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13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim - Critique


What makes a good story? This is a question that has been buzzing around in my mind for a long period of time. What should have a simple answer is actually difficult to nail down when you explore even further. More questions begin to pop up and all of which tie towards the original. Here are a couple of said questions and the most logical take on them. Through what methods does a good story keep you engaged? Does it have to divert your attention through action, comedy, violence, or something that excites the adrenaline within you. The answer to that question is both yes and no. Yes, a story can keep the audience engaged by providing them sheer moments of excitement. No, a good story doesn’t always have to rely on an adrenaline rush to keep the audience engaged. Does a good story always need an original and creative setting to keep the audience interested as well? The answer is also yes and no. Yes, because a setting that is totally out of this world and fun to unravel is a setting that will make the audience wish they are there. No, not every setting and idea needs to be innovative, and we can build upon pre-existing ideas and still make engaging worlds. Should a good story always get to the point? Well, it’s good to keep a good pace, but ultimately the answer is no because you need to take time to build up your world and cast of characters. Why am I asking these questions all of a sudden? Well, it’s because outside of my side career, which is reviewing video games, I like to dedicate my time to writing stories and trying to figure out what works and does not work, what we should take inspiration from, and what we can learn from them. A good story is neither simple nor complex. A good story doesn’t always need a good ending. A good story is one that gets its core ideas across and implants them deep into your head. They stick around hours after witnessing them and get you thinking. They give you a bigger picture on subject matters and realize things you probably didn’t know before. A good story is compelling, thought provoking, has depth, and above all else it makes you care. It makes you care about the characters, world, and plotline it sets before you. That is what I believe makes a good story. It can be over the top nonsense or overcomplicated philosophy, but it takes true genius to execute a story with great ideas and intentions.


Why did I give such an overanalyzed explanation right now? It’s because today’s topic is truly special. It’s a game that got me thinking and it’s hard to put it into simple terms. Honestly, while writing this review I'm still thinking about what I just went through. How did such a game zoom under my radar? How did such a game get skipped out by thousands of gamers? How did one of the best, most compelling written games of the modern generation become unnoticed. It doesn’t matter now, what matters is that it exists and those who played it got to experience the narrative. That wonderful narrative. A narrative that only true geniuses could write, put into motion, and perfect it with each passing hour. A masterpiece, and I use this term alot but I mean it this time. This has easily become one of my favorite games of all time, the top five range, and it saddens me that no matter how much I recommend it a majority of you readers won’t even play it. What is this game I’m talking about? I’m talking about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. The masterpiece that none of you will play. What is 13 Sentinels anyways? Well let’s loop back to the beginning.


13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was developed by a Japanese studio named Vanillaware who are well known for working on a lot of obscure JRPGs which have faded overtime. From what I’m seeing they have a great track record, but none of their games really met their intended audience. Goes to show that general gamers/buyers have specific biases, usually towards more popular or recognizable games, which is sad because it means the truly unique games get buried underwater. They made Odin Sphere, Grand Knights History, and Dragon’s Crown. They have partnered up with some of the biggest publishers the industry has to offer, and sadly none of their games were financial successes. Vanillaware may have several cults following, but they won’t be able to please all of them as sequels would never be approved. This is a dedicated team of developers and the effort put into 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim shows how talented they were towards making art. Something that could be appreciated for years only if it had the audience needed.


The development process for 13 Sentinels started all the way back in 2013. Right after the release of Dragon’s Crown. Returning to Vanillaware was George Kamitani who would serve as the main director for the next project. Serving as the lead producer was Akiyazu Yamamoto who was a representative of Atlus, otherwise the game company providing the fundings and support for Vanillaware’s next game. If you don’t know, Atlus is well known for the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series which are considered two of the greatest JRPG franchises ever. Of course, it makes sense for them to accept another JRPG in the works. Main inspirations for 13 Sentinels came from a lot of science fiction pieces, mainly anime. Nighthead, Megazone 23, Gundam, and most crucial was Neon Genesis Evangelion. The idea was to have a wide cast of characters who had the special ability to pilot mechs. An alien invasion would come to earth, and you would use this unique cast to fight back. However, the main focus wasn’t the colossal mech battles. Their main focus was the cast and what led up to this battle. You would have a separate mode where you step into the shoes of the characters and live their memories they had up until that moment. Discovering more about the world and slowly inching closer towards the truth. Which would be grim as this is a sci-fi story where everything isn’t what it seems. 13 Sentinels was pulling some pretty expected stuff, but Vanillaware went a little further. They incorporated the 2D animation that their previous game had, from characters to backgrounds, and explored a good old philosophical theme which I personally always love. That theme being, “what makes us human?” What defines us as human beings, how we act, and how we continue to act even during a crisis? I’m trying very hard to not spoil bits of the story right now, but 13 Sentinels is a really hard game to talk about without bringing up some of the crazy discoveries that happen later on. Also, I’m trying very hard to not swear in this review as I want to show what made this game special for me and hopefully several others. This game was masterfully made but came out at the wrong time. The same month Hades came out which you all know is another special game for me. It also came out in 2020, which was a pretty big year for JRPGs alike. Final Fantasy VII Remake, Persona 5 Royal, Yakuze: Like A Dragon, and the list goes on. I want you all to know. I want you all to know why 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a masterpiece and why you need to play it.


