13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim review

During my initial preview of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim last month, I stated that I was “left with a mountain of questions, and an urge to go back and keep playing”. Now that I’ve seen everything the game has to offer, I can safely say that it’s a strong adventure game with a lot of charm, but there are a couple of missteps along the way.

No Time to Waste

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13 Sentinels tells the story of 13 teenagers who are tasked with facing an oncoming kaiju threat. As you follow each character, you’ll learn of their motivations, and how they came to pilot the titular Sentinels — futuristic giant mechs that are seemingly from a different time.

The game is not afraid to tell its story in an unconventional way, having you constantly switch between its 13 protagonists. One minute you could be playing as the seemingly normal high school student Juro, the next you’re on the run as the amnesiac Ei.

Having some choice in which character to play as does lead to the story being told out of order, as you follow different characters during different times. Once you add in flashbacks, it can be hard to keep track of events. Thankfully, there’s a handy timeline that keeps everything in one place, giving a welcome breakdown of each scene you’ve viewed. While it does get easier to figure out what’s going on as you progress further into 13 Sentinels, this timeline makes doing so much easier.

You’ll nearly always be learning something new, and the story rarely slows down until its conclusion. There are certainly parts that have more significance to the plot than others, though most scenes serve some sort of purpose. Even something as mundane as buying yakisoba pan from the school cafeteria can lead to interesting events.

If there’s one part of the story that doesn’t always hit the mark, it’s the relationships between certain characters. Some of them don’t get enough time together to make their feelings for each other seem genuine. There are a couple of scenes in particular where I felt this the most, which is odd considering just how thorough 13 Sentinels is at building up its backstory elsewhere.

Back and Forth

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The majority of time in 13 Sentinels is spent playing as each of the 13 characters in adventure game-style segments. You walk around each area, talking to NPCs and interacting with items, while sorting though your characters thoughts as they discover key information. Unlike many other adventure games, each segment in 13 Sentinels is usually very limited, only giving you a couple of areas to explore or a handful of people to talk with.

This isn’t a bad thing, though it does lead to the game feeling more linear than you’d expect given its premise. There’s a route chart for each character that can be brought up at any time, and in many cases this only makes the linearity more obvious. For some characters, the order you view events can be changed, but others are locked into a specific route each time.

And yet, it’s hard to say if 13 Sentinels would have had the same impact if everything was strictly linear. Depending on your character choices, you’ll see one side of an event before the other, and it does add to the sense of mystery throughout the game. Being able to piece together everything by the end is incredibly satisfying, like completing a complex puzzle.

Giant mechs, little strategy

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The adventure segments aren’t perfect, but they still do an excellent job at laying out 13 Sentinels’ story in an interesting way. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the strategy segments. These parts take place separately from the main bulk of the game (though they are required to progress through the story) and are completely linear.

You take six Sentinels into each battle, commanding them to protect “terminals” from the kaiju. These terminals are the key to defending humanity, and keeping them safe is the goal of most encounters. Battles take place in real-time, with the action temporarily pausing as you assign commands.

When developers create RTS games designed for console, they usually have to make things a little simpler than on PC. This is absolutely the case in 13 Sentinels as well, the low unit count being a part of this. Giving units orders is also limited by a cooldown timer, and the arenas you fight in are always just simple squares.

Battles do open up more as new types of kaiju appear, forcing you to create different strategies and countermeasures. Each Sentinel and pilot can be upgraded, increasing stats and available weapons. It’s a shame that the diverse cast ends up being forced into only a few unique types of Sentinel though. Each generation of Sentinel has a mostly shared moveset, so even with some customisation, they end up feeling a little too similar.

Compared to the consistently engaging main story, the RTS segments just don’t stay interesting enough. Once you’ve unlocked and upgraded a few weapons, the same strategy will usually work for all upcoming waves. If these sections had been replaced with more story scenes instead, it would have easily been an improvement. You can at least lower the difficulty, which causes battle to end incredibly quickly.

Polygons aren’t everything

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As always, you can’t talk about a Vanillaware game without mentioning its presentation. While Sony and Microsoft push their next generation of consoles, 13 Sentinels reminds us that great 2D graphics will always age better than 3D, no matter how many polygons are crammed into triple-A titles.

A lot of work has gone into each area you visit, each character you control. Vanillaware’s signature hand-painted style is back in full force, offering up some stunning vistas and destroyed cityscapes. There’s a sense of depth that many other 2D games can’t match, and it’s hard not to stop and admire the view.

The characters themselves have a lot of little details to them, such as shifting facial expressions and numerous poses. Having most of 13 Sentinels focus on story and character interactions has done wonders for this style of visuals, the lack of things like attack animations letting Vanillaware’s artists focus on giving each character even more personality instead.

Rounding out the game’s fantastic presentation is a memorable soundtrack, especially some of the background music during RTS sections. It might even beat out Odin Sphere as my favourite soundtrack by this developer. The title screen theme alone is enough to get you excited for the adventure to come.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review Verdict

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While the RTS sections might drag things down a little, 13 Sentinels is still a fantastic story driven game that offers up a unique experience. It’s not quite the game that I thought it would be, though in some ways that didn’t turn out to be a bad thing. The future is looking bright for Vanillaware, and I hope that their next game goes all-in on the adventure elements, without anything else getting in the way.

Verdict: 4/5

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Isaac Todd
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