13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Before the North American version of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was even out, it had already become one of the best-reviewed games of 2020. I wrote about it back then, but at the time I hadn’t started playing it yet (I didn’t procure an early copy, so I had to wait until the game’s launch to dig in).

Now, having invested more than 30 hours into this game (with many more hours ahead of me), I understand what the fuss is all about. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a masterpiece. Even so, it’s a hard one to properly describe without either ruining the plot or downplaying the elements that make it so great in the first place.

But I’m going to try anyway.

By and large, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim fits into the visual novel genre. In terms of sheer sales figures, this almost certainly works against the game. It’s a niche genre that a lot of people shrug off as uninteresting. And I get it, I used to be one of those people.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

But at the same time, the story is so vast and twisty that it would have been difficult to properly tell in any other medium. At its core is a time-travel story, which makes the perpetually branching structure of a visual novel work very well for its execution.

Of course, it has a tendency to hop from science-fiction sub-genre to science-fiction sub-genre without checking in with the player to make sure they’re following along. It’s a time-travel, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic mechs-vs.-monsters high-school drama that doesn’t let you fully comprehend any one of the parts of its complex machinery before it introduces the next one. You barely have a chance to dip your toes into the mech-battling elements of the narrative before you’re introduced to time travel, possible aliens, cloning, and brainwashing — and so much more, though I’ve already probably said too much. It can feel downright overwhelming at times. In fact, I’m tempted to compare this to the Metal Gear series in terms of convoluted narrative style. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a mind-bender that perpetually defies your attempts at predicting where it’s headed.

However, its structure is smartly divided into three sections.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

You’ve got Remembrance, the visual novel portion of the game that I’ve been talking about.

Then there’s Destruction, which features tactical turn-based RPG-lite gameplay. In Destruction, you pilot mechs (the game’s titular 13 Sentinels) and do battle against robotic creatures that the game refers to as Kaiju. If you’re not big on tactical RPGs, don’t worry, there’s a Casual difficulty setting, and even on Normal it’s one of the easiest tactical RPGs I’ve ever played. (There’s an Intense difficulty setting as well, which to me feels like the Normal difficulty of your typical tactical RPG.) This is not a game that’s trying to be difficult in terms of gameplay (its challenge lies in following the plot across all of its precariously twisty roads).

The third section is Analysis, which is basically a database of terms and characters that expands as you unlock more story events. I’ve seen some reviewers sort of discard this portion of the game as nonessential, claiming that the core of the game exists within Remembrance and Destruction, but to me it seems a bit careless to discard Analysis. I think there’s a perpetual temptation for reviewers to write off pieces of a game that don’t feel like “gameplay.” (I could write a whole lot more on this topic, but this particular article isn’t the place for that.)

But even as a glorified glossary, Analysis does feature gameplay to some extent. Of course, this “gameplay” boils down to an in-game shop where you spend a currency called Mystery Points to unseal Mystery Files, which give you more information about the game’s world, events, characters, and technology. I will also point out that a few key pieces of information are buried within this system, and you’ll definitely want to unseal every file and spend time reading through each one if you want to fully understand the game’s convoluted narrative.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

When all three parts combine, and you are allowed a great deal of freedom as to which order you want to experience them in (many portions of the game are locked behind other portions, but the game is usually pretty clear about how you go about unlocking those), you feel like a detective. You’re working to get to the bottom of these strange events as you take a science-fiction journey across time and space. Every time you discover something new, more possibilities open up, making the game feel like a perpetually unravelling ball of yarn — or maybe a better analogy would be several balls of yarn tangled together that you’re picking apart a little at a time.

The brilliance of the game lies within its ability to handle all of its disparate elements that, while disorienting at times, ultimately complement one another in some really neat ways. All the genre hopping (or sub-genre hopping, as this is a science-fiction story through and through) eventually starts to make sense. When you finally start to see the bigger picture, you’ll begin to understand why all these seemingly disparate pieces have been thrown together into one perception-altering stewpot.

I probably haven’t done the game justice with all my rambling. But really, it’s hard to describe 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim without rambling. The game itself often feels like a long-winded ramble. Only, its one that perpetually feels interesting, surprising, and even charming at times (despite also feeling a little bit disturbing at others).

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I’ll just end where I began (as every good time travel story should) and say that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a masterpiece that shouldn’t be missed if you like experimental sci-fi narratives at all. I do hope to see this on “Game of the Year” lists this year, and I certainly hope more people become aware of this game. It’s one of the bright spots of 2020, a year that’s otherwise going down in history as being persistently terrible.

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