Atlus is a company that’s sometimes been dubbed a ‘modern Square’ in that it’s become the place in the current industry to get well-budgeted RPG experiences that are equal parts traditional and experimental. It may be known most for its Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games, but the company also sometimes puts out something decidedly more odd, like 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. This is a release that could best be described as a visual novel, but that genre description doesn’t do justice to what 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim manages to achieve. Whatever you want to call it, Vanillaware's 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an experience quite unlike anything else on the Switch right now, and we think you really ought to give it a look.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim follows an ensemble cast of protagonists as they fend off an impending alien threat, utilizing the power of advanced mech suits to accomplish their goal. The story spans several decades as it follows characters in different eras, all roped into the central conflict for different purposes and with distinct motives driving their actions. Natsuno’s story, for example, follows a girl with an obsession for movies about aliens who discovers a cute robot named BJ in her locker room, kicking off an adventure in which she crosses time and space to help it find what it’s looking for.
Sekigahara’s story, on the other hand, is about an amnesiac boy who wakes up in an alley with a dead woman next to him, and his adventure initially follows him trying to piece together his past while evading a group of men in black hot on his tail.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the narrative is how it’s conveyed to the player; 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim unfolds as more of a mosaic than it does a straight line. Each character’s narrative plays out across 10-15 minute chapters, and you can choose to progress any character’s storyline in any order you want. The only exception to this is that doing too many consecutive chapters of one character’s story will eventually lead to a ‘lock’ on that character until you’ve seen certain events unfold in other storylines. Some characters’ stories begin farther along in the timeline than others, and they often jump around decades, making it all but certain that the chapter you just completed won’t have a ton of direct continuity with the one you’re just about to start.
It's amazing that the narrative works as well as it does, despite this initially confusing, multidirectional approach to storytelling. New plot twists come at the end of nearly every chapter, yet it never feels like anything is spoiling a development that takes place in another storyline. Rather, each plot twist is giving you yet another piece to the puzzle of the overarching mystery, as you slowly tease out an understanding of what caused the main conflicts and what each character’s true motives are. It’s almost certain that any two given players will have explored this narrative in a completely different order than each other, which makes for some fascinating discussions when talking it through with someone else who has played.
The main drawback to this multidirectional approach, however, is that it can take quite a while before you finally ‘get’ what the narrative is going for. For the first ten hours or so, it can be a lot to take in as you’re hot potatoed from one narrative to another and positively bombarded with a cavalcade of new characters, time periods, and incidents, all of which are connected in ways you aren’t yet aware of. Just when you feel you’ve finally found a foothold in the narrative, you’re whisked away to another one that’s initially completely unrelated. All of this is important exposition to lay the groundwork for what comes later, but it can feel a little overwhelming when you’re squinting at a character and trying to remember if they showed up in that one scene from an earlier storyline or if they’re someone entirely new.
Luckily, the developers knew that it could be a lot to track and included some helpful features to assuage this. There’s a large “Analysis” segment in the main menu that acts as basically a gigantic archive that collates all the characters and events so far, giving you more detailed entries to read through that update as you encounter new developments. What’s more is that there’s a timeline which shows exactly when events occurred in relation to each other, and the gaps in this slowly become filled in over time. While it can be irksome to have to occasionally dive into essentially a reference guide to keep all the details of the narrative straight, we appreciated the forethought that went into making it as easy as possible to understand the story.
You’ve probably noticed that almost the entirety of the review up to this point has been about the story and that’s because 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is pretty much all built around dialogue. The meat of this game isn’t quite a visual novel, but gameplay is more akin to an old-school point-and-click adventure. Progressing the narrative is usually as simple as finding the next person you need to talk to or the next thing in the environment you need to examine. Occasionally, you’ll get a new addition to your ‘word cloud’ which is sort of a stand in for your character’s inner thoughts, and it’s here that you can learn a character’s thoughts on certain people or things. Also, you occasionally use it for some light interactivity, such as when Natsuno stuffs BJ into her gym bag.
So, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is definitely less of a ‘game’ than some may prefer, but we’d say that it proves to be better paced and more interesting than many a visual novel. This isn’t just clicking through thousands of lines of dialogue — you are actually moving your character around the environment and engaging in relatively brief, natural conversations before moving onto the next thing. Each chapter being around 15 minutes keeps things from feeling like they’re dragging on too long, and this short length per chapter means that there’s no unnecessary filler gumming up interactions. It feels like every scene is there to fill a specific purpose in driving forward the plot and the individual character’s growth, making for a thrillingly well-paced experience that easily hooks you in.
It's not all dialogue and interactions, however, as there is a relatively small portion of the overall experience that plays like a more traditional strategy game. In these RTS portions, shown from a top down, city-wide perspective, you play as various members from the story as they’re piloting the eponymous Sentinel mechs to fight off enemy forces. The goal is usually to either defend a point on the map for a certain amount of time or to wipe out all opposing enemy forces, and you do this through an interesting ‘stop and go’ system that somewhat mirrors ATB combat from Final Fantasy. Every character has a cooldown until their mech can act, and once their turn comes, all action onscreen briefly stops to give you time to plan out the most effective action to take.
