13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim writes a lot of checks I’m afraid for it to cash. I’m still a long, long way from completing the game — a half visual novel, half real-time strategy hybrid — having only seen the first few chapters from most of the game’s baker’s dozen of protagonists. But it’s an intriguing setup that plays with a lot of fire, to say the least. At the focal point of that conflict, as it so often is in life, is a gigantic pair of breasts.
Developed by Vanillaware, makers of the infamously cornball beat ’em Dragon’s Crown, the game is a time traveling mystery wherein teenagers battle kaiju using giant robots, called Sentinels. Of course it’s not that simple. And after just five or six hours, I think I already see where the multifaceted mystery is heading. What makes that difficult is the “Remembrance” portion of 13 Sentinels. Wherein you play a visual novel — done up in gorgeous, painterly Vanillaware style. The story is chopped into multiple character perspectives, across various decades. Each storyline features multiple chapters. And many chapters have alternate routes depending on your actions. To see everything, you need to replay each section multiple times, using a handy flowchart to keep track.
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It’s a lot like the Zero Escape trilogy (999, Virtue’s Last Reward, and Zero Time Dilemma). If you ever played that very meta mystery series you know nothing is as it seems. I certainly have. Which maybe undercuts some of the surprise. I can already see the seams where the big twists fit. That’s not to say I’m not excited to puzzle them out for myself, though.
I’m actually really enjoying the disparate tales overall. Each one feels like a slightly different genre set in the same world. One starring a high school track star in 1985, Natsuno, feels plucked right of E.T. Another is a fish out of water plot with a WWII soldier stranded in the future. The first character you play as, Juro, brings a classical super sentai vibe. Everyone has something going on; they all feel unique.
Some friction occurs when the game dips into more realistic topics. One character you encounter in the prologue, the designer of the Sentinels in fact, appears to be genderqueer. They go by both he/him and she/her as the mood strikes them. This causes some confusion for one of the WWII troopers. He’s attracted to the designer when they present one way, but his 1945 values don’t prepare him to deal with his feelings once he learns more about them.
My initial reaction to Okino (the character in question) was mixed. As a gender nonbinary person myself, I’m usually happy to see more characters similar to me in media. But I quickly learned Okino isn’t one of the 13 playable perspectives. Their introduction isn’t handled poorly, per se. but they also don’t get a spotlight in a game with room for more than a dozen anime archetypes. At the same time, 13 Sentinels was published by Sega. And the localization does a good job of making Okino feel cool and in charge. Their actions drive much of the story forward. Their gender identity isn’t their defining factor — whether that’s the case in the original Japanese or not.
I go back and forth on the game’s subtlety and deftness as I play it. Early on two other male characters very much appear to profess their love to one another. A girl overhears them, assumes the same, but wouldn’t you know it! It’s all just a big misunderstanding… Here being queer is a punchline. Even if the characters themselves profess support for it.
The real red flag for the game’s lack of nuance is even earlier. And it’s one Vanillaware fans ought to be familiar with. One of the game’s only central, adult women is a school nurse. Except she’s got huge boobs. I mean some serious honkers. A real set of badonkers. She bounces across the screen on jiggle physics and pubescent dreams, arms permanently folded to prop up her cleavage, like a slightly more clothed version of the Sorceress from Dragon’s Crown. It’s a small detail (well, no, they’re enormous) but it’s the perfect centerpiece for why I don’t always trust 13 Sentinels has the best of intentions. At the very least, it makes it hard to take seriously.
But… sure. It’s cheesy. At least it’s consistent with a lot of 13 Sentinels‘ anime tropes. Other games show you can do sexy in a variety of more interesting ways. This one just chooses the most boring. I can accept that. I’m less forgiving of the way the game leers at its teenaged characters.
13 Sentinels literally opens with one of the female leads lifting her skirt to summon her mech. Later the camera zooms in luridly on the track star while she takes of her shirt. Once they’re in the titular Sentinels during combat, both male and female characters’ clothes disappear completely, but most of the girls are stretched into exaggerated poses to show off more skin. The big boobs were really just warning lights. Caution: corny ahead.
It all just distracts from an intricate, intriguing, and at times breathtakingly beautiful little mystery. An 80-foot robot materializing in a rainstorm to land, bulk half-submerged in the muck of a foggy pond, is a much more striking visual than the kind of low-impact horny I get anywhere.
That’s when 13 Sentinels puts its high level of production (for a visual novel) to better use. It does “spectacle” in a way the Zero Escape series never could. And the strategy fights, while hardly the star of the show, at least break up the pace. It’s a shame Vanillaware thought it needed to jangle keys in front of my face like a distracted dog to keep my attention. The game works much better when I can focus on why I’m really here.