Almost a year after the Japanese launch, Vanillaware's award-winning sci-fi adventure lands in Northern America and Europe. Was the localisation worth the wait?
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim tells a complex story about the end of mankind. We follow more than a dozen different characters throughout these events, all of whom are heading more and less towards the same goal - often without even knowing it. Developer Vanillaware steadily unravels a dense tangle of manipulation, empty promises, and emotional dilemmas. Deciphering what happened to all these characters, how they relate to each other and what all of them make out of this really tricky situation is at the core of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim's almost 40-hour long experience. And I should add that the Japanese team has truly succeeded when creating this behemoth narrative construct.
The extensive sci-fi story touches upon pretty much every branch of futuristic pseudoscience one might be interested in right now. You should therefore be very attentive to the information offered to you because 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is not easy evening entertainment for exhausted souls. The game is told in short, character-bound episodes that push each other forward. If a character receives new insight, this helps to advance other avenues.
The game is essentially a mixture of simple 2D adventures and strategic battles from an isometric perspective. Across numerous chapters, you take control of one of the 13 protagonists and with them explore different areas and look for new clues. If you come up with an interesting thought during a conversation or after you observe something exciting, you can explore that topic elsewhere in order to receive new intel and thus make progress. That may sound complicated, but from a gameplay perspective, it comes very naturally and is visualised in an accessible manner.
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In 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, time and space lose their relevance rather quickly, at least until the central theme is revealed and the player finally grasps the situation. Until then you chase through different epochs, break through the boundaries of causality several times, and interact with both the ancient past as well as the future. Most of the characters follow a linear, chronological path, but some story routes are more varied. For example, there are a few times we are caught in a situation that - similar to Groundhog Day - lets us play the same scene over and over again while we are looking for the exit from the loop.
This adventure is enriched and softened with a strategy component, because, while we experience all of these events, the 13 characters still fight the final battle in the present, in order to avert an impending apocalypse. In the cockpit of the mighty Sentinels, which are 35-meter high combat robots, we have to defend against onrushing hordes of alien robots that want to destroy special reactors. A maximum of six fighters are allowed to take part in a battle but even if we could summon all 13 robots to the battlefield at the same time, we would still not be able to cope with enemy superiority in terms of numbers.
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13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim relies heavily on the power fantasy of being able to control towering war machines that can eliminate hundreds of dangerous enemies with a single blow. Our troops have unimaginable firepower, thanks to which they can neutralise the enemy Kaiju in large areas. The Sentinels are individual and each pilot has unique traits that develop as the character's level progresses. It is also imperative that you continue to develop your robots in order to meet the growing challenges you'll face in the battle - of course, the Kaiju adapt, too.
The result of this primarily turn-based experience is one thing above all: it's not very well-arranged. The problem lies within the simplified representation of each attack radius, the persistent area of effects, as well as in the visualisation of time. In combination with the dizzying number of enemies and the fixed camera perspective, the gaming experience is anything but inviting and makes precise targeting of your units all the more difficult. Especially in the later missions, I regularly felt overwhelmed due to this. You always have to be one step ahead of the Kaiju hordes while they are raining down from the sky. However, the difficulty level of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim remains very humane for the most part thanks to some powerful character development (only the last mission is something else entirely).
The strategy element isn't particularly pretty to watch, but it proves that developer Vanillaware can produce something different beyond simple 2D platformers. And despite my grumbling, I have to admit how much fun I had with a game mode that is simply called Destruction. The very limited enemy AI follows simple attack routines that stand no chance against the agile Sentinels. However, what they lack in strength they make up with their extreme numbers and this is why you have to prioritise your forces accordingly. If the enemy catches you by surprise, you will be overrun and lose control.
During these fights, you receive more information about the overall story ark, all while the emotional bonds between our characters are deepened. The cast consists of multiple teenagers and young adults who, despite all the supernatural incidents, had a fairly normal everyday life with all the usual problems, at least until recently. During their conversations, you'll see how emotions, feelings, and relationships are just as important as pop culture, food, and personal insecurity. Because this story is ultimately about not giving up hope, Vanillaware wants to lighten the mood from time to time.
Visual or narrative adventures often hit us with surprising plot twists and variations of known set pieces and tropes. Vanillaware picks up on this formula but turns it into something unique that is highly recognisable. In my opinion, the great storytelling of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim deserves special praise here for more than one reason: while games like Danganronpa, Zero Escape and Steins;Gate explore similarly exciting topics that also connect with some, this adventure is set out on a completely different level, both in terms of the scope of the central conflict, its resolution, and how it is all presented.
As you most likely have seen by now, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a feast for the eyes. The title has quite a few set pieces, all of which have a certain style and mood to them. The low sun is reflected in the glossy lino flooring and on the cleanly polished school desks, while at night bright neon signs transform the city into a sea of lights. Placing these figures in front of such dazzling environments can create some truly eye-catching moments - even if the design occasionally shows limitations in the washed-out 2D templates. Still, in my opinion, it is, without a doubt, one of the prettiest games of the year.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the most thrillingly told adventures that I have experienced in recent memory and at the same time I am pretty sure that it will be the densest, most thoughtful games that you'll lose yourself in this year. Although one can roughly arrange the puzzle pieces throughout the course of the game, it is only at the very end that you realise the overall picture and the extent of this fantastic story. However, as soon as it all falls into place and you finally realise what is about to unfold in front of your eyes, you'll appreciate this wonderful journey all the more.
9 / 10
Engaging presentation, battles empowers your (hidden) mecha fantasies, simple explanation of complicated sci-fi topics, extensive archive function helps answer your questions throughout the entire game.
Many characters and complex topics require a keen mind, fights can be confusing and lead to frame drops (even on a PS4 Pro).