Vanillaware has crafted a magnificent sci-fi epic, with thirteen interwoven stories spanning the reaches of time.
- Developer: Vanillaware
- Publisher: Atlus
- Release date: 22nd September 2020
- Genre: Adventure/Real-time Strategy
- Platforms: PS4
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
There is a reason 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has won bucketloads of gaming accolades, including ‘Game of the Year’, at the recent Tokyo Game Show.
At its core, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is still a signature Vanilliaware 2D side scroller, at least where the story is concerned. Even so, that part of the game is predominantly presented as a visual novel, with point and click adventure elements, and it is a world away from their usual hack and slash gameplay. The other aspect of the game is a top-down, grid-based, tower defence, real-time strategy mech battles. This mixed-genre approach is new for Vanillaware, but they have pulled it off.
Grab a coffee, and get ready to play into the night
It’s very hard, nigh on impossible, to bestow the plaudits of a game that is all about its story without going into spoiler country, but we’ll go as close as we dare!
The game revolves around thirteen high school characters and is basically a sci-fi, time-travelling extravaganza. Each of the characters’ individual stories will play out, intertwine and unravel to meet together at a certain point. Imagine the structure of the story as a spider web, and the player has to start at the outer boundaries of the strands to work themselves to the centre.
However it’s hard enough to follow thirteen separate story arcs as it is, but throw in time travel, from eras as early as 1945 all the way through to 2089, and your head will start spinning.
In addition to the thirteen characters and time travel, there is also a supporting cast of sub-characters, and compounding the complexity is the fact that you can’t play one character’s story all the way through until certain conditions have been met. These conditions usually involve completing other characters stories to certain points or completing mech battles to a certain level.
Think you have it sussed now? Think again. Each section of a character’s story usually has multiple paths to the end of the chapter. For example, one character’s first chapter has seven different paths you can take. These paths have wildly different ending scenarios, and the path you choose affects the outcome of the end game.
The only problem with the story, and it’s a pretty major issue too, is that the greatest strength of the game is also its greatest weakness. For many hours from the start, I was utterly confused and bewildered by what on earth was going on, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with so many character threads, with such a complex story and delivery. It wasn’t until I was around fifteen hours into the game that I really started to get an idea and understand all that was happening.
However. Just when you think you know what’s happening, the plot twists arrive to blow your mind! As the story is so complex, and initially delivered in such an erratic manner, it’s possible that many who start the game could give up through confusion. However, the interesting characters and great narrative will pull you through to the conclusion.
It’s very rare for a game to have so many likeable characters, as normally there are one or two in story-driven games that are annoying or predictable, but not so here. This is probably the biggest hook of the game. Forget the whole overarching story, players will get invested into each vignette of the individual characters’ stories, so that they keep pushing through to keep finding out about them.
This is helped immensely by the fact that each chapter ends with the classic ‘to be continued.’ This simple tried and trusted structure draws you in more and more. Before you know it you are utterly consumed with the intriguing storyline, both of the individual characters, as well as the big picture.
The narrative of the game is excellent, with fantastic voice acting presented in both English and Japanese.
During the story, gameplay is managed with point and click mechanics. Characters are moved around the screen, and when something they can interact with is available a couple of icons appear. These are either thought cloud key words, or the ability to ask questions or give items to someone else. The order these interactions are completed can lead to vastly different outcomes. These interactions can be as subtle as picking something up or just stopping to wait to listen to a passing conversation. Like the “Butterfly Effect” theory, these tiny in-game interactions can have mammoth and unexpected results further down the road. An easy to view road map of each character’s progression is available to follow, which makes you acutely aware that every choice and action, however minor, is important.
Time for some action
The second aspect of the game is the real-time tower defence mech battles. These battles are all set during a time later in the game, which is confusing to start with. Why was I just watching a cut scene of an event in 1945, but now I’m flying around in mechs fighting monsters in 2064?
