At first glance, “13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim” looks like a conventional mecha anime that’s turned into a video game. It features high school kids piloting giant robots and battling kaiju called Deimos.
The plot appears straightforward: Selected children have to protect the world from monsters hellbent on destroying it. The campaign seems comprehensible but then it takes a left turn into something weird, and across its 30-plus hour campaign, the developer, Vanillaware, weaves time travel, androids, insane conspiracies and aliens in a narrative that’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
“13 Sentinels” quickly becomes a convoluted mess, but despite the Byzantine plot, the developer somehow makes it work. It grabs players as they venture through its three main phases — Remembrance, Analysis and Destruction — and try to figure out its mysteries.
CHOOSE AN ADVENTURE
Remembrance is where the bulk of “13 Sentinels” takes place as players control 13 characters and explore their interwoven stories. This part of the campaign is more visual novel than game as players talk their way through the plot. They choose options from Thought Clouds that elicit new responses and drive the narrative forward until it reaches a cliffhanger.
Vanillaware conveys the story episodically, and after each section, players are awarded Meta-Chips, which are used to upgrade the giant robots called Sentinels, and they unlock Mystery Files, which summarize an aspect of the tale or offer insight that players may have missed. That’s located in the Analysis portion and it’s essential because “13 Sentinels” is layered with secrecies, red herrings and misdirections. It’s often troublesome to spot the truth so studying the details is important in following the tortuous plot.
THE GAMEY PART OF ’13 SENTINELS’
Players are generally free to explore the 13 threads in Remembrance, but they’ll eventually hit roadblocks. To unlock the rest of the tale, they’ll need to go into the Destruction phase, which is a rudimentary turn-based strategy game. Players pick six Sentinels among a total of 13. Each one falls within four categories and has a basic role.
First-generation mechs specialize in melee attacks. Second-generation robots are generalists with support abilities. Third-generation Sentinels attack from afar and destroy air units. Fourth-generation units can fly and have the greatest mobility but generally don’t have the best health or armor.
Players have to pick the best mechs for the 32 battles that they face. Some maps will have waves of ground forces that first-generation Sentinels beat rather easily while others feature airborne adversaries that ground-based units can’t attack. That’s when third- and fourth-generation units excel.
Putting together the right lineup is even more difficult because pilots eventually need rest after each incursion. Players can’t use their favorite character throughout the campaign unless they want to lose bonus points by resting the whole squad.
Other smaller decisions come into play such as how players upgrade each Sentinel. It’s best to figure out what role they’ll play in battle and funnel the limited Meta-Chips to strengthen their specialty. That’s because “13 Sentinels’” difficulty ramps up quickly, especially in the 3rd Area and beyond when they face waves of unrelenting Deimos.
THE BIG FLAWS
What makes it worse is that the Destruction phase has a simplistic and often difficult-to-read user interface. It’s too basic at times as Sentinels and enemies are represented by simple shapes and it’s difficult to target the right enemy or make your robot face the right way for a crucial back attack.
The goal for each mission is to either survive the wave or eliminate a certain enemy. Vanillaware doesn’t get too creative in this part of the campaign.
Most of the power in “13 Sentinels” come from the gorgeous visuals that look hand-drawn and the backgrounds that appear painted with rich hues of red and gold or blue and green. It’s a style that’s distinctive to the studio, and part of the reason I was drawn to the project. Being a fan of “Odin Sphere” and “Dragon’s Crown,” I enjoyed exploring the different versions of Japan through the eras of 1940s, 1980s, 2020s, 2060s, 2100s, as characters apparently jumped between different times or saw flashbacks of their past.
The art made the journey through the complex plot more palatable though it’s too complex for its own good at times. It’s just a shame that the same effort couldn’t be extended to the other parts of “13 Sentinels” to make the experience feel more cohesive and complete.
’13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim’
2½ stars out of 4
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
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