What time is it? What day is it? What year is it? The passage of time really is a tricky thing. That’s especially true today more than ever as we’re still mostly working and studying from home in this pandemic. Putting around 10 hours into playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I realized something: this game is a love letter, written by Vanillaware on behalf of science fiction, and sent directly to me personally. This is a love letter for me, to remind me of the things I love about my favorite science fiction titles and games, and why I should continue to love them through 13 Sentinels itself. There are a lot of games where I can say “I really dig this game,” or “This game really appealed to me,” but I don’t know of many games that, while playing, I suddenly realize are for me. I am pretty sure that when Vanillaware were making this game, they didn’t have me in mind, but they totally clocked me with everything this game is doing. By the time I reached a good stopping point, I had a second realization: I was so wrapped up in playing 13 Sentinels that I forgot I was supposed to be writing this review.
Also, it was 5 in the morning! 💦
What’s this 13 Sentinels thing all about? Before I get into how this game reeled me in and refuses to let me go, here’s what ATLUS had to say about the game:
Vanillaware, the storytellers behind Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, craft a sci-fi mystery epic spanning thirteen intertwining stories.
Uncover the truth and delve into a 2D sidescrolling adventure featuring gorgeous art and environments. Then, battle the kaiju in fast-paced, top-down combat. Customize the Sentinels with an arsenal of mechsuit weaponry, and fight to defend humanity!
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a sci-fi love letter composed of two gameplay genres: a story-driven, fractured narrative, and a strategy based tower defense game. The story mode features Vanillaware’s best visuals to date, with gorgeously rendered 2D characters against painted backgrounds, while the strategy portion features a semi-top down view of a city under siege by pixelated aliens. These two modes are so different that the game doesn’t even really attempt to fit them together. Instead, when the tutorial chapter is over, you can select on a main menu which you’d like to play, and can swap between diving into the deep and complicated storyline or blasting aliens to your heart’s content, only requiring to swap back and forth occasionally as the game nudges you to remember it has two halves.
In my first few hours of play, I found this system somewhat confusing, but after a while, it clicked. It clicked in such a way that I really appreciated being given the freedom to pursue the story until I exhausted my options, or just playing the strategy elements of the game for a better score and upgrades until I got tired. 13 Sentinels isn’t so much interested in blending genres and making something new, as it is giving you two genres, and letting you swap between them whenever you want. As I delved deeper and deeper into the game, I started to realize that this wasn’t even a choice of development (as in, they couldn’t find a way to make them mix) but actually a choice of conscious design, related to the overall love letter; it was the weighted, classy paper and svelte ink that made the letter just that much more enticing and enjoyable to behold.
But what do I mean by love letter? I think that term gets used a lot for media but doesn’t really get a lot of thought. In the case of 13 Sentinels, it means that this game is made by, and for, people who really, really love sci-fi as a genre, and who grew up inundated in various types of sci-fi. Right away, the game establishes a specific connection: War of the Worlds, quoting the novel directly in the game itself! Massive quadruped walkers get compared to the Martian Tripods of the classic novel (and not so classic films), but 13 Sentinels doesn’t stop there. Sinister men in black, helpless alien robots, giant kaiju and robots, time travel, alternate dimensions, magical girls and UFOs all find their way into the game’s plot, and (importantly!) find ways to make all of it work.
As I kept playing, I kept realizing little callbacks to popular sci-fi movies, novels, and other media: War of the Worlds, Terminator, Godzilla, Ultraman, Sukeban Deka, Steins;Gate, Short Circuit, E.T., and so many more. It feels almost like if you could name a science fiction movie dealing with time travel, aliens, or UFOs, it might have some sort of representation in 13 Sentinels. What struck me about this realization was that the game didn’t feel as if it were “stealing” stories from other titles, but instead referencing them in a way that made the concepts familiar, but wholly unique in the game itself. There is a lot of debate about whether it is possible to tell “new” stories or not, but 13 Sentinels isn’t interested in being a trailblazer—it wants to tell a sci-fi story in honor of the sci-fi stories that very obviously influenced its creators. A love letter’s job is to remind you, the reader, of why you loved the author in the first place, or being reminded that you are loved and cared about, and in 13 Sentinels, Vanillware does exactly that, reminding us of the boundless possibilities of science fiction as a form of entertainment and expression.
