I’ve been following the development of Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim for what feels like years. The latest game from the powerhouse Japanese developers of gorgeous action games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Dragon’s Crown, 13 Sentinels was announced all the way back in 2015. Five years on and the lengthy delays and shift away from fluid sidescrolling combat had me doubting if Vanillaware could live up to my expectations. Thankfully it’s one of the most satisfying sci-fi adventure I’ve ever played, blasting away my doubts at point-blank range
So what exactly is this mysterious new Vanillaware game that’s been cooking for nearly an entire console generation? Well, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a lot like other Vanillaware titles in a few ways. Much like Odin Sphere, it’s a story-heavy game following multiple protagonists and has you play through each of their separate campaigns. While Odin Sphere focused on five characters, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, as the title implies, has a whopping thirteen different protagonists. It might seem like an impossible task to juggle so many different stories successfully, but the game nails it with flying colours.
While the entire game is a wide-sweeping and gargantuan time-travel giant-robot sci-fi end of the world mystery, every playable protagonist has their own sort of unique sci-fi adventure to go on that stands out on its own while also feeding into the overarching narrative really well. One character’s story mirrors that of E.T., while another is an army soldier from the past stuck in the present, and yet another is a love-struck heroine trying to restore her amnesiac lover’s memories.
Despite all this, the stories remain connected. Everything is focused on a small Japanese town in the 1980s, and every character finds themselves naturally weaving in and out of the local school, surrounding areas, and alternate time periods throughout their adventures. While you’re running around as Natsuno Minami trying to help a mysterious robot get back to the year 2024, you might run into your amnesiac robot-piloting classmate Juro Kurabe and overhear him engaging in a conversation that you’ll later see play out in his own story chapter. It adds so much immersion to the game when you happen upon other characters like this in small ways, but it helps make the bigger collisions even more impactful when seemingly unrelated character narratives start to clash.
Much like every other Vanillaware game, all of these intersecting stories are told within side-scrolling 2D environments featuring gorgeous character artwork and rich environment designs. As the story jumps between the 40s, 80s, and the 2020s, the environment artwork keeps up the pace and solidifies these varying worlds and environments incredibly well. Despite the game being rendered almost entirely with hand-drawn art, the detail in how it all comes together and the sparingly used 3D assets like giant robots and particle effects add so much depth to the world.
That presentation is matched by a killer voice cast, and a huge amount of music that mixes traditional instruments with electronic sounds and catchy melodies that are right at home in an ambitious sci-fi story game like this.
Don’t get it twisted, though, because this isn’t just another visual novel or an anime point-and-click adventure. Minor design elements unique to the game help to not only make it stand out from other narrative titles, but also get the dialogue-heavy experience flowing a lot smoother. Conversations take place with short chunks of dialogue appearing over characters heads, and you’ll often need to press on with these interactions by either manually moving through the environment and engaging with characters to continue talking, or opening up your Thought Cloud to ponder or present key phrases and items that crop up during the game.
I’m also a sucker for flow-charts in timeline-hopping story games like this, so the included Flow Chart system in this game makes it even easier to hop around the story and dig into every last scene and interaction available.
The game isn’t all story, though. Like some of the best story-driven Japanese games, the constant flow of dialogue is often broken up by action-packed gameplay. In order to progress through some character stories, you’ll need to back out of the adventuring Remembrance mode and dive into battles in Destruction mode. Here, you’re whisked into the final days of Japan in 2024, as your thirteen protagonists pilot giant robots to prevent an overwhelming alien force from taking over a giant spire that acts as mankind’s last hope for survival.
These missions play out as an interesting fusion of real-time strategy and tower defense that is a massive far cry from the button-mashing action of the last few Vanillaware titles. As polygonal representations of aliens swarm across a wireframe top-down view of the city, you’ll select your crew members and have them perform numerous attack or defence actions to destroy the threats and hold them off until the tower can activate and signal the end of the mission.
These moments are honestly a lot more fun than I figured they would be, and with three different difficulty modes, you’re able to either dig into challenging tactical gameplay or breeze through them depending on your skill level or patience. My only disappointment is the way the visuals are presented in these battles. The game will flash contextless illustrations of the robots and aliens involved in these battles, but the fact that the actual fights are all rendered in simplistic glowing polygons instead of the crisp art the rest of the game presents was definitely a bummer.