What do you get when you take every science fiction and anime trope imaginable, throw them into a blender, and hit the “frappe” button. 13 Sentinels, apparently; a weird, wonderful game that surprised me with how crazy, yet coherent it was.
Vanillaware is not a prolific studio. Over the years, they’ve only released a handful of games, all of them marked by their signature lush, traditional 2D artwork. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim continues that tradition. However, where previous games were all romps through different flavors and cultures of fantasy, 13 Sentinels is firmly science fiction. More specifically, it’s a gushing, fan-obsessed love letter to the unique kind of science fiction at the nexus of movies, anime, and 80s Japan. But it works.
What’s most surprising about 13 Sentinels is that it’s far from a conventional game. This isn’t an action game, JRPG, or even strategy game. It’s a genre specific to Japan known as a “visual novel,” which is essentially a story told in video game format with minimal interactions. Typical visual novels are just big portraits with a big space for text. Players advance the text, and occasionally make some choices, and that’s about it. 13 Sentinels follows some of this structure’s basics, then arc welds a pause & play strategy game onto it.
This game takes a lot of chances and shouldn’t have worked. But it does. Amazingly well.
Welcome To 80s Tokyo
Juro Kurabe is a typical Japanese teenager going to highschool in 80s Japan. He wears a uniform, loves science fiction films, and has a rich friend with a killer hi-fi set up and game console. He also has some weird dreams about fighting in the future in giant robots. Or being an adult and working on a secret high stakes mission. And he’s not alone; a lot of his friends have similar experiences.
All of this combines into a crazy science fiction jaunt that takes every 80s Japanese, science fiction, and anime trope and smooshes them all together. There are major shades of Gundam, Megazone-23, transfer students, high school angst, street food, and American SF cinema, like Terminator and E.T., all liberally sprinkled throughout. If it’s a cliche or trope you’ve seen in anime or watched on TV, odds are it’s in here somewhere.
While the game is a visual novel, it doesn’t follow typical conventions. Vanillaware is famous for its detailed artwork in side-scrolling games, and it sticks to that here. In some ways, the presentation feels similar to 80s adventure games, with no large portraits and things in the environment to interact with. However, the addition of time-travel, parallel dimensions, and giant robots means there’s a lot more choice going on here than in traditional visual novels.
A Narrative Collage Of Geekdom
13 Sentinels is, on paper, an absolutely bonkers concept. It’s not just that the story proudly holds up ever SF Nerd trope it can find; it does so in a non-linear fashion. As the title suggests, there are 13 characters in this story and game. The trick is, players have the choice of picking which characters to follow for a bite-size of story before moving onto the next character. Or they can take a break from the character-centric narrative and advance the plot by taking part in pause & play strategy battles, directing giant robots to fight off huge mechanical kaijus.
This means that every player’s experience with the story is going to be different. Choosing different characters in different orders should create an insane mess when it comes to piecing together a plot. Somehow, Vanillware has managed to evade this danger and created a complicated story, full of twists and turns, that somehow doesn’t lose you despite being convoluted and non-linear. I have no idea what kind of planning must have gone on for them to create a story that makes, regardless of the order you consume bits of the plot in, but it’s an impressive trick.
The pause & play strategy game is abstract, but fun, and gives you many options. The battlefield is laid out on sections of a downtown Japanese city. Your forces and the enemies are abstractions, represented by simply icons on the map. You can pause at any time to issue orders, then sit back and watch the havoc play out in real-time. This will all feel very familiar if you’ve played modern MMOs with their abilities and cooldown cycles.
A Gutsy Move
13 Sentinels is clearly a labor of love. Every scene, every character oozes the feel of a bunch of nerds, with money, deciding to roll the dice on Gen-X nerdy nostalgia. This is a niche game, aimed at a specific demographic, so fans of typical action or FPS games won’t find a lot of love here. But for people that love twists, turns, giant robots, and a truly astounding lesson in “how to write a non-linear story that players assemble themselves,” it’s a very impressive game.
I really enjoyed 13 Sentinels and how shamelessly it jumped into classic anime and SF tropes. The artwork is gorgeous, and not something seen too often in today’s 3D polygonal gaming landscape. The pause & play iconographic strategy took me back to my days of imagining giant robot battles in my head, and in the year 2020, it’s not unwelcome for a theme celebrating The Power Of Friendship to make its case without irony or winking at the audience.
I’d recommend this game to anyone that is a fan of anime and twisty tales. You don’t get AAA level gaming action and explosions, but you get a memorable story and a loving nostalgia trip.