Something I enjoy about games from Japanese developer Vanillaware is that they all feel different enough from each other in gameplay while also sharing a key component with that being a gorgeous 2D art style. I’ve played three games from them in the past with those being Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Muramasa: The Demon Blade and I deeply enjoyed all three of them. That’s why the wait for their latest game has been quite difficult. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced back in 2015 for the PlayStation 4 and even the PlayStation Vita but has had a bit of a rocky road getting here. The Vita version ended up cancelled and at times I wondered if eventually the PlayStation 4 version would be too. That didn’t happen thankfully and now publisher Atlus and Vanillaware are finally about to deliver the game to western audiences. I got to play it for review and I can tell you whether the wait was worth it.
I’ll start by saying that maybe more so than any of Vanillaware’s other games, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim focuses more on story than gameplay. If you were looking for another Vanillaware game with a lot of action like Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa then that isn’t what you’ll be getting here. The best way to describe the overall game is by saying it’s a mix between a visual novel/adventure game and lite tactical strategy game. There is lot of talking in it which is where the visual novel part comes from but you don’t just go from scene to scene in the traditional sense. Instead you actually move your character around, talk to people, click on things in the scene and so on. I’ll get into the strategy game parts in a bit after I talk about the story.
This game has a pretty crazy sci-fi story that focuses on things like time travel and I think it’s a narrative that any fan of games like NieR will enjoy. Rest assured though that I won’t be spoiling anything in this review as it’s best to go into this story knowing as little as possible. I also need to mention that this is a story that takes its time to get going. The first few hours in particular can be confusing and a bit daunting but once you get further in it all starts to make a lot more sense and that’s when it really gets good. The story follows a group of 13 teenagers who aren’t just your normal school kids. When they aren’t in class or dealing with their own drama, they are jumping into mech suits called sentinels to battle an alien threat. Each of these characters has a part focused on them and you get to bounce between them as you see fit. I was quite impressed that despite having so many story threads going on that the game always seemed focused and it was easy to keep track of what was going on. A lot of times the character that you’re playing as part will come to an end and you’ll have to bounce to another one in order to unlock more of the story of the one you were playing. They get you with a lot of emotional moments too that left me wondering what in the world was going to happen next? This kept me invested and wanting to play more so that I could find out. The game does a great job of making you care about these characters whether it be UFO loving Natsuno or the flirty Shu.
Every scene in the game has you moving through it as a 2D side-scroller but there isn’t much exploring to do. You really just go up to characters to talk to them or click on objects to interact with them. You’ll notice dialog appearing over other characters heads in the scenes and you can go up and talk to them. Different terms you obtain through the game can be used by bringing up your Thought Cloud and you can miss stuff if you haven’t obtained certain things needed to advance the dialog. Luckily, the game has a nifty flow chart that is well designed and lets you jump back to any point you may need to.
The strategy portion comes in when you get into battles. In these parts you control your group of 13 sentinels and have to order them to attack the enemy threat while defending a tower for a period of time. Your units have different abilities with some more suited to close range attacks and others long range. You can also upgrade them as you play through the game letting you increase their attacking ability. The battle system is presented from a top-down view of the city that looks OK but visually is a step back from everything else in the game. For a game all about giant mechs it’s a bit of shame that you can’t see them represented in a grander scale during battles. This isn’t an XCOM deep system either but rather one that is pretty simple and quite easy to be frank although there are a few different difficulties to tailor it more to your liking. I enjoyed the combat bits as a nice complement to the overall story but if you really crave action in your games then you might be a little let down.
I can’t talk about a Vanillaware game without talking about the artwork. The developer has outdone themselves again as every single one of these scenes and environments is just drawn so darn good and lit so well that it’s almost worth playing the game alone just to see them. Whether it’s the character’s facial expressions or the different looks of each time period in the game every thing just has so much detail and love put into it. The game also has great voice acting although I was only able to play it in Japanese. The English voices will be arriving in a patch on launch day and I’m looking forward to playing more to see how they sound. The soundtrack is also worth a mention with it mixing various instruments to create a memorable audio experience.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim manages to not only tell one character’s story well but thirteen of them. It takes its time to get going but once it did, I found myself wanting to just keep going to see what was going to happen next with these characters. I also think this is not only the best game visually that Vanillaware has done but one of the best-looking games period. The combat isn’t really exciting but it compliments the overall experience well. Leading up to its release I feel there isn’t enough talk about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim but don’t let it pass you by as you’d be missing out on one of the best games this generation.
*13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim launches on September 22 on PlayStation 4. Reviewed on a PS4 Pro. Review copy provided by the publisher for this review.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim$59.99
- Manages to weave 13 different character stories together masterfully
- One of the best art styles I've ever seen in a game
- Excellent voice-acting and soundtrack
- While not deep, the strategy gameplay is solid and compliments the rest of the game well
- Fun character upgrades and a handy flowchart to make returning to certain parts easy
- Battle sequence visuals are a step back from the rest of the game