The game I’m reviewing was almost a total failure.
I don’t mean the production of the game (it was long, but fruitful). I mean the release. The first weeks of this game’s release in 2019 were a major downturn from Vanillaware’s previous game (Dragon’s Crown). The outlook was so bad that Vanillaware’s head designer, George Kamitani, was getting ready to do a post-mortem of the game.
But just like what often happens in the game itself, an interesting twist happened: Slowly but surely, the game began gaining critical acclaim from major sources. Famitsu, Japan’s most popular and influential gaming magazine, awarded the game their ‘Best Scenario’ and ‘Best Adventure Game’ awards for 2019. Major figures in Japan’s video game industry like Masahiro Sakurai lauded the game and praised its narrative. Even Yoko Taro, “He of the Terrifying Moon Mask: and developer of NieR: Automata, went on social media to acclaim it as one of the best games he’d ever played.
Now, it’s considered one of Japan’s major sleeper hits. Even for its Western release, the game is selling out. It has grown way beyond publisher Atlus’ original expectations.
And as you’ll soon see, the hype is real.
What Is It?
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the newest title released by acclaimed Japanese developer Vanillaware, a studio renown for its gorgeous art direction and its beautiful visuals. Founded and led by former Capcom employee George Kamitani, they are famous for their painterly art style and animation, much of which is done with Kamitani’s work and supervision. Past games include the cult class action RPG Odin Sphere and the highly successful side-scrolling beat-em-up Dragon’s Crown (which was just as famous for its over-the-top art direction as it was for it’s tight gameplay).
This time, however, Vanillaware goes in a different direction. Instead of the fantasy-tinged worlds of their previous releases, this game is a plot-heavy science fiction story set in a more ‘contemporary’ setting (it’s complicated). On the surface, the game is based around a fairly cliche anime premise: a group of normal high school students are going about their day in mid-80s Japan, when suddenly strange invaders appear out of nowhere and begin tearing the city apart. So, in order to fight them, said high schoolers must pilot giant robots called Sentinels in order to fight these mysterious invaders and save the world.
Sounds pretty standard, right? Yeah, forget what I just said. Because what’s actually going on beneath the surface is so much weirder than you originally think. Hell, the game itself almost immediately begins to veer off into crazy town before you’ve barely started playing!
Why Should I Care?
Now then, how does this game actually play?
Gameplay is essentially divided into three main sections, from which the player can switch and choose from at any time: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the primary method of storytelling, as you will select from (eventually) thirteen different characters, each with their unique but intertwining stories to tell. Destruction is the combat mode in which you will take command of a number of Sentinels with a combination of real time strategy and tower defense gameplay in order to defend the Aegis Installations (said ‘towers’). Analysis is essentially a database in which you can get more information on various characters, objects and events you encounter in the story (as well as unlock other entries through ‘Mystery Points’, which you earn through Destruction).
Remembrance plays very much like a visual novel adventure game, where you move your chosen character around gorgeously rendered two-dimensional environments in order to speak with NPCs, interact with the environment, and trigger key events. If you remember the environments from Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, then you’ll be familiar with this. The bulk of the game takes place in this particular mode, and you’ll find yourself constantly marveling at all of the twists and turns the plot throws at you. What kind of twists? Well, lemme put it this way: Some characters are from the future, whereas others are from World War II. That’s right, there’s a time travel mechanic at play here.
Destruction is the combat mode. It is where you earn most of the game’s collectibles (like the previously mentioned ‘Mystery Points’) as well as materials to level up your Sentinels. Combat in this game is reminiscent of Front Mission (a classicly plot-heavy mecha franchise) wherein you take individual control of various Sentinels in order to fight enemies, set up defensive measures (like sentry guns), and other things in order to defend the Aegis Towers, in order to either destroy all enemies or hold them off just long enough until the towers can activate their EMP signal (frying all enemies in the process). On the surface the mechanics are fairly simple, but the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly and can become quite intense. Everything is perceived through a digital radar, with conversations happening over telescreens and looping animations showing what your action looks like in the field.
Analysis is the database, containing entries on every character, object and event that is relevant to the plot. The story for this game is complex and loaded with terminology, so Analysis acts as a handy guidebook as the plot unfolds. This is no anime-style fluff, but some serious sci-fi.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
First and foremost: It’s a Vanillaware game, meaning it’s gorgeous to behold. Every single character, location and object are hand-painted in a beautiful sun-drenched style, making every single scene appear to be on the verge of sunset. Each character is lovingly designed, with their own unique quirks and personalities (and almost all of which are some sort of anime reference). Unlike past Vanillaware games (namely Dragon’s Crown), the hornyness is reigned in when it comes to the fan-service (though you’ll still see it in certain places).
But more importantly: This is the first Vanillaware game to really focus on storytelling. That’s not to say that their previous games were plotless (Odin Sphere famously had an elaborate and twisty plot), but this time George Kamitani really put his scenario skills into overdrive. I’m holding back as much as I can because I want everyone to go into this game blind, but trust me when I say that the story this game tells goes from giant robot epic, to time travel parable, to philosophical enquiry on the nature of free will and human identity at the drop of a hat. You’ll experience time loops, war stories, dystopias, and giant fighting robots (obviously).
Honestly, if there is one flaw this game has, it’s with the combat mode… not the combat itself, but it’s presentation. As previously mentioned, it’s all seen through radar, which offers a stripped-down 3D simulation of field action. Compared to everything else, it looks very bland. Everything else is gorgeous rendered with 2D art, but combat is this utilitarian 3D interface where enemies are abstract and the action is less elaborate.
Everything else? Absolutely mind-blowing. Honestly, George Kamitani has been holding out on us all these years, because if this is his first go around writing a plot as elaborate as this? He’s hit it out of the park. This is not only one of the best sci-fi games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve ever encountered period. I’m hoping that the Seiun Awards in Japan have a category for game scenarios, because if they do, then Kamitani deserves to win it hand’s down.
No wonder Yoko Taro likes this game so much. It’s the same type of mind-bending insanity he’s been producing for the last twenty years!