Between all of the cinematic triple-A titles and first-person shooters to release in 2020, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim flew under the radar despite its enrapturing story and enticing gameplay. There’s nothing traditional about it, from its take on the sci-fi genre to its dueling gameplay styles. It’s as unique and memorable as a gamer could ask for; there’s no question why the Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai told the public this is the game out of 2020 that everyone should play, though it’s been out in Japan for nearly a year now.
13 Sentinels’ plot is likely more complicated than any game you’ve played this year, and although it might seem intimidating jumping into it, it’s worth every second of confusion. A love letter to ’80s mecha anime and movies, the story largely follows the lives of several teenagers in 1985, with thirteen of them as playable protagonists, each written with their own complex story weaving in and out of everyone else’s. Aegis Rim combines 2D side-scrolling gameplay in Remembrance Mode with the RTS mecha combat of Destruction Mode to create an unforgettable tale. Because this is the kind of game you’ll want to know as little as possible for the best experience, this review is spoiler-free.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim can be purchased from storefront retailers or the PlayStation Store for $59.99.
Story: Unconventionally Beautiful
The story of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the main draw, and it’s why you’ll want to add it to your to-be-played list. Experienced in the 2D side-scrolling gameplay of Remembrance Mode, the story follows the lives of fifteen teenagers in 1985, and a whopping thirteen of them are playable. Though when the tutorial of the game begins, the player won’t have much choice in the way character selection or mode selection, this will soon change. Characters can be selected at free will, though not all are playable from the get-go. Vanillaware carefully navigates the player through this plot by sometimes locking them out of certain storylines until conditions are met. For example, many characters’ stories will be halted until Natsumi’s “Exterminator” event is finished, or until the 10th Wave of the 2nd Area in Destruction Mode is completed. This way, though the player is given the freedom to explore at their discretion, the story is still paced and unraveled in a way that makes sense.
This is very important because nothing about the story is linear. Though the tale was largely told in 1985, time travel to 1945 and even to multiple years of the future occurs quite often. Some characters did not originate in 1985, and many are referred to as different names half of the time. But Vanillaware expertly crafted how the story unfolds before you. Again, it might seem intimidating and difficult to follow at first, but everything will start coming together nearing the halfway point of the game.
These teens are experiencing dreams, or perhaps memories, of controlling sentinels to save the city as well as civilizations of the future. Kaiju have come to destroy the world they know, but not only in 1985 but in other Sectors, referring to specific years, as well. It’s all centered around Operation Aegis, but what the high schoolers have to do with the enemy and the role they play in the battle is the mystery the player must uncover.
Keeping track of characters beyond just the thirteen high schoolers is a daunting task—but only in the beginning. After some time, their stories will begin to converge and diverge, overlapping in sometimes insignificant chats and other times in important confrontations, even sometimes with some teen romance peppered in. And though we’re playing as thirteen protagonists, perhaps not everyone is to be trusted. A small piece of information will be hinted at in one character’s chapters, only to be fully explained in another character’s storyline later on. With a confusing and convoluted beginning, 13 Sentinels sets the expectation that every question will be answered, and it delivers.
As for the characters themselves, Aegis Rim is full to the brim with tropes and stereotypes, but rather than being corny and unappealing; they’re spun in a way that charmingly and successfully tells the story and keeps the game interesting. You might think that by following thirteen protagonists, it would be difficult to connect or become invested in them, but this isn’t the case for 13 Sentinels. Each character comes with a unique personality and intriguing story to call their own. After following one so closely, it becomes difficult to pull away and delve into another, but it’s easy to succumb to another individual’s chapters quickly. However, it’s not without faults. There are some eyebrow-raising moments to be noted, such as the lack of progressivism in a modern-day video game. Though there might be a few suggestively gay moments, the singular queer romance is treated with tragedy rather than happiness, as opposed to the many other straight relationships.
Remembrance Mode in 13 Sentinels plays like a visual novel. Though the game itself isn’t long—it takes approximately 30 to 35 hours to polish off—the occasional drawling dialogue might sometimes make it feel long, especially before and after waves of kaiju in Destruction Mode. Additionally, the player will need to re-enter the character’s chapters, which branch out like trees. Though some scenes may start out the same, each branch ends with a unique cutscene that is obtained through new dialogue options. The repeated dialogue to find hidden branches and upturning mysteries might get redundant, but there’s often a way to skip unwanted text, mainly in Remembrance Mode. The slice-of-life anime genre may be an important lens to view 13 Sentinels through here; if you’re not a fan of it, some scenes may definitely feel prolonged.
Gameplay: Disjointed but Enticing
Though the main focus of 13 Sentinels is its groundbreaking story, the combat isn’t to be glossed over either. The mecha real-time-strategy combat is experienced through Destruction Mode, where the player must occasionally defeat waves of kaiju before progressing in the main story. It connects through the story in a non-traditional format because it’s not entirely clear whether or not the combat is actually happening. The players do not remember it within their playable chapters, but rather only perceive them to be dreams, so the 30 required waves of kaiju feel somewhat disjointed, but it’s nevertheless exciting. Because of this, 13 Sentinels feels more like a hybrid, rather than the combat fully supporting its narrative.
Kaiju come in many different shapes and sizes with diverse attacks and health points, and the player won’t be forewarned on which kinds of kaiju will plague the city. The player-controlled sentinels come in many different types and generations as well, with some specializing in mobility and melee combat while others focus on air striking and can attack many enemies at once. This means you must plan ahead with assorted expectations, bringing forth a mix of characters and tuning in to each specialization. Again, it may sound complicated, but the RTS combat is well-balanced, resulting in an adrenalizing and satisfactory experience. For anyone that feels Destruction Mode takes away from the game’s storytelling incentive, however, can simply change the difficulty setting to “easy” and glide on through the waves.
Graphics & Audio: Refreshingly Simple
The lovely 2D graphics are immediately reminiscent of Vanillaware’s style and should feel familiar to anyone who’s played Dragon’s Crown. Here, you won’t get cinematic graphics, but possibly something even better. The hand-painted scenery is intimate and combined with the subtle yet effective differences in each characters’ design; it supports the immersive quality that the player will inevitably succumb to. The charming design is simple by nature, for example, by reusing the same settings again and again, yet features moments of complexity. You’ll notice in 13 Sentinels‘ tutorial, during Juro Kurabe’s chapters, that characters will react if you linger too closely for too long, or block their path when they’re walking by. The subtle AI, though not as advanced as you’d see in an open-world action-adventure title, is still intelligent.
The audio as well is simple but effective. Aside from the fantastic voice acting that can be experienced in either English or Japanese, there’s little to note about the sound design, except for the atmospheric quality it inhibits, especially during moments where the characters may find themselves in space or other strange, unknown territory. Otherwise, sound effects shine in Destruction Mode, where I highly suggest using amplified bass to get the full, immersive experience.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was reviewed on PS4 Pro.