13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review: A Cruel Kaiju's Thesis

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review: A Cruel Kaiju's Thesis

Vanillaware's latest is a twisty sci-fi melodrama, with a bland side of RTS.

For weeks on end, I'd settle into 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim like a book. I'd make a whiskey and Coke, cuddle up with a blanket, and dive into reading lines and lines of text for a few hours. Unlike Vanillaware's Odin Sphere, Dragon's Crown, and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is largely an adventure game, with real-time strategy battling spliced in between its long-winded bouts with plot.

Teetering between 25 to 30 hours long, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of Vanillaware's most extensive games yet. It's the sort of game where as little as possible should be known before jumping in. To preserve that experience—a sci-fi melodrama with more twists and turns than I can feasibly count (believe me, I tried!)—I'll attempt to be as light on details as writerly possible. But I digress: You've never played anything as loopy as this before.

In its extensive prologue, 13 Sentinels first plops you into the role of Juro Karabe, a teen who's infatuated with big monster (better known as "kaiju") and robot ("mecha") movies. When he sees a giant mecha in the center of town for the first time, it takes him by complete surprise. It's just like in the movies, he tells his friends. Unbeknownst to him then, he'd eventually go on to pilot the giant robot—named "Sentinels" here—and uncover many mysteries about his own identity in the process.

Iori Fuyusaka and Tomi Kisaragi eat an after school treat with their friend Miwako Sawatari. | Caty McCarthy/USG, Vanillaware/Atlus

Set largely in a Japanese city in 1985, 13 Sentinels quickly introduces 13 teens and the Sentinels they pilot. There's the aforementioned Juro, the perpetually sleepy Iori Fuyusaka, the mysterious Ei Sekigahara, the Rei Ayanami-like Ryoko Shinonome, pompadour'd delinquent Nenji Ogata, lovesick puppy-boy Takatoshi Hijiyama, UFO-enthusiast (and Chie-attitude reminiscent) Natsuno Minami, the old-at-heart Keitaro Miura, pigtail-braided Tomi Kisaragi, raven-haired attractive girl with wire glasses (an anime mainstay) Megumi Yakushiji, icy cool gang leader Yuki Takamiya, colossal flirt Shu Amiguchi, and finally Renya Gouto, who looks like the titular lead from Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto, only Renya has no sense of humor.

Customary for Vanillaware, 13 Sentinels is stunning. While its palette is less colorful than the studio's past games thanks to its focus on purples and grays, it's nonetheless beautiful. From its Sentinel designs and environment lighting to how Iori's luscious gray hair tussles just as she stands still and breathes, this is perhaps the most impeccably detailed of all Vanillaware's games.

There are more characters beyond the 13 pilots, but when it comes to controlling characters, it's these 13 teens that you'll embody throughout the turbulent, time-traveling-and-looping romp that is 13 Sentinels. There is romance and heartbreak, like love triangles and one-sided pining. There is drama and mystery; humor and thrills. To say the journey 13 Sentinels takes players on is a rollercoaster is an understatement. While it veers into some familiar tropes, it truly never went in a direction I wholly expected. Staggeringly, every character has a rich amount of depth and is treated as a main character in their own right, which is no simple feat. And yet, they're all carefully tailored to be another puzzle piece to the grander story that is 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

The structure of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, beyond the linear prologue, is the adventure game's greatest strength. Once brushed past its debut hours, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim opens wide. Suddenly, there's a carousel of characters to jump between, and no guidance on who to pick "first." Only total freedom. After a chapter of a character is completed, you're bumped back to the selection screen, and are given the option of continuing on to see that character's story arc, or jumping into another's. At times I would power through multiple sections in a row of a character's story if I was engrossed; other times, I'd meet a character that made me interested to see more about what's going on with them, so I'd hop over to their story next.

While 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has a lot of text, it isn't all about walking across 2-dimensional screens and talking to people. It actually operates more akin to a point-and-click adventure game—minus the point-and-clicking. For the inventory, each character instead has a Thought Cloud, where the names of characters, places, and things appear. In the Thought Cloud screen, the character at hand has the option to ruminate on a concept more, and if near a character, even bring it up in conversation with them. This usually unlocks further words or information to expand on ideas in the Thought Cloud.

It makes for a puzzle-y experience. For example, in one character's arc, they're stuck in a time loop and are on the hunt for ways to deviate from the "inevitable" events that happen. They do this by interacting with different characters upon each time loop "refresh," and the mysteries they solve per time loop helps in unlocking further options. I definitely got stuck a handful of times across 13 Sentinels' individual stories, but it was never for too long.

