13 Sentinels Aegis Rim Review: The Most Ambitious Celebration of Sci-Fi

Written by Allen

April 22, 2022

Anyone who’s seen me during the age of my PSVita days has seen me play one of two things. Freedom Wars which was my pre-Monster Hunter game, or Vanillaware’s action RPGs, Muramasa and the Odinsphere remake. Okay, 3 things if you count Guilty Gear but that’s kind of a given. I’d put Guilty Gear on a fit bit if I could.

Vanillaware gave me the sort of action JRPG experience that just left me astounded when I first played it. Odin Sphere was exactly the reason I immediately jumped on the chance to play Muramasa, which was also a great fast-paced experience. Then I heard about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and you know, mecha and Vanillaware, given their masterful execution of 2D graphics.  I was excited until I realized what the game was going to be like. Seeing that I wasn’t really going to see the robots fighting to save the planet in great, graphic detail turned me off. The fact that it very much looked like a downgraded version of Super Robot Wars also deterred me from trying this out. That series really just didn’t click with me, and there were a few that managed to do well, but they were more of the exception rather than the rule. On top of that, availability was a bit difficult, so I decided to pass on the title.

Now it’s come to the Switch, so it looks like they’re still very confident with the title. So I decided to give it a whirl. Now to be clear, I was given a PS4 version, whereas the Switch edition would have additional content. But hey, if the base product isn’t any good I doubt some extra scenes would really change my opinion on that, so here we go.

From there, I took the tiniest bite, an hour of playing 13 Sentinels. Suddenly, I transformed from a casual gamer who was expecting to be slightly entertained to the conspiracy meme guy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Before I knew it, it was 3 AM, and I had to go to work in 4 hours. I’ve already finished the game, and I’m thinking about buying the Switch version because I want to have this game with me wherever I go. So, what convinced me that 13 Sentinels is a more than worthy purchase? Let’s go over the details.

 

Production (5 / 5)

Vanillaware just has its own way of making 2D sprites the most beautiful thing you’ll ever lay your eyes at. How they created the most picturesque look for everything they make is a wonder. How they blend that in with their parallax backgrounds complete with variable lighting effects just goes to show much they have mastered this craft. Their usual exaggerated proportions are toned down this time around, to reflect a more down-to-earth look consistent throughout the game. And let me tell you, that can’t be farther from the truth!

While character designs look plain and predictable, this is done with purpose. It makes use of these tropes so we don’t have to think too much about how to characterize them, at least initially. The girl with long hair and glasses is the serious type, the dude with the pompadour hairdo and popped collar definitely is the type to get into fights, and so on. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re not done well, even in their idle animations, the characters are exuding what they’re all about. You can tell if someone is being cautious, or bored, or whatnot.

But what is a play without its stage and supporting cast? The atmosphere of a school building is nothing but creepy if without students, you can’t call a city alive without its residents, how the sun paints the roads and everything on it as you move along is a sight to behold. It’s thanks to this strong attention to detail that even the slightest inconsistency will stick out like a sore thumb, which plays as a subtle guide to how you would be able to progress the adventure.

Nearly every moment of 13 Sentinels is worthy to become a wallpaper of sorts. Except perhaps when it comes to battle. During the actual battles is more like you’re watching a tactical radar screen rather than a battlefield. Maybe even a polished version of an old, 8-bit game. It really boggled my mind as to why Vanillaware, known to make the flashiest, most visually appealing games I’ve ever seen, decided to go with this. Later discovered that there’s a reason to it, maybe two, and I’ll go over that later.

The music is also very interesting, it varies from these classic and easy-going BGMs during adventure sections, to these techno-sounding, fast-paced tracks when it’s time to bust out the robots. They both work independently and alongside each other, since they carry similar melodic themes, and they fit the situations they’re used in. The moment I heard “Overflow” on the title screen, which reminded me a lot of Zone of the Enders and Ghost in the Shell, I knew I was in for a ride.

But the ride doesn’t end there, the voice acting is more than stellar, whether you prefer the English or Japanese cast, the performance is consistently great. I would swap between them to see how the English or Japanese voice was handled for every character and find myself satisfied at every turn. This was particularly important to get perfect, as the story, which is the bulk of the game, is carried heavily by the dialogue of the ensemble cast of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

As usual, Vanillaware, when it comes to presentation, I’m nothing less than impressed.

