13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is, as the official description puts it, “SEGA and Vanillaware’s newest sci-fi mystery adventure taking players on a journey across time, space and humanity spanning thirteen intertwining stories. Met with high praise and recognition from Japanese game industry leaders, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is beautifully rendered in Vanillaware’s signature visual style and will provide audiences a chance to uncover a deep story through visions of the past and future.”
Every once in a while, an adventure game comes around that’s arresting enough that it redefines how a story can be told through gaming. Many of these games have some commonality. They usually involve some level of science fiction, as in Zero Escape or Steins;Gate. They’re mostly text-based—if there is any gameplay, it’s sparse and only occasional, like an escape-room puzzle or a simulated murder mystery. The twists are mind-bending and delicious, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss them without throwing in a minor spoiler. But perhaps the real source of their allure lies in the ontological mystery they revolve around. Maybe the characters have lost all their memories, or they are trapped in a Saw-like game of life-and-death; maybe story beats can only be understood by reconsidering what we know to be true about where the story can go and how it gets there.
Dedicated fan communities often spawn from these games of expectations. The When They Cry series began as a supernatural murder mystery made by a college student. Its popularity surged through word-of-mouth on communities like LiveJournal, where fans would debate theories for upcoming episodes and argue over semantics in developer Q&As.
Vanillaware isn’t known for making games like these. The company’s history dates back to the Sega Saturn, when founder George Kamitani directed the side-scrolling action game Princess Crown. The game sold horribly but became a cult classic mostly because of what Vanillaware would become known for: The art. Vanillaware games are always 2D, featuring sumptuous, romantic pixel art. The backgrounds are equally beautiful. Look no further than their most popular game to date, Odin Sphere, for exaggeratedly lush environments. Vanillaware deftly blends deep jewel tones and whimsical pastels that evoke dreamy stage plays, where everything’s well-lit and teems with life.
This is most likely what drew you to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Though the game’s a massive (massive) departure from their normal style, it features Vanillaware’s signature look with a modern twist. As opposed to their previous catalog of fairytale-like fantasy games, 13 Sentinels is a sci-fi conspiracy thriller that borrows liberally from vintage blockbusters and classic speculative fiction.
The game concerns 13 teenagers who all live in different time periods. Slowly, each time period is conquered by kaiju, giant monsters popularized in Japanese special effects-heavy movies like Godzilla. You unlock each of the game’s cast and experience their memories leading up to the final battle. This is only half the game—the other half is actually playing out that final battle.
Despite what you might expect, 13 Sentinels is not an action RPG. Instead, it’s a blended experience of text-based adventure and real-time strategy. Vanillaware aren’t exactly strangers to RTSes. Their 2007 game GrimGrimoire was something like StarCraft by way of Harry Potter but was met with middling praise despite its ambition and charm. Trying again in an unfamiliar setting was a risk, but don’t come in thinking you’re only here for the story. 13 Sentinels’ combat is plenty rewarding. Almost every battle has the same basic set-up: You pick up to 6 of the 13 pilots to bring into battle, in which you’ll be defending a Terminal tower defense style, and either rout all the kaiju attacking or outlast a countdown. The battle is top-down style, where you control pieces on a stylishly gridded radar.
There are four types of sentinels, all with their individual strengths and weaknesses—some are heavy hitters that do well in close-range but are slow to travel, while others can fly and provide essential support but lack firepower. You won’t be able to brute force your way through any of the battles unless you play on Casual, and Vanillaware doesn’t try to guilt you out of playing the game the way you want to. It never gets terribly complex, even on Intense; if you want an extra challenge, there are bonus files you can unlock for fulfilling bonus objectives, like deploying fewer pilots into battle and getting a S rank score. As long as you’re evenly leveling the pilots, you’re only getting better. It’s pretty simple in that regard, but there’s something deeply satisfying about watching hundreds of kaiju dots explode from an expertly timed salvo of missiles. Either way, there are just few enough battles that it never feels tedious.
These two elements of gameplay are strictly divided. Each time you finish a battle or a section of the story, you’re taken to a main menu where you’re able to pick if you’d like to continue with the game’s few dozen combat sequences or switch over to the story. This lets you play the game at your own pace and unravel the mystery how you want, following whichever character you want until you reach a lock that requires knowledge from another path. Even though the size of the cast is unwieldy, you intimately get to know each of the pilots as they toil with their reasons to fight and investigate personal mysteries. The characters are quintessentially “teeny”; their paths start by discussing their weird dreams, looking into urban legends, crushing on their classmates, or trading VHSes. These prologues are launchpads for the mind-bending places the story likes to go—Ashitaba City teems with secrets.
