Among many, many things, 2020 will be a year remembered for wonderful and inventive video game stories. The Last of Us Part II delivered phenomenal performances and heart-breaking turns. Ghost of Tsushima’s side-quests rolled out as unforgettable vignettes. The cast of Hades and Zag’s journey out of the Underworld is littered with wonderfully charming character moments. Paradise Killer presented a murder mystery filled with the some of the strangest and most unforgettable characters you’ll ever see. And Spiritfarer dealt with the concepts of death, grief, and moving on as well as any game I’ve ever played.
But even among all of these titans, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has stood out to me as the most dense and wildest story of any game in 2020. The latest from developer Vanillaware, the studio behind action RPGs like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, 13 Sentinels swings for the fences every single time it’s up to bat. It has complete trust that the player will be patient and observant enough to figure out where the balls will ultimately land.
Part strategy RPG and part visual novel, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim places you in the roles of 13 different teenagers scattered throughout time and space who are forced to band together and pilot giant mechs in order to stop a kaiju invasion from destroying Earth. While it’s a pretty familiar and basic premise on its surface, the interwoven depth and the storytelling itself are anything but. The way the game has you ping-ponging between over a dozen protagonists in a non-linear narrative puts the onus on the player to be able to piece together this 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, without a clear image on the box to go off of.
The combat sections of the game unfold as a mix of RTS and tower defense skirmishes where you choose six of your 13 characters to hop inside their Sentinels and defend an area from a handful of enemy waves. While these battles are massive, terrifying, and destructive events in the world of the game, the action itself is presented from a rudimentary top-down view that doesn’t really convey that same sense of scale and danger. While not outright bad, I found myself kind of just going through the numbers in these battles in order to be able to jump back into the meat and potatoes of the story. That said, I do give Vanillaware credit for doing a clever job of explaining a lot of the more “video game” elements of combat, like leveling up and unlocking new abilities, in the actual fiction of the world.
Thankfully, a vast majority of your time in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim finds you hopping around between the perspectives of the 13 teenagers in short, bite-sized chunks of story that play out like a visual novel with some mild adventure game puzzle-solving. The gorgeous hand-drawn settings and wonderful music immediately draw you into each and every scene, from something as small as two characters sharing a sunset overlooking the city, to mind-bending revelations set in the deep unknowns of space itself.
I’m keeping the specifics of the story vague, because so much of 13 Sentinels’ joy comes from experiencing the fantastic reveals for yourself. But from a genre standpoint, its story is a tremendous and effective hodgepodge of the Persona series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Metal Gear Solid, Netflix’s Dark, The Matrix, Primer, the sprawling and interlinking cast of something like Lost, and about a hundred other science fiction touchstones. I know that sounds like a gigantic mess, but somehow it pulls it all off with remarkable confidence and clarity, while still taking you on an unforgettable ride. Every time I felt like I had a grasp on where the story was headed, another twist would get thrown at me, or I’d experience a previous event from a different point of view that completely altered my perspective.
When you’re putting together a puzzle of this magnitude, everybody’s going to have a different experience depending on where and how we decide to tackle the problem. After a brief tutorial chapter with each character, you’re free to bounce around between the 13 stories at your leisure, save for a handful of progression roadblocks where you need to get so far in another story or the combat scenarios in order to advance.
I was constantly rotating through the roster, making a small bit of progress on one story before moving on to the next. But if I wanted to focus on a single character, I could just as easily do that. And in that way, the experience of putting the puzzle together differs for everybody. One minute I’m track star Natsuno Minami, who finds an E.T.-like alien robot and needs to protect it from enigmatic Men in Black. Next, I’m Ryoko Shinonome, constantly taking some strange and dangerous medication while attempting to piece together her fragmented past. Then I might be Takatoshi Hijiyama, a Japanese soldier during World War II who suddenly finds himself transported to the ‘80s. This just scratches the surface of the 13 stories, all of which end up intersecting in ingenious ways.
But as far out as the story gets, 13 Sentinels always keeps you grounded thanks to a fantastic set of core characters. Each of the teenage pilots that you walk in the shoes of has their own genuine hopes, fears, ambitions, and neat little quirks. No matter how strange of a web the overall story may become, the wonderful students keep its heart beating strong. Slowly discovering their backstories, their fates, and how they all intertwine with one another is consistently rewarding.
But at the same time, even the mundane events you’ll experience, from arguing over where to grab dinner, to geeking out over the sci-fi movie that was on TV last night, add to the overall tone and destiny of the world. It’s all topped off with excellent voice acting all around, no matter if you play it in English or in Japanese with subtitles.
Within the opening minutes of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I was absolutely entranced by its spell and how its narrative revelations kept me guessing. From seeing the same event from multiple perspectives a la Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, to having new knowledge add an entirely different weight and context to interactions that you thought you had a firm grasp on, you’re constantly rewarded for staying on your toes.
Thankfully the game keeps track of all of the characters, settings, and events you experience via the Analysis mode, which acts as an evolving glossary and timeline that can be sorted by each character or by overall chronology. I found myself revisiting this database every few hours as a way of not only studying all that I’d learned, but also helping reinforce how everything fits together. Aside from this, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is also one of those games I took copious physical notes during. Like with recent mind-benders Outer Wilds, Telling Lies, and Return of the Obra Dinn, I had built an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia conspiracy board by the end of the game.
The biggest compliment that I can pay Vanillaware’s game is that it nails both the macro and the micro of its wildly ambitious story. Whether it’s two characters taking a quiet stroll through a park, or a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style journey across the vast reaches of time and space, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim delivers one of 2020’s absolute best video game stories, and one that I’ll be thinking about for years to come.