13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has all of the necessary elements for the most confusing science fiction story imaginable. There’s time travel, lost memories, prophetic dreams, android doppelgängers, and a cast of more than a dozen characters each with their own perspective on events that span hundreds of years. It took me around 10 hours before I even had a slight grip on what was happening in its century-spanning mech vs. kaiju story. Yet despite this — or maybe because of it — I’ve been hooked. The narrative is so complex and filled with so many important revelations, that I found it hard to pull myself away. Playing 13 Sentinels is a bit like binge-watching an amazing sci-fi drama — except one where you have a huge amount of control over how you see the story.
13 Sentinels is the latest release from Vanillaware, a Japanese studio best known for its incredible 2D art in games like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown. It’s also a studio known for experimenting with different genres. In the case of 13 Sentinels, it’s actually a mixture of two styles of game.
On one hand, there’s a strategy game, where you control a small team of mech pilots as they fight off an incursion of alien kaiju across an urban landscape. It works well enough and plays sort of like a streamlined take on a traditional strategy game, blending elements of turn-based combat and RTS titles. It also gets much more involved as the game progresses: you’ll unlock more abilities for your small army of mechs and face off against all kinds of devious kaiju, including ones that can manufacture reinforcements and others that burrow underground for surprise attacks.
But the much meatier part of the experience is the narrative, which plays a bit like a visual novel. You control more than a dozen Japanese high school students through various scenes, seeing events across different time periods and from different perspectives. It’s hard to say too much about the game’s story without spoiling the big revelations — and honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible to accurately summarize the ambitious, complex narrative anyway. Suffice to say it touches on a lot of things, from teens coming of age to the far-flung future of the human race.
What’s most remarkable about 13 Sentinels is its structure. Those two sides of the game are presented as distinct experiences. When you’re in the main menu, you can choose “destruction” to head into battle or “remembrance” to explore the narrative. The story, meanwhile, is anything but straightforward. It doesn’t flow in any predetermined way. Instead, you choose from a cast of characters, exploring each one’s personal story in bite-sized chunks. And you can do this in any order. You might find yourself leaning toward the girl on the track-and-field team who stumbled upon an ET-like robot, or maybe the bully who is experiencing the same day over and over again. I found myself gravitating toward the rich kid who could talk to a pop star through his television. Or you can jump back and forth between these stories as you please.
Initially, these threads all seem separate, and I found myself extremely confused. 13 Sentinels doesn’t ease you in. Even before you have a basic grasp of the story you’ll have to deal with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and all kinds of arcane terminology. Things only get more convoluted as the narrative grows to encompass even more: the story involves a number of important events over the course of hundreds of years, and the cast of characters steadily grows to more than a dozen. But that’s also what makes it so satisfying as you slowly start to piece things together. The fact that you choose which narrative threads to pull on only adds to this investigative feel. There are times when you hit a roadblock — a character’s story might be blocked until you complete a few battles or learn more about another member of the cast — but there are always multiple entry points to the story. If one feels confusing or like it’s going nowhere, you can move on to a different character for a bit.
It may sound overwhelming, but 13 Sentinels is surprisingly easy to digest once you get over that initial hump. Part of this is because each character’s arc is divided into a series of smaller episodes, each of which typically lasts 20-30 minutes. It’s sort of like someone handing you the entire run of Battlestar Galactica but not giving you the episodes in order. The game also really drills certain ideas into you through repetition. You’ll see events multiple times from different perspectives and explore the same locations decades apart. One of the game’s best features is something called a “thought cloud,” which functions sort of like the inventory in an adventure game. Only instead of holding objects, it is full of ideas you learn; if you need a refresher, you can explore a character’s cloud to relearn key terms and names from their particular story. It’s especially useful since you’ll be jumping back and forth so much.
That said, it still requires patience to enjoy 13 Sentinels. The story takes a long time to get going — it was several hours before I was out of the tutorial — and you have to be okay with the fact that, for a lot of the time, you won’t understand everything that’s happening. And, at least for me, the strategy element also became somewhat of a chore after a while. It’s not that it’s bad, but it never grabbed me in a way where I enjoyed it on its own. I was always just pushing through battles so I could see what happened next in the story. (On the plus side, you can always just set the battles to easy if you want, and breeze through them.)
But if you love great sci-fi storytelling, your patience will certainly be rewarded. 13 Sentinels is the kind of game I can’t stop thinking about, one of those multifaceted narratives where I find myself piecing things together even when I’m not playing. And it’s all wrapped up in the key elements that have made Vanillaware such a renowned studio: amazing art, inventive character and enemy designs, and just the right amount of weirdness. (One of the main plot threads involves a talking cat who gives you a magical gun for shooting witches.)
It’s strange and daring, and the kind of ambitious single-player experience you don’t see much of anymore. Embrace the confusion — it’s worth it.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is available now on the PS4.