• 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review - Sony PS4

    Vanillaware is best known for action games, at least in the West: among their games from other genres only Grim Grimoire is available outside Japan; Kumatanchi and Grand Knights History never got an official English version, although Xseed teased the latter back in 2012.
    13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is another non-action game from Vanillaware, mixing point-and-click adventure with real time strategy. It is also the culmination of Vanillaware's nonlinear storytelling, with the largest cast of primary characters to date, and their most visually impressive game.

    The game's title directly refers to the main cast: thirteen high school students who find themselves entangled in a complex plot of giant robots, aliens, time travel, and a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure. The story takes elements from classic science fiction literature and movies: The War Of The Worlds, Total Recall, Terminator, 12 Monkeys, Interstellar, 2001, and even Japanese Kaijuu movies. Like Odin Sphere and Muramasa, the story is told from the point of view of all main characters, each having their own experience and at times crossing each others' paths. When that happens repetition is kept to a minimum, with the same events introduced and then skipped in favour of new content.

    Character arcs cannot be completed entirely in one go; several times the game requires progress with more than one character to continue. This makes things easier to understand and place in chronological order, as all characters start at different points in time and their chapters might jump all around the timeline. Not much is downright explained, and there are no long information dumps to progress the story. Instead you are given often subtle hints about facts and characters, and you piece together how things intertwine on your own; 13 Sentinels might then defy expectations with a small, but incredibly significant twist, or confirm suspicions, again through actions or subtle details.

    This is 13 Sentinels' main strength: how it tells its story. Not the story itself, but how every piece and character fall in place without feeling forced. The way the game doesn't hide certain things, or how hints are hidden in plain sight, or how mysteries are kept as such until the game deems necessary, entices players to continue until the story is fully resolved. Spoiling the story would be a disservice to anyone interested in the game, but if you like science-fiction and cleverly told plots, 13 Sentinels will not disappoint. However, what will disappoint is how the game is structured.

    There are two main portions, adventure and battle. Adventure is the longest and largest of the two, and the vast majority of the story unfolds here. Characters' arcs are divided in chapters, lasting between 10 to 30 minutes. Characters are usually constrained in one location until everything there has been taken care of, after which are automatically moved to another location if the current chapter isn’t over. There are no puzzles to solve, the story doesn't have different endings, there are no game overs, and it is impossible to end in a dead corner. Every character has his or her own flowchart, and the multiple branches could hint to different outcomes, but those are in reality scenarios that have to be seen in order to complete a character’s arc. When these scenarios have a common starting point, many dialogues and actions will be repeated, and the game has all the tools to make this repetition more bearable, with a fast-forward button to have the whole world advance, and the ability to skip lines already heard. Once new scenes or lines are reached, the game will cut the functions off. More than an adventure, 13 Sentinels' main part is a visual novel, as interactions are limited to moving characters around to find the required active area to progress. However, there are barely any dead moments, dialogues are kept short, and even during the longest of them, multiple interactions are required to keep them going and avoid things becoming too passive.

    The battle portion connects to the main story despite being a completely different section, and this is 13 Sentinels’ main problem: rather than having story and battles tied together, the two are separate entities, with battles mainly acting as stops to progress with someone's story. Battles take the form of real-time strategy missions where six characters chosen by the player have to defend a time terminal from the Deimos, the resident bad guys. The giant robots piloted by the thirteen characters belong to different classes: close-range specialist, long-range fire support, aerial assault, and defensive support; characters have a common set of skills based on the mecha they pilot but also have their own unique actions and passive abilities. Attacks can be improved by spending metachips, which are gained by completing missions and going through the story. Completing missions will also reward mystery points, used to unlock entries in the game's extensive archive. Attacks are improved one by one for every character, and the interface here is a bit too busy for its own good; going through this upgrade phase is a tedious necessity, unfortunately.

    Friendly units can move, heal themselves, or recharge their energy points, which are used by almost every attack. All attacks have an area of effect and range, and can either target ground or air units, with only a handful able to affect both at the same time. Self-healing is an elaborate mechanic in which the pilot will dismiss the robot, becoming easy target for attacks; pretty much any attack will kill the pilot prompting an immediate game over, so self-repair must be used carefully. The pilot will be able to summon the robot again once all of its HPs have been recovered. Units can act once the cooldown period of their previous action has expired, and in a pinch the time terminal can use a finite number of global support actions, like restoring HPs, energy points, or unleash an E.M.P. that will push back and damage all enemies. Battles start off easy, but ramp up in difficulty rather sharply towards the end. The first 10 or so missions slowly introduce enemy types, which range from standard walkers, flying units, long-range missile launchers, rolling mines, and more, including larger units that can produce mob enemies. Overall the battle system is well thought, but it's secondary to the adventure. There are three difficulty levels, and the easiest mode allows to breeze through all battles if you are only interested in the story.

    The archive is the third and last major section of the game. Events seen in adventure mode are all listed here and can be replayed one by one or arranged in a linear way, divided by characters. This is useful to fully understand how the story unfolds and fill any gaps. Mystery points gathered by completing combat missions can be spent here to unlock entries which further explain characters or items backstories. Just one advice: open these entries after completing the game; there can be huge spoilers.

    Production values are incredible. Vanillaware had to rework their development tools to achieve what's in this game, and it shows. Every location has a main colour, which sets the mood: rooftops in the early morning have a cool light blue shade; sunsets are a kaleidoscope of warm yellows and reds; the more alien locations evoke H.R. Giger with their foreboding blacks and whites; you can almost feel the material with which every element is built through simple, yet masterful, strokes. The same location will look drastically different and will summon different feelings based on the time of the day. Light sources shimmer from the background, creating highlights on every object and interacting with them, casting subtle shadows that blend perfectly with the painted backgrounds. Gaze at buildings in the distance and you will notice tiny little shadows moving along the windows. Every main character has a specific way to walk and interact with objects, giving everyone their own personality that goes beyond their voice actors or just looking different.

    13 Sentinels is a gorgeous game to look at, and the slow pace allows to take in every single detail of any location and character. Unfortunately the battle segments don't quite live up to the rest, with units portrayed as simple icons. At maximum zoom levels enemy icons kinda look like what their description shows, and the overall “digital” look battles have fits perfectly with the rest, but it's nowhere near as impressive as the adventure. Voice actors performance is incredible as well. Unfortunately going into too much detail will spoil the story, but there are some outstanding performances by several members of the cast and they are on par with the graphics, not in the way actors express a wide vocal range from screams to whispers, but how natural and truly emotionally connected everyone sounds. 13 Sentinels is fully voiced and it takes around 30 hours to go through it, with 90% of those hours spent in story mode, listening to dialogues. It's a testament to the actors' skills that they have been able to keep up with their performance for the whole duration.

    Games with a heavy focus on story more often than not forget they are games, and with uninteresting and repetitive mechanics it’s easy to lose interest. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of those rare instances where the story completely overshadows the lack of interaction in the main portion of the game; unfortunately the more interactive portion, the battles, do not actively tie with the rest of the game. This is 13 Sentinels' main problem and will turn away players seeking a better intergration with story and game. The old-school science-fiction plot is a breath of fresh air in a world that seems fixated with fantasy, post-apocalyptic, or real-world stories, and will immediately captivate fans of the genre. Vanillaware undoubtedly poured a lot of quality and passion in 13 Sentinels, and will not disappoint anyone willing to give it a chance. This review is based on the Japanese version, and at the time of this writing no plans for a western localization have been announced.