13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is shaping up to be another winner for Vanillaware, and a stark departure from the genre stylings it has called home for decades. If done right, this could be one of 2020’s sleeper hits.
- Review Price: £49.99
- Release Date: September 22, 2020
- Developer: Vanillaware
- Genre: RPG
- Platform: PS4
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a bold departure for Vanillaware, which has previously cut its teeth on gorgeous, hand-drawn brawlers with the lightest of strategy elements, like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown. Since the PS2 days, it has seldom abandoned traditional fantasy settings and predictable genre conventions, but this new outing throws every conceivable toy from the pram and doesn’t look back. The Japanese studio has grown up, moved forward and is far, far better for it.
Even from the prologue alone, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a daring, ambitious and downright enrapturing time travel caper that feels like a mixture of Doctor Who, Terminator, War of the Worlds and countless other iconic sci-fi properties. While its influences are worn proudly on its sleeve, the beautiful aesthetic and innovative approach to storytelling help Vanillaware’s latest effort really shine, with the prologue establishing a winding tale of tragic intrigue that I’m already smitten with.
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The core premise of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is simple. Otherworldly aliens have attacked the Earth, and a small group of towering mechs are the only means of conceivable defence. Constructed across time as a way to combat the foreign menace, these machines are piloted by chosen individuals, who all happen to be in high-school because anime.
While this core premise seems trivial, it quickly involves into a mystery which spans from 1944 all the way into a far flung future, following the same thirteen characters as they mature, fall in love and come to terms with the inevitable fate that awaits them. It’s beautifully established in the opening few hours, with each individual storyline set to intertwine in some unexpected ways.
You’re piecing together the true intentions of this world alongside the characters themselves, taunted by an impending sense of dread that you can’t help but morbidly pursue. The cast of characters consists of high-school students from across time, all of which find themselves attending the same school and being controlled by a higher power that’s yet to be uncovered.
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Each new face has their own personal demons to conquer in the wake of an impending apocalypse, and they all have their own establishing scenes in the opening hours. Natsuno Minami is a track athlete with a keen interest in the paranormal, while Keitaro Miura is a young man who is drafted into the Japanese Army in 1944 before being thrust forward in time.
Another highlight is Takatoshi Hijiyama, a soldier who finds himself stranded in the 1980s, slowly falling in love with the man responsible for his now fractured life. I’ve only described a few members of the main ensemble here, but they’re all fleshed out by wonderful performances and nuanced circumstances in the wider narrative, and I’m curious to see how they develop as the story progresses, and if the game’s LGBT themes stick the landing given Atlus’ less than stellar history in that department.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a traditional narrative adventure combined with a real-time strategy element similar to Into The Breach. This latter element is rather simple yet executed with enough style and substance that it easily stands on its own. Played from a top-down perspective, you control a number of mechs as they seek to protect a specific area of the map – this very same location is capable of expelling a number of deadly abilities, too.
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Some enemies are large and stationary, while others are fast moving and airborne. You’ll need to combat these adversaries with the right abilities, such as downing foes in the air with an EMP blast or hacking away at larger aliens with a devastating melee attack. While seeking to execute such attacks turrets and shields can be deployed across the map, protecting allies as they move in for the kill.
It’s a battle system which is easy to learn yet fiendishly difficult to master, and the constantly changing dynamics of each passing mission ignites it with a welcome aspect of creativity. Each pilot can be upgraded with new skills as they level up, enhancing their repertoire of abilities alongside the story. However, you’ll need to pull some mechs back after a couple of fights, since repeated battles can have a fatal effect on the young pilots.
The way in which the strategic battles and freeform storytelling of 13 Sentinels complement one another is really impressive, adding further weight to a mystery I’m desperate to uncover. It’s never abundantly clear where or why you are fighting and how it ties into the prologue’s events. Characters you’ve yet to meet and locations you’ve yet to visit are referenced in such a carefree manner, like the game is trying to pique your interest before purposefully tripping you up.
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13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is shaping up to be another winner for Vanillaware, and a stark departure from the genre stylings it has called home for decades. It also seeks to abandon many of the harmful anime stereotypes its past games have perpetuated, such as an oversexualised female cast clearly made to be ogled at. Here, almost all of the characters feel genuine with their own distinct personalities and stories to tell.
The prologue sets the stage for a bleak sci-fi adventure with ambitious storytelling and fast-paced strategic battles which complement one another rather well, and I’m curious to see how this partnership expands as the narrative continues. Right now, this could be a sleeper hit for 2020 which I hope doesn’t fall under the radar.
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