13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Was One of the Best Games of 2020 and 2022Games Features 13 sentinels
There was no shortage of incredible new videogames in 2022. When Paste published their list of the 30 best games of the year, I mostly nodded along in agreement or went, “oh yeah, have to play that, too,” and then did. And yet, something was missing even on a list 30 deep. You see, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim received a Switch port in 2022, but since it wasn’t a new game, it didn’t qualify for game of the year consideration. Not in an official capacity, anyway: we can’t just let a re-release occur without marking the occasion, however, so here we are to remind you that this game still exists and can be played in more homes now than when it first hit shelves. And that it’s still good enough for Game of the Year consideration, too, if not for those pesky rules about release dates.
13 Sentinels released as a Playstation 4 exclusive back in 2020, and it was without a doubt my game of the year. I don’t say this as someone who dislikes or intends to disrespect Hades with that statement: I say that as someone whose game of the year for 2020 was Supergiant’s crowning achievement… until I got my hands on 13 Sentinels. While a tremendous success for a Vanillaware title—Atlus announced in late-November that it had sold over 800,000 copies—it’s done so almost entirely by word of mouth. It’s difficult to talk about or write about the game, to the point that even the marketing for it basically boiled down to “Vanillaware’s artists have done it again, and also there are mechs.” Patrick Klepek wrote a piece about how difficult it was to talk or write about the game back in January of 2021—“any individual story point, could, in theory, be a spoiler”—which led me to realize that 13 Sentinels was the most “you just gotta trust me” game I had ever recommended to people.
It’s a tremendously written title, which it would have to be as something of a visual novel/adventure game. You’ll find yourself thinking, often, that you’ve pieced things together, but only until another wrinkle is revealed, which leaves you marveling at the layers of narrative on display here. This isn’t a story that relies solely on shock and surprise or anything like that. It’s more that experiencing it yourself for the first time is something I (or anyone else who has gone through it) wouldn’t want to take away from a new player. The Empire Strikes Back still works as a classic and cinematic achievement even if you already know Luke Skywalker’s parentage, but having that moment to discover it in-movie the first time isn’t nothing. 13 Sentinels, similarly, is still fantastic on replay and after you’ve already got a sense of where it’s all going and how it connects, but seeing those dots connect the first time in the proper context and with your own eyes is going to stick with you. There’s plenty to chew on here without you wondering when that thing you heard about is going to happen, and the characters themselves, as well as their personal backstories and the journeys they go on, are excellent the first time around and on replay as well.
13 Sentinels isn’t “just” a text-heavy adventure, however. It’s also a real-time strategy affair where the high schoolers you control in the “Remembrance” section of the game—that’s the adventure bits—pilot mechs known as Sentinels to fight the mechanical kaiju known as Deimos in the “Destruction” portion of the game. Things start out simple enough on the RTS side, but as your roster of Sentinel pilots grows and your foes become more complex in response to your successful defenses of different sections of the city these battles take place in, what’s expected of you here increases. You’ll have to truly strategize to stay alive, hiding your pilots while their Sentinels repair if things get to that point, taking on enemies coming from both land and the air, defending central points that must survive lest you lose, and, in between battles, upgrade your existing attacks and unlock new ones. Your Sentinel pilots gain levels in between battles, and you’ll earn more “meta chips”—the game’s experience and currency for unlockables—by fighting consecutive battles without resting all of your pilots in one go. You can’t just roll the same roster out there each battle, either, as your pilots will grow fatigued from using their Sentinels too often, and they’ll become unavailable for future battles until they’ve recovered. One character you use in the game’s Remembrance side of things is dealing with the fallout of having stayed in their Sentinel for far too long: her memory is shot, she’s perpetually bandaged, and she’s on a heavy diet of prescriptions. Kaiju invasion or not, you’re not going to want to inflict that fate on anyone after you’ve seen it on that personal level.
You don’t play all of a character’s arc at once: there are little walls in place to stop you and force you elsewhere in another character’s story, or push you to play some Destruction stages to further unveil what’s happening in that moment in time, so while you can generally select the order you play stories in, individual ones can’t go past certain points until you’ve also seen connected, alternate perspectives and concurrent events. Once the prologue ends you can choose which mode to play and which characters, and while there are blocks in place for both, you can go all Remembrance for a while if you choose, or play through a bunch of Destruction. Or skip both for a bit and spend time looking over the Analysis section, which features everything you’ve learned so far as well as additional unlockable information earned through completing Destruction stages as well as their optional objectives. It’s here that you can also watch “flashbacks” of in-game events, which can be useful for reminding yourself of where things stand or stood, or just because you enjoyed a section.
