2020 was a stellar year for gaming, I think we can all agree on that – sure, the world was hit by a pandemic and none of us knew what the heck might be thrown at us next, but at least we had something Outstanding Video Games. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Animal Crossing, and Cyberpunk 2077 made headlines (some for the right reasons, some for the wrong reasons), but it was a small Atlus-published game from Vanillaware that would stick in my mind the longest.
And I know I’m not alone. A cursory glance at any video game forum, social media site, or Discord server will confirm me – I know. Anyone who’s played 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim will agree, it’s one of those games that sticks in your memory. It hangs around in your head for hours – days, weeks! – after you finish it, it rattles around and becomes instantly nostalgic when you think about it.
But why? Maybe it’s the game’s perpetually dusty classrooms and cozy back alleys that make it feel like it’s been in my memory for years, or maybe it’s the emotional double whammy it manages at least once every hour of gameplay, but 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an all-timer. It’s a game I would even recommend to people who don’t normally like text-heavy, story-based games like this, just like I would recommend Neon Genesis Evangelion to people who don’t normally like anime – transcending its genre (even its genres, plural) and easily ranks as one of the most narratively stellar games I’ve ever played.
It might sound like a lot, the idea of switching between 13 different playable characters in one game, each with their own quirks, neuroses and backstories. But the way the game crumbles into pieces for you – and the delicate choreography between its narrative spirals as you delve deeper into the core story – is one of the most impressive narrative performances I’ve had the privilege of witnessing. In all media. Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, Disco Elysium, Fight Club, 13 Sentinels; it joins the list. This modest visual novel-cum-RTS amalgam would be the last game I would list among all my other favorite narratives in tried-and-true innovative form, but here we are. I’m just as shocked as you.
On a top-down level, the plot revolves around mysterious creatures – somewhere between War of the Worlds and Godzilla on the sci-fi scale on behemoth menaces – beginning to attack Earth. They won’t stop until it’s destroyed. Thirteen high school students from a fictionalized version of 1980s Japan are drawn into this futuristic war with their hulking mechas, and you’re constantly told – as always in these things – that children are humanity’s last chance. These pilots and their strange weapons are the last line of defense.
The game lets you take the reins after a fairly linear intro; Like the story about the 1940s Japanese soldier who finds out he accidentally fell in love with a boy? Play as either of these two and see how that plays out. More interested in the amnesiac kid seemingly dragged into a random school as some sort of multi-timeline psy-op? Find out. More interested in the girl who kicks off her very own ET narrative during opening hours? You know what to do.
Given the complexity of the game’s story – multiple protagonists, multiple time periods, multiple timelines – you’re even given a flowchart (yes, really) to keep things organized. But therein lies the appeal, like how I clapped my hands in glee every time I had to pull out the tracing paper to read House of Leaves, or when I had to rewind my old Twin Peaks VHS to understand what to hell someone said.
Vanillaware’s expert storytellers (and the cutting-edge team of localizers who made this stunning version ready for the western market) fit the narrative and format perfectly in this game; as much as Ken Levine’s team with BioShock. Probably even better. Some of the mechanics can be clunky – internalizing keywords and using them on characters to unlock conversation paths isn’t exactly new – but it gives you direction in what would otherwise be an open sea of potential storylines and endless character interactions.
And what a joy it is to meet these doomed children and see the world through their pessimistic eyes. How wonderful it is to bask in the moments of worldly happiness that they wrestle from their decaying world. 13 Sentinels often reminds me of Mass Effect 2 – those desperate moments of love or relief when a whole shipful of great people stare down the barrel of a one-sided suicide squad. The interplay, the friction, the chemistry, the suspense… 13 Sentinels has it all and manages to pull it off with such maturity and care for its subject matter that it’s almost impossible to believe it came from the same studio that created Dragon’s Crown has made.
Is it any wonder that the bulk of the development studio is made up of artists, not engineers and programmers? No not true. Is it a surprise to see a story of such depth and intrigue coming out of a 2D video game? Again no. But this is a game that couldn’t have been made by anyone other than Vanillaware – it’s so personal and draws on experiences that are presumably so ingrained in the psyche of the staff that it’s impossible to replicate this game in another to present context.
It helps that the Switch version of the title looks damn good on the OLED Switch, and the game’s more forgotten RTS/action sections have also been rebalanced since its PS4 release – it helps you embrace the grittier parts of the package smooth and focus on what to focus on; the exemplary storytelling and top-notch 2D art. You can no longer just sleepwalk through the battle pieces using superpowered arms; you really have to think about it. But that’s a good thing, because it gives you more of a sense of living life as a pilot and makes you feel more into the cast – and that’s necessary at times, especially when dealing with some of the weaker strands of storytelling.
Sentinel #13: Activated.
Are you ready for a new 『START』?
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is coming to Nintendo Switch on April 12, 2022! pic.twitter.com/FwtIOIjCrl
— Official ATLUS West (@Atlus_West) November 28, 2021
But that doesn’t mean any of it is bad; When you have 13 main fibers in a storytelling thread, some of them are bound to be weaker than others. I can’t find the words to say how important this game is if you like games, stories and both together in achingly beautiful games of life, death and everything in between.
After being trapped in a semi-functional shell with performance issues on PlayStation 4, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is now free to run on Switch – where the weaker tech somehow handles the game better – and I implore anyone hungry for one of the best Gaming experiences set to launch in recent years to try. Given that 13 Sentinels is the result of a six-year development cycle that began with a Vita version that was eventually scrapped, it’s nice to see it making such a lively homecoming to a handheld device: it’s the definitive one version of the game, and that deserves to be played by as many people as possible.
https://www.vg247.com/13-sentinels-aegis-rim-ps4-switch-definitive One of PS4’s all-time greats is now on Switch – and you should be playing it right now