2020 has been a remarkable year for gaming, and I think we can all agree on that — sure, the world was besieged by a pandemic, and none of us knew what the hell might throw at us next, but at least we had some video games standouts. 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 game published by Atlus from Vanillaware that will stay in my head longer.
I know I’m not alone. Peeking at any video game forum, social media site, or Discord server will support me – I know. Anyone who’s played 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim would agree, it’s one of those games that stays with you. It hangs in your head for hours – days, weeks! After you’re done, you walk around and instantly become nostalgic whenever you think about it.
but why? Maybe it’s the dusty classrooms and the game’s cozy back alleys that make me feel as if it’s been in my memory for years, or maybe it’s the emotional punch I’ve been able to deliver at least once every hour of playing time, but 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is A device that works at all times. It’s a game that I would recommend even to people who don’t usually like text-packed, story-driven games like this in the same way I recommend Neon Genesis Evangelion to people who don’t usually like animations – its genre transgressions (kinds, plural, even) and it easily finds a place as one of the most Excellent narrative you have ever played.
It might sound like a lot, the idea of rotating between 13 different playable characters in one game, each with their own characteristics, gang, and background. But the way the game unfolds for you — and the subtle choreography between narrative spirals as you delve deeper into the core story — is one of the most impressive narrative feats I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. In any form of media. Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, Disco Elysium, Fight Club, 13 Sentinels; joins the list. This humble RTS visual novel and mixtape will be the last game I think to include among all my other favorite innovative form novels, but here we go. I am as shocked as you.
On a top-down level, the plot revolves around mysterious creatures – captured from somewhere between War of the Worlds and Godzilla on a sci-fi scale on gigantic threats – that begin attacking Earth. They will not stop until it is destroyed. 13 high school students from a fictional version of ’80s Japan are dragged into this futuristic war with their massive mechanics, and you are always told – as always in this stuff – that children are humanity’s last chance. These pilots and their exotic weapons are the last line of defense.
The game, after a beautifully written introduction, lets you take charge; Like the story of a Japanese soldier from the 1940s when he finds out he’s fallen in love with a boy? Go play as one of these two, see how that goes. Are you more interested in a child with amnesia who appears to have been snatched up at a random school as a sort of multi-schedule psychological operation? Go find this out. Care more about the girl who starts telling her own social media stories in the opening hours? You know what to do.
Given the complexity of the game’s story — multiple heroes, multiple time periods, multiple timelines — you even get a flowchart (yes, really) to keep track of it all. But here’s the magic, in the same way I clapped my hands together in glee every time I had to take out a tracing paper to read House of Leaves, or had to return my old VHS of Twin Peaks to understand what someone was saying.
Vanillaware’s skilled storytellers (and the crack team of analysts who prepared this amazing copy for the western market) perfectly match the narrative format in this game; Just like Ken Levine’s team did with BioShock. Maybe better, actually. Some of the mechanics can be pretty useless – ingesting keywords and using them on characters to unlock conversation paths isn’t entirely new – but it does give you some direction in what could be an open sea of potential story branches and endless character interactions.
And what a joy it is to get to know these distressed children and see the world through their pessimistic eyes. How wonderful it is to enjoy the moments of earthly happiness that they managed to get out of their rotten world. 13 Sentinels often remind me of Mass Effect 2 — those desperate moments of love or comfort when great characters stare at an entire ship down the crater of a one-way suicide mission. Interaction, friction, chemistry, tension… 13 Sentinels has it all, and she manages to achieve it with such maturity and interest in her subject matter that it’s almost impossible to believe she’s from the same studio that made Dragon’s Crown.
Is it any surprise that the bulk of the development studio is made up of artists rather than engineers and programmers? No, not really. Is it any surprise to see a story with such depth and intrigue come out of a 2D video game? Again, no. But this is a game that no one other than Vanillaware could make – it’s so personal, and relies on experiences that are supposedly so deeply rooted in the psyche of the staff that it’s impossible to visualize this game in any other context.
It helps that the Switch version of the title looks really cool on the OLED Switch, and the forgettable RTS/Action sections have been rebalanced since PS4’s release too — they help you smooth over the rough parts of the pack and focus on what you should be focusing on; Perfect storytelling and best-in-class 2D art. You can’t sleepwalk through combat chops anymore with extremely powerful arms; You have to think about it. But that’s fine, because it makes you feel like you’re living your life more like a pilot, and empathize more with the actors — which is sometimes necessary, especially when it comes to some of the weaker strands of storytelling.
Guard number 13: Activated.
Are you ready to re-START?
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim 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 them are bad; When you have 13 major fibers in one thread for storytelling, some are sure to be weaker than others. I can’t find more words to say how important this game is if you love games and stories, both smashed together in beautiful, painful games about life, death and everything in between.
Trapped in a semi-working casing with performance issues on PlayStation 4, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is now free to work on Switch – weaker technology somehow handles the game better – and I appeal to anyone hungry for one of the best gaming experiences they will ever experience. Launched in the past few years to try it out. Given that 13 Sentinels is the result of a six-year development cycle that began with the eventually canceled Vita version, it’s nice to see it enjoying its vibrant return to a handheld device: it’s the definitive version of the game, and it deserves to be played by as many people as possible.