Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed)

Vanillaware is best known for its beautiful spritework. Up until now, they have always used this spritework in 2D action games, and each and every one has been phenomenal. That’s why 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes as such a surprise because it’s nothing like Vanillaware’s standard formula. Instead of an action game, this is a combination point and click adventure and hybrid real-time/turn-based strategy game. It’s one of Vanillaware’s most ambitious projects yet, and truth be told, it’s one of their greatest.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim takes place in a small Japanese town in the ‘80s… kind of. In the very first scene of the game, we see a group of giant mechanical Kaiju attack the town and burn it to the ground as some high school students get into giant mechs and fight them. This is not the beginning nor is it the end of the story. It is merely a point of reference for everything that happens afterward.

The game is split into three parts: destruction, remembrance, and analysis. The events of destruction take place after this introduction scene, as you attempt to prevent the kaiju from destroying the town. The events of remembrance take place before this scene, as you re-live the circumstances that lead to the kaiju attack. Finally, analysis is a bit of an interactive gallery mode that lets you step back from both other modes and put together the pieces of information you find to get a bigger picture. You might think this is just a cool place to view art assets and lore, but it’s actually an active part of gameplay.

Using the terms “before” and “after” is kind of a misnomer. It’s only before and after in reference to our main characters because 13 Sentinels is a time travel plot. It features 13 protagonists that come from all eras of history pre and post-apocalypse, who come together to try and stop the kaiju menace.

You get to live this story through remembrance which uses an interesting branching story structure similar to the Zero Escape series. You get to pick any of the 13 protagonists and start playing through the story. The thing is, you are dropped in at a random point in time, with no info as to when, or where the events are happening. You proceed through each story in standard point-and-click adventure status, with everyone rendered in brilliant Vanillaware sprite art, and each time you complete a branch of someone’s story, a bunch of other branches of everyone else’s story opens up. The order that you play these stories in effects the revelations you see, allowing everyone to piece together the greater narrative in a different way.

That is what 13 Sentinels is at its core: a mystery. We played through alongside other players, and this is EXPLICITLY the way you should experience this game. We all saw different plots at different times and pieced together when and where they were happening, who was doing what, what characters were important to what plots, and so on. The amount of rampant speculation on what was truly going on behind the scenes of the end of the world scenario was the best part. By the time we hit the end we all had a collective “oooooooh!” moment that was so immensely satisfying and even after the game ended we speculated on a few aspects of the mystery that were left vague. This is, quite simply put, one of Vanillaware’s best plots, period, and if you are a story-driven gamer you will love it.

That being said, remembrance doesn’t actually have a whole lot of “gameplay.” Each character is, ostensibly, a different sort of point and click game. Some require you to advance through dialogue in a certain way. Some require you to solve item puzzles. Some require you to return to the same situation over and over again and try to figure out how to escape it.

But for the most part, these segments can just be brute-forced. You do only the bare minimum of problem-solving and most of the “puzzles” are really just roadblocks to the next plot point. The real “gameplay” of remembrance is choosing which path you take through the plot, and that’s about it. For the most part, it’s just a movie, a visually stunning movie filled with high definition Vanillaware sprite art, compelling (and progressive) characters, and a mystery plot that will drag sci-fi nerds in immediately, but a movie nonetheless.

The rest of the gameplay is all stuffed away in destruction, where you control the sentinel pilots in their fight against the kaiju. It is a “hero defense” style of game, where wave after wave of enemies head toward your base and your characters have to defeat them before they get there. If your base takes too much damage or one of your characters dies in battle, it’s game over. If two minutes pass or you defeat all enemies, you win.

The game is kind of real-time and turn-based at the same time, but really the best analog is the ATB system from Final Fantasy. Your characters sit there doing nothing until their wait time is up, at which point time stops and you can have them move, defend, attack, or whatever. Each ability you have has a different wait time, with more powerful abilities causing you to sit there vulnerable for longer.

