few away as the dialogue is plentiful and the homosexuality is unavoidable. However, if you can get past that, this is a must-buy for a sci-fi fan. People who enjoy a strong narrative in their video games will also be drawn to it. Whatever the method may be, please consider 13 Sentinels as we’ll never see something like this from Vanillaware ever again.