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August 2022

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action
Publisher: Atlus U.S.A.
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: Sept. 22, 2020


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PS4 Preview - '13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 21, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a 2D sci-fi video game that takes place in a modern setting punctuated with giant mechs.

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Vanillaware has been around for over a decade, and in that time, it has only released a handful of games, the best-known of which is probably Odin Sphere. Every so often, it comes out with another game that is usually in an entirely different genre than its previous game, with the only common point being the gorgeous, hand-drawn sprite work. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is its first entirely new game since 2013, and it has the makings of something very memorable.

The story of 13 Sentinels is difficult to describe simply because it's intentionally obscured, and the prologue doesn't reveal much. The basic idea is that humanity is under attack by giant kaiju. The humans' only hope are giant robots known as Sentinels, which are the only thing that can stand against the swarm of Godzillas. Of course, the pilots of those giant robots are Japanese teenagers who are — for a variety of reasons — the only ones who can control the robots.

Sounds simple, right? Well, not quite.

You may have noticed that I didn't mention a time or place. That is because 13 Sentinels has an incredibly convoluted concept involving time travel, multiple timelines, time loops, dimensional travel, and a story that takes place from as early as the 1940s and as late as the 2060s — and probably beyond. Each character has a unique concept. One is a Japanese soldier from the 1940s who's been pushed into the future. Another has been brainwashed into thinking they're another person. A third has a strange encounter with a bizarre robot. A fourth has no memory but has been told they come from another dimension. The prologue we played only sets up each character, but it is quickly apparent that the narrative will be complex.

The gameplay is divided into two parts. The first part is like an adventure game. You choose a protagonist and follow the story, gathering items and engaging in discussions. Our preview segment was fairly on-rails, but it became clear that choices would have consequences. There's even a dedicated button to fast-forward through content that you've already seen; it stops at new content, which suggests some serious time-bending is going to be a basic part of the gameplay. Rather than a traditional inventory, you collect thought bubbles, which serve as an inventory of characters, concepts and items — all of which can be used to elicit information from other characters.

The other part involves giant mecha battles. The adventure game segments are all done with Vanillaware's trademark beautiful painted sprites, but the battles are not shown in any detail. Instead, everything is presented as an abstracted computer screen, where you see units as colors and dots, similar to what you'd see on the screen in a movie war room. It's an unusual choice that caught me off-guard, but you do get some idea of how your mecha look in action.

Once you get past the initial surprise of the display, it's actually cool to watch it in action. It plays out as a real-time strategy game, where you have to move your mecha around to defend a terminal, which deploys the Aegis to protect the area. Each unit can be moved freely, but after using certain attacks or actions, they have a cooldown during which they can't be commanded at all. Foolish movements can leave them in the way of enemy counterattacks or waste their EP (energy points), which is necessary for all but the weakest attacks.

You're not fighting one kaiju or even a handful; you're fighting hundreds. Instead of regular attacks, every Sentinel's weapons tend to have huge areas of effect, and your goal is to position them to catch as many foes as possible in their range. A giant railgun doesn't just shoot enemies; it carves a path of destruction that carries across the map. A missile swarm can turn a group of flying kaiju into dust, complete with a tremendously satisfying sight of tons of hostile blips vanishing from the map. Each Sentinel has a unique loadout, with first-generation Sentinels tending to be the most mobile and smashy, while later Sentinels have more advanced weaponry and gear.

Of course, the kaiju are not easy to defeat. In the brief prologue, we encountered flying ones, heavily armored ones, insanely powerful ones, and everything in between. They were obviously tutorial enemies, but they gave a pretty clear idea of the dangers and risks of fighting them. Stay in one place too long, and you risk getting caught in their area of effect attacks. Spam your powerful weapons, and you'll be stuck recharging while they close in on you. If a pilot goes down, they are ejected from their robot when it teleports away to heal. If the ejected pilot gets killed before the robot is fixed, then the game's over.

You also can earn Meta-Chips, which can be used on incredibly powerful but limited attacks, such as an area-wide EMP that can brutalize enemies once per map. Dialogue indicates that Meta-Chips would also be used to upgrade and improve the robots, but that particular function wasn't available during the demo. Earning these by killing enemies is going to be an important part of ensuring that your mankind-saving robots can do the job against increasingly dangerous kaiju.

Time travel, giant monsters, and super robots make 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim a strange game. There's a lot of potentially interesting plot here, and the complicated setup reminds me of something like 999, where the threads will only get more tangled. It retains the same incredibly gorgeous Vanillaware sprite work. If you're a fan of crazy plots or giant robots, then you owe it to yourself to give 13 Sentinels a chance. If the final story is as engaging as the prologue, it'll certainly be a ride to remember.

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