To enjoy 13 sentries: Aegis Rim is to embrace confusion. Originally launched on the PS4 in 2020, the game is hard to describe, with gameplay spanning multiple genres and a non-linear storyline that spans everything from time travel to android doppelganger and only gets weirder from there. It asks a lot of players, but the result is one of my favorite sci-fi stories in years – and unsurprisingly, it’s a great fit for the Switch, with a new version for Nintendo’s tablet launching today.
For a more detailed look, here’s my review of when 13 sentries debuted first. But the short version is: the game is a mix of a visual novel and a real-time strategy game, following more than a dozen characters through events spanning several centuries. It’s a story that you like to fool. At first it looks like a simple classic mech vs. Kaiju story, where the RTS portions of the game involve high school students controlling powerful mechs to fight an invading alien force. These sequences are simple yet satisfying as you move characters across a grid to destroy devious creatures over and over, unlocking new abilities along the way.
Usually though 13 sentries is a visual novel that follows the stories of a dozen Japanese high school students in a handful of different eras, starting in the 1980s. These play out like side-scrolling vignettes, where you can explore a bit, but mostly read/listen to dialogue. It certainly requires some patience. However, what is most interesting about the story is the structure. At almost any time, you can choose from a handful of stories from different characters, so you can follow the path that seems most interesting to you. The non-linearity made me feel more involved in the story, as if I was investigating various clues to figure out what the hell was going on. 13 sentries also introduces a fascinating feature called a thought cloud, which basically resembles a video game inventory except ideas, giving conversations a dynamic feel.
13 sentries also does an incredible job of revealing itself slowly. Though at first it looks like that Kaiju invasion story, with a little bit of teen drama thrown in, eventually becomes a sprawling, complex tale about, among other things, the future of the entire human race. I won’t spoil any of the big reveals, but it probably took me 10 hours to have any idea what the game was really about. The way it sets out strange and interesting narrative breadcrumbs helped me through that early feeling of being completely lost.
This was all true in the past, of course, but that structure of bite-sized episodes also makes 13 sentries an ideal Switch game. I’ve replayed the first few hours so far, and most of the time I’ve spent in bed, swallowing a few more episodes before going to sleep. Each episode also lasts maybe 20 to 30 minutes, making it easy to play in short bursts. It’s a lot like reading a good book – there’s only one in which you have to pause every few chapters to play a quick game of chess. The game is otherwise identical on the Switch, but the portability is ideal for the game, making it easier to choose between enjoying the story or binging.
This means that 13 sentries still has some of its rough edges on the Switch. As fascinating as the story can be, it is incredibly demanding; you really have to believe that those hours and hours of total confusion will pay off. And while the game has beautiful 2D visuals – something developer Vanillaware is known for – it has some, shall we say, questionable character designs that can sour the experience.
But if you can see past that, it’s worth pushing through that initial sense of bewilderment. Because while confusion can often be a bad thing, here it makes putting the story together all the more satisfying. 13 sentries crams so many high-level concepts into one experience – including, among many others, Groundhog Day—like repetition, time-traveling robots, and a talking cat with a magic gun — but somehow in a way that eventually makes sense. And now you can solve the mystery just about anywhere.
13 sentries: Aegis Rim is now available on Nintendo Switch and PS4.