13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Has One Of The Best Gaming Stories In Years

Not enough people talked about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim when it released last year. Sure, a few people in my weeaboo circles sing its praises, and it’s performed reasonably well both in Japan and abroad, but even still, it isn’t getting the recognition it truly deserves given everything it achieves. VanillaWare’s ambitious narrative adventure is a triumph, both an homage to classic sci-fi storytelling and an approach to narrative in games that is wildly ambitious, while also setting a new benchmark for layered character development in the medium that can sit proudly alongside the most sprawling of RPGs.

If you aren’t familiar with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I’ll try my best to explain the premise. The game follows thirteen teenagers across a number of different time periods in Japanese history. Some reside in World War 2, while others occupy the stylish decade that is the 1980s, with the final smattering of characters coming from the far-flung future. Although all of their circumstances are different, each and every one of our heroes find themselves banding together to stop an alien threat that will destroy the entire world, and each timeline along with it.

This all sounds a little complicated, and it is, but it’s told in a way that is wonderfully cohesive and easy to follow. Each character has their own isolated arc that intertwines with the wider narrative. Their individual beginning could be vastly different to everything else in the game, but they will all end up in the same place, taking control of a giant mech before joining their fellow teenagers before the final battle. Each individual arc is a journey of self discovery, a fable told across time and space that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.

I can’t imagine the Pepe Silvia clipboard VanillaWare had in its office to make this web of stories work together without the whole thing crumbling to dust. It’s a feat of narrative engineering, with each individual character holding their own motivations and vices that will go on to inform the final conclusion. Some are just normal students, finding themselves wrapped up in apocalyptic circumstances beyond their control, while others hail from the future, hopping between different timelines trying to uncover a way to defeat the alien menace that threatens our entire existence.

From the opening hours, I was hooked, desperately trying to unlock each new chapter to find out what happens next. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn’t explain everything, leaving some threads to be woven together by the player, and I adore it for that. It’s a game filled with intrigue, so having it all explained in a mountain of exposition would take away from what makes it so special. It veers into anime cliches once or twice with needless panty shots and all of the students losing their clothes when piloting the mechs, but it sidesteps those with otherwise excellent writing.

Character archetypes are played against one another in excellent ways. The rogue bully bonds with the stylish popular girl, while a young captain from the 1940s slowly develops feelings for a boy completely outside of his time. It’s a cute gay story amidst the end of the world, only falling victim to a few irksome developments that JRPGs are often guilty of when it comes to queer storytelling. The boy from the future disguises themselves as a girl in a specific time period to blend in, with pronouns switching suddenly depending on the situation. Are they non-binary? Are they cis? Aegis Rim floats these ideas but never commits to them, leaving some elements of this character’s queer identity up in the air.

I won’t lie – I rushed to this arc whenever I could, eager to see it unfold and where my lovers from past and future would end up next. Yes, I’m a hopeless romantic. Aegis Rim is filled with exquisite personal stories like this, small pockets of human connection in the midst of the apocalypse. Even though the world is poised to end around them, it makes sense that all of these characters would still care for their family and friends, putting their safety above all us out of personal circumstance. I’d do the same, as selfish as it sounds.

What continues to blow me away is how seamlessly interconnected all of these moments are, blending into the events and scenarios of countless characters while making such a feat look easy. You’ll likely need a notebook to keep track of everything, although the game does provide an obscenely detailed glossary with unlockable nuggets of lore and the ability to relive events as they happen, all situated within a branching chart that shows what happened where, when, and how. Even so, it’s still a bit much to take in at first glance.

I could take or leave the combat if I’m honest. It’s a mixture of Advanced Wars and Fire Emblem, with all battles taking place during the final confrontation. You gain more narrative context as the plot advances, slow releasing who our heroes are fighting and why, and when, I suppose. I tuned the difficulty down so I could breeze through battles and experience the story, ensuring that no barriers stood between me and the plot. It’s far more enjoyable this way, with narrative-heavy setpieces that sometimes surface in combat being infinitely better when you aren’t dying over and over to hordes of enemies.

While it might never achieve blockbuster status, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim holds a tale in its compelling centre that far outperforms those that sell millions of copies. It’s undeniably brilliant, and dares to explore storytelling in an unconventional way that I’ve still never seen another game tackle in this way before. I hope whatever VanillaWare makes next is just as ambitious, and attracts a much wider audience -the studio definitely deserves it.

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Jade King is one of the Features Editors for TheGamer. Previously head of gaming content over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.

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