If you are into:
- anime or anime videogames
- tower defense games
- maybe something kinda like Into The Breach but in real-time and more hectic
- visual novels?
- Vanillaware games such as Dragon's Crown
Then I think you might like this game... but *I think* that you should wait until it goes on sale for $30 rather than pay full price. I found one half of the game to be engaging and the other half to be a slog, but both halves are necessary and neither half isn't deep enough to stand on it's own as a videogame. More on the value-prop, later.
(Playthrough time: roughly 50 hours. On a base PS4. Paid full price.)
(Spouse test: My wife did not care for this game and hated the voice acting.)
(Throughout this review, I'm gonna use generic shorthand terms instead of explaining each Noun in the game.)
What is 13 Sentinels?
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (hereby shortened to "Sentinels" with a capital 'S') is a game that tells the story of, you guessed it, thirteen teenagers that are destined to pilot huge mechs called "sentinels" to fend of an alien invasion of giant robot monsters called kaijus. Half of the game is spent in a strict, side-scrolling 2d sprite-based story sequence where you control one of the thirteen kids and have to engage in dialogue with other NPCs or other playable kids, almost at times feeling like a point-and-click adventure but not quite getting that deep. The other half of the game is spent choosing 6 of the 13 kids to go into battle against the kaiju defending a single point in the city. This mode is a 3d isometric model of the city where you issue orders to each playable mech from a great distance and you watch the good guys blast/punch the bad guys into little glowing particle bits.
The story is told in a mostly non-linear fashion and from 13 different angles. This is the half of the game that most closely resembles Dragon's Crown in terms of camera angle, sprite-sizes/quality etc, but the resemblance stops there. Dragon's Crown was a (horny) beatem up with a few RPG elements thrown in for measure. Things are very simplistic here in Sentinels. You can move about a room, and talk to an NPC in the room if they have the context-sensitive option to. You can also hit a button that let's you internal-monologue your way through various key-concepts that you've come across. These concepts also double as considering items in your inventory. It's not often, but you can use either a "concept" or an item on an NPC. Sometimes, you gotta talk to NPCs to progress, sometimes you gotta dwell on things to progress, sometimes you gotta "use" a concept/item on an NPC to progress. You will very, very often have to replay the same segments more than once to progress.
If you ever watched the movie Memento from director Christopher Nolan, where the magic of editing leaves a first-time viewer just as perplexed as the protagonist of that film, then you understand the perpetual feeling of confusion I felt while playing this story mode. The story doesn't start at the beginning and it jumps around in chronology/perspective often. Certain characters are locked until you progress past a certain point with other characters, and furthermore even already-unlocked characters can lock AGAIN until you get past certain story points with other characters (unlocked or no). I think that they were going for something that introduces each character slowly and in a manner that makes sense. They achieved the first part, but I was having a hard time making sense of things and getting attached to characters. In one playthrough, for example, I'd encounter a character that I thought was pretty cool and then from a different character's playthrough see them as a total asshole. It was really hard for me to get "grounded" and figure out exactly what the hell was going on. Motivations at one end of the story slowly (or abruptly, depending who you've picked and where they are in the story) dissolve and become completely the opposite by the end. Sometimes you're sure about who the bad guy is, and then you encounter a different story thread that blows that theory out of the water. If this all sounds exciting to you, then maybe this game is a slam dunk for you. I found it tiresome very quickly. There are a FEW times in the game story mode where everything would "line up" just right where I played the correct sequences in the magical correct order where I would receive the satisfaction of gestalt and just "Aha! So THAT'S how that happened." but those moments in this game are rare (or rather, were rare for the order I picked. Your results may vary). The voice acting is fine. There are even a few things that made me sincerely laugh out loud (ie when Miura considers "Hemborger" 😂). The script itself is fine—I might not like the order that the information was presented in, but the material that everyone had to work with was totally fine.
If you have the patience for it, I would strongly recommend keeping a pencil and notepad nearby to take notes or write down questions as you play the story mode just to glance at them as you play more story mode to see if your questions get answered and when. Overall, this is the part of the game I didn't enjoy.