At first the battles and the more obvious story parts seem a little disparate, but as the game continues and the what of it all starts to make sense—or, at least, to take shape—the battles take on their own excitement that adds to what you’re seeing and doing in the other side of the game. A few hours into my first playthrough, I felt like I could do without the RTS parts, since they were keeping me from spending more time in the adventure portion, but as I progressed, and as the meaning of what the battles actually were in-universe became more clear—their stakes more obvious, the pilots within them more “real” to me after the time I’d spent with them in Remembrance—all of that felt just as vital to the entire project of 13 Sentinels as well.
The Remembrance paths are fairly active themselves: you aren’t just reading and making the occasional choice to show an item off to another character. They have story branches that’ll have you replaying in order to unlock the differing scenarios. The first post-prologue Juro chapter, for instance, features three different paths, which require different behaviors to reach. Go too fast, and it’s just another day. Take your time and listen to your friend’s request for where to go, and unlock a flashback to watch/play. Go fast but in a more purposeful way with a specific goal of avoiding that friend in mind, and it unlocks yet another outcome. Playing like this peels away more and more of the world(s) you’re in, which is extremely helpful since your playable characters know as much or less than you do as the player. Which is “real” doesn’t matter so much as experiencing as much of the world and its possible outcomes as you can.
To summarize: 13 Sentinels is a tactical real-time strategy game featuring mechs that’s also a massive role-playing adventure game with an enormous cast of protagonists, each with their own fleshed out stories and motivations—which are often conflicting with each other. They also often overlap, so it turns into a game of seeing various perspectives surrounding the same events, and it’s all done in an illuminating and highly engaging fashion, too. What makes it all the wilder is that the game takes place across multiple eras, and sometimes concurrently: you’re all battling together at the same point in time even if in the more narrative-driven sections everyone is scattered, but even within the narrative this can occur. Multiple characters are ripped out of imperial service in World War II and dropped into a future where the war has been lost, and the influence of the west and the United States is felt in every facet of Japanese society in that “present.” There’s a moment where you’re playing in 2024, then it cuts to a new location with the same characters and says “Six months later: 1985” and somehow that cut makes sense. Eventually, anyway.
It’s also wonderful that we in North America got a game so heavily influenced by the idea of a changing Japan post-WWII. Nintendo still hasn’t given us Mother 3, but Sega trusted Americans with this unsubtle title that bounces between a love for monster movies and Star Wars to deeper thoughts on ever-changing Japanese culture and the west’s often forceful role in that change. Which is to say the game is more than “just” time travel and mechs and Vanillaware’s customary beautiful artwork, but it has those things, too. And, like with one of the WWII-era characters, I also got to learn about what yakisoba pan was thanks to experiencing the story of 13 Sentinels. In the present. (The answer? Something delicious.)
As for that art, it doesn’t matter if it’s the full characters in motion or standing still, if it’s their portraits, their static full-scale artwork prior to one of their Remembrance sections, whatever: all of them and the world they inhabit is stunning to look at and animates beautifully, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who has played literally anything Vanillaware has developed. That hand-painted style was a joy to behold on the Playstation 2 and in standard definition, and in the level of HD we’re at now, it still sings. The RTS portions of the game are less attractive, simply because they look more like an RTS map and take on a more futuristic, digital, 3D appearance meant to look like A Video Game—it’s not Destruction’s fault the rest of the game looks like a moving painting—but for what they are, they’re still appealing visually, and have their own exclusive set of character portraits to denote which one is speaking from the cockpit of their Sentinel, as well.
Plenty of games do multiple genres at once like this, with separated playable sections that feed into the other. Rarely, though, are both genres done well, never mind exceptionally—think of how often you’ve read a review of something like this that has some kind of “[genre two] just kind of drags” or “I wish it were more of the former and less of the latter” comment in it. Both of the RTS and adventure elements in 13 Sentinels, though, work hand-in-hand in a way where… sure, they could each work as their own game, which is a credit to their structure and quality and depth in the first place, but instead, they joined together to make one game better than either would have been alone. And if you’re here for the story and not for the battles, the Destruction sections can be made easier, so they aren’t keeping you from experiencing the rest of the game. Conversely, if you want the game to try to push you around a bit, you can also up the difficulty, and can go in either direction at any time in-game if you feel you made the wrong decision at 13 Sentinels’ start.
What’s a bit wild, too, is that there is just so much here to unearth and love and be wowed by, and yet, it’s a pretty tidy package for a game from this era. Despite a physical release on two consoles, 13 Sentinels was all of 5 GB on the PS4—that’s not a measure of quality, nor does it get extra credit for some kind of enjoyment vs. storage space ratio, but it’s still nifty to see a game of this scope with this storytelling and art design just kind of blow away the same elements of much, much larger and much, much more expensive-to-produce games. You don’t have to be from an indie outfit to be a fantastically written narratively driven adventure game, even if 2022’s new release slate sure made it seem like that’s the case. We could use more games like this from major publishers, too, but at least we’ve got the one. And now we’ve got it twice!
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.