 

Mechanics (4.5 / 5)

13 Sentinels has three major sections, where you play through two of them. Those two would be Adventure mode and Destruction. Analysis is more like a review section for story and lore. Anyway, you’ll mostly be playing through Adventure Mode, where you play through the intertwining storylines of the pilots. While some may consider it playing through a gorgeously made visual novel, it’s really much closer to a point-and-click adventure, where you may have to interact with certain people, items, or thoughts in a certain way to proceed. Sometimes there’s a required sequence as well. Thankfully, the game also provides a route guide so you’ll know how to get to unexplored routes to further explore the story. Some of them require to have certain keywords or situations setup, while others simply require you to just play through it again.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Combat has a lot more going on than it lets on. So while it looks really simplified, we’ll have to sit down a bit to go over how it actually plays out.

First of all, the combat is styled as Real-Time Strategy. Where you can control up to 6 units that and they act once their ability to take a turn is charged. Your main objective is to hold out for a time while defending a gate from invading kaiju. You win by either defending long enough or by wiping out the surrounding enemies quickly. Alternatively, you lose when either the gate falls or you lose even one of your pilots. Basically, it’s a hero defense where you can’t lose anyone.

The 13 Sentinels are divided into 4 classes, where each of the pilots has semi-unique load-outs that you can upgrade and customize. What this means is that you can have one melee fighter that’s good at dealing with oncoming attacks and have another fighter who jumps around and destroys things with a giant sword, instead. These upgrades can vary between buying and strengthening armaments to improving the base stats of each sentinel. You can also upgrade the gate that you are defending yourself, which functions similarly to a command center. It can strengthen or protect your allies a few times per battle, as well as unlock new capabilities and passives over time. All these come at the cost of meta chips, the currency you gain from defeating enemies and finishing story paths.

Now in typical RPG fashion, there’ll be types of enemies that can be best dealt with by certain weapons or Sentinel types. So balancing your party around the information of the upcoming wave is important. On top of that, you’ll have to consider the fatigue of each of your members because when they reach their limit they’ll have to sit out one battle. Then, as your pilots gain levels, you’ll discover that some of them have certain synergies with other members depending on their relationship with each other. I know this is a lot to take in but being able to manage this without relying on resting lets you build your score multiplier as it increases per victory. Giving you a good risk versus reward mechanic as you’ll be racking your brain to manage through battle after battle with the limited resources you have so that you can get more meta chips faster each time. When I found myself cornered because key pilots I needed weren’t available, I’d backtrack to much easier waves and use as little as possible there to so I can go back to that higher level wave with a refreshed lineup. But even without relying on this, to be able to play wave 1 to the final battle seems completely viable.

One might ask “Hey wouldn’t it be tiring to play several rounds of RTS games in a row?” and usually you’d be correct. But fighting off a wave in 13 Sentinels takes about 5-10 minutes. Most of the time, after I finish a wave I’m actually game for maybe another 3 rounds, minimum! You can either take it as a break from going through all the story routes, or you can binge like maybe 10 battles in a row because you’re farming. Suddenly, their choice of using the simplest graphics possible for these fights makes sense. How will you possibly keep track of hundreds upon hundreds of enemies, the attacks they launch at you, and the six behemoths you deploy against them? The answer? Vampire Survivors. If the rate of streamers picking up this game is a measure to go by, then it’s easily a successful one. The number of enemies coming at you and the number of projectiles you’re shooting back at them would be impossible to track if you had ridiculously detailed graphics. Have you seen an FF14 raid? Can you tell me that you know what’s happening at any given moment? Don’t lie to me, nobody can. I mean I can be playing solo and I still get confused as to what exactly I’m doing.

Anyway, within less than 10 seconds of active time in 13 Sentinels, you may win or lose the battle, so being able to discern the situation at a glance is exactly what it needed. And what can do that better than this very bright, clearly defined, color-coded, simplified map with matching avatars?

In short, I thought I was going to hate it, but it actually had a lot more going on under the hood. Where I found myself engaged to the point that I lost a lot of sleep over it. It’s great.

