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June 2021

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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


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PS4 Review - '13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 23, 2020 @ 12:50 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.

Buy 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Mostly set in 1985 Japan, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim opens with a group of teenagers being forced to pilot giant robots against the oncoming Kaiju swarms that threaten to wipe out reality. From there, the game shifts to the events leading up to the final battle, gradually showing how each of the kids ended up there. With a cast ranging from 1940s-era Japanese soldiers to the far-flung future, the story covers an absurdly long period of time to show how humanity got into this situation and how it might survive total extinction.

13 Sentinels is divided into two modes: story mode and combat mode. The Story mode is a standard, mostly linear adventure. Each of the main characters has an individual plot, but the stories overlap heavily. The bulk of the gameplay involves going through a story in chronological order and watching the characters interact while occasionally choosing "thoughts" from the characters to progress the plot. There are some light puzzles, but they revolve around figuring out the correct place to use a thought to progress beyond an obstacle. It's mostly an excuse to see Vanillaware's beautiful animation as you go through the plot, but I can't complain about that.

13 Sentinels has a tremendously complex and convoluted plot, and it might take a while to get your bearings. The story involves pretty much every twist you can think of in a story about time travel and clones; the game isn't afraid to confuse you, since the plot is intentionally told in a nonlinear and divided fashion. Each of the 13 characters has his or her own story, and while the story will mostly focus on themselves, there are scenes that you won't see until you play other characters' stories. There are also tons of flashbacks to earlier scenes within scenes, and it's difficult to figure out where — and when — you are in the story. The game has a timeline that eventually shows you where everything is chronologically, but it takes a while to piece together everything.

I enjoyed the plot, which is basically a series of twists, some of which are incredibly predictable and some of which genuinely caught me off guard. There's a fun Virtue's Last Reward-style energy where everything gets more and more complex in the buildup to the final battle. The cast is likeable, and the setting interesting. I thought that some of the reveals were distinctly disappointing, especially the reveal of the origin of the Kaiju. The ending is also perhaps too neat, and unnecessary things happened with some characters in order for the game to achieve its intended tone. I wanted to see experience through to the end and felt pretty good about it. It was especially nice to see a romance involving a non-binary individual and to have the game treat the characters with respect.

Combat in 13 Sentinels is weird. Rather than a Super Robot Wars-style title with lots of attacks, combat takes place entirely on a "war room" depiction of a cityscape where everything is represented with color dots, and actions carry out in real time. Both enemy and ally units use large area-of-effect attacks, and your goal is to keep your units out of range of an enemy attack, while you blow the crap out of as many foes as possible. When a unit takes an action, it enters a cooldown based on the action's WT time, so using it poorly will make you a sitting duck. Most fights involve protecting a single terminal for a set period of time or until all enemies die, and a few skirmishes require you to take out powerful boss enemies.

There is a surprising amount of variety to the units in the game. Some are mobile and melee-focused, while others are well-rounded and can perform any role. Other units are almost exclusively long-range, area-of-effect fighters, while the final type has support abilities and can fly across terrain. Each unit also has a specific selection of upgrades, so you can make one melee unit incredibly tanky and another a total glass cannon. You could opt to have one unit dedicated to tossing out sentry turrets, while the other rushes in with a plasma cutter.

Similarly, each pilot has a bunch of character-specific skills they gain as they level up. Most of these involve gaining stat boosts when deployed with friends or love interests, so it's important to juggle your character stats for maximum efficiency. The game encourages you to go for "chains" of victories, which means victories without rest, but if you do this, pilots will eventually become overwhelmed and need to sit out a mission. If you want to get the bonuses for clearing waves, you'll want to make sure your units are properly shifted. The bonuses are extra score and cash for upgrades, so it's helpful but not required. It also unlocked mystery points that you can use to show data files in Story mode, but it's also not strictly necessary, since you'll have more mystery points than files by the game's end.

Each mission also has two bonus objectives to earn extra data files. One objective is to get an S rank, which means taking minimal damage to your terminal, units and the city around you. The "city" requirement is odd because the city was hardly damaged in my game, and I'm not sure what causes city damage besides letting enemies run amok. The other objective is unique to each mission and tends to include criteria things like finishing within a time limit, with fewer than six units deployed, or with specific characters deployed.

The biggest problem with the combat is that it's largely perfunctory. When going through the game on normal difficulty, I never came close to losing. I didn't even lose a single unit, and in most fights, I didn't even take damage. The frantic, fast-paced combat devolves into, "Point your weapons toward oncoming enemies and fire," with a small side helping of, "Send in a melee unit to take down a powerful foe." When the battles get frantic, there's something tremendously satisfying about launching a missile swarm so large that it turns the screen into a bunch of explosions. It's also genuinely enjoyable to figure out how to optimize your characters for more explosions.

There is a harder difficult mode for those who want more of a challenge, but that runs into the issue of the game not being made for micromanagement. Theoretically, there are a lot of things you can do to optimize your play style, but the interface is messy enough that trying to do so doesn't feel good. It's clearly made for dealing with the macro level and not the micro level, and making the game tougher just means you have to fight with it more, rather than enjoying the endless waves of explosions.

The biggest barrier to enjoying the combat is the visuals. They are at once very messy and very plain, and while it works for the concept, it boils down to watching dots run into other dots. The game relies on your imagination to carry the imagery in your head. Vanillaware is tremendously good at visuals, and for the few times you see robots in action, they look phenomenal and impressive, so it's difficult to not be disappointed. My disappointment faded as I got more into the tale, and it eventually didn't bother me, but it's going to take time to get over that hurdle.

The rest of 13 Sentinels is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The environments and character sprites look phenomenal, and the details and effort put into each character deserve tremendous praise. When the game decides to show you some of the jaw-dropping moments of the story, it's fantastic. There are a few awkward animation bits where they clearly didn't have in-between models, but they're relatively few and far between. Also, as is standard for Vanillaware, the food is some of the best-looking in video games, so don't play this game when you're hungry. The soundtrack is nice, and the Japanese voice acting is quite good. There will be English voice-over too, but it wasn't available at the time of the review.

While the presentation of the story and combat in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim takes some time to get used to, I was deeply engaged with the characters and plot. The bulk of my complaints boil down to wishing the combat looked better and not loving some of the reveals, neither of which detracted from the rest of my experience with the game. As long as you approach the title as a visual novel with some light strategy rather than a strategy game with some light story, you'll find a lot to like. It's an easy recommend for fans of Virtue's Last Reward or Steins;Gate or those who have enjoyed previous Vanillaware offerings.

Score: 8.5/10

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