The creators of Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown try something completely different with a time-travelling take on Pacific Rim.
As the industry is rocked by gigantic $7.5 billion acquisition deals, that see development studios with hundreds of employees become pawns in the next global console war, it’s refreshing to play something that’s been created by only a couple of dozen people and primarily for their own personal gratification. Making 13 Sentinels almost destroyed Japanese developer Vanillaware, after development overran and they struggled with a radical change in genre from what they’re used to, but the effort has been worth it and re-establishes them as a major force in Japanese gaming.
In certain circles at least, Vanillaware is much admired for 2D action games such as Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. But while the more controversial Dragon’s Crown did see a PlayStation 4 release a couple of years ago, they’ve otherwise fallen off the radar, as they ran into trouble with publishers and intended merchandising deals for 13 Sentinels. That means it’s now been seven years since they released a brand-new game and what they’ve produced is radically different from any of their previous work.
13 Sentinels still features the same gorgeous, hand-painted 2D artwork that Vanillaware are famous for but rather than being an action game it’s primarily a visual novel, combined with a strategy game and minor role-playing elements. There are comparisons to be made with the likes of Persona and Tower Defense but there isn’t really any other game, by Vanillaware or anyone else, like 13 Sentinels. And that’s a large part of its appeal.
Although the details of the plot are insanely complex the basic premise behind 13 Sentinels is very simple. Just imagine Pacific Rim but with Japanese schoolkids and you’re pretty much there… as long as you throw in time travel, aliens, clones, alternate universes, and just about every other sci-fi talking point you can imagine. The game starts off in 1985 but moves both backwards and forwards in time as it follows the 13 different characters that are able to pilot giant robots called sentinels.
Given that set-up you’d imagine that Vanillaware’s penchant for gigantic 2D sprites bashing the pixels out of each other would make for some epic scale robot action, but strangely that is not the case. After a lengthy introduction sequence, the story and combat segments are split into separate sections and you never get to control the robots directly or see your opponents while you’re fighting.
Instead, everything is displayed via a top-down map, with the Godzilla-sized foes represented merely as indistinct icons. It’s a peculiar decision to play so against the company’s own strengths, with not even reaction shots when you land a blow. Vanillaware clearly want a clean break from their previous work but we’re not sure making the combat so visually uninteresting was really the way to go. Especially as the strategy combat isn’t particularly good anyway.
Although setting up ambushes and getting to use all the impressively destructive weaponry is fun at first there’s little real tactical nous required. Understanding that you should be firing missiles at long range and using fisticuffs when closer is about as complicated as anything gets and while dealing with huge swarms of enemies, and controlling six sentinels at once, sometimes threatens to become exciting the bland presentation prevents it from ever really doing so.
The dour presentation is especially odd as Vanillaware’s hand-painted art style is like nothing else in modern video games, and while the animation is simplistic the way everything is always moving – from dust drifting down from rattled buildings to the facial tics of various characters – gives a great sense of life and energy to what might otherwise seem like static images. Vanillaware have also avoided any of the creepier sexual imagery from Dragon’s Crown, although you do fear for the worst when the game starts and everyone is suddenly naked when they’re teleported into a sentinel – but thankfully this is a minor plot point and affects men as well as women.
The combat is really not the focus of the game at all, so it’s a good job that despite all the technobabble, sci-fi clichés, and awkward references to famous Hollywood movies the narrative is surprisingly engaging. If you enjoy Persona you’ll be immediately at home here, as the mundane predictability of school life is juxtaposed with world ending threats and whether characters can sum up the courage to ask each other out or not.
As with the rest of the game, there’s a lot of predictable tropes involved, from the sleepy schoolkid to the socially awkward sci-fi nerd, but in most cases the game does well to subvert expectations and there’s a surprising amount of depth and subtlety to all the main characters.
In terms of gameplay the story segments are only a few steps above a visual novel, but you can examine objects and the environment and use key words to either think through plot points or talk to other people. This helps ensure that you’re not merely pressing a button to get to the next line of dialogue but often there’s no real clue as to what you’re supposed to do to advance the story, and while it doesn’t take long to try every permutation it can end up making progress seem rather arbitrary.
Although there are some story bottlenecks you can generally switch between characters and storylines whenever you want, slowly piecing together the plot on your road toward the single, unavoidable ending. 13 Sentinels isn’t interactive storytelling in the Life Is Strange sense but being able to control how and when the different plot threads are told gives an illusion of control that is surprisingly effective.
What’s also surprising is that the dialogue, or rather its translation, is really very good and better than many much more expensive Japanese productions, including Persona 5. 13 Sentinels is obviously designed as a statement, to show that there’s more to Vanillaware than just 2D action games, and on that basis it’s a resounding success. The plot and characterisation is far better than we would’ve expected and make it clear that the Vanillaware are, once again, a studio to watch – not just for their artwork but their storytelling as well.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim review summary
In Short: Not at all what you’d expect from the makers of Dragon’s Crown, but as well as the expectedly beautiful artwork this has some of the most engaging high school melodrama this side of Persona.
Pros: A fun story surprisingly well told, with likeable characters and generally good dialogue. Non-linear storytelling works well. Fantastic artwork, that’s full of personality.
Cons: The combat segments are not very interesting, with peculiarly dull presentation. Story segments lack interaction.
Formats: PlayStation 4
Release Date: 22nd September 2020
Age Rating: 12
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