You might know Vanillaware for games such as Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade or, more controversially, Dragon’s Crown.
Needless to say, the Japanese developer has made a name for itself developing fantasy titles full of action, sporting beautiful visuals to boot. But for its latest title, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Vanillaware has stepped out of its comfort zone. Released on PS4 a few years ago, it’s now also available on Nintendo Switch. And while it’s a brave departure from what the studio usually outputs, it’s undoubtedly its best game yet.
Featuring 13 protagonists, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim throws players into a sci-fi story that’s compelling from the get-go, although perhaps also a little confusing. Within just a couple of hours, everything from giant mechs to time travel has been brought into the mix. And things just get crazier from there. You move back and forth in time as you switch from one protagonist to another, each having their own story to tell. And then, just when you think you have a handle on what’s going on, a new twist is introduced, sweeping the rug from under your feet.
The initial confusion you may feel at the outset of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim soon turns to intrigue. As each new character and story element is revealed, you’ll wonder how they’re all connected, hungry for the next morsel of information. And it has to be said, it’s pretty amazing how Vanillaware lands it all. The story told here is phenomenal, and it’s largely thanks to a varied cast and brilliant writing. There’s also a choice of Japanese or English dialogue, the latter of which is surprisingly great.
Part visual novel, part real-time strategy game, after its captivating prologue 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim opens up to give you some control of how the story unfolds. You can jump into any of the game’s 13 protagonists stories if you wish, discovering more about them and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. Though you’ll occasionally encounter roadblocks, requiring you to achieve certain objectives elsewhere to continue.
The way the story unfolds is much more appealing than in most visual novels, thanks to you being able to actually control your character and guide them through each environment. And as you talk to others or even simply eavesdrop, you’ll discover new keywords that get added to your Thought Cloud. You can then consider them in your head if you wish to find out more, or use them to springboard new conversations. It makes everything feel much more natural and engaging.
But there’s more to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim than just chit-chat. With an impending war against kaiju as its backdrop, you’ll eventually need to fight for survival. Whisked away to a map of a city, you’ll engage in real-time battles, where it’s up to you to take down waves of kaiju with giant mechs, or Sentinels. Like in any strategy game, you’ll need to position your units and perform actions with them when available. Thankfully the game pauses whenever a unit is ready for you to issue commands, allowing you to ponder your options without too much stress.
These battles have a tower defence element as well; you need to protect terminals from numerous waves of enemies to emerge victorious. And as you defeat enemies with melee and ranged attacks, energy is gathered by the terminals which can then be used to trigger some special field-wide abilities that can really turn the tide of battle. When you finally have all units available to you, you’ll have to assign them to offensive and defensive roles, keeping in mind the mental strain that actively engaging in battle puts on each of your squad members. You can also use points earned throughout the game to unlock and upgrade skills.
What’s perhaps most noteworthy about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is how utterly gorgeous it looks. Environments and character models during the 2D sections of the game are absolutely sumptuous, having a painterly look backed up by wonderful lighting. If you have a Switch OLED model, your eyes may pop out of your skull because it looks so pretty. The battles also look nice, in their own unique way. Out is the painterly style, and in is a simplistic looking city with Sentinels and enemy kaiju represented with icons reminiscent of Space Invaders. It’s basic but it gets the job done, allowing for an impressive number of units to be on screen at once without any noticeable performance issues.
The only thing we’re not too keen on 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, holding it back from a perfect score, is that to see all aspects of some characters’ stories, you’ll need to replay the same scenes again and again, seeking out ways to change how the story progresses. Granted they’re only short scenes, and you can easily fast-forward through dialogue you’ve heard before with the push of a button, but it still hurts the pace of it a little, and introduces some unwanted repetition.
The fact remains, though, that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an absolute triumph for Vanillaware. Not many games have stories as ambitious as this. Even fewer manage to bring things together without resulting in disappointment. And while the real-time battles may be the weakest element, they’re still very much engaging, and offer a nice change of pace when required. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim might just be remembered as one of the greatest games of all time, and so whether you’re into sci-fi or not, you should certainly add it to your collection.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Review – GameSpew’s Score