13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Vanillaware have been one of gaming’s most interesting and exciting developers for me ever since I dipped my toe into their worlds with Muramasa: The Demon Blade (a game I’ve previously written about). After that, I tried out Dragon’s Crown, and, although it’s a genre I don’t normally have an affinity for, I was able to enjoy it enough to feel satisfied with my purchase. After that, things went quite for Vanillaware, and I started to fear that, given the not-especially high sales of their games, they’d disappeared from the industry. Then, finally, they reappeared, announcing a sci-fi game with giant mecha robots set in 1980s Japan. It was a big jump from their regular high-fantasy fare, and one that, honestly, filled me with dread – mechas had never been particularly interesting to me and I’d generally avoided media surrounding them until that point. I did however, keep one eye on 13 Sentinels as it continued through development and headed towards launch.

When the game released in Japan in 2019, it was a slow burn – sales weren’t great at first, but as word of mouth got around, the game began to sell more and more, until eventually it managed to sell over 200,000 copies here. It would later reach 400,000 copies sold internationally, far surpassing publisher Altus’ expectations for the game. Even now, when I go into second-hand stores in Japan, it sits in the top charts, and has done pretty consistently. While I was pretty apprehensive at first, I eventually caved a few months ago and, as I’ve seen from many reviews and articles on line, fell in love with it immediately.

Now let me get this out of the way – 13 Sentinels is a game that is best experienced going in blind, so I won’t really be going too deep into the storyline here. All you need to know is that this is one of the best stories available for PlayStation 4 – a mind boggling, brilliantly characterised non-linear narrative that consistently shifts through a variety of subgenres and styles. Honestly, it’s fantastic, and demands to be played to be appreciated fully.

The game itself is structured into three main sections in the main menu – the adventure mode (wherein the majority of the story takes place), the battle mode, and the archive mode (where you can check up on character information that you’ve uncovered so far etc.). You’re free to advance the adventure or battle modes as you see fit, although there are a couple of checkpoints which require you to have achieved certain tasks in both modes before you can progress further. This is a great mechanic, which allows you to feel truly in control of how you experience the game, while also giving the developers control over how best to deliver the key points of their story. I personally tried to keep the completion rate as equal as possible between the two modes, and I was very satisfied with the balance that gave my playthrough.

The adventure mode takes the loose form of a visual novel in the vein of Zero Escape, but with a bit more player agency to walk around the scenes and interact with items you can find there. As the characters progress through their stories and interact with the environments around them, they begin to develop ‘thought clouds’ of keywords which they can then use to start conversations with other characters and to try and gather more information. It’s a very satisfying system, where finally choosing the right words with the right person feels intensely rewarding, but getting the ‘wrong’ choice rarely feels frustrating as it still provides further characterisation. These visual novel sections are tied together through a flow chart wherein different actions can result in different paths opening up to you. In regular visual novels, these kinds of alternative paths are opened solely through dialogue choices, but in 13 Sentinels there are a variety of different ways to open up new routes, including proceeding the story from different areas or waiting around as other characters go about their business. Thanks to this, replaying sections never felt tiring – instead I was hawk-eyes, searching for new routes through the storyline and new ways forward.

The battle mode is then entirely different, employing a mixture of real-time strategy and tower-defence style top-down combat. Honestly, looking at any screenshots of the battle mode can look confusing as a number of icons crowd the screen. It’s hectic, messy, at-times-confusing, and most importantly, totally brilliant. These fights take place in the city, and you control events via an interactive map wherein you can move your various mecha around, each one falling into one of four categories. Some favour close combat, dealing large amounts of damage but being more susceptible to enemy attacks, while others can fly, resulting in increased mobility in a map where the other mechs are limited to travelling via road. During the fights, you’ll need to keep an eye on a number of different gauges and systems in order to attain the highest rankings. Often there will be optional extra objectives requiring you to complete the fight with a specific number of mecha or a specific pilot as part of your lineup. These sometimes force you to use tactics you wouldn’t normally yourself and can help you find new favourite fighters, which is something I really enjoyed.

There’s a big difference in play styles between these two parts of the game – the action fuelled battle sequences and the intriguing, mysterious adventure mode – which helps keep the game fresh and exciting. I guess if the whole game was solely made up of the battle sequences, the mechanics might feel a little shallow, but by splitting the focus, 13 Sentinels keeps things entertaining and sufficiently strategic. Overall, while I can praise the adventure mode and the battle mode though, it’s in the marriage of the two that 13 Sentinels manages to truly stand out from the crowd and mark itself as a completely unique experience. It’s a shame I can’t talk more about the story, because it truly is brilliant, but I definitely think it’s best experienced going in with as little information as possible. Please just trust me when I say that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the PlayStation 4 library.

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