The mech battles are pretty simplistic, but still a lot of fun. In each battle, you can choose up to six of the 13 available Sentinels to use. There are different types of Sentinels (mechs), each with their own strengths and weaknesses. These mechs fight the incoming kaiju (aka monsters), who also have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Each of the mechs has health and EP points. The EP points are consumed by the various attacks they have, and the more powerful the attacks use more EP is consumed. When an action has been applied the mechs then have a cool-down period before they can be used again. This all happens in real-time so while one mech is cooling down another is available to use. The game pauses the action when this happens so the player can choose what action to take.
The kaiju’s objective in each battle is to storm a central terminal which your Sentinels are tasked to defend. The terminal itself can be upgraded with one-off mega attacks or player buffs. When you choose to use these one-shot terminal boosts can turn the tide of a battle.
During fights, and when completing story chapters, you are awarded with chips that can be used to upgrade the mechs and/or the terminal. This brings an RPG-like element to the gameplay, as some mechs can be customised to function in areas they weren’t designed for. For example, a ground-based mech can be given the ability to shoot down flying kaiju or vice versa. There are a lot of options for mech upgrades but only a certain amount of weapon slots can be filled.
The battles, although not particularly special to look at, are incredibly well done, and benefit from simple game design that maximises the fun to be had. However, there is a big difficulty spike later on. If you just want to enjoy the story, turning the difficulty down to easy can help you get through this, and the in-game trophies can still be achieved in this setting. However, much like the main story, the tactical battles feel much more rewarding if you apply thought to them, rather than simply going through the motions to get to the end.
Classic, stunning art.
Just by looking at the game, many will instantly recognize the signature Vanillaware art style. Gorgeous watercolour visuals give the game an almost hand-drawn quality. What makes each conversation delightful to play through is the exquisite background settings. With a new lighting engine, the game screams at the player, just look at how beautiful I am. Whether it is a low sunset on the horizon, casting shadows contrasted by powerful beams of light, or a deep blue night-time setting, with twinkling stars, each moment and change of scene slows the player down to absorb what they are looking at.
The graphics of the battle sections, though, are far less beautiful and much more mundane. Even so, it’s not ugly to look at, just not very exciting. 8-bit symbols representing the players or enemies, with bright blue lines depicting where the players can move, does the job from a gameplay standpoint, but the only way you would know that what is being played out is a mech battle is because visualisations at the bottom right of the screen show what the attack you are selecting would look like.
The other often overlooked or not commented on feature of the game is that the text and menus are very clear. For a game that requires a lot of text reading, this is a very key component for the overall enjoyment and accessibility of the game. The fact that the game also nails this part with clear, precise and easy to read text will not be a surprise at all.
Audio that transports you
The sound design is of the highest quality. As well as clearly delivered voice acting, filled with superb emotion and conviction, the devil is also there in the tiniest of details. When a character moves from concrete to rubble, there is a subtle change to the sound effect. The hustle and bustle of a downtown scene or the rattling of train tracks draw the player even further into the experience. For a two-dimensional game, this is a remarkable achievement.
Musically there isn’t a huge variety of tracks, but like the rest of the game, they are of the highest quality. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the soundtracks are so good they have been made available for purchase by some retailers separately to the game.
Sound during mech battles is also excellent and conveys brilliant effects when launching the mech attacks. They do vary in sound and resulting effects but overall have a techno, bass-deep resonance. Pilots of the mechs engage in conversation during fights, which adds to the experience and elevates the battles to another level.
The story and characters are fantastic and the mech battles are fun and inventive, but the way the story is delivered will split gamers. I struggled to keep going during the first 15 hours of the game, as at that point, the story felt like a confusing mess. You simply can not casually play this game or you will miss important details. You have to be invested and drink in every detail. However, as you start to close in on the conclusion of each character’s story, the overall picture becomes clearer and the light of realisation suddenly comes on. When this realisation hits, all you can say is WOW.
The mech battles give a welcome distraction to the proceedings, preventing gameplay from becoming stagnant and adding to the overall enjoyment of the game, even if the presentation of these sections is somewhat lacking.
So sit down, grab a coffee, and be prepared to play long into the night. This will be one story you won’t want to miss.