13 Sentinels First Impressions; or, “Mom, Ian is Playing a Time Traveling Mech Pilot Game Again!”

A few years ago I got pretty obsessed with Into the Breach, a game about time traveling mech pilots. I didn’t pick up 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim on purpose knowing that was the premise of this game as well. In fact, I didn’t know anything about 13 Sentinels outside of the fact that it was apparently very good. But having now played through the game for a solid three hours – in which I finished seven character prologues and all seven waves of the tutorial battle – I can speak a bit about the basics of what in the world is going on with this game. Buckle up adventurers, this one is going to be a doozy.

13 Sentinels has two modes of gameplay: remembrance and destruction. In remembrance mode, you select a character to follow and then play through a series of scenes to learn more about their story. In destruction mode, you take control of your mechs to battle it out with enemies called kaiju. While you can essentially choose between these two modes of play at will once you get past the prologue, the first few hours of the game are focused on introducing these modes in a scripted order. That’s the experience that my first impressions will be based on, the portion of the game before it opens up and the player can follow a path of their own making.

Remembrance mode takes place in a 2D sidescrolling view where you control a single character. You primarily move left and right although in some areas you’ll have a tiny bit of wiggle room to go towards or away from the camera. When you are near a person or object you can interact with, pressing the interact button will initiate dialogue. These conversations move the story forward and provide key words for your thought cloud, essentially the inventory system for the game. Terms in your thought cloud can be considered to provide more information or shared with others during conversation in order to unlock new dialogue. This is how you complete remembrance sections: find who to talk to and use the thoughts you’re learning along the way to keep the conversation going and move the story along.

Because the gameplay in the remembrance section is pretty light, this is where the graphics and audio work together to keep the experience engaging. The art in 13 Sentinels has a hand drawn sort of quality to it that feels like you are playing an anime. It’s lovely but shallow – objects in the environment or background characters lurking around are not interactable and your character just kind of phases through stuff to move around. These gameplay segments aren’t about action so collision with, say, the desks in your classroom just doesn’t seem to be something that was considered important. Personally it doesn’t bother me too much and I think the quality of the art style is helpful in getting invested into the remembrance scenes.

More effective, though, are the voice performances. You can play 13 Sentinels in either English or Japanese and get the voice experience of your preference. I went with English and was pleased to hear lots of familiar voices in the cast. Allegra Clark, Chris Hackney, Erica Mendez, and more that I recognized as well – these are experienced performers with solid records in the world of anime and gaming. Their lines are well delivered and you are given a lot of control as to how you want to experience them, with options available for adjusting whether or not the lines autoplay and the spacing between lines when autoplay is enabled. Being able to choose between subs or dubs as well as adjusting how the dialogue is delivered ensures that you’re getting just the right audio experience for you when playing through the remembrance chapters.

Now during the tutorial portion of the game, each character prologue is immediately followed by a wave of battle in destruction mode. These waves slowly teach you the basics of how battle functions, expanding the tools available to you until you hopefully understand what’s going on in the game’s combat system. The way they slowly break it up over time is valuable because even for a tactics game veteran like myself, the mechanics of destruction mode can seem a bit obtuse until you get a few waves under your belt.

The combat in 13 Sentinels is a blend of sorts between RTS and turn-based tactics. Your characters are represented by small glowing icons on a 3D map grid, with their character portraits clarifying which small glowing icon is which character. Enemies are red glowing icons accompanied by the occasional big purple icon. If the art style in remembrance mode is beauty at the price of function, destruction mode is all function with almost no beauty to be seen. Outside of the character portraits and short video clips of what a mech’s attack theoretically looks like when selecting from your moves, destruction mode just tells you what you need to know in the form of attack radiuses and street maps and damage numbers with very little to please the eyes otherwise.

Your mechs – called sentinels – have a bar that loads up over time similar to the ATB bars in Final Fantasy games. When a character’s turn comes up, you can move your cursor to them and select them or cycle through characters with actions ready with the directional buttons (this is probably a good time to mention I am playing on PS4). While ATB bars are loading, time is passing – enemy units move along the map, prepare their own attacks, and reposition in real time. But while you have a menu open selecting what actions you want to take, time stops so you can focus on tactical decision making. Once you input your commands, time will resume until you need to select actions for your next character.

When your sentinel’s bar fills up and they can take their turn, you have a couple of different options available to you. You can move the sentinel to a new position on the battlefield, which resumes time while they are moving once you’ve selected their final destination. However, moving can be interrupted to make an attack if changes to the enemy position inspire you to change your tactics. Sentinels can also take an action which typically involves using one of three different weapon systems equipped to the mech. Some mechs have defensive or utility options in some of their weapon slots, of course – something like placing a turret or mine, or putting a shield around an ally. But for the most part your tools are weapons that have different ranges and effectiveness against different enemy types.

Your objective in combat is generally to hold off enemy forces from a key point on the map until the aegis goes off. This is essentially an EMP barrier that zaps all the bad guys and brings an end to the fight. Sometimes you’ll instead be expected to defeat all the enemy units on the map. As you defeat enemies, you recover the energy required to fire your more specialized weapons as well as collecting resources you can use for big one-off attacks that blast a lot of enemies at once in a manner similar to the aegis.

There’s a lot to juggle in these battles in terms of concepts to learn. Enemies can be grounded or airborne which means different weapons may be more or less effective – you can’t punch a flying kaiju, for example. Punches are useful however for large, heavily armored enemies. Sentinels that move on the ground will have to follow the layout of he streets on the map while flying sentinels can soar over them. Your special weapons tend to have larger attack radiuses or deal specialized damage, but each sentinel has limited energy stores so you have to make sure to save your big guns for when you really need them. So you’re thinking about the optimum moves for multiple sentinels with different specializations against varied enemy types all during momentary pauses in a fight that is otherwise moving in real time – it’s a lot. Luckily once you finish the tutorial, you unlock the ability to adjust the difficulty of destruction mode to suit your preferences.

So far I’d say 13 Sentinels has managed to pique my interest. The relationships between the characters and the questions surrounding what exactly is happening to them is a compelling enough mystery to keep me engaged in remembrance mode. And while destruction mode’s combat is a bit of a different flavor than I am normally looking for when it comes to strategy, I’m excited to see what tools exist for customizing the sentinels and mastering the unique style of each one in battle. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how the game evolves now that I have reached the portion where I can follow the characters that I am most interested in as well as engaging in battles at times of my choosing. I’m sure there will be plenty more to write about with regards to this game, so I hope to share more thoughts about my 13 Sentinels experience before too long!

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