With the impending launch of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, it’s hard not to reflect on how games have improved from when the current set of consoles launched. One area in which the PlayStation 4 has stood out to fans of Japanese games is that, much more so than the PlayStation 3 generation preceding it, this generation has introduced an incredible number of experimental titles from developers all over the world. This is thanks to some of the evolution of indie games and their continued importance to keeping the industry fresh, as well as thanks to the reintroduction of “double-A” games, such as Asobo Studios’ critically acclaimed A Plague Tale: Innocence and Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Importantly, Japanese games have seen a renaissance this generation thanks to the embrace of important creatives, resulting in seminal works such as NieR: Automata and AI: The Somnium Files.
It wouldn’t be right to celebrate such an important step forward for the industry without mentioning Vanillaware, a studio responsible for such artistic titles as Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon’s Crown. Thankfully, despite taking over half a decade, Vanillaware has joined the lineage of studios defining the PlayStation 4’s line-up of high-quality, groundbreaking Japanese titles with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the studio’s greatest work to date.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim not only marks Vanillaware’s first new title since 2013’s Dragon’s Crown (not counting enhanced ports such as Dragon’s Crown Pro and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir) but also as the studio’s first title not to feature 2D hack n’ slash gameplay. Instead, 13 Sentinels is primarily an adventure game (with real-time strategy gameplay segments) that follows 13 teenage protagonists from 3 different time periods: 1940s Japan, 1980s Japan, and a post-apocalyptic future. After each of their respective towns are attacked by alien creatures known as “Kaiju,” they are forced to pilot mechs known as “Sentinels” to fight back. Following a roughly 3-hour long prologue, each character’s individual stories can be tackled in any order, with some characters’ requiring the player to have seen certain events from another’s to progress.
Giving a brief synopsis of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim‘s story is not enough to do the game’s story justice, it is a story everybody interested in interactive storytelling needs to experience first-hand. While the concept of non-linear storytelling has been tackled in video games before to varying degrees, only a handful of titles even come close to nailing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim‘s absolute masterful execution in engaging the player through making the game’s narrative itself a pile of mounting mysteries and enigmas to the point where the game provides a full glossary of terms and jargon that the player must unlock special points to access. Very few games have ever accomplished this level of pure, engaging narrative progression in the way that this game does so effortlessly thanks to its bulletproof writing and instantly endearing cast of wonderful characters, containing the type of storytelling that is okay with spoiling itself prematurely in the hopes of creating 10 more mysteries to pull the player deeper into its world. It’s a story that spins well known science-fiction tropes on their head while tackling important subjects such as sexuality and gender, and it presents it all in a confidently obtuse manner that results in one of the most expertly delivered narratives in video game history and a step forward for video game storytelling as a whole.
13 Sentinel‘s adventure segments, which make up most of the game’s 40-hour long story, are very straightforward and mostly consist of dialogue-driven scenes, with the player selecting from multiple dialogue options to progress. This, however, opens up the game’s branching-path narratives, all of which are required to progress a character’s story. Thankfully, it only takes three or four runs through each scene to see everything, and each repeat opens up the overarching story dramatically, similar to the previously mentioned AI: The Somnium Files. This style of storytelling makes the game’s ever unraveling narrative almost an addiction as each cliffhanger keeps the player questioning everything they’ve seen so far.
Also required to progress the story are the game’s real-time strategy segments, which pick up narratively near the story’s climax. These missions see the player controlling the Sentinels directly as the Kaiju are invading and involve all of the characters engaging with each other to protect the terminal databases. In these, the player chooses 6 of the 13 characters to take into battle and attempts to defend the terminals from the Kaiju. Given Vanillaware’s history with 2D action games, it’s not too much of a surprise that, even to an RTS novice such as myself, the missions here are relatively simple all the way up until the end of the game and, due to this simplistic nature, outstay their welcome approaching the game’s conclusion. While it is possible to level up the characters and terminals to take out the Kaiju, they do very little to stop the missions from blending together very quickly, and most missions are held up by the opening and closing dialogue sequences, which add further insight into the outcome of the story.
While 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is mostly new territory for Vanillaware, the artwork is thankfully an evolution of the studio’s past works, which features some of the most beautifully stylised 2D animation in all of gaming. Now, as this is Vanillaware’s most ambitious story yet, the art has been turned up to 11 with gorgeous backgrounds and character designs, all of which are complemented by incredible, detailed animation work. It’s no exaggeration to say that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the most beautiful 2D animated video games ever made as Vanillaware finds ways to surpass itself every single time. Unfortunately, as the game started life as a lower-budget PlayStation Vita title, the real-time strategy segments feature very rudimentary visuals that, while a good fit for the 2012 handheld, don’t look especially flattering blown up on a 1080p or 4K display in the way that the artwork of the story segments does. This isn’t to say that the RTS segments look bad, however, although during latter segments featuring staggeringly high numbers of enemies, the game’s frame-rate does begin to drop even on a PlayStation 4 Pro. It makes one wonder how the game would have performed on the PlayStation Vita during these segments.
Complementing the game’s presentation even further is the inclusion of full voice acting for every main story scenario. Hours upon hours of voice work and dialogue combine to make this one of Atlus’s greatest localisation efforts to date, matching the likes of the studio’s beloved Persona series and setting an exciting precedent for the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V. While the English dub was unavailable for my playthrough due to a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the game will launch with full English voice acting as part of a day 1 update, which judging by Atlus’s history, promises to be on-par with the excellent Japanese audio track featured in the base game. The game’s soundtrack also features the return of long-time Vanillaware composer Hitoshi Sakimoto of Basiscape, who delivers a beautiful soundtrack that propels each dramatic moment and adds tension to each battle.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim manages to deliver a masterful non-linear story that rises above being the sum of its influences by doubling as one of the best science-fiction narratives in gaming. While the real-time strategy segments begin to outstay their welcome, the story is a relentless assault of branching narratives and mounting mysteries that is a prime example of the potential of blending game design with storytelling, topped by the greatest execution of Vanillaware’s trademark gorgeous 2D animation and an excellent soundtrack. This is a game you will regret never being able to experience fresh again when the credits roll.
Release Date: 22nd September 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was supplied by the publisher.