It’s hard to really talk about the story of 13 Sentinels itself without getting into spoiler territory, so suffice to say the game involves 13 distinct protagonists who are all somehow related to piloting the titular Sentinels. These Sentinels are the last line of defense against the Kaiju, alien invaders hellbent on finding their way to the Terminals, a place that holds many of answers to the story’s mysteries. When media have large casts, it can be a struggle for each character to stand out, and even harder for secondary or tertiary characters to do so. 13 Sentinels manages to craft an engaging and interesting cast of protagonists, each one somehow unique and familiar (the amnesiac pilot, the man from another dimension, the delinquent with a secret, the time traveler, etc.) whose stories are both deeply personal while related to the main plot of alien invasion.
I honestly couldn’t say that any character felt like another, and that made me appreciate the story even more. I found myself playing character storylines in marathons, going through routes and choices until the game refused to let me progress any further in that particular storyline. Even more intriguing is that the game handles its winding and confusing chronology shockingly well, with small tidbits of events being revealed in character’s interactions with one another across storylines in ways that make even seemingly mundane interactions all the more meaningful. For example, a dropped student ID in one character’s storyline is a minor detail that becomes a major plot point in a different one, and depending on the order you play the story, the weight of that revelation will likely hit very differently.
The strategy side of things is perhaps more familiar than the story side of the game; players take up to 6 combatants out into a grid-based city map to defend against waves of Kaiju, utilizing various abilities and styles (melee, all-rounder, long range, and flight support) to complete stage objectives. Each stage allows players to try 3 different difficulty levels, and the difficulty can be altered on the fly, meaning that you can easily start at Casual, move to Normal, and then Intense to challenge yourself and earn more points, or simply stay at the difficulty you find the most natural while playing the game.
Since you have 13 characters to choose from, those who aren’t selected as Attackers will be placed as Defenders, who have passive support abilities that help you out as you manage the battlefield. The game also asks you to swap characters out from the frontlines by using the Brain Over Load (BOL) meter, which when full makes characters unable to participate in battles as either attackers or defenders. In my experience this usually meant I could get 3 or 4 wins under my belt before having to use the Recover feature, which only resets your Win Streak bonuses as a negative, while refreshing my crew. Since I was playing for completion (whether I knew it or not at the time!) I ended up not paying much attention to this mechanic, usually refreshing after achieving that sweet S rank across all difficulties and moving on to the next stage. 🏆
The graphics of Destruction Mode took a bit getting used to for me, as the gorgeous drawn sprites of the story mode are replaced by retro style pixels to represent my Sentinels and enemy Kaiju. Not gonna lie, I was slightly disappointed to not see my mechs stomping around on the battlefield, but I grew to appreciate the view as sort of a battlefield commander style approach, with myself guiding my units through enemy waves from a remote perspective. What eventually sold me even more was the fact that enemy Kaiju, in their pixel forms, really drove home the idea of games like Space Invaders or Galaga, which, based on how deliberate the rest of the game is in terms of homages, suddenly made the battle mode aesthetics click for me. 👾
Difficulty choice removes a lot of concern in terms of player skill preventing you from enjoying the story; if tower defense strategy games are not your cup of tea, Casual difficulty will let you easily enjoy the thrill of combat without overwhelming you, while Intense will certainly challenge your preparedness and abilities to memorize enemy waves and attacks. I found myself replaying stages for points to level my characters and buy upgrades, but players not interested in grinding will likely find the game is more than compensating to keep you challenged but not overwhelmed.