Story

Let’s try to imagine an average day in Japan. It’s a bright sunny afternoon, the skyscrapers shine with brilliance, and people around you are smiling as you walk by. You are a male high schooler who is home yet again from the high school he attends. Sakura High School, where all your friends await you. You begin your walk from school and see the friends you knew your entire life. You pass by your classmate Iori Fuyusaka as she has another gossip talk with her two best friends, Tomi Kisaragi and Miwako Sawatari. Speeding by you is Natsuno Minami who may be late for her track and field team. Nenji Ogata is picking fights outside of school again and is getting ready to beat up some punks. Your best friend, Kyuta Shiba, caught up with you and says he watched the film you lent to him last night. He says he really liked it and is willing to give it back. However, he brought another film tape along with him. It’s this awesome television series you’ve been meaning to catch up on and luckily, he recorded it on tape. You two begin to walk to the break area and waiting outside is Shu Amiguchi. Someone you’ve been hanging out with a lot and is a playboy with all the girls in school. He seems kind of bummed out at the moment. Probably was trying to get a date out of Yuki Takamiya again only to find that she has other business to attend to. You ask Amiguchi if he wants to spend the afternoon together and he agrees. You walk through the halls of your high school, towards the entrance, and exit school grounds with Amiguchi and Shiba. During that walk you may encounter Miss Morimura, a school nurse who has been keeping an eye on the students. Ryoko Shinome must have fallen down the stairs as she has tons of bandages wrapped around Anyways, you head over to Amiguchi’s place and decide to watch a film or two. Play a couple of video games, crack open some cans of soda, and have some guy talk. Who are you exactly? Your name is Juro Kurabe, an otaku who lives an average lifestyle, and thankfully it’s just your average day as a Sakura High student. Everything is fine. Everything is fine. Everything is fi-02946582659271056200056……


The year is 1985 and the streets of Japan are under attack from a foreign threat. Giant mechs from outer space have landed in the middle of the city and have begun destroying everything in it. They come in a variety of forms from ones that dig up the ground, fly around in the air, ones that look like spiders, and others that shoot lasers. Their origins are unknown, but it’s clear that their goal is to destroy everything that lies in their wake. The apocalypse has come earlier than expected. Everything is lost. Juro Kurabe runs through the mechanized chaos, chasing after one of his classmates. He sees a giant robot get summoned out of nowhere and begins beating down the alien machines. These robots are known as the Sentinels, weapons from the future which have been sent back into the past to fight threats like this. The kaiju from what Juro calls it. A mysterious blue glow appears on Juro’s hand, but it seems like Juro knows what it does. He swipes his other hand over this blue mark, and we see the word “start”. Another giant robot appears out of nowhere and Juro is teleported into it. He is a Sentinel pilot, and his goal is to fight back against the kaiju invasion. Along with twelve other pilots who possess this gift. All of which attend the same high school as him. All of which he somehow knows. It’s up to Juro and his friends to save Japan from utter destruction, but before that can happen, we must ask ourselves. What happened before the kaiju invasion? How were these characters living their lives up until this moment? How did they find the Sentinels and learn how to pilot them? Well, that’s an even deeper mystery we must unravel. Like I said at the beginning of this review, “It’s really hard to talk about 13 Sentinels without diving into events that occur later on.” This is a game that is experienced best going in blind, and it would really bum me out if I ended up spoiling the story for you. If you haven’t played this game and want to experience the full magic of the story, then go play it first. If you already played the game, don’t care about spoilers, or just decided to look up a summary of the plot then continue reading through the story section of this review. You have been warned dear reader! Now, let’s try to untangle a little more of this mystery.


