Written by C. C. Cooper on 21 Jan 2023
Distributor Atlas • Price £49.99
Typically, I like to begin reviews with some backstory that cleverly segues into the review proper, but bollocks to that. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the most incredible games I've ever played, and now I shall spend the next 2,802 words gushing.
Whenever I hear something has an incredible story, for whatever reason, I envision some complicated yarn the audience has to thread together themselves, and that expectation is never met. Vinland Saga and Kaguya-sama are two of the greatest manga I've ever read, not through complexity, but by just being damn excellent at telling the stories they want to tell. So imagine my absolute delight when 13 Sentinels dropped just what I've been starving for all these eons.
Want an idea of how complex 13 Sentinels is? The most boilerplate synopsis I can provide is this: teenagers in 1985 fight giant alien robots with mechas. That's it. Anything else unravels a web of worldbuilding that doesn't stop no matter how hard you try. Some of those teenagers come from 1945, others from 2025, and more yet are from 2065. Some are recounting dreams of past lives that somehow took place in the future; one guy is an amnesiac assassin from the future; another is stuck in a Zeroth Maria timeloop; one girl stumbles across a friendly alien robot; and another girl is on a mission to shoot everybody else with a magical gun given to her by a talking cat.
All these mentions in a vacuum sound insane, but know what's truly insane? That it's a miracle and a half that all that plus more assembles coherently into a story a tenth as good as it is. Each of the thirteen protagonists has their own tale, and none exist independently. Sometimes, you'll spy a scene playing in the background you play in a different character's tale. Often, the puzzle pieces a tale hands you only connect with pieces from a different tale, and putting it all together is a game unto itself. There were so many ways the narrative could've sunk because of its own choice of presentation, and had it been penned by a writer less than exceptional, it would've been rife with plot holes, inconsistencies, and been a confusing, incomprehensible mess, if not pretending to be more elaborate than it is. But not only is the narrative not a mess, it's so damn compelling. That guy stuck in the timeloop, for instance. How'd that happen? How's it happening? Why'd it happen? And the tidbits you learn from his tale upend what you previously suspected, and the narrative's constantly doing this. It throws so many curve balls that when you move to catch one, it throws a sinker.
Joining together with that miracle and a half to form three whole miracles is how well the biggest twists are pulled off. I won't spoil them, obviously, but they're the sorts of twists one would expect from a Wattpad novel: a twist done for twist's sake. One of them I had suspicions about halfway through and was groggy about it, thinking, “We're not really going that route, are we?” but by the time the official reveal came around, I had fully accepted that twist because the world made no sense without it. I felt like an Eskimo who got sold ice and was all too thrilled over my purchase.
What else thrilled me were the sci-fi technologies. Mentioning any is a spoiler bomb, so I'll just say that this game reminded me of the Isaac Arthur video that explained you could, far enough into the future, be the genetic grandchild of a housecat. The least spoilery piece of science-fiction I can get away talking about are nanomachines, and if you've read up on these, you'll know their potential, from medical application to assembling whole edifices, and 13 Sentinels runs away with this tiny piece of technology. Actual possibilities of in-development technologies factor heavily into the plot, and by the game's final moments, my eyes were dazzling from how awe-inspiring, as well as existentially disquieting, the future of machinery is.
One last thing I should probably cover before ending this section is the specifics on narrative conveyance. Playing a protagonist's tale is like conducting investigations in between Ace Attorney trials, where you move from room to room, converse with whoever's present, and often present them with topics to further conversation. But 13 Sentinels does the visual novel better, because it strips away all of the fat clinging to Ace Attorney. In that series, I sometimes found myself bumping from area to area and repeating interactions with witnesses and suspects in order to find that one specific thing the game wants me to do to trigger the story progression flag. 13 Sentinels, on the other hand, only gives you the areas pertinent to the current scene, and it's extremely transparent in what needs doing to raise that flag. There were times I was bumbling around, trying to figure out what the game wanted from me, but those lasted five minutes tops, since you never have more than a handful of interactable characters and items.
Phenomenal as the story is, my first impression of the combat was less than impressed, because the battlefield looks like an extreme close-up of my computer's motherboard, and all the Sentinels and baddies are represented with Tetris Effect geometry. But once I adjusted to the unique aesthetic, I got addicted to the combat like it were Candy Crush.
