Vanillaware is one of those niche developers that the average Call of Duty/FIFA/Need for Speed gamer has never heard of, nor would likely care about. This small Japanese company releases games infrequently, but when they do they are always worth experiencing. Their signature 2D hand-painted style looks like almost nothing else, and they apply it to a wide variety of themes. 2007's Grim Grimoire was a whimsical fantasy RTS (Real Time Strategy), and Odin Sphere (also 2007) was a 2D action RPG heavily influenced by Norse mythology, with a charming storybook aesthetic. 2009's Muramasa: The Demon Blade updated the Odin Sphere formula with Japanese mythological samurai action and 2013's Dragon’s Crown proudly displayed its Dungeons and Dragons’ influences on its intricately decorated warrior mage’s sleeve. Each game was a masterpiece of organic, involved, detailed game design with playability that equaled their fantastic presentation. I loved every one of Vanillaware’s previous efforts and was excited to hear that their long delayed (almost mythical in itself) magnum opus 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was finally due to release in September 2020.
THIS WILL BE A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW
13 Sentinels is something of a departure for Vanillaware - deviating from their (admittedly varied) fantasy model, it is a predominantly story-driven hard SF game with RTS elements. It’s quite hard to describe exactly what genre it belongs to - primarily because there’s really nothing else out there quite like it. Sure, it references a great many popular SF movies, classic books (most pointedly The War of the Worlds by HG Wells), anime and manga - especially 80's flicks like ET and Terminator, multiple Godzilla and other Kaiju movies (including the more recent Pacific Rim), anime like Macross and so many other great influences that would risk unnecessary spoilers if mentioned here. You could write a dissertation on its many inspirations and how 13 Sentinels uses them to both reinforce and subvert common pop culture tropes.
Positing itself as a multi-threaded time-travel adventure, 13 Sentinels is immediately disorienting to play. As the title suggests, we follow the story of 13 teenage characters who pilot the titular “Sentinels” - enormous metal behemoths - mobile battle suits - to fight wave after wave of mechanical monstrosities bent on destroying the world. The story is mostly communicated via short character-centric vignettes that can be read in almost any order. You pick the character you want to follow via a rotating character select screen, and then directly control their intricately detailed and animated sprite through their vividly-depicted hand-painted setting. Interaction with their world is very reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure games like Beneath a Steel Sky, Day of the Tentacle or The Dig. Though instead of collecting items, characters mostly collect keywords that open up conversation routes or allow interaction with certain objects. It plays a little like a visual novel, but seems more interactive, even though the story is very linear despite the multiple apparently branching paths to each story. Mostly it is fairly obvious how to advance the plot, but on a couple of occasions I had to check a wiki because the progress requirements were rather obscure (a well-known quirk of the genre).
Progress through the story (the section is called Remembrance) is gated by entry requirements - you can’t just blaze through one character’s story at the expense of others - eventually you’ll reach a roadblock that can only be passed by moving to another character, or by progressing in another section of the game (we’ll get to that in a minute). This method of drip-feeding plot progression works incredibly well. It’s almost like you interact with episodes of a particularly compelling TV drama - it leaves you wanting more at the conclusion of each episode - and often one character’s story will start up where the previous left off, or might give an alternative viewpoint of the same events and address unanswered questions.
To begin with, there are a lot of unanswered questions. I didn’t take notes while playing this, but I wonder if it may have been a good idea. 13 characters are initially very difficult to keep track of, especially when there are other non-playable primary characters, multiple versions of characters from different eras, characters pretending to be other characters, AI versions of characters and robotic doppelgangers... It takes a long, long time for all the narrative pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. I spent much of the game dumbfounded, confused and constantly re-evaluating what I had been told or observed. Truly this is a game where absolutely nothing can be taken at face value, there is always something else going on. Multiple times I thought that wouldn’t happen, that’s silly, that breaks the immersion. Then later, the game would directly address my criticisms by explaining the circumstances behind the events I had initially criticised. Yes, there are lots of bonkers plot twists and bizarre occurrences - but they all make perfect sense within the complex yet sturdy world built by the game. Even the characters’ cockpit nudity(!) has a well-conceived and logical reasoning behind it. (For a Vanillaware game there is very little overt lewdness and the characters are treated with respect. This is not a fanservice game... Ok, maybe apart from one character’s improbably levitating breasts.)
