Vanillaware’s long-awaited new game, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, is finally here! After the Japanese launch back at the end of last year, we now have access to a localized English translation, and it was worth the wait. A PlayStation 4 exclusive, we couldn’t wait to dive in.
Part of our excitement was due to Vanillaware’s track record, of course. They’re not exactly the most prolific developer out there (Atlus is once again doing the publishing side of things), but we have a couple of systems where a Vanillaware game ranks as a favorite. The PS2 had Odin Sphere, Muramasa is a huge favorite on the PlayStation Vita and of course Dragon’s Crown was great on both the PS3 and the Vita as well. That’s quite a legacy to live up to, and we hadn’t played a new game from the developer since Dragon’s Crown (in 2013), so this has certainly been an exercise in patience.
Perhaps one reason for the long wait is how ambitious the new narrative universe in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is. The story tracks the adventures of 13 different characters during a period in which Tokyo is suddenly invaded by robots that don’t mean well and could spell the end of humanity as we know it. Fighting back is like something not too unlike the Pacific Rim films in how humanity uses giant robots in their quest for survival, and situated against the backdrop of an alternate version of the 1980s it’s clear that this is unlike anything we’ve seen from Vanillaware so far.
The game is a hybrid of storytelling and strategic combat, offering players a lot of freedom to switch between the two as you progress through the story. The narrative itself is non-linear to a degree as well, letting players choose freely which of the storylines they’d like to pursue at any given moment. Since storylines are intertwined there’s a good chance that you’ll run into points where you need to first progress in other Sentinels’ stories before you can go on.
Story progression is not too unlike that in visual novels, although you have more freedom to move around scenes in search of the right clues that you need in order to progress. Progression in the story isn’t linear though, because in addition to being able to switch between protagonists you can also expect to leap back and forward through time, exploring both the past (1945) as well as the distant future.
The narrative of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an absolute highlight here, with its non-linear approach and a multi-layered story that jumps back and forth and gradually gives up its secrets. Like with movies like Tenet and Memento, 13 Sentinels invites players to dive back in once you’re done just to see where you could have picked up on things earlier.
Outside of the narrative, a lot of the gameplay revolves around tactical combat sequences in which you take a team of six sentinels into battle to fight the invading Daimos forces for short battles that sit in between turn-based and real-time tactical combat. Losing a single character loses the battle, and your decision-making starts prior to the confrontation in a prep phase where you upgrade and kit out your giant mechs to enhance their speed, offensive and/or defensive capabilities.
In a similar fashion, you can also level up your team members/sentinels and the base unit that you’re defending in each battle – which in turn will also provide support to your friendly forces mid-fight. It’s not as groundbreaking as the narrative components are, but taking your protagonists through these battles works on a mechanical level and the fact that the stakes are high helps tie the battles into the narrative – and which makes it very satisfying to take out score of enemies at once.
For fans of the developer, the combat doesn’t have that signature Vanillaware feel to it, with rather grey looking cityscapes offering a top-down view of the combat. Attacks add splashes of color and there’s some nice artwork that pops up of the characters and their mechs, but this isn’t where the game shines like Dragon’s Crown did. That signature hand-painted style is reserved for the narrative portion of the game, where 13 Sentinels is undeniably a Vanillaware game. The art and animation are gorgeous, and complement the story very well.
Ultimately it’s the story that will stick with me more than anything, which is where Vanillaware surprised me this time. For Dragon’s Crown it was the visuals, but I was never fully sold on the story. Here, it’s the other way around, and the end result is just as memorable.