Mecha war

I am currently playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and you know what? It’s so goddamn fun.

The thing that most impresses me about the game is that it does so much with so little. Your dumb AAA game will use a jillion teraflops to simulate the hairs on an NPC’s ass and put in so much work on stuff that doesn’t really add to the gameplay experience. But this game has the opposite philosophy: it pares down everything to the bare bones, which means at the mechanical level it’s actually a very simple game. However, it uses its very spare depiction of its world to make it feel like we’re playing in a much larger universe.

The game is about a group of high school kids who fight an invasion of kaiju by piloting massive human-shaped robots. You play the game in two different modes that you can switch between: a battle mode and a story mode.

Screenshot showing a simplified top-down map of a city with unlabeled icons and various information boxes overlaid on the map. At the top of the screen are six character portraits giving various statistics and in the middle are a list of various weapons: Rapid Cannons, Long-Range Missiles, Heavy Railgun, Stun Knuckles. At the bottom of the screen is a description of the effects and damage output of the Rapid Cannon and on the right of the screen is an illustration of a giant bipedal humanoid robot.

The battle mode is set during the climactic showdown between the kaiju and the robots. You pick six pilots and slowly fight through each phase of the invasion on a real-time strategy map. You can also switch your team’s lineup, upgrade weapons, pick abilities to use, and do general RPG stuff.

This part of the game is decent enough. There are little animations that play when you try to decide what weapons or abilities to use, but as you can see from the image above, the map itself is very simplified. I don’t hate the existing battle mode that we got, and even enjoy the fights, but with the addition of a little more flash, the play experience could have been upgraded for me from “fun” to “ecstatic.”

I want to see mechs wrestling monsters while around them a city gets blasted to smithereens. I want to see my giant robot get knocked through a building and then take cover in a crater formed by a missile bombardment. I want to feel like I’m in a giant robot anime, by damn!

Screenshot showing the hallway of a typical Japanese high school. In the background are two male students carrying some boxes and another male student walking in front of them. At the centre of the screen are three high school girls in uniform, with one wearing glasses and black leggings, and another dressed in a perfect and by the rules uniform. The last girl stands out for wearing a completely different black uniform and standing confidently arms akimbo. Over her is displayed the sentence, "Natsuno Minami's still out, huh?"

But the story mode delivers – oh, how it delivers. It’s what you should be playing the game for. The story mode is essentially a really simplified adventure game. You play through the recent past of each of the characters and discover the twists that their lives took which led to them piloting a giant robot on the day of reckoning.

The actual game thing that you do is essentially just pressing X. Your character is at a certain location and there are one or two people you can talk to and one or two objects that you can interact with. You progress through the dialogue and try out each conversation topic. Then you move on to the next location and keep doing that until you reach the end of the section you’re playing and decide if you want to continue with your current character or try someone else for a while (or maybe jump back into battle mode).

That’s how the story mode works, but that’s not how it feels. It evokes so much for so little. For me, it’s basically the world’s best anime protagonist simulator. I’m not a connoisseur of visual novels or dating simulators, but I’ve played a few, and in none of them did I feel like I was actually a student in a bustling Japanese high school like this game did. You walk down a hallway at school and there are other students passing you by, and in the background some of your classmates are chatting about the TV show they watched last night. You go with your friends for some ice cream after class and cars whiz by as you wait at the bus stop. Some jerks from the next school over try to start some shit and your friend steps in to back you up.

I call the story mode an anime protagonist simulator because it skips the boring parts of high school and just has the interesting bits in there. And what are those interesting bits? They’re mostly stories copied directly from science fiction movies and TV shows.

Yes, you’ll find that one character is living through the plot of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, while another is living through Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and yet another is experiencing the story of Total Recall. It’s not a simple one-to-one copy, though, and the stories make sense even if you don’t know what they’re referencing, but it’s fun to pick out what the original works were. And the characters’ lives are intertwined, so they get involved in each others’ stories, and a couple of times you even experience the same conversation again but this time you’re controlling the other person.

This game will not click for everyone, but it certainly did for me. Like I mentioned, it’s just so goddamn fun. I enjoy identifying the Robot Jox design elements and figuring out how the characters’ lives intersect with each other. I like feeling like I’m a kid in a Japanese high school anime and I’ve got an alien I need to hide from the Men in Black and also I have to stop the invasion from The War of the Worlds.

A couple of warnings, though. First, just like with many other adventure games, I got stuck a couple of times when I couldn’t figure out how to progress past a certain point. I say you shouldn’t feel guilty about just googling that shit. Keep that advice in mind if you play.

Second, and somewhat more egregiously, time travel is a very important part of the story, and since this is a Japanese story about using military weapons to fight off an invasion, there inevitably shows up two characters from Japan’s most infamous period of militarization. I guess the one guy is okay, he clearly doesn’t care about ideology and is just trying to get by, but the other guy is a true-blue patriot and he keeps shouting about defending the motherland and whatnot. Which would be okay if it was about almost any other country, but not when it’s Imperial Japan. The game isn’t a cryptofascist Trojan horse for Japanese imperialism, but this part definitely left a sour taste in my mind.

Anyway, keeping these things in mind, I would still heartily recommend this game. Like I said in the beginning, it’s great fun and I’m enjoying almost everything about it.

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