Thank God for the Analysis aspect. This is the second section of the game and it is itself split into two sections. The first orders each individual scene chronologically, and you can filter by character or have everything integrated into one unholy, unwieldy single timeline. Eagle-eyed players might realise there is something a bit... wrong... with the way the dates are arranged. That will be explained later in the game. The story is not only split across 13 protagonists, but across 5 different time periods at 40-year-intervals: 1945, 1985, 2025, 2065 and 2105. The bulk of the game’s action takes place in 1985, and here is where many adorable references to 80's movies and pop culture appear. The second segment of the Analysis aspect is similar to the TIPS list from Science Adventure Series games like Steins;Gate - it’s an invaluable glossary of terms and character information that is continually updated as you progress through the game. If you are confused by anything that occurs in the plot, the likelihood is that it will be explained in clear, lucid English here. This is a game that rewards reading the (not-so) ancillary material.
The third and final aspect of 13 Sentinels is Destruction - and this is the part that plays most like a traditional “game”. A frantic RTS with fairly simplified graphics, in later levels this still manages to make a PS4 Pro shudder with the sheer number of enemies, missiles, lasers, explosions and particles filling the screen. I expect that slowdown may be an issue on a standard PS4, though I only played it on a Pro. I’m not the biggest fan of RTS games, though I was partial to the original Command & Conquer back in the Commodore Amiga days. It took me a while to warm up to this section, and in the early game I was impatient to blast through the levels to get to the story. Once you get about a third of the way through the plot, the game forces you to play a bunch of RTS levels to unlock the next chunk of story. Later levels ramp up the difficulty along with the customisation options for each character’s mech, and that’s where it started to hook me. Different mechs have different abilities and strengths, and exploiting them becomes key to progression. I’ll say it now - sentry guns saved my life on so many occasions. You can’t just use the same strategy for every fight because there is an exhaustion mechanic - after a couple of battles, pilots must rest while you choose another team. Some stages require you to use certain combinations of pilots to fulfil bonus requirements and this is a good way of forcing the player to expand their repertoire of combat options.
There is a particularly affecting scene towards the end of the game, during the RTS section, where the characters are battling an unending wave of overpowered enemies - at the point when all hope seems lost, the obligatory idol singer character bursts into song to keep her comrades’ hope alive. The song Seaside Vacation replaces the techno battle music to incredible effect. This was such an unexpected and surprisingly emotional moment that it actually brought me to tears - partly with nostalgia for Robotech/Macross I suppose. That moment was (pardon the profanity) anime as fuck, and I absolutely loved it. If an RTS game with lumbering mechs fighting mechanical monstrosities can make me cry, then it is something incredible special.
Of course without the fantastic character work during the story, no amount of saccharine idol music would have moved my heart. Every one of these characters is a memorable individual with relatable (if occasionally inscrutable) drives and desires. They have discrete senses of humour - especially cross-dressing coder/hacker gremlin Tsukasa Okino and his relentless trolling of poor besotted/confused Takatoshi Hijiyama. Their relationship is funny, heartbreaking and unpredictable. So well written is each of these easily distinguishable characters it is so hard to choose a favourite. I have a big soft spot for sporty girl Natsuno Minami who is such a total sci-fi geek. Her interactions with ET-like robot BJ are nothing short of adorable, and the conclusion to their story was another part that made me cry. Extremely pretty but slightly creepy Megumi Yakushiji gives serious Homura Akemi from Madoka Magica vibes with her obsessive love of fellow student Juro Okabe (and she is charged with hunting “witches” by a sinister, apparently supernatural cat...) but I can’t go into why I love so many of the other characters because it will involve spoiling a game that really should be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible.
It’s rare that I’m so driven to finish a game in so short a time after release, but once 13 Sentinels got its grip on me, it would not release until I discovered what happened to this amazing cast of characters, and their fascinating world full of apparent inconsistencies and contradictions. This game invaded my dreams - seriously, I spent a couple of nights dreaming in multiple-choice with dialogue trees. To say the ending is satisfying would be an understatement. It is narratively spectacular and emotionally perfect and left me once again in tears. I really want to be able to talk about why this happened, but whoever spoils this game probably deserves to have their genitals electrocuted repeatedly. I cannot recommend 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim strongly enough. Although I’ve only just finished it, I feel the draw to return to experience the (apparently very challenging) post-game content - although the story is over, further battles beckon. I just want to spend more time with these characters and I’d really love it if you could join me.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
Writer and Director: George Kamitani
Artists: Yukiko Hirai and Emika Kida
Platform: PS4 exclusive (Vita version cancelled during development)
PEGI Rating: 12
Languages: Japanese and English (fantastic English dub, by the way)
Release Date: November 28 2019 (Japan) September 22nd 2020 (Worldwide)
Genre: Adventure/Visual Novel/Real-time Strategy
Completion time: (100% story, 100% battles, no post-game content attempted): 41 hours
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