When asked to describe what feels good in other SRPGs, it's maneuvering my troops so that all casualties are on the enemy's side. In 13 Sentinels, I feel good when I drop a payload on a swarm of alien robots—the kaiju—and they explode into a confetti of particles and big numbers. Battles are quick and flashy, and I can't get over how the camera flings into the stratosphere whenever I drop a nuclear warhead. So much game juice has been injected into combat that I wonder if it's not actually a steroid.
For all the talk on how massive of a threat to humanity the kaiju are, almost every battle was a cakewalk in the park. Three hundred kaiju dropping from the sky at once looks scarier than it is, since they burst like piñatas, and you've got sticks the length of a skyscraper wrapped in TNT. Battles were never boring—I was in the zone quite often—but I S-ranked almost every battle on the first try, and it wasn't until the final set of waves that I felt a tangible spike in challenge. And keep in mind that this was on the default Normal difficulty. I sampled Intense, and while I did sweat a few bullets here and there wondering how many more bullets I needed for all the extra kaiju, it paled to Fire Emblem's Maddening, which had me frequently asking myself, “How do I win this battle?” There were no noticeable stat differences or a strategic setup that put me at a disadvantage, just a horde of drones swarming my homebase when I wasn't looking. So much juice was fed into making your mecha feel good that none was left to make the kaiju feel imposing. When you come down to it, all they have are numbers.
And speaking of numbers, hoo-boy, that final battle. To properly articulate its setting, it's like if WWII were two Americans, two Brits, a Canadian, and a Frenchman versus the entire Third Reich, and every third blink, a thousand more Nazis appeared. Jokes aside, the composition for this fight made for one hell of a finale:
This is it...one last push. The thirteen protagonists just need to get through this wave of kaiju, and not even defeat them—survive them. Only then will they be home free, but kaiju appear by the hundreds, and for every one they fell, two, three more appear to take their place. And all the while, a clock ticks down, its countdown signaling salvation. Every last mystery has been unveiled. Now the cast just needs to earn their happy ending. But the hands of the clock are invisible, and as the kaiju inched closer and closer to my homebase and my units' healthbars dropped and stamina became a precious resource, I flashbacked to the epilogue of Halo: Reach and wondered if I wouldn't meet the same fate as Noble Six.
With the weight of the narrative pressing down on my shoulders, against the unimaginable numbers of the kaiju, that final battle to decide the characters' fate was one of the most intense I've ever had in any video game.
One of the first qualities I noticed about 13 Sentinels is its consideration for the player. A lot of video games have faults baked into their design the developers overlooked or didn't fix for whatever reason. For example, Fire Emblem nowadays gives you around twenty units per game, but you can only take half that figure into a given battle, and since exp. points are often at a premium, you don't want to spread them too thin or waste them on soldiers you'll never use, so half my army is benched a whole non-perma-death playthrough. It seemed that 13 Sentinels would suffer from this same issue, since you've got, naturally, thirteen units but can only slot six into your strike team, but it circumvents this by giving the teens migraines if they fight too much, forcing you to play musical chairs with offense. That word may sound like a negative: force. I wasn't too keen on using the guy with a pompadour, because my mother taught me never to trust a man whose hair looks like yakisoba pan, but he turned out to be one of my best units, slipping in behind enemy lines and making scrap metal giant robots' ankles.
The Archives is another such consideration. Normally, one would need to buy a corkboard and red string to work out the story, but in case details aren't making sense or the deluge of information is frying your circuits, you can swing into the Archives and pull out files on everything in the story, and I do mean everything. Some are mundane, on movie posters, snacks, or background characters, but the salient ones go over the main characters and their discoveries, and they update with pertinent intel as you progress. And if that's not enough, there's a separate Archive that lists, in chronological order, the events of the narrative. You can pop in, see the precise order of the plot's many, many scenes, and finally make sense of the last 30-40 hours of gameplay. Personally, I didn't need it, but it's beautiful that the game understands it's not telling the most penetrable of narratives and extends a helping hand for those struggling.
And then there's Mystery Points. These are a type of currency you win from battles and use to unlock Archive files. In any other game, once you've unlocked all files, your surplus of Points goes to waste. In 13 Sentinels, extra Points are converted into the alternate currency used for mech upgrades, which you've still got plenty more to make for the additional post-game battles inserted for those like me who are still hankering to turn the city into a kaiju scrapyard.