 

Content (5 / 5)

Vanillaware has been the type of developer that I know that would mix in intertwining stories, and they certainly decided to take it several steps further with this title. If Odin Sphere had 5, here you have 13 storylines to follow. Where at first they all seem to be your typical character tropes, the writers decided to use these to help the players quickly recognize what they’re like. However, as you progress through their respective stories, you get to see other sides of them. Whether it makes you see them in a new light, find them endearing, or just plain funny, they all contribute to you having a connection with at least a few of them. And believe me, you will like some of them. They didn’t go with this many characters for you not to have a favorite.

But the characters aside, the story itself and how it’s presented got me hooked within the first hour of play. You’ll be through one story segment within 15 minutes, and each playthrough reveals a bit more about the characters or the world that they live in.

Just as you think that you’re getting a handle on what the story is really going to be, the drip-feed of information is just potent enough to do another rug-pull from under you make you question what you thought you knew. My first few playthroughs had me think like this:

“Oh, it’s about a highschooler and his buddy…. OR IS IT?”
“Oh I get it it’s about giant robots and an amnesiac protagonist… NO. NO THAT’S WRONG.”
“Oh I see now, it’s an epic adventure with romance… WRONG AGAIN? WHAT?”

You see, I’ve been the type of watcher that tends to figure out what the plot will be like within minutes of watching a movie or a show, particularly if it’s anime. So every time 13 Sentinels gave me a curve ball it would land squarely at my face as I wondered how I figured out the story wrong. It was great.

This was the bulk of the experience, the story runs for maybe 20+ hours, and once it got me wondering what I was going to learn next, it was hard for me to stop.

Also, have you ever tried something called Chirashi-don? It’s basically a sampler plate of a place’s sushi offerings, but as a rice bowl. It has everything you can expect out of standard sushi menu: salmon, mackerel, octopus, tuna, and more. And below all that goodness is the sushi rice that helps balance out the flavors. Now, why did I bring up food all of a sudden? Why are you making us hungry man? Because that’s kind of how I would describe 13 Sentinels as a story. It’s a celebration to the science fiction genre, it tries to cram in as many call-outs as it can to every big sci-fi scene or idea that I could imagine. As I go through each story there’ll be many points that’s natively written into it which you might recognize from somewhere else.

Off the top of my head I’d name War of the Worlds, Terminator, ET, Evangelion, and Source Code. I mean that’s just like five of what I can think of off the bat. It pays homage to all of these great IPs by either including with the themes they present or playing out an iconic scene with their own cast of characters. It’s literally the Chirashi-don of Sci-Fi, and I ate it up.

Features (3.5 / 5)

This is probably the most boring part of the game, but it’s also necessary.

The 3 major parts of 13 Sentinels is Remembrance, which is the Story/Adventure mode. Destruction, which is where all the battles take place. Then there’s Analysis, which functions more like a glossary of terms for the various elements of the game’s story and lore. It also updates descriptions as you progress the story, so it’s good to come back here when there’s something you haven’t quite figured out.

On top of that, there’s also a replay theatre that’s actually on a timeline that can be a bit tricky to understand if you didn’t follow where the lore was going, but if you’re going to play the game normally I doubt you’ll miss any scenes, really. It’s pretty handy for reviewing scenes, though. Especially my favorite ones where they finally call out their mechs. I’m sure somebody has uploaded these highlights to youtube by now. But it’s really different when you’ve gone through the story of each of them.

Conclusion

I suppose I owe Vanillaware an apology. When I first saw their trailer, I seriously had my doubts if I would enjoy the game at all. It synergizes 2 genres I’m generally not interested in playing, a point-and-click adventure and an RTS that reminds me strongly of Super Robot Wars. Somehow, they made me enjoy this. I was completely thrown off the trail several times thanks to how the story would throw in surprises at almost every turn. And the performance of the cast carried the mood easily through each scene. How I usually dread going through the slog of the time you have to spend waiting for actions to finish in the RTS genre is completely solved by the fast-paced action that they set their battles at. On top of that, they created mechanics across battles that make me think harder and try to perform better in every situation I encounter. By refining their game modes separately, they were able to take each of them to the highest form they could accomplish. It was a wild ride to the very end.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, is a game only Vanillaware could make. A story that can only be told as a game. I recommend it to anyone who likes anime or Sci-Fi.

 

Available on PS4, PS5, and recently on the Nintendo Switch.

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