Japan has been at the forefront of the visual novel genre. All the way from Steins;Gate to Zero Escape, the country has provided some of the most interesting stories to date. Now, Vanillaware takes a stab at the genre with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. I’m very glad to say that the game sticks the landing, providing incredibly likable characters, a narrative with plenty of twists and turns, and some decently fun action-oriented gameplay as well.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is split between 13 protagonists, each with their own viewpoints of how the events of the story unfold. The game’s setting primarily takes place in 1985 Japan, with some events taking place during the World War II era as well as in the future. The cast of 13 high school kids travels back and forth between different periods of time to learn about the truth behind the Kaiju alien invaders threatening their world. At the same time, they’re tasked with taking them down in their Sentinel mechs too.
The game itself is split into three different sections: Destruction, Remembrance, and Analysis. The former two comprise most of the gameplay, with Destruction being the title’s real-time strategy (RTS) element and Remembrance being the visual novel portion. The Analysis section is just an in-game index commonly found in visual novels that keeps track of the game’s lore and all of the different terms you come across.
What’s refreshing is Vanillaware’s approach to a visual novel. While most games in the genre usually just have players pressing one or two buttons to advance text, 13 Sentinels takes a similar approach to Danganronpa. You can control characters in 2D space and run around throughout the game’s different settings in Vanillaware’s signature gorgeous art style. Anyone who’s played the studio’s previous games such as Dragon’s Crown and Odin Sphere will once again stare in awe.
The main gameplay mechanic in Remembrance is the Thought Cloud, where certain keywords in the text will be added. Pulling up the Thought Cloud, players can interact with the keywords stored in them and also select them to use on other characters to advance the story.
The fact that characters can be controlled while NPCs casually stroll along in their daily lives in the background makes 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim so much more engaging than a straightforward press-X-to-continue visual novel. Each protagonist’s story has a flowchart, and to progress further into any particular one sometimes involves having seen a particular event in another character’s story or completed enough RTS missions in Destruction.
The game’s RTS mode is surprisingly fleshed out. You have the 13 protagonists piloting mechs, and you can only bring six into a single battle. They’re all split into four different roles: melee, all-rounder, long range, and flight support. The gameplay is pretty simple.
There are three difficulty options: Casual, Normal, and Intense. The city battleground is non-grid-based, and flight mechs are able to roam freely around using the Move command while ground mechs have to navigate using roads. When you see Kaiju, select attack skills to blow them up. There are support skills too, meant to heal HP or provide buffs. Every time a mech takes an action besides moving around the battlefield, such as attacking, it must cool down before making another move. Additionally, most skills cost EP, but mechs also have the ability to use the Defend command in order to recover a decent amount of EP until they can move again.
If a mech is low on HP, it also has the ability to enact the Repair command, but that leaves the pilot vulnerable until the repairs are complete. Allowing even a single pilot to die usually results in instant mission failure, so it’s best to either move them out of the way of enemy forces or summon a shield from another mech to nullify any damage for a short time period.
There is no gear to equip, but by progressing in Remembrance and completing the different RTS missions, called Waves, you’ll earn Meta-Chips. They are points that you can put towards learning new skills, upgrading existing skills to do more damage or cover a wider area, and increasing stats for each character. Additionally, completing Waves earns you Mystery Points, which you can use to unlock extra terms in Analysis. You’ll receive a rank depending on how well you do.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has very few problems, but they’re mostly in Destruction. There are 10 missions in a set region, and they usually have one single win condition, which is to wipe out all of the enemies. Fortunately, it is gratifying to completely decimate entire groups of enemies with your lasers and missiles. Only during the very few “boss battles” — which is typically just a bigger Kaiju — will the objective be any different. There are bonus objectives tied to each mission at least, such as requiring you to use a certain character for that mission or having to keep the city’s damage below a certain percentage.
Also, it seems like only a handful of Waves are relevant to the game’s narrative, which occur either at the middle of a set or at the end. Everything else in-between is just normal battles. I’m pretty sure I got the same exact victory banter between the same characters in one Wave that I did in another about seven battles ago. I had to double-check whether or not I had accidentally selected a previous mission I already beat. In general, I wish there would have been tighter story integration between Destruction and Remembrance.
Does the inclusion of Destruction’s RTS battles detract from the whole experience though? Absolutely not! Even after completing the story, there’s still plenty of gameplay left in Destruction, including post-game Waves, as well as trying to achieve the highest rank on every mission. The fact that some character stories in Remembrance are locked behind getting to a certain point in Destruction encourages you to play the two modes evenly, which in turn freshens up the gameplay.
However, there are not many aesthetic differences between units during the RTS battles. Both friendly units and enemies units are represented in vague silhouettes, lacking in personality and style. Only character and enemy portraits are decorated in Vanillaware’s art.
This results in sometimes not being able to distinguish between different units and having to look carefully to see if you’re properly aiming where you want to. This portion of the game certainly could have benefited from having fully 3D colorized mechs or something on the map.
Additionally, in the later missions, when more Kaiju are on the map and when missiles are flying everywhere, the game tends to lag even on my PlayStation 4 Pro. However, that’s not a huge issue given that, when you’re selecting skills, time stops and you can focus on your next move.
In any case, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is absolutely wonderful all around. Each of the 13 protagonists gets relatively equal screen time, and they’re all brought to life by both the great English and Japanese voice tracks. You’re sure to have your favorites, but it’s incredibly satisfying to see how each of their stories intersects through time and space and coalesces into the battle for mankind against the alien invaders. This is one adventure you simply don’t want to miss.