I’m a huge fan of incredibly dense, complex stories. Ones that require active thinking from the reader to keep track of them, as they weave multiple narratives together. Ones that keep me thinking of them long after I’ve put down the book or controller, putting pieces of it together in my head.
It takes one hell of a skilled writer to pull off a story like this. Meshing together multiple viewpoints, defining the jargon of a created world, and leaving just enough mystery to keep the audience guessing, while still making the tale readable is one hell of a balancing act.
But when it’s pulled off successfully, the crafted story often stays with me long after the final page, or the credits roll. 13 Sentinels is one of these games.
Developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is set for release on September 22, 2020, for PS4.
Destruction Through the Ages
The world is coming to an end, in the most spectacular and sci-fi way possible. Giant mechanical beasts known as the Deimos have invaded Japan and, if news reports are to be believed, the entire world. The last line of defense is the Sentinels, giant mecha robots built to drive off the invasion.
Yes, when written out, the core premise of 13 Sentinels is an incredibly cliché mecha anime plot. It’s from this baseline, though, that the writers at Vanillaware go absolutely wild, building out what I can honestly say is one of the best pieces of sci-fi literature I’ve ever read.
As implied by the title, 13 Sentinels is told through the viewpoints of thirteen separate main characters. Each has their own personal story, told with its own tone, which weaves into the overall narrative. Right off the bat, writing thirteen stories is a tall task, let alone telling each of them well. Hell, even the most dense visual novels I’ve read max out at five or six plotlines.
Vanillaware handles this challenge with a deft hand, though. Every single one of these main players is a fully fleshed out and believable character. Each of their tales are fully realized, often loaded with emotion and climactic moments. None of them are particularly long (each running maybe two-to-three hours), but there’s no loss in character development as each of the characters are woven into other’s tales as well.
I do have to admit, though, that 13 Sentinels can be a challenging read. Each storyline takes place at a different moment on the overall plot timeline. There’s numerous time skips, loops, and moments that play out differently depending on whose viewpoint is being used at the time. There’s also a massive amount of key characters to keep track of; outside of the thirteen main characters, there’s nearly double that amount in plot-important NPCs.
The layout of the story here reminded me quite a bit of the Zero Escape series, particularly Zero Time Dilemma. Every time you jump back into a character’s story, a new vignette plays out, and upon completion, you discover its place on a flowchart that lays out the overall timeline. Making sense of the plot here, especially early on, does demand active attention and some work from the reader.
Luckily, 13 Sentinels doesn’t allow things to get too confusing, often locking the story of one character until another character’s tale is played to a certain point. Plot revelations often hide behind these locks, so there is a bit of reader guidance here to maintain the pace of the storytelling.
Really, its the pacing that leads this game’s tale to stand head and shoulders above others, like the aforementioned Zero Time Dilemma. Each time you jump into a character’s story, you’re only there for 20 minutes or so before being booted back out to pick which story to continue. This is often just enough time to push the individual story forward, while introducing a bit more character development and sprinkling in just enough intrigue to encourage continued reading.
The story vignettes being so short means each player can approach the thirteen tales here however they wish. Want to focus on a single character at a time? You can do that (story locks aside). Curious about why one character suddenly appeared at the end of a story segment? You can jump over to that character’s story real quick to figure out why. The way much of the story unfolds is left up to the player, an incredibly impressive feat with how complicated the writing already is, and I was left in shock at how the game pulled this off so well.
My biggest critique here is that some minor story moments can become repetitive. Time travel is a key aspect in 13 Sentinels’ story, which leads to a few story points being played out multiple times. A couple of the characters begin each section of their stories playing out the exact same sequence of events before branching out to a new plot path. It never really becomes more than an annoyance, but it happens enough to be notable.
Battle On the Grid
Most gamers that know Vanillaware likely know them from their Action RPG titles such as Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown. 13 Sentinels is quite a shift in genre for the studio, and one they handle surprisingly well.
The vast majority of the game plays out mostly as a visual novel, with a sprinkling of adventure game mechanics. You’ll be reading dialogue for at least 20 of the game’s 30 hour runtime. The adventure aspects come in the form of keywords, collected from dialogue that can then be used around the environment (or with other characters) to prompt new conversations and unlock other areas to explore.
Exploration itself is minimal, with each story vignette limited to three or four screens. The game also makes it plainly obvious what needs to be done to progress the story; opening up the narrative flowchart (accessible at any time) usually reveals what keywords you need to use to travel down a specific path.
The adventure gameplay is passable, but I found myself sprinting through it to get to more dialogue as the game progressed. The system is built well, but I eventually reached the point where I just wanted the story to continue, rather than poking around the school grounds to find money and buy lunch to unlock a new path.
