13 Sentinels Is Damn Good When the Training Wheels Come Off

Last week I wrote about my first impressions of 13 Sentinels. I covered the basic mechanics of combat and how the story segments work and described how the game guides your hand through the first few hours. What character you will be is decided for you and the battles are short and simple, mainly intended to familiarize you with a specific game mechanic. When the final wave of the tutorial battle is completed, the game opens up and you can explore the three modes of 13 Sentinels with a lot more flexibility. At the time, I expressed that my hope was that 13 Sentinels would have a lot to offer once it opened up more. I can now say with confidence that the game rose to match those hopes!

Here’s a quick refresher. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is about a group of Japanese high schoolers who are also pilots for giant mechs called Sentinels. They use these mechs to battle kaiju that are trying to tear their city apart by invading special terminals at a variety of locations. The game takes place across three modes (only two of which made an appearance in my first impressions): remembrance, destruction, and analysis. In remembrance, you choose one of the cast members to follow through their personal story and learn about the events of the game. In destruction, you execute the battles against the kaiju. And in analysis, you can review and unlock information you learn in the other two modes, finding revelations in the lore of the story as well as seeing the sequential timeline of when the various events took place.

Structurally, each mode influences the others in a couple of key ways. Certain battles in destruction mode are locked behind remembrance, either completing specific events or having a certain amount of cumulative progress. In the same way, events in remembrance can be locked behind completing specific battles in destruction. This cycle keeps you moving back and forth between the two. It’s a smart move because 13 Sentinels is best, in my opinion, when you are sprinkling some story between sections of combat, or breaking up long consecutive story explorations with a bit of kaiju-bashing. You are further incentivized to do this because in remembrance mode, you get meta-chips (the game’s currency) essentially for free, allowing you to improve your characters without having to grind completed missions in destruction mode.

From the mode select screen, you can see how much progress you have made in each one.

Remembrance events can also be locked behind opening a certain number of secret files in analysis, a task that can only be accomplished with mystery points you earn by winning battles in destruction. In this way, each mode pushes you into the others and encourages you to experience everything the game has to offer. Personally I love when games are structured in this way; other examples I’ve played include titles like Fire Emblem Three Houses or Persona 4 and 5. The time you spend getting to know your characters gets you excited for your next battle, and after battle you have reason to go back and revisit the social/narrative elements again. Because of this cycle, I rarely get tired of playing 13 Sentinels and find myself thinking about it when I am busy. I am always looking forward to what I’ll unlock next, always eager for when the mode I am currently playing will organically move me into one of the others.

When the game’s structure opens up, the gameplay does as well. Your experience becomes more customizable in a number of ways depending on the mode you’re playing. Let’s start with remembrance. By the end of the tutorial you’ll have about seven or eight characters unlocked with their prologues completed. The prologue for each character is very linear. Progress through some story scenes to learn what is going on with the character and maybe learn some terms that will turn into mystery files in the analysis mode. The tutorial also defines which character you’ll play as, meaning that you have to see the events that play out in a specific order. Remembrance becomes more complex in two key ways: you have your choice of character order, and each character’s story has multiple branches to explore.

Character order matters because it allows you to learn more about the cast members who most grab your attention at any given time. For example, when I first started I really wanted to learn about Ei Sekigahara, a young man whose prologue finds him waking up in an alleyway next to the body of a dead woman. Did he kill her? Who was she? Why are men in suits chasing after him? I wanted to see more of that story, but I could have instead focused first on Natsuno Minami, a track team member who finds what she believes to be an alien in the locker room. Now as the game goes on you do find specific situations in which you cannot progress a character until you progress as someone else, and there are entire characters locked behind getting to know a different member of the cast. But the order you do these events in can really change your perceptions of what might be going on in the narrative, influencing your theories and inspiring you to get interested in someone who maybe seemed boring to you previously.

Flowcharts can include hints about how to unlock new branches and even show if you are missing necessary keywords.

Once you get into a character’s story, there are branching paths to explore that are key to helping you understand who they are and what they have been through. Depending on the choices you make, you’ll learn different information, and that new information can be key to finding a new branch to explore. I’ll use Juro Kurabe’s story as an example (I won’t spoil any details). Juro’s story starts at the end of a normal school day. He and his buddy are going to go hang with their friend Shu Amiguchi, but they have to look around for him. Now you can start by choosing places in the school building to look around, and one of those locations is the cafeteria. At the cafeteria I didn’t find Shu, but I did learn about a situation taking place at Juro’s home that he wants to keep secret. By learning this information before finding Shu, when I did find him I had access to a new branch because of details I learned in a previous story segment. If you’ve ever played a Zero Escape game or AI: The Somnium Files, you’ll probably be familiar with this flowchart structure. Following one branch to its conclusion unlocks other branches and you progress through the story in non-chronological order, gaining new information to form a complete picture all the while.

