After a lengthy localization effort by Atlus West that faced numerous challenges earlier this year due to the ongoing pandemic, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim finally hit international shelves last month. The game, which had been in production since 2015, was originally planned as a release for the PS Vita and the PlayStation 4, and it went through numerous revisions in its four years of development until its PS4-only release in Japan in November 2019.
Creator and Vanillaware founder George Kamitani described the game’s development as being ”truly, recklessly ambitious: an attempt to redefine what ‘storytelling in a game’ could be,” and after having played through the game’s 30 to 40-hour main story, I can tell you that it’s beyond even what you can imagine when you hear the words “truly, recklessly ambitious.”
To put it briefly, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game that you must play. It’s a game that will be remembered in the years to come as a colossal feat in video game storytelling, and a masterwork of the sci-fi genre. If you opened this review to help you decide whether or not you should buy the game, the simple answer is yes, you should. And if you have any plans of playing this game, I highly recommend that you stop reading now, and play the game without any prior information on it.
If you’re still reading, then don’t worry because I won’t be giving away any major spoilers. That said, some of the gameplay and storytelling mechanics that I’ll be expounding upon in this review might dampen the “wow” factor of the game that you’d experience if you went into it blind. I’ll also be including screenshots from various parts of the game. With these warnings in mind, I hope you can play the game and come back for this review once you’ve seen everything it has to offer.
Without any further ado, here’s our review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.
At the very beginning of the game, you’ll be introduced to its three divisions: Remembrance, Analysis, and Destruction. These three parts will have you alternating between them in order to piece together parts of the story. As you finish each character’s prologue in Remembrance, you’ll take part in tutorial battles in Destruction, and look back on the information you’ve gathered so far in Analysis mode.
While having three modes can sound overwhelming, the way they work is that progression in each mode depends on other modes. You can only progress in Remembrance once you’ve unlocked certain information in Analysis, and you can only unlock information in Analysis with Mystery Points gathered in Destruction. As you progress through Destruction, certain battles will also be locked until you reach a certain point in Remembrance. Sure, it still sounds intimidating when I put it into words, but as a gameplay experience, it feels almost intuitive to be switching between the three modes to uncover the game’s mysteries.
In Remembrance, you’ll be playing through the story of each of the game’s 13 protagonists, seeing the game’s events from their point of view, and discovering how they eventually end up piloting a Sentinel, the game’s titular battle mech. You start the game with only Juro Kurabe, but you’ll unlock the other 12 protagonists as you progress through the story.
In the same way that the game’s three modes rely on each other for progression, its 13 protagonists’ progression in Remembrance also depends on your completion with other characters. This means that while you start off with Juro, you’re gonna need to play as the other 12 to continue his story, and likewise the 12 other characters will have completion requirements of their own to continue.
Again, it sounds like an overwhelming mess when put into words, but it actually helps to make the game feel more linear despite the player’s ability to choose which characters they want to play as. If all 13 protagonists were available at once, it’d be difficult to keep track of their stories, so the game cleverly presents its protagonists a few at a time.
Remembrance makes up the core of the game’s storytelling, as it lets you walk around to investigate environments and converse with the other characters in the game. Conversations and story events will rely on your use of the Thought Cloud, which brings up talking points and items available to your character that you can use in your investigation. It plays out almost like a point-and-click adventure game where you have to piece together information in your Thought Cloud and bring up these topics with NPCs and fellow protagonists.
As you progress through a protagonist’s story and expand the items and information in your Thought Cloud, you’ll unlock separate timelines for your character. Soon, you’ll find Juro and the 12 others’ events and actions coinciding with one another, and the bigger picture will start to become clearer. The flowchart above shows some of the events that occur early on in Juro’s storyline. If you’re already thinking that all this time travel and time loop stuff is starting to look complicated, wait until you see the charts of the other 12.
Despite the game’s plot requiring the level of exposition you’d only find in visual novels, events in Remembrance aren’t actually as wordy as you might expect. Characters speak casually in short sentences rather than the long monologues that NPCs in RPGs tend to have when you interact with them. The more natural flow of conversations in Remembrance is what makes the Analysis mode necessary.
Analysis mode is divided into two parts: Event Archive and Mystery Files. In Event Archive, you can review a character event’s summary as well as its timeline, location, and participating protagonists. Events listed in the Event Archive are shown in chronological order (this is a crucial detail!), and it’s a great way to step back from the 13 individual plotlines and review how the bigger picture is unfolding.