One last consideration I want to spotlight isn't something the game adds, but something it doesn't add, and that's completionist chaff. There are no hidden magical stones you locate in the story by pressing X on an unassuming table in the background or side quests where you have to fetch a can of soda for a nameless track team member: stuff that accomplishes nothing but uptick the percentage point on a content counter. Think Animus Fragments from Assassin's Creed and you'll catch my drift. 13 Sentinels doesn't want to waste your time with unnecessities. It has a story it wants to tell, it tells it, and then it shuts the cover after the epilogue without sprinkling meaningless side tasks inserted to pad out your playtime.
Can This Game Do No Wrong?
Depressingly, 13 Sentinels isn't perfect. As eyeball-engaging as each of its protagonists' personal tales are, not all stick the landing. Some resolve with a pretty bow on top, but others end without much wrap-up, and one leaves you dangling on a cliffhanger that someone else has to pull you up from, and not the someone you think. These endings aren't bad, just disappointing, though not in a “I've eaten this cheeseburger meal, and I'm disappointed the patty tasted pretty bland” way, but in a “I've eaten this cheeseburger meal, and I'm disappointed there wasn't a little more cheese on the fries” way.
Still on the story, while I did like the cast of thirteen protagonists, even those I initially didn't, I didn't come to love them like I do a Tales cast. I suspect this is because the characters are almost always inundated with plot details and twists, so there's little room for anybody to just breathe, and when that room is available, it's cramped and not furnished ornately. I was maybe 80% through the story, and by this point, my heart's normally aching to find out if the characters get a happy ending or not, but this wasn't the case for 13 Sentinels, because plenty of puzzle pieces had yet to show up. It was only in the game's final few battles, after the last missing puzzle pieces had been snapped in, that that room was available for a worry for a happily ever after.
My only gripe with combat, low difficulty aside, is that you can't rotate the camera to get another angle on unit layouts or adjust its altitude to spot arcing tomahawk missiles. The camera angle tilts when it's tracking an ICBM, so why can't I control it manually? However, this was only an occasional issue, and the fix would've just made battle decisions a tiny bit easier. Hardly ever in my mind, otherwise.
There are a few other issues I could nitpick.
When one character meets let's just say an alter ego, they remark that “even though they're the same person, they're nothing alike,” which...I don't want to use the word cliché, because I find usage of that term to be nothing more than a shallow criticism whose definition depends on the user's needs, but I saw it used in Pixar's Lightyear not too long before, so it is incredibly tempting to hurtle that word out there—but I won't because I'll hurtle unnecessary instead. For a narrative that doesn't let a word go to waste, that respects its audience's intelligence to figure things out for themselves, it was out of character for 13 Sentinels to have this character state a conclusion I came to on my own ages ago.
What else is wrong with this game?
Well, there's a minor audio hiccup late into one boy's story.
Late into another boy's story, two lines from an android are distorted apropos of nothing.
Dramatic lighting puts the school in a state of perpetual twilight, even during lunchtime.
I'm sure I could keep pointing out minor flaws, but my larger point is that any fault in 13 Sentinels is so minuscule that it fails to hamper the overall experience, and you have to analyze a load-bearing column to get any sort of dirt on it, and it's just that, dirt, not a crack.
No, this game isn't perfect, but goddamn if it isn't so effing close.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is one of the most incredible games I've ever played. I said this exact clause in my intro, but it's my review, and I'll repeat it as much as I want, because I can't emphasize just how spectacular, mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind, polished, and brilliant this game is. I wasn't halfway through when I was thinking about how the cartridge inside my Switch was in my list for top five greatest games I've ever played. And I can go on and on about all the small but amazing feats it pulls off, like its DNA theming tucked away in the Mystery Points or the soundtrack (which itself is pretty rad), or the Hyper Light Drifter-esque post-game cutscene you have to actively seek out, or how it's the only piece of media that made me mutter “Oh, shit...” in despair when an idol song ended. I'm not sure how else to underscore how invaluably remarkable and good this game is. It's better than good, it's goddamn good. It's frickin' great. An instant classic. A marvel in storytelling and game design. It's one of those rare titles that had me pondering deeply about its story, its themes, its characters after the credits rolled, and I have a feeling I'll be thinking about it for many years to come.
A part-time reviewer these days of video games.
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