“Time travelling teenagers. Massive mechs mashing machine monsters”
Written by Luke Young
Vanillaware’s latest release has finally hit the Nintendo Switch and we’re all the luckier for it. I first experienced the studio's magic via 2009’s brilliant 2D hack-and-slash hidden gem ‘Muramasa: The Demon Blade’, and they’ve brought that same magic to ‘13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim’. This pseudo point-and-click/RTS hybrid straps you in and keeps you battling for the future in a story that’s more of a deep sci-fi character drama than a game about piloting cool mechs.
In 13 Sentinels, you wake up in Japan in the year 1985 as a young man named Juro Kurabe, a film geek obsessed with Sci-fi and kaiju films who frequently stays up too late and falls asleep in front of his TV. During one of these late-night sessions, Juro begins having strange dreams of fighting aliens in the future, whilst piloting a giant robot. After exploring a beautifully painted 2D classroom and talking with some of your friends, you find out that some of you fellow students are having similar dreams. The display then changes to a simulated city map, and you’re greeted with several character portraits discussing an upcoming battle, where they’re instructed to fight off a horde of inorganic Kaiju known as Deimos using a giant robot called a Sentinel. This is one of the many combat scenarios you’ll encounter throughout the game, where you are tasked with either defending a Terminal using Juro and his friends’ giant robots, or to destroy all the kaiju trying to attack it. If you can’t kill them, hold them off until the timer hits zero. Surviving the encounter, leads to the ‘AEGIS system’ activating, which destroys all invaders in a 2-kilometre radius.
Following our victory over the Kaiju invaders, we’re thrown to 1945, and find ourselves in control of a World War II Soldier by the name of Takatoshi Hijiyama. We witness time travel before getting sent back to 2025 as different characters again. The drama keeps happening and we’re still on the march towards doomsday. Each chapter offers up new playable and supporting characters, but do not hold your breath yet, this is just the prologue. The game then splits into two sections the “Remembrance” story mode, and the “Destruction” battle mode.
In the Remembrance mode you take control of your chosen character, moving about in one of many gorgeous locations, trying to resolve a certain predicament. In a similar vein to a point and click adventure, each character forgoes an inventory in favour of a thought cloud of keywords that you can consider or use in conversations with others, or to interact with the environment to progress. You would think that with 13 characters the story would get a bit muddy, but they all have such distinctive looks and personalities that the narrative doesn’t tangle together, so much as blend into a really strong story thread.
Every chapter of each pilot’s story delves deeper and deeper into a monolith of a sci-fi mystery, which features all manner of themes, including cloning, conspiracies, time travel, spies, talking cats, mind erasing drugs, a secret underground UFO, and giant robots that cause such a strain on a pilot that they need to be injected with nanomachines! All the protagonists have their own little circle of friends supporting them, and as you go through the non-linear storylines they converge increasingly, with more time travel shenanigans and non-stop cliff-hangers. Several times I nearly dropped my Switch in shock with the end-of-chapter revelations. I cannot remember a time in recent memory where that’s ever happened!
For the mecha anime aficionados out there, 13 Sentinels is like if Studio Trigger made Evangelion, and Shinji wasn’t such a whiny character; none of the mech pilots in this game can be likened to him, and I absolutely love that. It also helps that Vanillaware once again brought their A-game with incredibly stunning visuals, making each small area of the game a piece of art within itself, and the character models are perfect, every. Single. Time.
Resembling a watercolour painting, each of 13 Sentinels’ 2.5D locations has been beautifully rendered, feeling almost like real, liveable spaces. You can almost feel the golden warmth of the sun reflecting off the warm reds and browns of the painted wooden flooring, or the comfort of the cooling, yet soft moody blues of the shadows. The environments feel like something you can climb into, and I am not ashamed to admit that much like Juro and his friend, I’d love to stay at Shu Amugichi’s snazzy uptown flat. Despite the lack of depth, the spaces are quite lively. Trees and lanterns blowing in a gentle breeze, the flicker of a tv screen, musical notes flowing from a radio, or the inconsistent glow of an old streetlight. Even something as simple as glass changing the colour of the character slightly is a small yet effective visual touch. The background is also filled with dialogue you hear from passers-by which relate to events happening in the game world. Certain NPCs repeat their movement and idle paths and are as unique and nice to look at as the playable cast, yet crucially, their presence never clutters your view of whichever hero you’re running around Japan as. All these little touches really help to deepen the investment in the world that ‘13 Sentinels’ has tasked you with saving.
Usually I find time-travel a bit problematic and difficult to navigate well in games, but 13 Sentinels stays true to its own internal logic and established set of rules. I don’t want to spoil it, but as you unravel the mysteries of the game, it completely makes sense. An apocalypse story has not gripped me this much in a long time.
Even better though is the Analysis option in the games main menu, which is a database that lets you view the events you have witnessed as each character in chronological order. This proves especially invaluable if you’ve taken a break from the game, want a refresher, or even just an accurate timeline for who’s done what and where or more accurately – When. “Mystery Files” can also be found in the main menu and are unlocked with “Mystery Points” earned from the battle mode. These update as you complete the story mode, and provide in-depth summaries of the characters, their connections, and the world of the game itself.
In terms of performance, Remembrance mode holds up perfectly well docked and undocked. Whilst the visuals are stylistically stunning, they don’t put much strain on the system. I didn’t hear the Switch’s internal fans whirring up much while I was playing, which is great because it meant I got to enjoy the performance of the fantastic voice casts unhindered. Every line in the game is voice acted, including the inner monologues of the characters, which means a whole lot of repetition of the word “hemborgers”. For me. Every game should have “hemborger.”