Spoiler Section!

Through the story aspect of the game, you go through the memories of the thirteen protagonists. Trying to figure out what exactly happened. Juro Kurabe, Iori Fuyusaka, and Shu Amiguchi have been having strange dreams lately and they believe they all connect to one another. They’ve been seeing what appears to be older versions of themselves. Trying to fix whatever damages they may have done. Trying to prevent a catastrophic event from occurring. One of these future figures looks familiar to someone they already know, and it seems like she herself is trying to prevent the same events from happening again.


Natsuno Minami discovered a robot hiding in the girl’s locker room. She decides to name the robot BJ and he leads her to a prayer shrine. A bunch of screens pop up and suddenly she is teleported to several different time periods. The year is 1945, otherwise it’s World War II. Japan is getting ready to fight back against the United States and to help them fight against foreign forces they have the Sentinels. Wait a minute. How can the Sentinels be in both 1945 and 1985? Never mind, weapons of the future. To pilot the Sentinels, they secretly recruited two high schoolers. Takatoshi Hijiyama and Keitaro Miura. The army told them if an attack were to occur then they must get in the robots and fight. The United States did attack, but they brought with them peculiar machines. They have ones that dig into the ground, flying ones, ones that look like spiders, and…. wait a minute. Those are the kaiju. How are the kaiju popping up in both 1945 and 1985? Miura somehow meets Natsuno, and she recognizes the robots attacking. Miura fights back, but near the end of the attack his Sentinel triggers a reaction, and he teleports somewhere else. Skyscrapers are seen all around him. He has wound up in the year 1985 and he is trapped there. Meanwhile, Hijiyama finds another way to get to the year 1985 and he has partnered up with a time traveler he fell in love with back in his own time period. Tsukasa Okino, someone who is aware of the kaiju popping up across history.


Let’s cut back to the teens of 1985. Juro shares a house with Megumi Yakushiji after his grandmother made a deal. Megumi cooks their meals and takes care of Juro with sheer love, but Juro doesn’t understand why she cares for him so much. We cut to a memory of Megumi, and it shows that she and Tomi Kisargi were brought from the year 2025. Juro popped up in their era to protect the kaiju, who somehow managed to this era as well, but he went under another name and identity. Juro was fatally injured and brought to the year 1985 to be treated. However, his memories were erased during the process and now instead of going under Juro Izumi he is instead Juro Kurabe. The Juro that Megumi knew and loved is gone, but a strange talking cat has been talking to Megumi. Telling her that there is a way to bring him back. A “magic gun” is what he gives her, and she must shoot some “witches” if she wants to bring him back.


What other stories are there? Ei Segihara wakes up in a dark alleyway to find Miss Morimura has been shot dead and he holds a gun in his hand. Not a gun from this time period. He has no recollection of his memories and through a communication device he must recollect them. Figure out what his duty was and where he came from. Meanwhile, Ryoto Shinome has been recruited by Miss Morimura, Tetsuya Ida, and Renya Gouto who knows more than he should for an average high schooler to locate a rogue AI. Labeled under the number 426. An AI from a ruined future who has come to the past to possibly summon the kaiju and bring utter destruction. It’s up to Shionme to track him down, but the job is going to be more difficult than she thought. This is all very confusing and may be hard to keep track of but trust me, it all adds up in the end. Now I’ve rambled on longer than I should have about the plot, so let’s cut to the gameplay section of this review and see how this narrative driven experience tries to keep your attention. Although, to be honest the story is the main focus, and they did such a lovely job with it.


