13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is half sci-fi visual novel and half real-time tower defense tactics game with a moderately robust system of mecha customization. It’s an amazing work of nonlinear digital storytelling, but it’s also about 25 hours long and difficult to talk about without spoiling certain elements of the plot. I’m therefore going to spoil a few small bits of the game’s premise, which I hope will make this review easier to follow.
To simplify the story significantly, 13 Sentinels is about teenage mecha pilots from different decades in modern Japan. Although the timeline stretches from 1945 to 2188, the primary setting of the game is an urban high school in the year 1985. Time travel is introduced into the story fairly early on, but it gradually becomes apparent that the various pilots’ movements between decades may not be time travel at all. In addition, a few of the characters are very concerned with “loops,” which seem to be connected to the different “generations” of mecha you control during the tower-defense sequences.
Your job, as the player, is twofold. First, you need to defend the city during a multi-stage final battle against invading alien mecha; and second, you need to follow each of the thirteen characters’ stories in order to figure out how they got to the point at which the final battle begins.
The tactics battles are short and linear, and you can repeat battles to grind for experience or meet certain challenge conditions. You can choose the difficulty level for these battles, which end in victory automatically if the tower does not fall within the time limit. The visual presentation of the battles is somewhat simplistic and occasionally confusing, but they’re easy to cheese through multi-target long-range missiles.
Personally speaking, I’m not big into tower defense tactics, but I found the mecha battles in 13 Sentinels to be extremely addictive. If you, like me, are interested primarily in the narrative aspects of the game, I would say not to worry too much about the mecha battles. They’re easy and fun!
Meanwhile, the visual novel portion of the game plays out in a series of roughly five-minute segments. There are thirteen viewpoint characters, and each character’s story is divided into six to eight episodes. Although some of the episodes have conditions that need to be met before they’re unlocked, you can switch between characters and play through the episodes in whatever order you like. You can also complete a lot of the story without doing the mecha battles, and vice versa.
The story segments are set up like a 2.5D (Paper Mario style) adventure game in which you navigate between connected screens while talking to NPCs. Most of these story segments are linear, by which I mean that they necessitate specific actions performed in a specific order. Each character’s story has its own style of gameplay-adjacent narration, and certain segments of two of the characters (Juro Kurabe and Yuki Takamiya) might necessitate using a walkthrough. For the most part, though, each story episode is fairly intuitive and self-explanatory, and the player can sit back and enjoy the art and writing and voice acting without having to worry about making decisions.
Although each individual battle and story episode is relatively short, there are a lot of them in aggregate, and the game will take at least twenty hours to finish. Unfortunately, you have no control over the opening tutorial sequence, which takes about an hour to complete. Because this tutorial takes so long, I think it’s important to let people going into 13 Sentinels know that it doesn’t reflect the content of the vast majority of the game.
I recently listened to a discussion of 13 Sentinels in which two people who’d played the game attempted to explain it to a larger group, and one of them made an embarrassed comment about “anime tropes.” I think it’s worth discussing these tropes (without spoilers), as they appear primarily in the opening tutorial and may turn off many players to an otherwise excellent game.
The first anime trope is fanservice, by which I mean “male gaze anime pedo bullshit.” For whatever reason, this fanservice is frontloaded into the tutorial and then more or less disappears. In other words, it’s a little gross at the beginning, but then it stops being an issue. It’s kind of like the opening of Final Fantasy XII, where you have to get intimately acquainted with the dimples in Penelo’s ass and watch Fran straddle a flying motorcycle in lingerie before the game drops the fanservice pretense and gets down to the business of telling a story in which the characters aren’t sexualized at all.
The second anime trope is basic netto uyoku brainrot. This is concentrated at the beginning of one character’s story but then stops being an issue. There’s not much to say about this, save that it’s fairly common in a lot of anime-adjacent work that came out of Japan in the late 2010s, and that it will probably go over the heads of most people playing the game in English. I’m generally sensitive to this sort of thing, but it’s such a minor part of the overall story that it was easy to roll my eyes and not be bothered by it. Also, that character’s storyline gets much better later in the game.
The third anime trope is “giant mecha that can only be piloted by teenagers in high school.” As someone who generally dislikes this trope, what I would say is that the diegetic explanation is very good, and that the narrative payoff is a lot of fun. The explanation and payoff don’t happen until late in the game, but they’re worth suspending disbelief for.
In a lot of ways, 13 Sentinels has strong Final Fantasy VIII vibes, and it’s good to remind people (mainly myself) that Final Fantasy VIII was actually a really smart and interesting game. The conceit of all the characters being in high school is admittedly silly, but the “daily life” nonsense at the beginning of the game exists primarily to serve as a contrast for what you learn about the story as it progresses.
I don’t want to say that anyone’s enjoyment of 13 Sentinels will be dependent on their tolerance for anime tropes, but what I would say is that you might need to be patient with the game during the first hour. Like any other JRPG, 13 Sentinels gets so much better once you’re free from the mandatory tutorial.
Given that 13 Sentinels levies a tax of an hour of your life before you’re allowed to start the game in earnest, I want to try to explain why the experience of playing it is worth the price of admission.
To begin with, 13 Sentinels is a gorgeous game. The character designs are gorgeous. The backgrounds are gorgeous. The lighting effects are gorgeous. The animation is limited, but it’s gorgeous as well. Every tiny detail is just so incredibly gorgeous, and the game constantly reveals new details.
I also appreciate that 13 Sentinels isn’t so much a traditional visual novel as it is a nonviolent adventure game. I love this style of interactive storytelling, and I love to see it done with a proper budget. You don’t just passively watch the characters and look at all the gorgeous art; you get to move through the lushly detailed environments and interact with them using standard JRPG mechanics that help guide you through the story.
While the writing doesn’t draw attention to itself at the level of its prose, it’s a marvel how everything comes together in bits and pieces in a way that makes perfect sense. Some character episodes must be unlocked, so there are a few gates regulating how much the player knows at any given time, but 13 Sentinels showcases nonlinear storytelling at its best.
The game also features a good mix of subgenres. Some characters are normal high school students who gradually get sucked into the larger story, while other characters begin right in the middle of a hardcore sci-fi action movie. Some of the characters have love stories, while others have murder stories. A surprising number of the characters’ stories look deeply into ontological definitions of humanity. Meanwhile, there are some characters you don’t get to play as, an aspect of narrative gameplay that generates its own set of themes and questions.
If you get bored with one character, you can always switch to another. All of the stories are connected, so you might uncover something that causes you to view the formerly boring character in a different light. Some of the characters resonated more strongly with my own interests while others left me a bit cold, but all of the characters have fully realized narrative arcs that somehow manage to keep developing deep into the endgame.
I can’t say too much about the game without spoiling it, but I was constantly dazzled by the storytelling. When I say that the narrative payoff of the anime tropes is worth the initial silliness, I mean it – the ending of 13 Sentinels feels satisfying and well-earned.
Because it’s divided into bite-sized chunks, 13 Sentinels is a great portable handheld game, and it’s perfect for the Nintendo Switch. Its load times are almost nonexistent, so it’s easy to pick up and put down and pick back up again. I gradually played 13 Sentinels over the course of about two months, but I imagine the game’s structure would make it a lot of fun for people who prefer to binge stories.
So, despite the slog of the opening tutorial, I’d definitely recommend 13 Sentinels if you’re interested in a smart and fun sci-story that’s also a smart and fun game.