If the baker's dozen of playable protagonists wasn't enough of a clue, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim very much hews to a "more is more" approach to storytelling.
If you're looking for challenging real-time strategy, 13 Sentinels' straightforward action probably won't rock your socks off. But fans of point-and-click adventures and visual novels will find a lot to chew on here, even if the overall balance between the two main lobes of the game feels a bit lopsided. Vanillaware's latest is a true masterclass in galaxy-brain sci-fi storytelling that will keep you up well past your bedtime. It's the best time-travel game since Chrono Trigger, even though it's absolutely not trying to be anything like Square Enix's 1995 SNES classic. Instead, 13 Sentinels thumbs its nose at your expectations about familiar sci-fi tropes to take you somewhere completely unexpected.
Set primarily in a fictionalized Tokyo in 1985, 13 Sentinels sees a group of high-schoolers thrown into an epic struggle for the survival of humanity that spans historical periods and space. Our teen heroes — you guessed it! — must pilot a fleet of giant robots known as Sentinels in order to stave off hordes of giant monsters known as kaiju.
13 Sentinels has three core gameplay modes — Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis — though you'll spend the overwhelming majority of your time in the first. Remembrance is basically "story mode," a point-and-click style retelling of the end of the world from 13 perspectives. Analysis mode is basically your glossary of events, people, and things, which updates as you progress the story. Destruction is, appropriately enough, where the robot-fighting strategy bit comes in.
What an intricate web we weave
After the prologue, which takes about two to three hours, you can jump between these modes at any time. There's some light gating of certain characters' story chapters to avoid spoilers, but it's not onerous and never makes the story feel railroaded. That allows the story to unfold as more of a web than a straight line, and it's one of the things that makes the sprawling, strange tale of 13 Sentinels so memorable.
Here's a top-of-head rundown of just some of the sci-fi tropes on the menu here:
- Time travel
- Mentally unstable teenagers piloting giant mechs
- Building-sized space monsters
- Gun-toting androids
- A.I. gone wild
- Mistaken identity
- Interstellar colonization
- Teleporter hijinks
- Nefarious corporation
- Mystery pills
In almost any other game, this would probably feel like far, far too much. Yet it all somehow works in 13 Sentinels, because the game's structure and user interface encourage you to retrace your steps, consistently reminding you how the stories of all these characters weave together. 13 Sentinels commits wholeheartedly to a wildly ambitious narrative that wrangles with complex arguments about the ethics of A.I., the role of nature vs. nurture in shaping life outcomes, and humanity's impact on the planet. Any good work of sci-fi will prompt you to think more deeply about real-world science, and 13 Sentinels manages to do this consistently throughout its roughly 25- to 30-hour playtime. Just when you think you've got this story figured out, it zigs and zags out of your grasp in a delightful new way.
It doesn't hurt that the game's watercolored, sun-dappled environments manage to make the imminent ruin of humanity look very, very pretty. Despite generally being a big fan of pretty much any game Atlus makes, this is my first Vanillaware game, and it's plain to see why the studio's garnered a reputation for distinctive aesthetics.
Initially, I'd expected 13 Sentinels to have a lot in common with 5pb's Steins;Gate or Chaos Child, given that all three follow impossibly pretty Tokyo teens stumbling on impossibly complex secrets. But 13 Sentinels has far more in common with Spike Chunsoft's cult-classic narrative adventure 428 Shibuya Scramble or Aquaplus's more recent duo of Utewarerumono visual novels. That's a compliment, because that latter pair of games will stick in your craw far longer, thanks to their robust ensemble casts. You probably won't gel with every character in 13 Sentinels, but even your benchwarmers will spend plenty of time with your faves.
Like 428, Vanillaware's approach to storytelling here is iterative, meaning you'll repeat the same scenario with the same character, and events play out slightly differently each time until you have all the information you need to advance the chapter. Each of the 13 character arcs has its own distinct feel: one draws heavily from magical girl anime, another feels like a detective story, another's trying to scrounge for after-school snack money.
This sounds far less interesting on paper than it turns out to be in practice, and each of these re-do's only take a couple of minutes. For example, the Elvis-coiffed hardass Nenji Ogata is tasked with finding "the key" at the train station. You'll talk to your brown-haired classmate to get a clue, which you'll to mention next time to a mysterious girl. You'll board one train, fail the mission, start over and wait for that train to leave, only for another conspicuous face to appear on the platform, opening up a whole new set of conversations. Unless you're stumped and need to consult the in-game flow chart for a hint on what to do next, 13 Sentinels doesn't knock you over the head with "gamey" prompts. Often, talking to people in a different order, waiting for someone to leave, or overhearing a conversation can unlock new pathways within the story. There's only one ending to the overall narrative, but the freedom to jump between gameplay modes and characters willy-nilly allows it to unfold differently for each player.
Strategy done light
Mech combat in 13 Sentinels is fun and satisfying, if not particularly deep. Mostly, it helps to keep things moving at a jangly pace when you hit a wall in a particular story chapter. In the prologue, you'll only have a few mechs to choose from, but once you get into the main part of the game, you'll be able to choose from all 13 characters.
There are four types of mechs, with some better suited to close combat, others designed to take out kaiju at long range, and support characters who can pepper the battlefield with passive weaponry while your slower teammates are puttering around. You'll upgrade their weaponry and equipment using meta-chips won by taking down foes. These upgrades make each of the mech types a little more versatile as you advance through the game.
The Destruction segment of13 Sentinels serves up 31 battles across three zones of the city. (There are some extra post-game battles for those who love a challenge.) Most of these are pretty straightforward, lasting anywhere between five and 15 minutes, making it easy to breeze through several in one go. You'll blast through literally thousands of opponents in seconds, and that sense of scale coupled with big ol' damage numbers can be pretty darn satisfying. While some enemies require armor-piercing or anti-air weaponry, most things can just be blasted with anyone's biggest gun. While the enemy types change, the map design is disappointingly repetitive. The addition of variable terrain and atmospheric elements would have added some welcome complexity to the proceedings.
In true Neon Genesis Evangelion fashion, your pilots can't stay in their Sentinels for too long without risking serious brain damage. That means you'll need to change up your roster every fight to give some squad members a break. Each successive battle you complete without restoring health post-fight will multiply the number of meta-chips you can earn, making upgrades accessible earlier. This encourages you to get experimental with your roster choices early on, but makes the back-end of the game feel a trifle too easy once you start racking up those meta-chip bonuses. Any squad of six can easily lay waste to virtually anything in their path by the time you cruise into the third set of 10 battles.
With more twists than a jumbo-sized basket of curly fries, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim will keep you guessing all the way up until its stunning finale. Just when you think you have everything figured out, it drops another shocker. 8/10
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is out now on PS4.
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