Though the game spans several time periods, the crux of the game takes place in the ‘80s. Two of my favorite stories follow Keitaro Miura and Takatoshi Hijiyama, two classmates who were enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Pacific War. Separately, the two end up shifting forward to the ‘80s and find themselves displaced in time, living on the streets in a rapidly Westernizing version of their hometown. The story shockingly has a lot to say about Japan’s troubled history, and addresses issues of nationalism and imperialism with a level head—their trauma over living in a world that burnt down and left them behind is gut-wrenching and exciting. [Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers; highlight if you want to read them]
Hijiyama’s story is also notable for its unique romantic subplot. When we first meet him, he’s pursuing a girl who he’s fallen in love with, the daughter of a scientist who works for the army. Hijiyama soon finds out that the girl he’s in love with has been undercover, and is actually a young man named Tsukasa Okino crossdressing.
As a queer gamer, this immediately set off warning sirens. Gay panic is a pretty common theme in gaming—look no farther than Persona for that. Though the game occasionally handles Tsukasa clumsily, there’s no mystery to the couple’s deep connection. Their story blossoms unambiguously, and Tsukasa even strongly suggests a gender-fluid reading of his character. 13 Sentinels as a whole unfortunately plays with a lot of cliched heterosexual tropes common in games but I was happy to stumble into a truly relatable romance.
While Miura and Hijiyama may have been two particular highlights for me, I was generally impressed with the non-standard story the game weaves over 30 or so hours. The game is completely nonlinear. You’ll be cross-referencing a log of the game’s events and a long list of important terms continuously, and, given the non-sequential order in which you can do each character’s story, you encounter a lot of dramatic irony in which characters behave against knowledge only you, the player, might have. This might lead you to find some of the main cast unsympathetic for a big portion of the game, but each are treated with intense empathy within their individual paths.
One character, an upperclassman named Ryoko Shinonome, is an obstacle in several paths because of her conflicting loyalties. Her path is maybe the most impressively integrated. Ryoko struggles with frequent memory loss, which makes following her story all the more challenging given she’s often unsure when she is or what she’s doing. Watching her struggle to keep it together often disturbed me, when, when she appears in other paths, Ryoko might otherwise be unrelatable. It’s proof that 13 Sentinels’ format only serves the narrative it tries to tell.
I haven’t had a gaming experience like 13 Sentinels in a long time. It’s hard to find a game as grippingly addictive, yet as totally chill to play as this one. Ashitaba City feels like home by the end—each day, separate from each other, the characters walk home and marvel at the gorgeous sunset, which literally paints the city in strokes of orange, purple, and blue. Almost every character comments on how “nostalgic” that sunset feels. I started to feel that nostalgia, too.
I wanted to protect the city as much as them, to watch the pilots conquer time and thrive in the aftermath. Something about the ‘80s aesthetic is innately homey, and the game makes sure to punctuate intense action with calm domestic moments. You see Megumi Yakushiji selflessly make her lover dinner every night, despite having to take refuge in the past when her city’s ravaged. We’re with Iori Fuyusaka and Tomi Kisaragi when they debate what pastry to get on their walk home. It’s in these intimate moments where we follow each character closely we’re able to understand their will to fight, and the overwhelming love they each feel for their city.
These moments are heralded by a gorgeous soundtrack, including quiet, ballroom-like piano, pulse-pounding techno, and a great diegetic J-Pop single. The sound’s provided by Hitoshi Sakimoto’s sound team Basiscape, who notably worked on Final Fantasy XII as well as Vanillaware’s own Odin Sphere. It’s enough to make you miss the rosy days of high school.
13 Sentinels has the makings of a true cult classic, and earns its respect as a shining beacon of speculative fiction. The game has a lot to say about topics as wide as ethics in genetics to honoring the people who came before us, and handles it all with a steady, precise hand. Most importantly, 13 Sentinels completely reshapes how a story can be conveyed through gaming. It’s an incredible achievement, and one we’ll remember for years to come.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim arrives on the PS4 on September 22nd.
Austin Jones is a freelance writer with eclectic interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and 80s-90s anime @belfryfire.