Let’s not waste time – 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a testament to video games as both art and a storytelling medium.
This was one of my favorites of 2020 and will likely be a favorite of 2022 all over again. If the idea of a multi-character science fiction narrative that leaves practically no corner of the genre unturned, and you don’t mind “gameplay” in the traditional sense being de-emphasized (but not forgotten, as there is an enjoyable strategy game here) in favor of unraveling a decade-spanning plot; go into this as blind as you can. The more discoveries you can make on your own the better, and everything that was critically acclaimed about this one is present and accounted for on Switch.
If you’d instead like a little more convincing and elaboration, or you already love this game and want to share in that feeling, then let’s take it from the top.
13 Sentinels is the latest in a long line of gorgeous games from Vanillaware. Perhaps you’re familiar with their penchant for high fantasy worlds or stunningly illustrated food, but Aegis Rim takes inspiration from two of their past works in particular. Like Odin Sphere we have an overarching story that’s explored via a selection of intersecting main characters, and like GrimGrimoire we have a strategy game nestled inside a mind-and-time bending plot.
Those aspects are more fully realized and expanded on here. There are thirteen main characters here, each with their own motivations and layers that make themselves known as you progress. For example, one of these protagonists hails from 1945, a military cadet in Japan through the majority of World War II. Through some unexpected time shifting, he finds himself 40 years in the future. Initially driven by the simple wish to return home, as he learns more of the history he lost, that motivation gives way to a desire to change history, despite recognizing Japan’s recovery and progress.
Others dwell on more personal problems. One remains upbeat despite all the odd happenings around them, including a government spookshow at their school and an adorable extraterrestrial companion. Another finds themselves driven by their feelings for another to the point of being taken advantage of by a condescending cat. Others still are more defined by their place in the larger narrative, with the mystery surrounding their origins and their memory loss carrying their sections.
These are just a few of the ways that 13 Sentinels uses its kitchen sink of sci-fi concepts to tell its story. Though I didn’t enjoy every character as a focal point equally, I never once questioned their relevance to the overall narrative. Sometimes their importance would catch me by surprise, like when scenes could occasionally be revisited but from a different character’s perspective. Ultimately, the bigger picture made me care about every member of this cast and drove me to discover what brings them together through time and space.
Playing through this story (or “Remembrance”, per the game’s own main menu) is more or less universal no matter who you’re in control of at the time. You’ll find yourself in 2D areas, with other characters or objects prompting dialogue. As you go you’ll add keywords to your character’s Thought Cloud, effectively an inventory of ideas. This will allow you to use them when interacting with others in order to move the story forward.
Now, all of that is fairly straightforward (though I’m a sucker for the Thought Cloud’s effect on the screen) and similar to any number of adventure games. Setting aside the strength of the writing and extensive world building itself, what elevates the experience are the visuals. Vanillaware have exceeded themselves as only they possibly could. Sunset soaked classrooms commingle with kaiju fueled devastation. Air raid aftermath gives way to an apartment of endless entertainment. A sea of stars sends you back to a normal, everyday train platform. No matter where 13 Sentinels took me, I wanted to soak in every detail.
To recap, we have a game with stunning visuals and a compelling story carried by a cast of investable characters. All of this forms the main crux of 13 Sentinels, and all my best memories and obsessive thoughts dwell within those hours. Yet, as briefly mentioned, there’s also a strategy game nestled in here that compliments the main storyline.
As a fan of the genre I’m not about to complain, though it has the unfortunate setback of occasionally keeping me from delving deeper into the story. As you progress through characters’ routes, you’ll eventually be locked out until you fulfill some necessary criteria. These are often related to your progress in “Destruction”, that being what the game calls its strategy portion. That’s not a complete problem, but paired with how some of the routes are structured (requiring you to play through the same sections for a bit before diverging) it leads to some pacing issues that’s exacerbated by the fact that sometimes your favorite is momentarily inaccessible.
As for the strategy itself, you’ll have access to all thirteen characters in their mechs on city-scaled maps. As detailed in our preview, the perspective is much different here and the trademark visuals are relegated to character portraits and supplementary videos of special attacks.
I appreciated the variety of Sentinels here, with them being broken up into distinct generations of models. Earlier ones are based on big hits and heavy weaponry, but need to navigate city streets. Later ones can freely fly and will have more unique capabilities, such as shields or mines, but less firepower. It effectively gives you character classes that are more in step with the narrative, which is but one of many appreciated details in this game.
Still, this section can run somewhat repetitive even as new enemy types are introduced. Being able to upgrade each Sentinel to unlock new attacks and skills is straightforward enough that it never gets overwhelming, compared to other strategy games that are a bit denser with their customization. Each map also has rewards and extra objectives, which grant you more information on things within the game that take the world building even further, or currency specifically used to learn more about characters and concepts.
It’s almost like the game knows that the best reward it could possibly give is more story.
Criminally, 13 Sentinels was mostly slept on when it was released on the PlayStation 4. Having a second chance on Switch has done wonders for other games, and I sincerely hope that’s the case here. When I originally played back in 2020 I’d make a dedicated sit down of it, stuck to my couch and piecing together its mysteries. With this release, handheld mode once again reigns supreme. It’s praise I tend to give every Switch port, but here that benefit is redoubled simply because I can relax and unwind in bed just like I would with a book I couldn’t put down – effectively what this is in the best of ways.
I’d like to take a bit to actively praise the localization team of 13 Sentinels. There is a ton of dialogue, supplementary info, time period relevant shifts in vernacular, and nuance to this game. Their work is why I, and every other English speaking person, can appreciate this one of a kind title.
There’s further praise I could heap onto the game. It’s well voice acted in both Japanese and English, the music is evocative and suits what’s happening at any given moment, and perusing its Analysis of its own plot is addicting in its own right. As I can’t go overly indepth at this point, take it on faith that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a must play game on Switch or any other system.
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