Mystery Files, on the other hand, is a list of characters, items, and terms in the story that provides background information on all of them. While the Event Archive requires you to play through Remembrance to unlock Events, the Mystery Files require you to play in Destruction Mode to gain Mystery Points to unlock terms in the list. With Mystery Files, you can review a certain character’s relationships with other characters, as well as their role in specific timelines. Certain characters will also be divided into multiple Mystery Files depending on how many timelines they appear in.
Analysis mode is the least interactive mode in the game, but it’s a crucial part that allows the rest of the game to flow smoothly. Your Destruction battles and Remembrance adventures are spared the wordy dialogue because all the minute details are logged into Analysis instead. Everything can happen very quickly in the two other modes, and Analysis makes it possible for players to take a breather and slowly double-check the story details they might have missed (or misunderstood, because you’re bound to feel puzzled with a time travel story like this one).
In Destruction mode, you’ll be taking command of the Sentinels as you eradicate waves of kaiju attacking an area. The battles in Destruction mode actually take place near the end of all the events in Remembrance, which means that all 13 protagonists will be at your disposal as soon as you finish the tutorial.
Combat in Destruction mode is a fairly simple battle system in which you assign commands to each Sentinel and optimize their locations and abilities in order to eliminate waves of kaiju. To clear a stage, you’ll have to either defeat all kaiju in an area or protect the Terminal (seen above as the hologram that looks like a black hole) on the map until the time limit reaches zero. The system feels like a mix of turn-based tactics games and real-time strategy games, with time only moving in between player actions.
Before each battle, you can assign up to six Sentinels on the strike team, and the rest will be stationed at the Terminal to attack defensively. You can only assign commands to Sentinels on the strike team, so you’ll have to choose the ones most appropriate to the types of enemies that’ll appear in an area.
The Sentinels are divided into four generations: G1 specializes in melee damage, G2 is an all-rounder, G3 is a long-range attacker with slow movement, and G4 is an aerial Sentinel that can provide support and quickly move around the map. The varying enemy kaiju are also generally made up of the same types, but the preparation stages for each battle will indicate which ones will appear more. Ground Sentinels are unable to attack flying kaiju, while aerial Sentinels lack damage output for stronger ground- and boss-type kaiju.
Admittedly, Destruction mode may be underwhelming for players who are looking for a more visually spectacular battle system. When you hear the phrase “mech game”, you might expect something more kinetic and explosive like a Gundam fighting game or Zone of the Enders. This game is nothing of the sort. But in defense of Destruction mode, I can’t think of a better combat system to depict the scale of the kaiju attacks in the game’s story.
The kaiju appear in waves hundreds strong, but a single attack from a Sentinel can destroy a wave all at once. By creating a simpler system with minimal graphics, the game allows for hundreds if not thousands of kaiju to be on-screen at any given time, giving players the satisfaction of clearing a large area with just a few attacks. Conversely, in the later stages when kaiju begin to spawn more frequently and in larger groups, players will also feel a real sense of panic when there are too many kaiju on the map and only six Sentinels to hold them off. Destruction mode won’t be the type of mech gameplay you’re expecting, but it works well in its own way. (Mild spoiler: you’ll find out why Destruction mode looks like it does when you reach a certain point in the story.)
In the 38 hours I spent playing through 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I was constantly wowed by the story’s sharp turns and the way it played out through the game’s 13 protagonists. At a certain point in the game, my jaw dropped when I realized that (mild spoiler alert) the events in the game’s story were taking place across a time period of over 200 years, from 1945 to 2188. It became apparent to me just how “truly, recklessly ambitious” the game’s story is.
But more than the game’s large scope, it’s the ways in which the story was delivered that truly impressed me. Remembrance, Analysis, and Destruction gave the story structure and a somewhat linear direction which helped me follow and play through each protagonist’s story without ever feeling lost. Even though there was so much information to take in with each major event in the story, the game presents itself in such a way that players won’t have to work so hard to connect the dots and understand what was going on. Time travel and its implications make for such tough concepts to wrap your head around, but being able to experience for yourself how it affects the game’s 13 protagonists makes it so much easier to understand.
While the game is admittedly a niche title that might appeal more to fans of anime like Steins;Gate, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, peeling back its anime art style and visual novel tropes reveals a story that’s just as engaging and complex as any story by sci-fi authors like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. I’m telling you: don’t let the anime facade fool you, this is a hardcore science fiction story through and through.
Overall, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the most original games you’ll ever play. It’s a massive feat of storytelling that pushes the boundaries of how the unique medium of video games can be used to tell a story and a mindblowing experience that I don’t think any other game will be able to surpass for a long time.
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