Gameplay

There are two main aspects to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. The adventure mode and the combat section. Let’s try to focus on the combat section first as a majority of you might find that the most entertaining part. Sadly. You have thirteen characters to choose from before a battle begins and you must select six to fight out in the field. The others will remain at a terminal and provide defense. A terminal which you must protect each fight. Each character has their own Sentinel to pilot and there are four different generations. You have the first generation who are good at getting up close and dealing heavy melee damage. The second generation are all-rounders and are good at both close- and long-range combat. The third generation who are long distance focused and have a plethora of missiles and lasers to fight with. Finally, there is the fourth generation who can fly around freely, attack from a distance similar to third gen, and provide support to fighters on the ground. The goal of each fight is to defeat the enemies on the battlefield and prevent them destroying the terminal. Sentinels have a life bar and an energy bar. Energy allows you to perform powerful abilities good for eliminating huge groups of kaiju, and luckily the game encourages you to use these abilities as much as possible. Destroyed kaiju will drop energy orbs which are absorbed by the Sentinel used to destroy said enemies. These orbs will quickly refill your energy bar, allowing you to keep going and use your most powerful attacks. This is great. This encourages the player to play actively. It’s real time combat as well. Your characters must be commanded similarly to a turn-based RPG, but they can still be attacked while waiting around meaning you must pay attention. The Sentinels have a health bar and when it reaches a low state then you must repair it. Repairing a Sentinel requires a pilot to step outside it and wait in an area isolated from enemies. Just like the terminal being destroyed, if a pilot were to die during their Sentinel or get killed while attempting to repair it then it’s game over. You’ll really have to optimize your opponents during fights. Some kaiju have the ability to mass produce smaller enemies which can be a hassle to deal with and others have the ability to offer protection to surrounding kaiju. Prioritization is key. The terminal isn’t completely useless. It’s not just a defense point. It can activate certain programs which can help your Sentinels. Either buffing them, healing them, or evening out the playing field. When you defeat certain powerful kaiju then the terminal will activate and destroy any weaker enemies. You win the fight and get to move on. You have a score multiplier which increases the longer you maintain a successful win streak. This score multiplier increases the amount of metachips you earn at the end of a fight, which is the currency used to purchase upgrades and abilities for you Sentinels. You can increase the power and stats of your Sentinel or unlock new attacks to use in the field. You must have a strong team to take on new challenges. You are also scored on how well you perform, given mystery points to unlock new logs and documents, and there are bonus objectives if you are willing to get them. One final thing to be weary of is BOL, otherwise Brain Overload. Using a character two times will give them Brain Overload meaning you can’t use them during the next fight or for terminal defense. You must wait for them to rest, but you can make them immediately recover in exchange for resetting your score multiplier. Trust me, it’s extremely easy to earn a multitude of metachips at the end of battles. Well, that’s all I really have to say about combat. There are a total of thirty stages which isn’t a lot to be honest. However, a majority of this game is directed to the adventure mode which is the best part to be honest.


The adventure mode is where you relive the memories of the thirteen protagonists and figure out what exactly happened. It’s like this weird mixture between visual novel and a classic styled click and point adventure. You wander around specific settings and try to advance the story. You can pull up a flowchart to show the path you are currently following and how to trigger the next major story event. Another thing you can pull up is the Thought Cloud which is a collection of important characters, locations, moments, and ideas you rack up along your character’s journey. It allows you to keep track of what is important and sometimes you’ll have to bring it up to progress the story. Either bring up certain ideas to other characters to initiate conversations and events or look back at moments that could have occurred in the past. Some ideas within the Thought Cloud will change as the story goes on, allowing you to gain new info on the current situation. Looking at the flowchart, sometimes you’ll be given a branching story path. You have a choice of what events you want to witness next and see what you have or have not done yet. The game doesn’t tell this to the player, but these branching story paths aren’t alternate timelines or events. They are more like moments that occur on different days which is nice. It shows how all of these events tie into one another. You continue progressing through the stories of each character and there will be a point where the game locks you out. What do I mean by this?


To continue going through a character's story then you must meet certain requirements. Witness an event in another character’s story, get through a portion of the combat, or unlock a certain number of mystery files. This may seem odd, but to me this is genius game design. The developers don’t want you to blow through one specific character’s story at once as certain moments are difficult to understand unless you uncover events and information that tie in. Of course, you need to witness other events from other stories to figure out what exactly happened. This also gets the player to try out other character’s stories, with some of them unlocking other characters you need to memorize. This is a game where you have to become familiar with what is going on, and luckily, they give you an archive which you can use to keep track of specific moments and characters. The Analysis is what it is called, and it gets bigger the more you discover. You want to discover it all. You want to know what exactly happens. The game is doing a perfect job at making you discover everything. To aim for one hundred percent completion, because you can’t technically beat this game unless you discover and understand every piece of dialogue and discover the game lies out for you. That is exactly how you make a narrative driven game! I can’t believe Vanillaware cracked what is an easy yet somehow difficult formula for me and they did it perfectly! Okay, so. This review has been going on for a while and we really should get to the end. Hopefully you can fight back against the kaiju, help out each character, and lead them towards their destiny. Escape the eternal hell they seem to be trapped in.