Luckily for this game, you can take breaks from the Story mode to play the Strategy mode. Like I said before, you control up to a maximum of 6 robots in a flat city-grid partitioned into blocks of varying dimension by the streets and amorphous bodies of water. Most mechs navigate by following the roads only, but there are 4 that can fly over any terrain. This mode follows my favorite type of strategic paradigm which is centered all around the passage of time. You can (and will, often) pause anytime, take as much time as you want in this frozen state, and carefully consider which orders to issue to your 6 mechs. Of course, while paused the enemy kaiju threat is frozen in time, but your mechs don't carry out orders until the game is un-paused. When a mech uses an action like a Punch or a Rail Gun shot to attack a kaiju, there's a cooldown where the mech is a sitting duck. During the cool down after taking an action, that mech is completely vulnerable to taking damage and cannot take any orders from you. If you issue a simple Move order, you can un-pause or pause again and issue a new Move order whenever you want. Your mechs also have an "mp" or "mana" system called "EP" which probably means Energy Points. A few actions in the game are free or 0 EP cost, like a one-two punch combo or some pew-pew lasers, but most of the moves in the game cost EP. Once you're out of EP, you have to use the Defend action to restore some EP. If a mech is Defending, however, it will not take orders during this process. Just like as if it had taken an action. Among your roster of 13 mechs, there are 4 character classes; a melee-only fighter, a support-class, a long-range class, and a flyer class. As you probably can imagine, the fighter mechs specialize in dealing close-range damage to ground-based enemies and/or tanking damage for the benefit of the other less-defensible mechs. The long-range mechs have agonizingly slow movement speed, but have access to the most powerful ranged weapons in the game and are late-game unrivaled for Area-of-Effect damage. The flyers are jacks-of-all-trades, masters-of-none that can spec in either ranged or melee combat, but not really excel at either towards the late game. Their main usefulness is in how mobile and fast they are, able to respond to cross-map threats much quicker than the other classes. The support class have access to some melee or some ranged attacks, but more importantly can drop shield-emitters, repair-emitters, and sentry turrets. The sentry turrets are, surprisingly, probably the single-most powerful weapon in the game in terms of damage over time.
In between battles, you can spend your points on unlocking more armaments/gear for each mech, upgrading that armament further, upgrading the stats of the mech, or upgrading the command post. the other 7 playable mechs that you leave on the bench with instead take a (non-playable) spot near the command post, and act as AI-controlled defensive points. Each mech has a unique defensive ability, like rail gun or anti-air flare for example that basically operate completely on their own and have their own cooldowns and limitations. You can't just stick with the same 6 mechs, either, because completed missions will "stress out" the brains of the poor kids. Eventually, a kid that went into battle too often will be out-of-commission for at least one battle. So the game basically forces you into rotating your team lineup regularly and not get too attached to a particular line-up. The objective is usually simple: you spawn at the command post, the kaiju are trying to deal damage to the command post until it's destroyed, either destroy all the kaiju or last ~2 minutes of in-game time.
Unfortunately, you sorta have to use your imagination when it comes to actually seeing your sentinels and kaiju fight. Every animated object in this game is abstracted to be a glowing particle or vector art. It's like being a commander looking at dots on a radar dish. This approach to representing enemies means that the game can throw a lot of tightly-grouped waves of enemies at you. Any damage that gets done to either side shows the damage numbers. So accordingly, if you ambush a huge cluster of enemies with something like a flyer Missile Strike or a Large Missile from a long-range, you can see so much damage-calculations pop off that at times the game drops frames. It's uh, really satisfying to land a huge attack that wipes out an entire attack group of kaiju.
Because these are all highschool kids, they all have inter-relationships that are either aspirationally romantic or affectionately professional. Whenever a mech in battle takes serious damage, the game will pause the action to show a melodramatic dialogue exchange between the afflicted and their story-partner. You'll eventually skip these little scenes, but it's a nice touch that helps add stakes to the action. Indeed, there are times where you'll find yourself staring at your available options with maybe just one available sentinel and debating internally whether or not to send that kid into a perilous fight in order to protect the command post.
It goes without saying that 100% of the interesting-choices-appetite comes from this half of the game.
Final Thoughts before Spoiler Town
Eariler in the review, I said this is a $30 game and said that I only enjoyed half of the game. I should clarify that just because I didn't enjoy half the game, that doesn't mean the game should be $30. I'm saying this game feels like a $30 game. At the time this game came out (and as of this writing still), this game is $59.99. Which means it's the same price as other AAA games that came out this year like The Last of Us Part II. Obviously, there is a kaiju-sized difference between the caliber of production values in this game as there is in TLOU2, but if that's too unfair then let's compare it to Persona 5: Royal. That's a game that also came out in 2020 and was $59.99. It's also perhaps a more-fair comparison because it's from the same publisher; Atlus. Sentinels doesn't come close to the production values of Persona 5: Royal or even the base Persona 5 game. Also, just like Persona 5: Royal, the US English version of this game came out long, long after the Japanese release. So, it's a little strange holding this game against 2020 standards but at the end of the day, I have to compare the value-proposition against everything else available in the market. If you're saying But look at this sprite art! C'mon! then I would just point to 2019's Blasphemous which, I would argue, is easily just as incredible a technical achievement in sprite work and that game at it's most-expensive was $25. Sentinels has multiple points in the story mode where they re-use the same exact assets and present them in the exact same manner multiple times. The tactical mode, once built, is relatively the same each level and is just a different arrangement of the same roster of enemies with different geography.