The soundtrack of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a total delight. Nearly 5 hours of multi-genre soundtrack goodness, ranging from heavy orchestral synth to calmer instrumental jingles that perfectly accompany the game’s emotional beats and permeate the battle segments. Whether it’s the dramatic strings that ring out as you and your team stare demise in the face, or the more relaxed synth-like jingles that sound like an anime beach episode. Each track hits exactly where it needs to, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had it on in the background whilst writing this review.
Destruction mode is the more intense combat portion of the game. After completing the 5 mandatory prologue battles, you can opt to focus solely on the skirmishes, or alternate between battle and story like I did. Each plays the same as the tutorial battles in terms of systems, but you’re thrown a curveball with a risk/reward management system that may lead to your units suffering from Brain Overload. Who knew piloting a gigantic machine that’s connected to your mind would be mentally taxing? For each successive wave of mechanical Kaiju you rebuff you’ll get a high-score boosting reward multiplier, and more Meta-Chips to unlock upgrades for your units and the central hub.
In each mission you can deploy a maximum of 6 pilots as a playable strike team on a grid map of a city. However, each time a unit is put into battle as part of the playable ‘strike team’, their “BOL” level will increase, if you use a unit more than twice in a row, they’ll melt down and won’t be available to deploy in either your strike team, OR your defence team.
During combat, when a hero’s activity bar is full, you can move along the city streets to more advantageous positions, or fire anything at your disposal to destroy the kaiju, whether that’s your robot’s fists, bullets, a railgun, or the mech itself. You’ve got a fair bit to manage here, given each unit has a health bar, an EP bar that you spend to use their skills, and an action timer (a lá Final Fantasy.) Your EP bar gets depleted after moving or attacking and needs to refill before you can use that unit again. The remaining 7 characters not in the battle sit around a big vortex of light called a Terminal, which serves as a focal defence point. Each generation of the 4 sentinel types has its own archetype, and each pilot has their own unique skills and weapons for their machine:
1st Generation Sentinels are heavy, and generally more cumbersome as a result. Their movement range is slightly lower than others, but they typically have more health, and skills based around close-quarter combat. The Pilot Ogata was one of my most used units, purely due to his unique skill that made the Demolisher Blade, this unit's strongest attack, even better.
2nd Generation Sentinels tend to have more group-oriented support weapons. These include being able to call in decoy units and automated sentry guns to aid in your defensive efforts. 2nd Gen also means you have access to the Pilot Fuyusaka who possesses one of the only healing skills in the game. They also get to punch things with an industrial plasma cutter, and you can’t tell me that isn’t cool.
3rd Generation Sentinels are your long-range fighters and have ‘Best Girl’ Natsuno as a pilot. Natsuno rocks a railgun, and she was the MVP in almost every mission I deployed her in, and that wasn’t purely down to favouritism, I swear.
4th Generation Sentinels are the most manoeuvrable. They can fly above the city, so you don’t have to spend as much time moving your units across the grid. They also have some neat skills, the Multi-lock Missiles in particular are renowned for being one of the best crowd-control attacks in the game.
The battle mechanics get even more in depth when we look at the pilot skills. Characters unlock new skills every 5 levels. Some get buffs if their friends have been deployed too, others get stat boosts when surrounded by enemies, all these “Pilot Skills” are tied directly to the pilot’s personality and storyline. It’s such a fun experience to level up a character just to see what buff they’re going to receive next.
Despite being significantly outmanned in most battles, it rarely feels like you’re outgunned, at least on the normal difficulty. Keep a calm head, keep your units on the move, try not exclusively spam your units' hardest hitting skills and you shouldn’t have too much trouble progressing through the battles. Hard mode however was a bit more of a stressful time, especially when my units had to cool-down after unleashing their most destructive attacks and were being swarmed by innumerable drones. In some cases my pilots were sitting ducks waiting for a hail Mary, usually in the form of heat-seeking air-to-ground missiles directly on their position. Thankfully, Friendly Fire isn’t active in this game, or the kaiju would’ve won many, many battles ago.
The Destruction mode isn’t especially visually intensive. I found it to be clear, precise and engaging, even if the arenas themselves are very similar in terms of the layout - A futuristic city with skyscrapers that raise as you wave your cursor over it, with occasional fire depending on the city’s damage level. 13 Sentinels feels right at home on the Nintendo Switch; even on levels with larger hordes of kaiju, I had a flawless experience in docked play, and little to no stuttering at all playing in handheld mode.
Even though the Remembrance and Destruction sections of the game are kept separate in your brave student’s battle against the end-times, the two remain linked. Some character story progression is locked behind boss battles or requires that relationships between characters be expanded upon in dialogue before, and after the fights take place. To really get the full experience, you’ve got to take the kaiju down wave by wave and save the world you’re trying to make sense of.
Overall, I think it’s a cracker of a game, and I love that it was released on Switch because it’s a perfect portable game. It has both low and high intensity gameplay, a deep, intricate sci-fi story and it would feel right at home in anyone’s collection. 13 Sentinels is an outstanding game that I’m really glad I picked up, and one I don’t plan on putting it down any time soon.
Where to Buy
Base.com - £39.59 - https://tidd.ly/3QIda3q
365games - £43.99 - https://tidd.ly/3HN4DYO
Review written by Luke Young
Edited by Mark McAllister, Paul L. Russell and Jen Griffiths
Review Graphic by Paul L. Russell