13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim preview: Thoughtful time travel

Vanillaware's latest adventure may be the best-looking the developer has ever produced, but it's got a satisfying story, too.

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Vanillaware's body of work is impressive, through and through. From the gorgeous Odin Sphere to the challenging Dragon's Crown, the developer always goes all-out when it comes to creating beautiful, delicate characters and satisfying gameplay. Though a good portion of Vanillaware's work revolves around hack-and-slash gameplay with RPG elements, its latest work, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a decidedly different affair.

This narrative-laden adventure features side-scrolling adventure segments and real-time strategy battles that follows 13 high school students in a fictional version of 1980s Japan. One by one they're forced to take part in a futuristic war that involves dangerous kaiju called Deimos and mech called Sentinels. It's an intriguing departure from the norm from Vanillaware, and a story that kept me glued to my screen during my time with the game for this preview. Only a few story beats in, and I'm ready to sit down and give the game my full attention for the long haul.

The game opens up to chaos in Ashitaba City. A series of large monsters called kaiju appear to be attacking the city, with frenzied citizens hurrying to get out of the way. As messages from city officials ring through the area telling citizens to evacuate, the game focuses on one girl, who touches her thigh to reveal a glowing blue mark. In the blink of an eye, she’s transported to one of the mechs that has appeared in the distance.

Iori Fuyusaka is her name, and she finds herself inside of the mech. She hears herself as the voice of the mech as kaiju approach, but she has no idea how to move it. She's supposed to pilot it, but how? That's part of the mounting mystery. Renya Gouto, a classmate, appears on the scene. He recognizes Iori, and asks why she’s in someone named Sekigahara's mech, the answer to which is currently unknown. Iori asks Renya if he’s “from the future” as well, like Ei-kun (Sekigahara). Renya is reticent, focused on getting Iori to safety away from the “D-Zone,” or the Kaiju in the area called “Deimos.”

Iori must use the entirety of her body to move forward in the robot and control it, much like you’ve likely seen in other mech anime series. It turns out the mech is called a Sentinel, and it’s the first line of defense against the Deimos. This interaction is the first introduction to the game’s battle system, which oddly enough feels like more of an afterthought than the main focus. While some may find it odd or even lacking due to its focus on a grid system and small points of interest instead of a dedicated turn-based battle screen, I found it fantastic because it was short and to the point.

If you don't want to waste time in combat because the story's so interesting, you can get through battles quickly, and sometimes that's what I prefer. The game’s bread and butter is undoubtedly the narrative scenes, so if you prefer that, you'll find plenty to love about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Controlling your mech is as easy as selecting your pilot and choosing an action.

The game will go on even if you take too long to make a move, so you need to be decisive with your actions. You can take an Action, Move around the map, Repair your unit, and Defend to charge your EP, which fuels special attacks. You have a variety of attacks at your disposal from arm-mounted machine cannons to rocket launchers. Each are useful in different situations, which is demonstrated as you try out a few other attacks. 

Juro Kurabe, another Sentinel, appears to assist in the fight, noting that he remembers doing this specific fight in his dreams — though Renya calls him Izumi for some reason. After the battle the story shifts to Juro Kurabe for an individual story. It’s 1985, and he’s in class with his friend Shiba. They shoot the breeze a bit and then you take control of Juroso you can get acclimated with the game’s Thought Cloud system. You’ll hardly be thinking about that at first, though, because you finally get a chance to see how absolutely gorgeous the game is.

Vanillaware is responsible for some of the most beautiful hand-drawn graphics in gaming, and 13 Sentinels trumps every single one of its previous titles. Every sprite is so fluid and animated, it’s a pleasure to watch them move. Even small conversations look like watching a particularly detailed anime character move, and characters interact in the background away from your current protagonist, going about their lives.

Back to the Thought Cloud system. As you speak to characters, special keywords will pop out from your conversations. They can be used in tandem with other characters to prompt actions. You can either ruminate on the keywords alone or combine them with others to proceed. It's a very simple process, but not one that's seen often in gaming, so it's inventive enough to keep you interested. You get your feel for how to use it, and soon, it's revealed that Iori (the same from the "dream") is Juro's classmate. She’s always sleeping, but waking her up prompts her to tell Juro that she had a strange dream, just like the one he had — and he was in it.

A classmate asks Juro to drop some papers off at the nurse’s office, and while there he finds a few odd documents with his name on them, though the last name is wrong. It’s Izumi, and there are some scribbles about his psyche being “stabilized” with drug administration. What's that all about? Juro can't quite continue investigating because the nurse comes in and cuts the conversation short. Shiba comes to find Juro, and they decide to head out to the video store. 

When Juro and Shiba finally leave school after missing their friend, Juro comes across a classmate: Keitaro Miura.  There's a glowing light on his forehead that appears to ignite a similar one on Juro's hand. This activates one of the mechs from the beginning of the game – a Sentinel – and it turns out Shiba knows more than he might be letting on. Juro quickly enters a dream state and his first Prologue chapter comes to an end.

There are 13 characters to play as, and you'll swap through each one of them at various times throughout the game, much like games such as SaGa Frontier. During my playthrough, I also had the chance to play through the game as Iori from her point of view as well as Sekigahara. I won't go into further detail about each character's happenings, but they add more color and information to the story you first experience with Juro. Throughout each slice of narrative, you switch between normal visual novel-like segments and mech combat. You come to find out there may be some sort of time travel involved, which takes the story in a very interesting direction, and I'm interested to see where it goes next. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a promising game and one that'll keep you entertained for some time. It's visually arresting, gripping, and inventive in ways that many games tend to avoid. I can't wait to get my hands on it proper when it debuts on PlayStation 4 on September 22.

Senior Editor

Fueled by horror, rainbow-sugar-pixel-rushes, and video games, Brittany is a Senior Editor at Shacknews who thrives on surrealism and ultraviolence. Follow her on Twitter @MolotovCupcake and check out her portfolio for more. Like a fabulous shooter once said, get psyched!

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