Outside of the main story portion of the game is “Destruction” mode, where the actual gameplay of 13 Sentinels exists. It’s here where you actually take control of a squad of Sentinels to drive off the invading Deimos from the city.
This mode plays out as a combination of real-time strategy, turn-based strategy, and tower defense. Most maps task you with defending a “Terminal,” a structure located on the map, from hordes of invading Deimos. The thirteen main characters are divided into four classes of Sentinels: ground-based heavy hitters, units focused on long range attacks, all-arounders that emphasize building defenses, and flying units, from which you build a squad of up to six for each battle.
Invasions play out in real time, with Deimos squads crashing in from the sky, attacking, and slowly making their way toward the Terminal. When a unit’s turn comes up, the game stops to allow you to put in movements or actions, with most attacks occurring immediately. Movement and some heavier attacks, though, begin acting once the game returns to real time.
I found movement and positioning to be key to completing these segments. Every Sentinel moves at its own speed, and are restricted to following city streets (unless they are a flying unit). Success means taking into account the time it takes for a unit to get into position. Most instantly-occurring attacks also come with some free movement, which is vitally important to take advantage of.
As a noted non-fan of real-time strategy and tower defense, I still somehow found myself enjoying this aspect of 13 Sentinels. Perhaps it’s because the system here is a simplified blend of both, rather than being a complex and hardcore strategy game. Maybe it’s because no battle takes more than five minutes to complete. Or, more realistically, it’s because I focused entirely on the story mode before tackling these missions, and I was able to use all the experience points gathered from there to level up my Sentinels early and melt through nearly every fight.
Whatever the reason, going into these battles with all of the aforementioned experience points made most of them a breeze – I S-Ranked all but one fight in the first two “areas” out of three total, as well as completed every single side objective (ranging from only using four Sentinels in some fights to maintaining the Terminal at a certain health percentage).
I also ended up pouring a ton of upgrades into one of my ground Sentinels, turning it into a legitimate killing machine. One major mission, played up with the arrival of a special enemy and a unique song playing in the background, I absolutely broke open with this Sentinel. What seems was supposed to be a slow march to the boss Deimos came down to using a leaping attack with my overpowered Sentinel to get over enemies lines, rushing to the boss, and pulling out its most powerful attack a few times in a row, destroying it in seconds.
So if you like to break open games by making yourself overpowered, it is definitely possible in 13 Sentinels.
Views from the End of the World
Vanillaware has a reputation for unique and stunning visual design, and 13 Sentinels is no slouch in this department. The game is absolutely gorgeous, to the point where I could easily use any still frame from the game as a canvas art piece on my wall.
The aesthetics here are much more subdued compared to past Vanillaware games, likely due to the shift from fantasy environments to real-world and sci-fi ones. But even the more drab areas explode to life due to some wonderful lighting and shadow work.
Character animations are wonderful as well, often conveying the personalities of each of the characters without them having to speak a word. The Deimos are animated suitably otherworldly, having a weird gait to them. It’s easy to feel the weight of the Sentinels as well, just from watching their moments on screen.
Unfortunately, the strategy battle segments often suffer from some truly legendary slowdown and framerate drops. These segments take place on a wireframe map full of particle effects, and it doesn’t seem my PS4 can keep up when there’s tons of Deimos on the map at one time. One battle near the end, seeing an absolute flood of Deimos coming from all directions, played at the framerate of a NES Mega Man game the entire fight.
13 Sentinels is set to have a full English voice dub at launch, but it was not ready for the review period, so I played through with Japanese voice acting. The amount of voice work here is extensive; there’s not a single line of dialogue that goes unvoiced. Each of the actors and actresses fit their characters well, and most seem to avoid dropping into an “anime” style of overacting, save one or two.
Classic in the Making
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game that I have been anticipating for years. I am glad to say that, after finally getting to play through it, it has not only met my expectations, but far surpassed them. It was not hyperbole earlier when I said the story here is one of the best sci-fi tales I have experienced in ages.
The writer behind this game, George Kamitani, is an absolute madman, somehow writing thirteen separate stories and weaving them together with such finesse. It’s not often I find myself sitting in front of a game for hours anymore, but 13 Sentinels had that “just one more” pull on me, keeping me going right on through to the end credits.
I wish I could say the game was without issues, though. Some repetitive storytelling moments drag down the pacing here and there. Also, for a studio so lauded for its visuals, the horrifying slowdown during the strategy battle segments is borderline offensive.
Even with these issues, though, 13 Sentinels is an absolute must play, especially for those seeking a good narrative in gaming. This is the kind of story that’s going to stick in my mind for weeks to come, and easily stands up with some of the best stories I’ve experienced in any medium.
Review copy provided by Atlus for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.