13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Switch Review
If you've played video games for any length of time, I'm sure you know this feeling I'm about to describe. The accomplished-yet-empty feeling inside when you finish a game that was truly amazing. Perhaps afterward, you find your enthusiasm to play other games has diminished since you doubt that your next game will be able to give you that same feeling. Extra points for those games that gave you a whole new experience that you haven't had yet in your gaming career. For me, that game was 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim when I played it in 2020. It was my personal 2020 Game of the Year, and it is now one of my favourite games of all time. Now in 2022, more gamers will be able to experience this brilliance for the first time as the game makes its way to the Nintendo Switch. The question is, can the Nintendo Switch port hold up to the PS4 version?
The story of 13 Sentinels is impossible to describe without spoiling the experience, so I will do my best to explain it as spoiler-free as possible. You play as 13 characters whose stories are all intertwined, and each of them contributes to the game's overarching plot. The premise of the story is that kaiju have begun attacking their city, and these 13 characters have mechs called Sentinels to help them fight off the invasion. As the player, you have to gather the pieces of the story's background while you pilot the characters in their fight against the alien invaders.
13 Sentinels is an absolute masterpiece of storytelling in video games. After the linear prologue/tutorial is over, players have the choice of deciding how they want to tackle the story. There are three different modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. The Remembrance prologue gives you 7 out of the 13 characters, and you can choose whichever character you want to jump back into. You unlock the other characters by playing through Remembrance. In this way, the way you experience 13 Sentinels will likely be different than how another player experienced it. There is no right or wrong way to progress through the story, and the game will block you from learning some critical information before you have the context for it.
One of the most appealing parts about 13 Sentinels, at least to me, was how it constantly kept me guessing about what was actually happening in the plot. Usually, I can pretty reliably guess where a story will go once I'm about a third of the way, as clues will usually emerge to point to a certain conclusion. However, 13 Sentinels consistently kept my brain coming up with new scenarios and how to incorporate the new information I just received. You could come up with a theory on where the story was going, and the game would give you a new clue 15 minutes later that would completely invalidate your theory. The theory-crafting alone kept me engaged the entire time I was playing.
You may be thinking that if the game's story twists that much, it must be impossible to keep track of. Never fear, that's where Analysis mode comes in. Event Archives tracks all of the scenes that you witness throughout Remembrance mode, and there is also "Mystery Files", a collection of names, key terms, locations, etc. Whenever you uncover something new, Analysis mode will update, and highlight whichever new piece of information you just learned about. In this way, the game will never spoil anything for you ahead of time, and you can keep track of whatever you learned. This mode makes what should be a story that is near impossible to follow, quite easy to keep up with.
What most 13 Sentinels fans might be curious about is how well the Switch handles Destruction mode. Playing Destruction mode on the base PS4, and even the PS4 Pro at times, would cause a serious drop in framerate when the screen started to fill up with enemies. Before this port came out, I was wondering if the Switch would be able to handle some of the more intense battles. The answer Vanillaware gave me was, yes it can. All in all, the Switch version essentially runs the same as it does on the base PS4, and maybe even slightly better. There also didn't appear to be a reduction in the number of enemies during battles either, which would be one way of helping out the Switch's performance. The various kaiju still fill up the screen, and the infamous "Missile Rain" attack can still lag the game slightly, but I am impressed with the Switch's overall performance on this game.
However, what is more worth discussing is how the Switch version makes some changes to combat overall. Destruction mode was often cited as the worst aspect of the game on PS4. Destruction mode in the PS4 version was rather laid-back. Combat wasn't too difficult, even on Intense mode. The famous Sentry Gun strategy was the great equalizer and rarely did any of the levels feel challenging until the last few maps. However, Vanillaware has adjusted 13 Sentinels' combat for the Switch version, as if to answer those complaints about the battles being too easy. Sentry Guns have been greatly nerfed, eliminating one of the foundations of successful battles in the PS4 version. With much less emphasis placed on Sentry Guns, combat is now more well-rounded, and it feels like each character has a much bigger role to play in battle. Intense mode now feels like a legitimate challenge, and it forced me to change up my strategy a lot from when I played on the PS4.
Part of this comes down to a change that was actually advertised before this port was released: the new weapons. Each Sentinel pilot now has two unique skills that they can unlock and use in battle, and that completely changed how I viewed some of their roles. There are four different "generations" of the Sentinels, and they each have their own part of combat that they're good at. First-generations hit hard, but they lack anti-air equipment, second-generations have a wide variety of equipment for different situations, third-generations are best at crowd clearing, and fourth-generations lend support from the sky. In the PS4 version, only about half of the pilots had some kind of unique equipment that they could use that made them different from their counterparts. Now, everyone feels different, and I believe that these changes make up a net positive in terms of engagement from Destruction mode.
While the PS4 version does look slightly better, the Switch version has still maintained that amazing aesthetic from the PS4 version. The lighting in various scenes is still a spectacle. The sun still shines brightly through the windows of the school, illuminating the room with a beautiful golden sheen, and the subtle light changes in darker scenes accentuate the characters. Playing in handheld mode also provided me a chance to look more closely at the character models, and I could more clearly see some of their more subtle facial expressions. I played on the Switch OLED, which may have been a factor in making these scenes stand out more, but it still shows up well on TVs.
To round out the game, 13 Sentinels has a spectacular sound department as well. The themes of 13 Sentinels are varied, but the battles have a particular emphasis on electronic music. Themes like "In the Doldrums" and "Good Times", give off that calming vibe of school life, "Staring into the Void" is a beautiful piano theme that gives more melancholic moments more oomph, and battle themes like "Leucine" and "Deoxyribose" get you pumped up for the fight. I also will be remiss to point out one battle in particular that has you fighting to an idol song like something out of the anime Macross. In addition to this, 13 Sentinels has both an excellent English and Japanese dub. Atlus' localization team has also gone back and fixed a couple of odd and mistranslated lines from the original PS4 version's English dub.
Vanillaware has handled 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim's Switch port with the utmost care and, with some of the changes, may even be better than the PS4 version. While I was hoping that Vanillaware would go back and add in a couple of new scenes that they had previously cut out of the game, I will also happily take the changes to Destruction mode. Now that a Switch version is available, I am hoping more people will get to experience this masterpiece of modern gaming. 13 Sentinels flew under the radar on PS4, so now I'm hoping the spotlight will be on this excellent game after word of mouth has spread. If you love RPGs, have an affinity for excellent stories, are in the mood for some good brain exercise, or just looking for a nice 30-hour experience in gaming, look no further than 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.