After getting through the prologue of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, I felt pretty overwhelmed. For a three-hour introduction to Vanillaware’s first new title since 2013’s Dragon’s Crown, there’s a lot to take in. But this isn’t a bad thing at all. If anything, the prologue has sent me into overdrive, desperate to know more about the characters, the story, and the setting, and to try and uncover the mysteries of this world. While I’m over halfway through the game. I’m going to give you a taste of it’s like during the extremely intriguing prologue.
Something I want to cover off straight away is what exactly 13 Sentinels is. It’s essentially a visual novel with Tower Defense Real Time Strategy-like combat segments. The split is heavily weighted in the story’s favour, and the prologue swaps between the character sections and the RTS combat to give you a feel for how the game is structured. It’s very different from anything Vanillaware has done before, and the first attempt at a strategy-type game since 2007’s GrimGrimoire.
After a dramatic opening cutscene where a young girl summons a mech (called a Sentinel) in the midst of a burning city and a short combat segment (which I’ll get into later), the prologue shifts perspective to Juro Kurabe, a mild-mannered boy who is a bit of a kaiju-film buff. This starts at the end of a school day, where Juro and his best friend are making after-school plans. Here’s where the game starts teaching you about the visual novel segments, which pivot between relaxing conversations between friends to startling revelations about characters and story events. The key element to these visual novel sections is the Thought Cloud. This is where certain keywords, picked up through conversations with characters, are stored. You can choose to reflect on them to get a bit of backstory on the word, or sometimes use that word as a conversation starter to progress the story.
The prologue gradually cycles through multiple character story prologues, and they do a great job of giving you just enough information on each of the 13 main characters to get you hooked. What becomes quickly apparent, however, is that these stories all start at different times. One character’s prologue may give you a hint towards another new Sentinel pilot, or another may mention something that becomes important in another. Piecing together even these first few hours was really fun, but it can be pretty daunting. There’s a lot of heavy themes in play here, but by the very nature of being a visual novel, it can be played at a pretty slow pace. There are the usual options to slow text speed down, or to turn off auto-advance, and even fast-forward through repeated lines, too. In these opening segments, I certainly loved the balance between the more serious cutscenes and the light-hearted ones where characters get food together or chat with the classmates.
The prologue really wants you to get a feel for each of the characters, and it does a wonderful job of establishing early relationships and teasing what’s to come for all of them. Each of the 13 characters has their own story that ties into a greater narrative, but these opening hours want you to get intimate with the smaller details and to get comfortable with the main cast. Watching their relationships with each other (and the supporting cast) against the backdrop of the grander narrative is what really has me hooked. Juro and his friends excitedly discussing old ’50s and ’70s sci-fi movies feels so warm and authentic, and placing scenes like this next to ones where their world is being burnt down by unknown forces makes them all the more memorable.
Then we get to the other half of the game, which is the combat. Throughout the prologue, your characters are pulled into battle on a grid-based map, piloting their Sentinels. Your goal is to destroy all of the kaiju while defending a specific point on the map and making sure none of your units die. If any of your pilots die, you lose and you have to start the fight again. You can move your Sentinel, attack the enemy, or you can repair your mech by leaving it in a safe space. There are four types of Sentinel, which are shared evenly between the main cast, and each specialises in something. 1st generation units are physical attackers and are more suited to taking out larger kaiju, whereas 4th generation Sentinels can fly across maps and use support skills like shields to help allies.
While the visual novel segments seem to take up roughly 70% of the game, these early, short RTS segments felt like a bit of a distraction from the best parts of the prologue. This may be because most of the early fights are tutorials, and you only ever have three or four characters on the field for each fight. I also don’t think the game does a particularly good job of explaining the various mechanics, such as the different Sentinel generation types, or what certain kaiju are weak to. Many new mechanics, like Meta-Chips and upgrading Sentinels, were also briefly explained but left inaccessible during the prologue.
It’s pretty clear that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a stark departure from Vanillaware’s previous titles, but from the prologue alone, it feels like one of their most ambitious. With 13 stories, focusing on 13 characters, weaving together slowly to create a tangled web, it’s a lot to juggle. Still, the early signs seem promising. These opening three hours feel like small drops in a huge ocean. There’s a lot more to say as the game opens up beyond the prologue, and I’m excited to share my thoughts when we get closer to the game’s launch on September 22nd.
Oh, and there’s plenty of beautiful-looking food. If you’re a Vanillaware fan, you’ll know how important that is. If you’re not, then get ready for a sci-fi story with mouthwatering-looking yakisoba buns and strawberry crepes.