Remembrance isn’t the only mode that grows in complexity once the game opens up. In the destruction battles during the tutorial, you always play as a handful of predetermined characters with a very focused objective. When the game sets you free, your options grow significantly. 13 Sentinels is so named because you have 13 different sentinels to choose from when entering a battle. Your strike teams in battle – the sentinels you’ll actually control and maneuver – can be no larger than six, so for any given wave of the conflict you’ll have to choose which six units to bring along. This can be influenced in a number of ways. Each sentinel belongs to one of four generations, each of which has a different combat specialty. Depending on the enemy units on the field, you’ll potentially want to prioritize a specific generation of sentinel. Battles also have bonus objectives that give you an extra file for analysis mode if met, and those objectives may include fielding only sentinels of specific generations or may require you to bring a specific pilot along. Finally, there’s the risk of brain overload; each consecutive wave wears down on a pilot until they can no longer participate, having to sit out one round. Juggling pilots between waves helps to put this off, allowing units to rest so you can make sure they are still available if they are needed on the next map.

Your sentinel generations are important for more than just meeting bonus objectives. Different sentinels are more effective against specific enemy types. First gen sentinels for example have big punching attacks that are great for high HP enemies or heavily armored ones, but they can’t touch airborne foes. For those you probably want third gen sentinels, who specialize in long ranged attacks. As destruction mode goes on these enemy types get more complex. What if an enemy is both flying AND armored? What if there’s one that makes a shield? What if another kaiju explodes when you get too close to it? The increasing complexity of enemy unit types challenges you to think a bit harder about how to use your sentinel’s to their greatest effect, and over time you learn combos to make your matches as efficient as possible. Using an EMP to bring armored carriers to the ground so you can punch them to oblivion with your gen one sentinel feels satisfying to pull off.

From here you can see a broad overview of your units including which ones are currently on the strike team as well as any bonus objectives for the mission.

Within generations, sentinels perform differently thanks to the skills of their pilots and thanks to customizations you can make with your meta-chips. A mech battle game where you cannot customize the mechs has totally missed the point, and thankfully 13 Sentinels offers plenty of options on this front. Each pilot has a specialization within the broader theme of their generation. For example, while all second generation sentinels get support units they can summon onto the field, Iori Fuyusaka has the largest variety of these units available, able to make weapons, decoys, shields, or healers. Among the fourth gen pilots, Megumi has the most support abilities while Yuki is more offensive and has a specialization in close combat. You can also invest your currency directly into stats at a certain point in time, buffing your health, energy, damage, or mobility rather than unlocking new tools. This makes combat deeply customizable and over time I’ve found my preferences in terms of what upgrade types I think are the most effective to prioritize.

If you find yourself worrying that all of these details about destruction mode may make it too complicated, there are a few different factors that may alleviate your concerns. For one, it’s up to you how many optional objectives you want to complete. Does the idea of playing a boss battle with only 4 sentinels instead of 6 freak you out? Then forget about getting the mystery folder with more info about uh *checks notes* soft serve ice cream and just do the battle normally with six characters. Sure you unlock extra mystery files at S rank but if getting that rank doesn’t come naturally to you and grinding for it isn’t fun, then don’t do that either. And at any time, you can change the difficulty setting you are playing, so if you’ve discovered you were a bit overzealous in the beginning, there is no penalty for reducing the challenge level. In my case, I am playing on normal mode and I have only had one battle where I didn’t get S rank with the bonus objectives on the first try (I’ve got a completion percent of about 65% on destruction mode at the time of writing). I don’t find 13 Sentinels to be particularly hard, and a lot of the decisions I have described are fun to make but aren’t necessarily game-breaking. But if you have a harder time with tactics games or really just want to emphasize the story, set it to easy and focus on the critical path rather than trying to unlock every single reward for analysis mode.

I’m having a wonderful time with 13 Sentinels. Customizing the mechs and seeing my choices in characters and weapons lead to well-executed battles is a satisfying experience. And exploring all of the branches in remembrance, theorizing about what different revelations mean and digging into the analysis mode lore, always has me eager to jump back in. I’m thinking about 13 Sentinels all the time right now, eager to play more and follow the natural flow from story to battle to lore to story and so on. As a fan of tactics games as well as visual novel mystery titles, this game lands at an excellent cross-section of my interests that feels unique compared to my experiences with other titles. If you read my first article and the structure of the tutorial gave you pause, I am happy to report that once the game is confident you know what you are doing and gives you the reins, it truly begins to excel.

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