13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is arguably the finest narrative experience a 2020 game has to offer. Part visual novel and part real-time strategy game, Vanillaware's ambitious ode to '80s sci-fi is packed with interwoven plot threads, all balanced between the 13 protagonists you'll assume control of throughout this remarkable tale.
That's right, 13 characters, all of whom are pilots of large mechs known as sentinels. These large machines are the key defensive units in a war against giant monsters (kaiju), who seem intent on destroying civilisation as we know it. Through our cast of 13 characters, we play through the story of how, and when, humanity responds to these threats. The 'when' is particularly important, because 13 Sentinels takes place over several centuries, with characters time-travelling between various eras.
Gameplay falls into three categories. 'Remembrance' is essentially the story mode, where you control characters in a side-scrolling layout of the in-game world. You'll investigate areas, examine objects, and interrogate your way through captivating subject matter, with branching outcomes dependent on your actions. Although the story sounds complicated (and is, at times), it never feels overwhelming thanks to the game's way of rewarding your efforts. Each outcome, even if not what you need to progress, feeds your curiosity enough to make you want to dive further into 13 Sentinels.
Each character's story has a completion percentage, letting you know how much you have left to play. As I said before, these individual tales are all linked, and these bonds will dictate how far you can go in each story. At certain points, you'll need to leave one section until you progress another character's arc. This could be frustrating if done poorly, but 13 Sentinels nails this mechanic by making every character as likable and interesting as the last. Every story thread is fascinating so stopping one to play another is never a problem.
The only time this mechanic could be an issue is when a story is blocked by something relating to the 'Analysis' or 'Destruction' modes, as these sections work quite differently. Luckily, in my experience, these moments have been welcome diversions from the story mode, merely adding a welcome shift in gameplay while I digested the interconnecting plots.
The 'Analysis' mode is basically an index mode filled with entries to unlock. This section catalogues in-game characters, events, and anything else of interest. Less a 'play' section than the other two, you'll mainly use this area to satisfy your curiosity between game sessions
The last side of the game is 'Destruction', the real-time strategy element. In this mode, you control a number of the sentinel pilots as they take on the kaiju threat directly. The game plays out on a neon grid with your combatants presented as illuminated moving pieces. With a range of attacks and other tactical options at your disposal, you fight until no enemies remain. This mode is easily the most action-packed part of 13 Sentinels, and feels like a completely different game in its own right.
All-in-all, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a huge game. The interconnecting storylines, wealth of characters and diverse game modes all combine to offer an experience you won't find anywhere else this year. Add to that its sensational narrative and 13 Sentinels rightly earns its place as an unmissable title.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is out now for PlayStation 4. We played the game using code provided by the publisher.