Time travel from the past. Time travel from the future. Mecha. Kaiju. Cats with contracts. Mysterious men in black. Romance. Friendship. Playing the opening hours of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim's prologue, it can't help but feel like dozens of plots stitched together into one. But miraculously, it works.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the latest game from Vanillaware, arguably the best illustrative artists in the gaming biz. The studio is known for the RPGs Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown, two beautifully illustrated games with some exaggerated (and unintentionally hilarious) women character models. 13 Sentinels being a game developed exclusively for PlayStation 4, it's easily the prettiest game the studio has ever produced. From the way the sun shines through the window of a high school classroom to the short preview animations that show how a mecha's move plays out during combat, 13 Sentinels clearly takes advantage of the current hardware. It makes the gap from its last game, 2013's Dragon's Crown, even more evident.
Though I didn't get a glimpse of it in the prologue, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has a unique structure. The game is divided up into two distinct chunks: story-driven segments that progress each of the 13 main characters's individual stories, and real-time strategy combat. While the prologue dances with both, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim producer Akiyasu Yamamoto is particularly proud of how the game progresses in the story proper.
"Each episode of the characters' story mode can be played in about 10-15 minute segments," writes Yamamoto over email. "Countless new mysteries emerge within each episode, with new information being constantly discovered and updated in the battle and glossary modes, so you continue to live your everyday life with a sustained feeling of always getting that little bit closer to the truth."
How the story unfolds in the opening prologue is, to be frank, initially hard to follow. It bounces from character to character, but luckily, everyone's memorable in their own way. Amidst all that, there are heavily tutorialized RTS battles. The RTS battles so far have been a touch too easy for my taste, but I reckon that the deeper I progress, the more complicated it will get. For now, characters seem to be divided into close-range combat types and long-range combat types, with some boasting defensive actions. The win-loss state for the battles I've stomped across so far lies in ensuring a "terminal"—a big landmark on the city's map—doesn't get destroyed by the invading forces, with wins determined by clearing out all the enemies on the map.
Even with RTS that's lacking in the strategy department so far, the story on the sidelines remains engaging. In its opening hours, it's delivered in a highly nonlinear fashion, with more becoming clear the more characters you get to play as. It hops across not just the year 1985, but beyond that too. It's an enticing mystery that's already left me with a lot of questions.
It's primarily set in a distinct era: the mid-1980s. The '80s inspiration is clear in the design of the bulky, towering mechas. Nowhere near as slick as the likes of Evas in Neon Genesis Evangelion, 13 Sentinels's "Sentinel" design skews closer to the likes of Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross. They're big and chunky, with teens piloting them, of course. The '80s inspiration extends beyond that too; sometimes subtly, sometimes more overtly. Two characters in particular even find themselves personally invested in the likes of UFO-related mysteries and kaiju (big monster) movies, respectively.
"We also structured a lot of the story around homages to works from the '80s and prior, so the deeper the player's literacy is in other works of legacy science fiction, the more they'll be able to speculate if 'maybe this moment is based on that other work,' or 'if this is inspired by XX,'" says Yamamoto. "In this way, the player's experience becomes one-of-a-kind, a gradual process of expanding their speculation and exploring their assumptions and instincts of what the real hidden truths could be.
"The '80s also marked a time in Japan when the economy was booming, and we saw many kinds of entertainment subcultures in games and anime emerging. I personally feel that diving into this world of niches will probably be a very different experience when seen from the perspective of a Western player, whose familiarity of that era might be fundamentally different due [to] having a completely different cultural perspective. It'll definitely be very interesting to see how players in the West put their own spin on interpreting and elevating their own experience of playing the game."
At launch, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim will have a Japanese VO track—which I'm currently playing on—and a separate day one patch for English VO. The localization, from what I've seen in the prologue, is stellar so far. Personalities shine through the dialogue, aided in part by how much more expressive the character art is compared to past Vanillaware games. For Yamamoto, he hopes that players beyond Japan are able to connect with 13 Sentinels's twisty-turny story, even though it's rooted in Japanese culture.
"Although I can't deny that I occasionally worry about how much of the game's nuance will truly come across to players in the West, considering the linguistic and cultural barriers, at the end of the day, this game's sci-fi grounding is universal," he says. "It's also a product of Atlus, known for our quality and care in localization. My hope is that Western players can settle in and enjoy the story naturally—even as it takes place on a distant island in the far Eastern corner of the world, with its own unique history and unfamiliar folktales—and see it through to its end."
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is releasing on PlayStation 4 exclusively on Sept. 22. It was originally released last November in Japan, where it was lauded by Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai and Nier creative director Taro Yoko. Sakurai urged all game writers to play it, while Yoko called Vanillaware a "treasure of the gaming industry," according to a translation via Siliconera.
As for what's next, Yamamoto says the studio's sights aren't set to further ports of other Vanillaware games. (Sorry Switch dreamers.) "As the publisher, there's always a desire for as many players as possible to experience our Atlus x Vanillaware titles, and we're always willing to consider the possibility if we deem that the demand is high," clarifies Yamamoto. "However, at the moment, it's been two long years since our most recent title, Dragon's Crown Pro, and seven even longer years since we released a completely original title as Atlus x Vanillaware with the original Dragon's Crown. As such, for now, it'd mean the world to us if players can enjoy 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, our latest game to come to the PS4."
If nothing else, playing 13 Sentinels so far has got me really craving food. Because what Vanillaware game would it be if the food didn't look absolutely delectable? That aspect of Vanillaware's games is nowhere near lost here—even in the prologue there's an extended sequence revolving around a yakisoba pan, a yummy-looking sandwich filled with yakisoba noodles. Is there any developer that renders better food in games than Vanillaware? Nope.
Correction, 9:35 a.m. PT: The original article cited Akiyasu Yamamoto as a producer at Vanillaware, when he is actually a producer at Atlus on 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. We have fixed the text and regret the error.