13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim seamlessly pivot from guarded conversation to massive, kaiju-killing rocket barrage. That’s a feat for any game, but when you’re juggling hopping between thirteen different characters, Vanillaware’s latest feels like an astounding achievement.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: SEGA of America
Release date: September 22nd, 2020
Price: $59.99 via physical or digital download
Availability: PlayStation Store
Best known for Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon’s Crown, Vanillaware could have kept their fanbase content by offering a succession of gorgeous, side-scrolling action titles. But with the release of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the Osaka-based developers venture into untested territory.
A bold blend of visual novel that interweaves stories build around a cast of thirteen characters, Aegis Rim also eschews the expected representation of mecha and kaiju battles. It’s an exceedingly ambitious title, that for the bulk of it’s thirty-hour playtime is filled with surprise.
References Abound, But So Does the Feeling of Originality
With many studios reliant on established formula, it’s refreshing to see a developer willing to take a risk. Afflicted by delays and arriving at the twilight of the PlayStation 4’s lifecycle, commercial viability for Aegis Rim is uncertain. At the time of this writing, the English dub isn’t available yet, with the pandemic pushing the voiceovers to the game’s September 22nd release date.
But the sense of delight and wonder that take place during a playthrough is less ambiguous. With an inventory of science fiction topics (time travel, androids, UFOs, secret agents, and even a talking cat), Aegis Rim often feels like stumbling across an ambitious manga that never officially made it to Western shores. Brimming with cultural references both obvious (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Neon Genesis Evangelion) and obscure (Megazone 23), the game manages to feel familiar yet resists piggy-backing on top of other properties.
A Complicated Tapestry of Plotlines
Long before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman and The Revenant, the director was braiding plotlines in nonlinear layouts across Amores perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. The effect was consistently dazzling, insistently requiring a viewer’s complete attention, as they stitched together fragments to perceive links, and comprehend an overarching plotline.
13 Sentinels ups the narrative ante even higher, with an extended cast and action that seems to take place across no less than five distinct eras. The game could have easily become a convoluted muddle of unremarkable characters. But a meticulous amount of preparation and care went into the proceedings and it’s fascinating to witness how each member of the ensemble interacts with one another. Although many of the leads are rooted in trope, Aegis Rim injects nearly all of them with interest traits and personalities that sporadically challenge stereotyping. You won’t love all of them, but there are more than leads that might leave you longing for more time together.
Vanillaware’s trick is letting players into the heads of each character. Beyond the customary interactions prompted by maneuvering around each 2.5D scene and conversing with different people, you’ll also have access to each protagonist’s thought cloud. This is a collection of keywords that grows over time articulating the internal thoughts of each character. Wisely, the developers convey both conversations and contemplations succinctly, avoiding the loquacious exposition of some VNs.
Pleasingly, if you feel the need to review conversation for details, Aegis Rim allows you to revisit previous dialog. Should you ever feel confused, the game extends a listing of events in chronological order with the invitation to replay previous seen sequences.
We’re All in This Together
Given the game’s ambitions, a few minor blemishes are present. Some obstacles that need to be solved to push the plot along are incredibly straightforward. If someone requests an item, picking it up and presenting it to them feels insignificant. On the other hand, you’ll occasionally reach an impasse in a character’s plotline. Progress can’t be made until you jump to another character and trigger an event. Sometimes, you’ll have to wait for time to advance.
But the bigger problem is that momentum runs out too early. There’s a persistent succession of disclosures, and an escalating intensity for most of the game. But just before the climax approaches, it becomes a bit too easy to predict the large reveal. But given the quality of characterization and just how masterful the myriad of smaller twists are handled, late-game blatancy can be forgiven. Also know that while there are bits of branching dialog (which are marked for replay), there aren’t multiple endings. Undoubtedly, that would have overcomplicated things.
Four Generations of Sentinels
In sharp contrast to the hand-drawn aesthetic of conversation, the game’s (mostly) real time strategy showdowns use a completely different style. Here, most of the rich details of character expression and body language are relinquished for overhead maps and small picture-in-picture windows of each character. Teams of six characters, culled from the cast of thirteen take to cities in the hopes of stopping enemy incursions.
Pleasingly, Aegis Rim extends a lot of variability here, which feel invigorating. Different generations of Sentinels favor different ability from powerful melee fighter, long-ranged attacks, to flying ones outfitted with shields and lasers. Repelling these assaults can be straightforward on the game’s easier difficulty setting. But elevating the level of challenge make means you’ll have to maintain a tactical advantage against waves of foes. In execution, battles are robust, offering the kind of depth that should satisfy armchair strategists. From taking down a resilient foe with a well-aimed shot to exterminating a multitude of opponents with rocket blasts, there are an assortment of gratifying moments.
Upraised by a prodigious score from Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics, Radiant Silvergun, Vagrant Story), 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is undeniably one of the most ambitious games of the year. Narratively, the title’s intwining of plot strands and inspired world building is unrivaled. What’s more, the game adeptly leaps from heartfelt confession to giant science fiction reveal with staggering suppleness. While Vanillaware could have easily iterated on their previous successes, the team’s willingness to venture out in an audacious new direction is praiseworthy. 13 Sentinels’ aim is high, but amazingly the studio pulls it off with nary a hitch.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was played on PlayStation 4
with review code provided by the publisher.