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13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim review - Peak fiction

It’s just an ordinary day after school. Your friend wants to go bother the rich kid, play the newest video games at his house, while you want to just head home after a busy day. A boy wearing a strange uniform bumps into you on the street as you head back, and his forehead glows with a ghostly light. Seconds later, a giant machine crashes into the nearby streets, crushing buildings and killing civilians. 

In another place and time, a girl finishes gym class. She changes in a private room before stopping, seeing something tucked away in the corner. A small robot is hiding in a laundry basket. After placing it in a bag, she does as it asks and takes it to a nearby shrine. In mere moments the girl is enveloped in light, and finds herself in a distant future, surrounded by destruction with lanky machines striding in the distance. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a tough game to keep up with at first. This is a visual novel told from 13 different perspectives, and even within each of those perspectives there are choices to be made that can uncover further clues and secrets. It’s Gundammeets Steins;Gate, if you’re weeb enough to know what that means. If that wasn’t already enough to wrap your head around, the protagonists are from different time periods, some coming from pre-war Japan, others from the not-too-distant future. But one thing links them all: the Sentinels. 

This is where things really go off the rails. This is a visual novel, yes, and much of your time playing will be engaging in conversations and bringing up different topics to different characters to uncover new responses and understand more about the story, but this is actually just the Remembrance mode. Meanwhile, Destruction mode is set closer to the end of the visual novel’s events, where each of our 13 protagonists take control of their own Sentinel, a mech suit designed to engage in combat with hostile kaiju creatures. This isn’t just a plot contrivance like it might be in many visual novels though – this is a real-time strategy game.

Controlling six chosen Sentinel pilots, you navigate around a city while defending the Terminal. Enemies spawn in a number of locations, and you have a variety of Sentinel types to combat them, some with close, mid, and long-range capabilities. Larger kaiju monsters can only suffer real damage when a close-range attacker gets up in their grill, but these Sentinels must stick to the city streets to move, limiting their options. Other Sentinels can fly right over buildings, but their attack power is hamstrung in exchange, making them ideal for smaller foes and little else. 

Destruction isn’t a mini-game, it’s a fully-fledged and deep RTS, with upgrade paths available for all 13 units. The two modes should be parallel opposites, but instead they complement each other brilliantly. Some stories in the Remembrance mode can only be experienced once you’ve gone through enough combat trials in Destruction, and progress through areas there is limited by your Remembrance progress, too. Of course even during battle your protagonists chat to one another, fleshing out information you might not even be paying attention to in Remembrance mode yet. 

When things aren’t as they seem in a story, there’s a tendency to drag things out with a slow start. 13 Sentinels eschews that entirely. From the beginning there’s mystery and intrigue laid on thick. A talking cat blackmailing a girl into shooting people with a “magic” gun. An amnesiac boy. A time traveler from the past determined to return and warn the Japanese government of the nuclear strikes from the US. There’s so much to engage you with the story of each character and it’s all given at such a rapid pace that it can be hard to keep up with. This game has a three-hour-long tutorial, and even that will make you feel as if you’ve already been on a grand adventure with enough plot twists for any ten-hour shooter. 

Destruction has a shocking amount of depth and complexity, especially if you ramp up the difficulty, but Remembrance is what you buy the game for. The slow unraveling of the truths behind the many mysteries is enthralling. Play through a scenario from one perspective and certain characters come off as cold or aloof, but play through their perspective and everything comes into focus. Each character’s perspective includes unique areas and conversations, so it always feels fresh, but there’s something even more satisfying about seeing an established scene through a fresh pair of eyes. 

But what’s most interesting is the intersection of our characters and their motivations. It’s one thing to come from pre-war Japan and witness the modernization happen seemingly overnight – traditional Japanese architecture replaced by American-style high-rise buildings in a matter of four decades – but it’s another to see his worldview clash with the other characters because of that. Some have lived and breathed in post-war Japan all their lives, and simply wish for peace to continue. Others would like to take their Sentinels back to the past in order to destroy America before the nukes launch. This violent clash of ideals is fascinating to see play out. 

In addition to all of that, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim manages to be one of the best-looking visual novels I’ve ever played. The hand-drawn and soft art style works wonderfully, and the generally desaturated colors give it almost an old, painterly look and feel, which works to the game’s advantage when portraying the past, like a sepia filter. The future and Destruction mode tends to have more of a modern blue hue, but it never interferes with how natural the characters look. It’s incredibly charming and lovely to look at almost all the time – you will definitely be reaching for the screenshot button. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim might be one of the best visual novel games. The combination of Destruction and Remembrance mode gives the player the opportunity to delve further into either the story or the combat as they please, breaking up the ordinarily slow gameplay of the average visual novel. Both modes are engaging and never feel drawn out, holding your attention for longer than you might expect. If you’re looking for a deep and intense story on Nintendo Switch this year, then 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the obvious choice.

Written by Dave Aubrey on behalf of GLHF.

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