Like it was meant for the Switch.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game that defies explanation. With thirteen lengthy story arcs that can be viewed in any order, two drastically different modes of gameplay that you’re meant to go back and forth between frequently, and a plot so complex and mind-bending that there is an interactive in-game wiki just to help you keep track of it, there’s an awful lot to unpack with this game. It should be confusing and impenetrable, but what’s impressive is how compelling it manages to be despite this. An incredible amount of care and deliberation was put into how the game shows its hand to the player, turning what should be a confusing and impenetrable mess into a game that’s not quite like anything I’ve ever played before.
The game features two main modes of play: Destruction—a real-time strategy game where you use giant robots to defend Tokyo from alien invaders—and Remembrance—a narrative visual novel with gorgeous art where you swap between protagonists to unravel the mystery of what exactly is going on in the game’s world. 13 Sentinels’ story unfolds across both game modes, which you can choose to play interchangeably at your own pace, though the bulk of your time will be spent in Remembrance as you sit back and watch the plot unfold. Each of the thirteen protagonists’ story arcs is split up into distinct scenes that send you back to the character select screen when you complete them, and there’s never an obvious choice for what you’re meant to do at any given moment.
Although some stories will occasionally be locked until you complete a specific scene or objective, you are completely in control of what order the events of the story unfold in. There are no branching paths; the story is finite and set in stone, but the sheer amount of freedom you have in choosing which part of the game you want to play means that no two players will witness events play out the same way. A scene that was a big plot twist for me may end up being a follow-up on something another player already found out hours beforehand, and I may pick up on subtle plot details in a scene that they didn’t have the context to fully understand.
The in-game wiki—which is humorously presented as a third main game mode called Analysis Mode—is instrumental in this presentation. Not only is it incredibly detailed and useful in keeping track of the countless plot threads that weave in and out of each other, but it can also be a source of shocking reveals in itself. There was more than one time that I would check where a scene occurred on the timeline in the event log only to be shocked when its placement revealed a new plot twist to me.
Because of this it is incredibly difficult to describe this game’s plot without some amount of spoilers, and many fans would recommend you go in knowing absolutely nothing. I am going to do my best to summarize it while revealing as little as possible, but if you’d like to play it safe you can scroll down to the picture of a cat to skip this section.
13 Sentinels’ story takes place across different eras, ranging from the final days of World War II to the distant future of 2104. Each era is besieged by the Deimos; mechanical kaiju who appear to be traveling through time to wipe out humanity in both the past and present. The only hope against them are massive robots called Sentinels which must be piloted by compatible teenagers from across the ages. Although the Sentinels can travel through time, there are a fixed number of time periods that they can access, and humanity now makes its final stand in 1985, the only era that has yet to be destroyed by the Deimos.
And that is just what you learn in the game’s prologue.
The final battle of 1985 is the setting of Destruction Mode, which occurs in chronological order (relative to itself), but Remembrance mode is set almost entirely before that battle as the thirteen pilots discover the truth of what is about to happen and prepare themselves to fight for their survival. At the start of their story arcs most of the protagonists are not even aware that the Deimos or Sentinels exist, and a lot of them have their own problems to worry about. The cast includes a supernatural fanatic making first contact with what she believes to be an alien, a World War II soldier displaced from his own time, a group of kids sharing the same dreams of an alternate life, and an amnesiac boy who wakes up with a gun in his hand and a corpse at his feet.
To say that these details are just the beginning is an understatement, and watching the truth unfold over the course of all thirteen story arcs is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever been on. Admittedly not every scene is a winner, and some of the plot threads have unsatisfying—and occasionally contrived—resolutions, but 13 Sentinels hits more than it misses, and it is truly incredible to watch the writers swing for the fences non-stop to the very end of the game.
Though the narrative structure of Remembrance Mode is impressive and compelling, the strategy gameplay of Destruction Mode is fairly standard. Battles play out in real time with the action pausing when your units are ready to act. The playable Sentinels come in four generations, each with its own abilities and role in the fight. Combat is hectic as you’ll often be hilariously outnumbered by swarms of enemy units that can easily overwhelm you. Missiles can be shot down in the air and direct attacks can be avoided as on-screen indicators let you know when you’re in danger, but the trade-off is that if you’re caught off guard you’ll get hit hard.
The downside of Destruction Mode is that characters tend to blend together as the Sentinels in each generation share the same pool of abilities, making the choice of which units to use relatively arbitrary. The game attempts to mitigate this with a system called Brain Overload where characters will be forced to rest and become unselectable every few battles, but this is very easy to get around since there’s nothing stopping you from replaying previous, easier fights in order to get your units back on the field. Because of this, the time spent in between fights upgrading units and organizing my team was more tedious than engaging.
Destruction Mode also suffers from a simple lack of focus in comparison to Remembrance. Destruction is a much smaller percentage of the game’s runtime, and at times I went multiple real life days of regular play without touching Destruction once. This was partially due to the fact that Destruction also locks itself several times until you reach certain points in the story, and actively playing battles one after another will have you run up against those locks very quickly. Every time I finally revisited Destruction, I’d have to spend some time remembering what all my units’ builds were because I simply hadn’t played it in so long. There isn’t a whole lot that incentivizes you to switch between Destruction and Remembrance at a regular pace, so unless you’re making an active effort to keep them balanced throughout the game, it’ll often end up feeling like you have to stop playing your visual novel every now and then to play Starcraft for a couple of hours.
The Switch version of 13 Sentinels marks the first time it’s been available on anything other than PlayStation 4, and there was a lot of concern about how well the game would run on a handheld system since the later battles in the game famously had performance issues even on PS4. I was worried that if more powerful hardware had trouble at times, then the less-powerful Switch would struggle just to run the game at all. Thankfully that is not the case, and the Switch version is a comparable experience to the original PS4 release. There are still noticeable drops in framerate during hectic stages and even Remembrance Mode occasionally has some slowdown, but the majority of the game runs at a smooth and stable 60fps.
I first played 13 Sentinels on PS5 after the Switch version was announced because I feared that the Switch would be the inferior way to play it, and my time with this port has left me feeling like I made the wrong decision. 13 Sentinels fits on Switch so well that it feels like it was made for handheld systems—which, in fairness, it kind of was. A Vita version was originally planned before the game was delayed so much that the idea of releasing a new game on Sony’s dying handheld was laughable. Because of that, this version feels like 13 Sentinels is finally where it was meant to be all along. This game is wild and weird in all the best ways, and there has never been a better time to play it than right now.