At times, 13 Sentinels understandably forces your hand. Some characters will have progression of their story locked behind other progress—whether it's getting to a certain chapter point in some other character's arc, or even getting to a certain point in the RTS side of the game. This light guidance helps in ensuring players don't just binge arc after arc, but in some circumstances, the gating works against it.

Take one character in particular, who when unlocked can have their prologue chapter played, but afterward, their progress is locked until 12 other characters have 80% completion. Essentially by the time I got to their story, it was nearly the only one I had left. It led to a dry hour or so of pure exposition, as this character's story arc had the least interactivity and puzzle-solving of all the ones before it. It led to a deflated-feeling ending to the adventure half of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

While most of my time spent playing 13 Sentinels was in the adventure "half," there's actually a necessary second side to engage with: one stuffed with the aforementioned RTS battles. The RTS half of 13 Sentinels is... adequate, if I were to sum it up in a word. Levels are divided into "waves," and there are dozens in total. The Sentinels are divided into four classes: 1st Generation (Melee), 2nd Generation (All-Rounder), 3rd Generation (Long-Range), and 4th Generation (Flight Support), with just six allowed to be deployed per level. Just as with the character stories, sometimes progress in the RTS side of 13 Sentinels is gated by moving onward to a certain point in the story side.

13 Sentinels attempts to spice up the RTS battles via bonus objectives, which are successfully completed through meeting certain requirements. In some cases, trying to meet the bonus objectives is a fun challenge. In one, I had to pick pilots only from two Sentinel classes, leaving me at a major disadvantage balance-wise and leading to more creative problem solving in-battle. Successfully overcoming bonus objectives, which unfortunately most of the time are not difficult to achieve, nets exclusive new terms in the glossary section to read up on. Otherwise, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is plainly too easy on its default difficulty. (There is a higher difficulty labeled Intense, however.)

In the back-half of the RTS side of 13 Sentinels, the difficulty never really rises. It just gets to a point where kaiju have more armor than before, but also all my pilots are much stronger thanks to leveling up their stats and equipped abilities. Throughout the entirety of the RTS campaign, I used pretty much the same strategy during every match—positioning damaging anti-air flares around the Terminal (a central structure the units have to protect during the match), while flight units danced around the map to chase foes. By the end of my playthrough, I had S ranks on the majority of the waves just on the first try. With a 100% completion gauge (story, RTS, and the glossary all have this percentage on the main screen), I will say that the RTS battles roughly took up less than half of my total playtime. It was never bad, just dull and forgettable compared to navigating the story of 13 Sentinels.

Yuki Takamiya, here seen on the back of the bike, is voiced by the same voice actor behind Kill La Kill's Ryuko Matoi. (English voice acting will be downloadable on day one.) | Caty McCarthy/USG, Vanillaware/Atlus

The anime-like story is in essence an entertaining sci-fi story, complete with points of references across the genre that you've undoubtedly seen and read before, but the fun melodrama is all elevated thanks to its clever execution. I'm an avid note taker when I review games, and my notes for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim are among my most chaotic next to my experiences reviewing Nier: Automata and Zero Time Dilemma. About halfway through, I opted to sketch out a family tree-like chart of every character, and utilized color coordinated arrows to trace the relationships between people. By its end, the chart evolved into an unreadable mess—I would share it, but spoilers, y'know?—but shockingly, despite the state of my notes, I wouldn't say 13 Sentinels ever got too complicated for its own good. In perhaps its greatest accomplishment of all, it's somehow coherent.

The ending may be anticlimactic for me, and perhaps drawing too much from one of my favorite pieces of sci-fi of all-time, but I still found the adventure of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim to be one of the most engaging game stories I've played in a long time. I'll miss the cute back-and-forth of its lone queer couple, and how each revelation shocked me in some way. I'll miss seeing how relationships were vastly different across timelines, and how Vanillaware painted impossibly delicious-looking food from scene to scene. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim should be remembered for its daring revitalization of the adventure genre despite its too-familiar pit stops, and for that, it ranks among Vanillaware's very best.

Beat by beat, you've seen elements of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim's plot elsewhere before, but you've probably never played anything quite like it. How 13 Sentinels strings its complex narrative together is nothing short of astonishing. It operates like a great melodramatic sci-fi TV show, only reworked and shuffled into an interactive format, and it takes full advantage of it. And for that, even with weak RTS battles complementing it all, it's an easy recommendation.

4/5

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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