The point I'm getting at here is that I think this game is perhaps a bit overrated and is conciously priced aggressively by Atlus to milk the weebs into buying it. Wait for a sale.
That said, I did finish the game, so obviously it's not a "bad" game otherwise I would've bounced off it. The story that is there, once laid out, is honestly not that bad, either. I just found myself really, really hating the way it was delivered. The story has moments that, if you understand the context, can hit hard emotionally but if you didn't play through the magical sequence of story events where everything lines up to make sense then it all falls flat. It's a shame.
Here Be Spoilers!
Who is this section for?
- You already played Sentinels to completion.
- You are never ever in a thousand years going to buy Sentinels but nonetheless for some reason want to know what happens in the game story.
- You MIGHT get Sentinels and really don't care about having huge bits of the plot spoiled.
There's enough in this story mode that I kind of want to just stream-of-concsious talk about this story and pick at the stuff that bugs me about it. This would normally be reserved for a subthread in-reply within the Chatty. I can't use spoiler-tags in this format, so be forewarned. Spoilers are here and out in the open for anyone to see.
The Story... as I understand it?
Everything I'm about to say below is purely from memory. I will definitely get details wrong or outright speculate certain events. This is to convey how convoluted and confusing this story mode was.
In the year 2188, there is a space-colony launched from Earth. A... man(?) named Tsukasa Okino royally fucks up when programming terraforming robots and it causes them to invade Tokyo, Japan destroying everything in their wake. The only option the humans have left is to use time-travel to go back to the year 2105 and invent robots to fight back against the incursion. Unfortunately, the kaiju also invade that timeline, and the humans there retreat back to the year 2065 to again prepare for an invasion with more sentinel robots. This process of preparation, fighting, and retreating repeats until finally only the year 1985 remains yet untouched. Even the year 1945, paradoxically, has been invaded and ruined by the kaiju robots. It's somewhere around that point you realize...
... there's no such thing as time-travel, you dummy! WTF were you thinking? No. They are just teleporting between different points or "Sectors" of a huge, huge spaceship that has 5 different replicas of Tokyo from 5 different time periods. This means that all time in the game passes linearly and there's no causality (except... Juro always starts out in that stupid classroom or Shinonome in that Nurse's office, etc). By the time that 1985 has become the last bastion, there has been enough failure and preparation that there are now 13 kids that are chosen to pilot 13 sentinel mechs, but they don't know it yet. A man from 2188 name Juro Izumi hides himself in the implanted memories of Juro Kurabe in order to manipulate both Kurabe and his lover Megumi into shooting the other 12 teenagers with the nanomachines necessary to summon a sentinel. Eventually, the kids figure out that they ARE the only things standing between tokyo and annhiliation, and the remaining human bystanders of 1985 are teleported to a vacant, already-conquered timeline like 2105 so that the 13 kids can be freely let loose to fight in the city with weapons of mass destruction. Except...
... there's no such thing as teleportation, you dummy! WTF were you thinking? No. After you beat the final tactical mission, it's revealed to you that It wAs ALL a DrEaM!! and those 13 kids were in these Matrix-like virtual reality pods playing out a simulation to train them to be better human beings than the original humans they were based on. Incidentally, this is why a bunch of segments from the game are repeated parts of the timeline despite time-travel not being real. The year isn't even 2188 AD. The year is actually 20,000,000 AD roughly and the spaceship found a new earthlike planet a dozen lightyears away from Earth. The kaiju settled on the planet and terraformed it while the kids dreamed out their lives in a simulation. When they beat the game, the simulation woke them up so that they could re-populate a new Earth.
I left out a bunch (like, a BUNCH) of details, but that's the biggest most important beats of the story as I understand it. There are a bunch of nods or homage to sci fi films like Terminator, The Matrix, uh, Groundhog Day, Truman Show, and even Dark City. I think my favorite story sequence was probably the moment when Shu Amiguchi convinces Yuki-chan to leave the city with him, and when they get to the city limits it just turns from a normal paved tokyo highway to incomplete mesh of spaceship metal.
What did you guys think of this game? Got any favorite moments?