Vanillaware is one of those strange studios that manages to carve out its place in the gaming world at its own pace. Its games have taken 2D game art to its pinnacle, and no studio (save for maybe Arc System Works) can match Vanillaware’s mastery of sprites. After seven years without a release, the studio is back with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. This game mixes Vanillaware’s iconic art style while breaking into new territory for the studio.
Previous Vanillaware titles, including Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Dogma, have been predominately action-RPG side-scrollers. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim breaks this mold by incorporating visual novel/adventure game elements with real-time strategy combat. The result is an enchanting game that features one of the best stories we’ve seen yet in 2020.
Students at the end of the world
As the name suggests, the game’s primary protagonists are the 13 high school students who pilot giant robots called Sentinels. These students come from across space and time to help humanity stave off destruction by battling Kaiju, which are invading for reasons that aren’t explained at all in the game’s initial chapters.
However, 13 Sentinels is less about robots fighting and more about how the 13 students’ plotlines interweave and their relationships with one another. The game starts in media res, and as it progresses, you become aware of just how tangled the web is between each player.
The game is played in chapters or episodes. After the prologue, which introduces you to 7 of the 13 protagonists, you’re given the freedom to take on the story at your discretion. In Remembrance Mode, where the bulk of the game’s plot occurs, you’ll play on a 2.5D sidescrolling field. Here’s you’ll talk to people and explore ideas via the Thought Cloud. Each of the 13 characters has multiple Remembrance episodes, and you can use Analysis Mode to keep everything straight. This flow chart organizes the ideas you’ve learned so far and can give you clues on how to progress further.
Even with Analysis Mode to help guide you, the story still takes 50 or so hours to unravel. However, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim never overstayed its welcome in my time with it. The mysteries and layers that make up the plot keep you hooked from start to finish.
Games are art
The killer story is told through absolutely breathtaking artwork. Vanillaware is on top of its game here; few games have matched the beauty and depth of the sprites and backgrounds found in 13 Sentinels. The whole game looks painted with watercolors and definitely ranks as one of the prettiest of the year.
I was also astounded by the variety in the environments. Many times when you see complex backgrounds in visual novels, they’re reused and recycled, but not in 13 Sentinels. The artists created a ton of different locales, which helps keep the game interesting. When you get down to it, as impressive as the plot to this title is, it’s mostly people talking to each other. This could get boring if not for the continual change of backdrop, which makes each scene feel vital instead of just being a stage for the sprites to walk about in.
Symphony of destruction
The biggest weakness of 13 Sentinels is its combat system. Destruction Mode has the protagonists piloting their giant mechs in a pseudo-RTS fashion. There’s plenty of strategies involved, with various types of mechs (called “Generations” in-game) being suited for different combat scenarios. There’s even some story involved as Destruction Mode effectively serves as a 14th branch to the plot.
However, the fantastic visuals of Remembrance Mode aren’t carried over to Destruction Mode. Compared to those lovingly crafted backdrops and sprites, the graphics here are somewhat dull. You control icons representing your mechs in a grid laid over a city. Unfortunately, there aren’t even regular cutscenes of your mechs attacking in battle ala Front Mission. Instead, it’s all abstractified. As such, it feels detached from the very personal, up-close perspective shown in Remembrance Mode.
It’s not that combat in the game is terrible by any means. It can be challenging and frantic having to manage your maximum of six mechs against hordes of Kaiju. However, 13 Sentinel‘s case, good is the enemy of great. I feel there was a missed opportunity to make Destruction Mode a cinematic treat that draws players into the carnage instead of making it feel like a distant tabletop foray.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review | The Final Verdict
In a year where new consoles are dropping, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is at risk of falling off the radar. I hope that players avoid that pitfall because this game is something special. It’s unique art and gameplay make it an unexpected treat, and it’s got the makings of an instant cult classic.