Wow, what a ride 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is. Vanillaware — the talented Japanese developer behind impressive action games like Dragon's Crown Pro and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir — is back, and it's trying something totally new with its latest release. 13 Sentinels is primarily a visual novel with some very light puzzle solving, topped off with addictive strategy-based battles. At its best, it's a captivating, mind-expanding experience.

13 Sentinels tells the story of 13 teenagers who end up having to defend humanity from an all-conquering army of giant monsters. Naturally, each highschooler pilots their own Sentinel — hulking robots capable of going toe-to-toe with mankind's mysterious enemy. At a glance it's a very anime storyline, but that brief synopsis doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what 13 Sentinels is all about.

We can't (and won't) spoil anything in this review, but trust us when we say that 13 Sentinels goes above and beyond everything that you'd expect. The story itself is told in non-linear fashion, as you jump between the 13 protagonists and gradually uncover the huge, tangled web that connects them.

Having to keep track of 13 main characters may sound like a headache, but the game does a phenomenal job of developing its cast over the course of its 30 hour runtime. Snappy, well written dialogue keeps things moving, and it feels like every scenario ends in at least one brain-bending revelation. 13 Sentinels features an almost absurd amount of twists, but the fact that the game is able to keep you invested is testament to how endearing its characters are, and how well told its story is.

Again, this is a wild ride, but despite the overall complexity of the title's narrative, it's rarely overwhelming. Sure, there are times when an exposition dump will leave you scratching your head, but when context does eventually arrive — perhaps as part of another character's tale — everything clicks into place. In short, the story of 13 Sentinels is masterfully worked.

That said, we do think the game loses a bit of its edge later on. Without going into any detail, the plot does start to get a little predictable, and just kind of eases towards a conclusion with no real momentum. Don't get us wrong, it's still enjoyable, and by this point you're already entrenched in the game's world, but it it does feel like 13 Sentinels unleashes its best moments long before the credits roll.

As for the gameplay that surrounds this twisting and turning narrative, there's not a lot that you have to concern yourself with outside of the previously mentioned strategy battles — but more on those later. In true Vanillaware style, the game is made up of beautifully drawn 2D environments. Each chapter of a character's story takes place within a set number of these environments, and while you are free to wander around, there's no real exploration — you're simply tasked with walking from one conversation to the next.

There is some puzzle solving here and there, but it's very basic. For example, you may have to interact with certain objects in a certain order, or you might need to visit a particular area before you can enter another. Characters are also able to pick up on keywords in conversations, which can then be used to unlock different paths in their story. But again, the implementation is basic — it's always obvious as to which keywords need to be used and when.

What's more, there are branching paths in each character's tale, but you always end up going the right way eventually. There are no alternate endings to be found here, but that's just the kind of story that 13 Sentinels wants to tell. And honestly, it works. A lot of visual novels have a problem with being too drawn out, but 13 Sentinels never outstays its welcome, despite its length. You can jump in for ten minutes at a time and experience the game in episodic chunks, or you can sit down for a mammoth five hour session. Instant load times and the ability to save anytime, anywhere help make it a very accommodating release.

But we know what some of you may be thinking. You want to know whether the combat system gets in the way of this fantastic visual novel experience. Don't worry — we wondered the exact same thing. When we first saw the tactical battles on display during Japanese livestreams, we didn't have a clue what was going on. But thankfully, having played through the whole game ourselves, we can say with confidence that the monster-mashing battles are actually a highlight.

Battles take place separate from the individual character stories, but they still need to be completed in order to progress through the game. They're difficult to describe, but they feel great to play thanks to satisfying visual effects and an excellent user interface. The gist of it is that each map has a 'terminal', which must be defended at all costs. Monsters will swarm the terminal from multiple directions, and you'll need to make use of your squad's various abilities in an attempt to eliminate the enemy.

Combat plays out in real time on a top-down map, but the action pauses whenever you're commanding one of your characters. You can move them around the map, or activate special attacks, which are determined by the type of Sentinel that they pilot. Some are best suited to long range combat, while others will need to get up close and personal with the invaders.

Screenshots and videos make this combat system seem more complicated than it actually is. The game's prologue does a great job of easing you into the way things work over the course of several tutorial missions, and different enemy types are introduced at a very manageable pace. Later on, you're able to upgrade your mechs, and your pilots learn powerful new skills as they gain experience. It all gets rather addictive, and battles soon provide a welcome change of pace from the engrossing story.

It's also worth noting that 13 Sentinels offers up a range of difficulty options — the easiest of which makes combat far less demanding. If you just want to focus on the plot, casual mode is the way to go, while hard mode will put your knowledge of enemy units and on-the-fly tactical adjustments to the test. Your difficulty settings don't impact the story, and there are no Trophies tied to them.

We've always been huge fans of Vanillaware's visual style, and it's safe to say that 13 Sentinels is another gorgeous game. The character designs, the animation, the colours — it's a pleasure to behold. Even the user interface — as mentioned earlier — is immaculate. Everything's just so neat and polished, slick and stylish, elevating an already engrossing experience.

Conclusion

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a phenomenal visual novel — and a surprisingly great strategy game. In trying something different, Vanillaware has crafted one of its best games yet. It's got an engrossing story that's absolutely packed with mind-blowing twists and endearing characters, all wrapped up in a gorgeous visual style. Don't sleep on 13 Sentinels — it's one of 2020's finest.