The Bot That Leapt Over Time

HIGH Gorgeous artwork complements an enthralling sci-fi narrative.

LOW Gameplay needed more Vanillaware visual flair.

WTF Press triangle to consider the Hemborger!

When is mecha fiction not mecha fiction?

One might say “when the mecha in question aren’t robots,” but that would be too simplistic. After all, mecha are just framing devices for all kinds of science fiction and fantasy stories. The mecha themselves are just a part of what makes mecha fiction unique.

With that in mind, it’s selling Vanillaware’s latest game, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim a little short to describe it as merely a “mecha game” from the creators of Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown. The titular Sentinels — skyscraper-sized metal giants bristling with weaponry — are just part of what quickly develops into a dense, multilayered sci-fi saga.

I’m reluctant to share plot details given that Sentinels is best appreciated with as few spoilers as possible, but in broad strokes — the Earth is under attack from mysterious “Kaiju” monsters, and the only thing standing between the world and its end are thirteen Japanese youngsters piloting the titular Sentinels.

That sounds like a cliche premise, and… it is. But, 13 Sentinels‘ narrative works in part because there’s just so much stuffed into its forty-hour frame.

Combing over the details, one can find numerous references to sci-fi and pop-culture influences running the gamut from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Pacific Rim, Terminator 2 and more. That last one in particular since the battle sequences (chronologically) take place on a kind of “Judgment Day,” and most of the narrative revolves around getting to that fateful, final afternoon.

This gonzo, kitchen-sink approach to inspiration works in 13 Sentinels‘ favor — while few single elements are novel, all of them together make for an appealing brew of big ideas steeped in the kind of affection unique to true passion projects, and all of this works in concert with the unusual, non-linear storytelling.

Players experience the time-hopping, dimension-spanning tale of Sentinels through a “Remembrance” mode where they can choose which protagonist to follow for a chapter of their respective story arc. They’re given near-complete freedom when deciding who to follow, which makes the experience of the story and how each character’s life intertwines with every other character’s unique.

Each story is also dense with detail and personality, giving every character time to grow past their initial archetype. For example, Juro Kurabe, the starter character, seems at first to be the kind of amnesiac protagonist so many mecha shows use as a stand in for the viewer. As he discovers more of his identity, he grows into a more complex, interesting presence.

That Vanillaware manages such a feat with a cast of thirteen is noteworthy in and of itself, but what’s really impressive is how each character’s story, winds together to assemble the puzzle of the greater narrative. No single story has all the clues, and even the relatively straightforward explanations that can be dug out of 13 Sentinels’ codex-like “Analysis” mode are no substitute for putting together the pieces on one’s own.

Though 13 Sentinels isn’t a mystery game per se, I found myself taking notes and drawing relationship maps, as I did while playing Danganronpa or Steins;Gate. When the various stories in 13 Sentinels hopped between time periods ranging from World War II to the far future, my characters acquired words for their “Thought Clouds” — key terms that carried across chapters and allowed them to unlock new branching paths, clues, and information to add to the growing pile of hints and threads in the larger story.

Getting the bigger picture of 13 Sentinels‘ narrative is less like watching a movie or reading a book, and more like assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle, consolidating little sections at a time and slowly filling in gaps until a detailed, final picture emerges. It’s a sort of storytelling that would only be possible in games.

As ever, all this happens against some of the best 2D visuals Vanillaware’s ever produced. Even since the days of Odin Sphere, the delicate animations and color of Vanillaware titles seemed to come from an alternate universe where 2D sprites dominated art styles well into the 3D era, and 13 Sentinels shows off a new level of that artistry.

It’s true that Sentinels isn’t as colorful as other Vanillware titles, having traded the vibrancy of past games for a palette of city tones and a slightly washed-out look well suited to the reminiscences that make up the main story episodes. However, the team employs lighting to an extent almost unseen among mainly 2D titles. Light and shadow are at play constantly in 13 Sentinels, as characters stare at gorgeous sunsets or walk amongst the sunbeams while motes of dust float in the air.

Sadly, while the narrative approach is unique, the battle system doesn’t rise to the same level. For 13 Sentinels, Vanillaware revived some of their ideas on semi-real-time strategy, refining some of the concepts attempted in 2007’s GrimGrimoire.

The setup is simple — over the dozens of individual stages making up the “Destruction” mode, all have the same structure. The pilots in Sentinels face off against hordes and hordes of Kaiju closing in on a central terminal. Lose a pilot or allow an enemy to touch the terminal, and it’s game over. The pilots each have different classes of Sentinel. Some move fast and can do lots of damage up close, while others specialize in long-range bombardment. Sentinel abilities run on cooldowns, and action can be paused at any time to issue orders.

The battles are fairly simple. The Kaiju never deviate from basic horde-mode AI patterns, and tactics in Destruction mode boil down to timing and target selection. Turning up the difficulty makes things more hectic, but it won’t rival Starcraft by any means.

Further, the battles are also represented in an abstracted 3D map mode, looking a bit like the neon-toned map of DEFCON married to the particle effects of Pac-Man Championship Edition. It looks alright by itself — the explosions and special effects are quite impressive, and occasionally so intense that really large ones can dip the framerate. But, I’d be lying if I said they could hold a candle to the aesthetic splendor of the story mode.

This is particularly disappointing considering that we do get a glimpse of that glory every time we select a Sentinel’s attack — a tiny animated picture-in-picture preview of the robot launching a cloud of missiles or engaging some arcane subsystem plays in the corner of the screen. One can only salivate at the thought of how the game might have looked if Vanillaware had taken a bit more inspiration from something like Banpresto’s Super Robot Wars.

As it stands, playing 13 Sentinels battle mode feels more like experiencing a mecha anime from the perspective of the people in the control room yelling at screens rather than the pilots in the thick of the fight. That’s not to say it’s a bad place to be, just that it’s probably not what prospective players will have signed up for. To use a Pacific Rim analogy — most folks will expect to be Stacker Pentecost or Mako Mori, but the battles in 13 Sentinels put them in Tendo Choi’s chair.

Though its battles are bland, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim still stands as possibly the best game Vanillaware’s made, and a must-play for anyone missing the dense, meaty science fiction of mecha fiction’s glory days.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game is based on retail build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PS4. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode. The game was completed.

Parents: At the time of writing, this game is rated T by the ESRB, with descriptors for Fantasy Violence, Language, and Partial Nudity. The official ESRB description is as follows: “This is a strategy/adventure game in which players follow the story of 13 high-school students as they battle mechanical monsters. Players use giant military robots called Sentinels in turn-based combat, moving their characters around a map and selecting attack moves from a menu. In between battles, players can walk around various environments and interact with characters; some interactions depict acts of violence: characters shooting or electrocuting each other; a character shooting a boy with a pistol in order to implant nanomachines. One sequence briefly depicts two characters partially nude, one covering her breasts/nipples with her arm. The word “sh*t” appears in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes selectable.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is presented with onscreen text. Combat “barks” are subtitled on-screen. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay, though certain atmospheric audio cues (such as a voice warning when a unit is in range for an enemy attack) do not have a visual component and may be missed.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are not remappable.

Josh Tolentino
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