Your sentinels are split up into generations each focusing on different abilities. Generation one sentinels are close range powerhouses that need to get up close and personal with the enemy but take little damage and dish out dumps. Generation two sentinels are all-round sentinels that have some close, some far, and some support abilities. They are the only sentinels that can place auto-turrets and “guardian” decoys. Generation three sentinels focus on long-range and AOE attacks. They move slowly and take a lot of damage, but can pepper the screen with missiles from the other side of the map. Finally, the generation of four sentinels are mobile flight sentinels. They don’t have to move over terrain and while they take hefty damage and deal less damage than other sentinel types, they can move in to wipe out weakened enemy groups, support with drones, and change enemy positioning with mines and gravity bombs.

Each protagonist pilots a different generation of sentinels and each has slightly different abilities. For example, one of your gen 1 sentinels focuses on close-range armor piercing attacks while another focuses on EMPs, which shut down flying enemies so gen 1s can punch them in the face. Similarly, one of your gen 3 pilots focuses on firing multiple laser beams from her chest, while another fires nukes, and yet another is all about wide-ranging missile salvos. Each unit plays differently and you can only take six into battle at once while the other stays at base and defend from there.

The thing is, you have to keep mixing and matching your pilots because they suffer from exhaustion or, I’m sorry, “brain overload.” Use a pilot too much and the game will force you to make them take the bench for a while. This isn’t great because it means they can’t be on the field, nor can they defend the base. They just sort of sleep it off. This also sucks because each mission has special objectives and those objectives might include taking specific pilots into battle. Completing these objectives grants you “meta chips” which are used to upgrade your mechs, but also “mystery points” which let you unlock more entries in analysis mode, which then opens up more branches of the story. It’s all one ongoing, interconnected, gameplay loop.

The battles in destruction are pretty fun. They aren’t super hard. We cranked the difficulty up as high as it could go and kept it there with no issue for basically the entire game. There is something pretty satisfying about blowing up huge clumps of kaiju. The game is NOT shy about spawning in enemies and is absolutely willing to let the framerate drop just to suddenly throw 200 or so mechanical beasts on you. That just makes it all the more satisfying to cut through them with a spinning sawblade of death.

There are two major problems with destruction battles, though. One, they aren’t really graphically impressive. In fact, the whole battle takes place on an abstract radar screen. You don’t actually get to see your sentinels or the kaiju you kill. You just see abstracted icon representations of them. You forget this, eventually, since the gameplay itself is fun, but it still seems like a waste. All this pretty Vanillaware art and none of it is used in the core gameplay.

Second, the pacing is SUPER off. Remember, each battle only takes two minutes. This is not entirely accurate, of course, since time stops whenever you are clicking through menus, but still, battles don’t take up that much time. The game will ask you to play, maybe, 15 minutes of battles before asking you to sit through five hours of story in remembrance. Once again, the story is good and you will do it happily, but it just feels unbalanced, even more so since a bunch of optional, story-free battles unlock after the game is complete, and in the span of an hour you will easily play more than twice as many battles as you did in the main plot. If they had all these extra battles waiting in the wings, why not spread them out and keep the pacing more even?

Those are really the only two complaints we can drum up about the entire game. The plot, great. The characters, fantastic. The battles, fun. The mystery, compelling. The art, stunning. The sound, thrilling. The voice acting, spot-on. This is easily one of the more engrossing games we’ve played this year, and it’s certainly on our “games you shouldn’t miss of 2020” list.

However, we still can’t recommend it to everyone. The “hero defense” genre is a niche genre, to begin with, and might not be your cup of tea. On top of that, 13 Sentinels is story first to an ABSURD degree. If you don’t think sitting there, watching plot, and trying to figure out the mystery for yourself is fun, then you will hate 90 percent of the game.

But if you are a strategy gamer, a sci-fi nerd, and someone who loves picking apart plots and forming wacky tinfoil had conspiracy theories, then this is spot-on targeted for you. It’s an innovative, ambitious, and unique experiment by Vanillware and it works. More big studios need to take risks like this, on games that might not be for everyone, but that are shining examples of what you can do when you explore new genre spaces. Not every game has to be for everyone to be successful. 13 Sentinels is targeting a very specific audience, but if you are part of that audience, or even tangential to it, then it’s one of the most compelling games of 2020.