Aesthetically, this is perhaps Vanillaware’s most gorgeous game ever. I’ve always enjoyed Vanillaware’s library of games since Grim Grimoire and Odin Sphere, but even Dragon’s Crown can’t compete aesthetically with 13 Sentinels. While older games usually focused on hyper-exaggerated characters to mask awkward animation cycles or stand out, 13 Sentinels feels like a game in which Vanillaware manages to achieve fluid, anime style graphics that feel alive and real. Characters’ faces carry emotion with small movements, and the color palette of the game relies on an almost Zorn palette for every sequence, with heavy yellow, brown, green, and red colors (with some blue here and there, sorry Zorn) blending into the game’s color tones. After playing through each of the characters, I actually became more aware of this shared palette than I was beforehand, and I feel like this was an artistic choice to give the game a specific tone. Rather than rely on a sepia filter or other tool to make the game seem like a movie, 13 Sentinels uses this limited palette to build a unified world, even as characters bounce around throughout hundreds of years of human history.
Perhaps the best way to describe this use of color is that the game feels “comfortable”, and this extends to Vanillaware’s tendency for animating some of the most delicious looking food in games anywhere. Although eating is far less of a mechanic here than in previous games, when food is on screen, you know it, and the lovingly rendered dishes make you very hungry, even if you already ate prior to playing! I found myself wanting to eat ice cream, hot dogs, crepes and yakisoba pan as soon as possible! 🌭
Of course, as much as I love 13 Sentinels, it does have a few odd quirks. The tutorial is a somewhat dizzying array of story-beats and narrative, and I will admit that my first gut reaction was that I had no idea what was going on and worried that would not improve. But once the game opened up, I found that it essentially contained 13 intertwined, but separate, narratives, and a fantastic third mode to the game that allowed me to check story scenes, terms, and characters at the drop of a hat. But just getting through that tutorial requires a bit of investment and patience that you will not be getting answers to questions, and instead will just get more questions than you had before, which might frustrate some players.
Also, as much as the battle mode is fun, the real attraction factor for me here is the story. If you aren’t a sci-fi lover or don’t enjoy deep, long narratives in your video games, you probably will find 13 Sentinels pretty to look at, but somewhat tedious to play. You can also say that the story mode could be presented as a visual novel, without the need for gorgeous animated characters and backgrounds, as you generally don’t find anything or need to perform gameplay functions in these side-scrolling theaters. For my needs, though, I appreciated how well animated the game is overall, which made me appreciate the extra touches in having these story sequences play out in a grandiose way, rather than just talking heads. On another note, I sometimes got ‘stuck’ in the game due to finicky or odd story triggers, and while these weren’t bugs, it certainly felt like progression in such a story based game shouldn’t be hindered by standing exactly one pixel off of where a character needs me to be to progress the sequence.
As the new generation of consoles is literally knocking at our door (please, come back next year, I don’t think we can handle a console debate in this cursed year), 13 Sentinels strikes me as an almost timeless game. It doesn’t look overly fancy, but it certainly needs the modern technology of games to pull off its seamless and fluid animations. But in 10 years, 13 Sentinels is still going to look amazing, because its designs are chosen in such a way as to resist dating themselves, to look “old”, in ways that other games struggle with. And I find that timeless quality endearing in a game with a narrative this strong; it makes me feel that, years from now, if I were to want to revisit 13 Sentinels, I could do so easily and live through the stories of these characters again without worrying about graphics or gameplay. Instead, I would know that this game, like the timeless sci-fi books, movies, games, and other media it draws from, will be waiting for me, ready for me to scream at my television as a mystery of the story again clicks into place and changes the way I understood the last 5 hours of storyline. And really, I can’t think of anything better than that for a love letter like this: to be made exactly for me, waiting for me to come back and fall in love with it all over again.
Many thanks to the excellent folks at ATLUS for the chance to preview this gem of a game! It’s definitely one I won’t ever forget! If you want to know the latest news about their releases, make sure to follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Until next time! ✨
Are you excited for Vanillaware’s latest masterpiece? What’s got you curious about the game? Let me know in the comments below!