Sentinels have different strengths—such as proficiency in taking down flying units or having several effective close range options—and you select from a small pool of actions governed by ‘EP’ (basically mana) to keep you from spamming the most powerful abilities. Each action then affects any enemies within a given zone, which gives you the opportunity to squeeze a little more utility out of each one if you manage you line up your shots just right. For example, a rail gun shot creates a narrow, long zone in front of a mech that annihilates anything in its path, while a salvo of missile strikes all fall within a big circle you position over enemy forces.
The team feels quite well-rounded in terms of offensive and defensive capabilities, and this is only bolstered further by how pilots and mechs can be upgraded using Meta Chips you get from beating enemy encounters. New attacks and skills can be bought and loaded into a character’s loadout, making their mech that much more powerful while giving you something meaningful to work towards as you push through wave after wave of battles. We appreciated this effort to bolster customization among your team, and especially liked that there’s a built in system to keep you from favoring any characters too much.
See, each battle has you splitting your team into offensive and defensive teams, with the former being the ones you micromanage and order around while the latter hang back around the objective and fight off any enemies that slip through the cracks. Being on offense is taxing for the pilots, however, and they can only go so many battles before they experience ‘Brain Overload’ and need to be cycled into the defensive team for a few waves to recover. Through this, the player is thus incentivized to pay attention to properly outfitting the whole team; nobody here really feels like they’re stuck on the ‘bench’.
Performance in each battle is then graded based on criteria like how much damage your team took, how much collateral damage happened to the city, or how fast you took down your foes, and this adds up to the rank you receive for that mission. If you succeed in a battle, this also then feeds into a ‘win streak’ that lets you bolster your high score by chaining battles together, but at the cost that your team doesn’t get the chance to restock and heal between battles. This brings in a nice extra layer to the strategy, then, as you’re not just planning out individual battles, but how many battles you think your crew can do before they need to take a breather.
These RTS portions act as a nice palate cleanser for when it feels like the story is becoming too much, although it must be said that the gameplay here clearly isn’t the main draw of the experience. The lack of enemy variety and diverse level design makes battles blend together over time, and even on the harder difficulties, most of the encounters aren’t all too challenging to win. Still, it’s hard to be too bothered by any relative shallowness here, as it’s a great way to get a break from the story while still staying engaged in the world. Not only do these battles have some of their own story content to them, but they’re also key to unlocking Mystery Files in the archive to learn some important details about the ongoing mystery.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim may tell a compelling story and have some enjoyable RTS segments, but all of this is boosted to a much higher level by the spectacular presentation. In the storyline segment, each scene is characterized by some impressively detailed, hand-drawn backgrounds that have an appealing painterly quality to them. Each screen looks like a piece of concept art in the best way, creating a seamless transition from the artists’ pens to the live game. The RTS segments are much more rough around the edges, but in a way that feels intentional, as if you’re viewing a battle map through the lens of Sentinel. Streets are outlined with neon blue lines and enemies are represented by simple voxel designs, while the screen shake effects when you set off a bomb or unload a clip from a machine gun go a long way towards selling the sheer weight of your actions. Plus, there are some impressive particle effects on display when you blow up a legion of foes, sending swarms of embers swirling in all directions.
Meanwhile, the sound design is stellar, with every line of dialogue having both an English and Japanese voiceover. Each actor brings something unique and memorable to their role with various accents and inflections, while the overall sound quality is pleasingly sharp, which is all the more impressive considering that most of the English audio here was recorded from the voice actors’ homes during the pandemic lockdowns. It’s hard to say which of the English or Japanese cast is ‘definitive’ for the experience, but whichever way you choose, you’re sure to get a consistently high-quality performance throughout the whole script.
As for the soundtrack, there’s a nicely ‘cinematic’ feel to the way that the music ebbs and flows with the pace of the narrative in the storyline portions. It’ll jump from playful to serious to curious all at the drop of a hat, perfectly punctuating plot events and lines of dialogue as they’re playing out. In the RTS portions, the music then shifts to being much more energetic and electronic to match the intense and desperate vibe that most fights have. This is the kind of soundtrack that’ll have you searching through YouTube for playlists after you’re done with it; we’d certainly recommend you play with headphones in portable mode if possible.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a wonderful achievement for dynamic storytelling, as it puts forth a compelling and multifaceted narrative that’ll keep you guessing right up until the very end. This excellent story, combined with enjoyable combat portions, a striking art style, and some top-notch voice acting make for an experience that you won’t want to miss out on. It’s the kind of game that’ll have you wishing that you could play it again for the first time, just so all its best elements could be new again. We’d give 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim a strong recommendation, then, to anyone who has even a passing interest in visual novels. Even if that doesn’t describe you, we’d still say to give it a shot; you might just be surprised at how well it grabs you.