13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a one-of-a-kind game that blends visual novel storytelling with real-time strategy combat. It draws on some heavy inspiration from War of the Worlds. This is most apparent in its storytelling, but the book is touched on all over. Space Invaders is referenced in its combat, which is in itself a War of the Worlds reference, with Space Invaders director Tomohiro Nishikado stating that the fears instilled in him by the book affected his designs in the game. Even the setting is another reference to all this, since a huge chunk of the game is set in a heavily romanticized 1980's Japan – the height of the Space Invaders craze there. But I digress. As deeply and intimately references to and inspirations from fantastic pieces of media can be felt here, that's not what takes center stage in Aegis Rim. Instead, its beautiful visuals, well-written characters and dialogue, excellent sound design, and in-depth real time strategy gameplay all come together to create a wholly unique experience – one that I encourage any curious parties to indulge themselves in.
But before I give Aegis Rim the props it deserves; I have to bash it a bit for something ATLUS titles often fudge: the opening. Its issues primarily stem from placing all of its chips on its weakest links. I was forced to explore the stale self-insert characters before I got to meet the ones with more personality. I had to slog through the doldrums of high school life instead of the more ambitious sci-fi adventure I was promised. In combat, tutorials were heavy-handed and required performing specific actions in specific ways to clear objectives rather than allowing me to learn its mechanics intuitively.
In spite of all this, I was still motivated to push through the lengthy prologue thanks to the stellar aesthetics at play in Aegis Rim. The watercolor style results in vibrant backgrounds in which everything and everyone gently moves and mutters. The character designs for our protagonists are phenomenal – they are reminiscent of anime like Haikyu!! where every character is drawn and written very distinctly while still being visually grounded in realism. While the overall story has some clear cohesive weaknesses (especially at the beginning), character writing and dialogue are always a treat. I never felt the urge to skip through a conversation I hadn't yet seen. The sound design also deserves a mention. In the story mode, Aegis Rim settles for excellently crafted ambient environments that bring its world to life, but in combat, a bombastic variety of energetic EDM tracks steal the show. This game is a constant treat for the eyes, ears, and heart.
Once the training wheels come off and its gameplay opens up, however, Aegis Rim goes from a good game to a great one. In its visual novel sections, branching paths task the player with collecting and utilizing different “keywords” to navigate a single situation in multiple ways. These “keywords” can be obtained by progressing a character through one route, learning some new concept, and then returning to a checkpoint with that foreknowledge to go after a different result. Combat sees a major uptick as battles become much more complex. A higher difficulty setting – one that I was much happier with – becomes an option. An upgrade system, vital to seizing victory, becomes accessible. All thirteen characters are available for deployment in any given battle, but units now become fatigued and must rest between uses. Skill and foresight become necessary in order to win, and for those less competitively inclined, an easy mode is available that will allow players to focus on the story.
From here on, Aegis Rim truly finds its footing in a niche of its own. It's very comfortable in being a bit of a convoluted mess, but once you become invested in the plight of its cast, piecing the elusive plot together in its dedicated “Analysis Mode” becomes half the fun. This game has a unique and distinct aesthetic identity, complimented by fleshed-out combat and fantastic dialogue. If you're a fan of other character driven anime-RPGs like Persona or Danganronpa, I recommend you give 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim a shot at your heart.