Building Cities That Span Generations

Welcome to Save State, where time is limited, but we spend it playing video games. While on the GIN Lounge podcast, I mentioned to a buddy of mine that I bought 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim for the PS4 when it released, and had just enough time after work that day to play for maybe an hour or so. Popped the disc in and… the game had to install, so I let it do so and went to bed, instead. The next time I attempted to play, there was an update that seemingly took 462 years to copy, so I wound up not playing then either. It may seem weird, but being an adult with a busy schedule, I wound up shelving the game for months before finally coming back to it. After playing the game over the course of two weeks, I wound up coming to one conclusion: Waiting this long was a complete mistake, backlog be damned.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a truly interesting game. It has gorgeous visuals, which are to be expected from a Vanillaware title, and lures you into a dark apartment in the middle of the night with its beautiful artwork. What you don’t realize until the door closes behind you, however, is that you’re about to lose 25-30 hours of your life on a game that mixes ideological conflict, sci-fi themes like aliens, time travel, and kaiju (giant monsters), and nonlinear storytelling in an incredible way that most have not experienced yet. 13 Sentinels is a time travel story that references many other media

The gameplay in 13 Sentinels is split across two completely separate modes: Remembrance is the story campaign mode, where you’ll view the lives of the 13 protagonists across all of their branching routes, playing very similarly to your average visual novel, and learning new information will make new routes in the stories possible. In the Destruction mode, however, you’ll control the 13 characters in their giant Sentinel mecha suits, and fight against invading kaiju during some unspecified point in time in the future. While Destruction does have some character interactions at the start and end of each mission, the lion’s share of story context is delivered in the Remembrance mode, in which you play the stories of 13 teenagers who are living their school lives while weird incidences occur to them. There’s also a glossary mode called Analysis that will explain different characters and terms in exchange for Mystery Points you will acquire by playing the other two modes, and it will also let you playback events of the game in chronological order, which I found fantastic for retreading story details after finishing the game.

The first 8-10 hours of Remembrance in 13 Sentinels is where the game is trying to grip you, despite its non-linear story structure. “Group of children eventually goes on to save the world” with elements of E.T., The Terminator, even War of the Worlds stirred into the pot was a novel concept, if not overdone due to anime’s constant use of teenagers. However, progressing further and further in each character’s separate tale begins revealing complex, entwining moments. “Oh.” I thought. “So this is why this happened in that character’s story.” Time travel is a tricky subject, and 13 Sentinels lampshades a lot of elements and pulls many twists, but the breadcrumbs of the overarching narrative are scattered across all 13 stories, and the intrigue of why something happened to one character will keep you pressing on until the conclusion, where nearly every action will finally make sense with full perspective of the narrative.

In the Destruction side of the game, players will command the 13 protagonists in their Sentinel robots, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The combat itself is real time, though you can pause time to get a better view of things by clicking R3 or by bringing up a character’s menu. You choose your actions from a list of commands, which will then play out in real time. The goal of each map is to protect the Terminal until it can activate and eliminate all surrounding threats, which means that support actions and crowd control are invaluable, especially on higher difficulties. Rigorous use of EMPs, flares, and shields, to prevent enemy units from damaging the Terminals is important, especially on the hardest difficulty.

There are four generations of Sentinels spread across all 13 characters, and players can unlock and equip new skills with each character using experience obtained by defeating kaiju, and once you hit around the halfway point of the game, you’ll be able to invest the aforementioned experience in improving individual stats of each pilot, to increase damage, speed, or even reduce the impact piloting a Sentinel has on your pilot. You will likely have some favorites, but you’ll wind up using all of the characters in the strike team in one way or another due to Brain Overload- the stress a Sentinel inflicts on the brain of its pilot makes skirmishing repeatedly with the same units as an impossibility, so you’ll wind up rotating through the cast every couple of battles.

Each character has their own genre, for the most part, as well. Juro Kurabe’s story, which is the first one I personally finished, is more of as mystery-suspense tale, as people refer to him by a name that isn’t his, and blame or hate him for things he doesn’t even remember doing. Another character is a time traveling hit man, another’s story is initially close in theme to the movie E.T., and another character spends around half of his own story as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The meshing of these themes, and how breadcrumbs from one character’s story will lead you seamlessly into another character’s, works super well in getting you invested in the plot and continuing until 13 Sentinels can drop all pretenses and show its own, unique, sci-fi story. As you bounce around in time from 1985 to 1945, 2025, and beyond, the nonlinear story structure somehow coalesces into an incredible narrative experience by the time you hit the very end, and I really wish I could mention specifics without spoiling anything, but that would be impossible.

Proper escalation is incredibly important in storytelling- appropriately drawing the player in can make it seem like it isn’t weird that your party characters are literally fighting God merely 60 hours after starting in some run-down fishing village. 13 Sentinels expertly introduces plot twist in its interweaving narrative in such as way that, when situations dramatically escalate, or situations are completely flipped on their head, it doesn’t seem like what we affectionately refer to in the business as an, “Ass pull.” Even with its nonlinear narrative structure, 13 Sentinels manages to weave such an interesting and convincing story line that it’s hard not to recommend the game to any fan of story-driven games.

13 Sentinels went from being just another game on my shelf to quite possibly my favorite PS4 game after Monster Hunter World, which is saying something. The second game I’ll talk about this week also has a kind of real-time strategy system worked into it- while 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a combination of visual novel and RTS combat, Frozenheim on Steam is one part city-builder, one part RTS. While a review will be coming forthwith, I thought it might be a good idea to list my initial impressions here in this column since it matches, somewhat, in genre with the other game I brought up this last week.

Frozenheim is currently in Early Access, so it’s worth mentioning that anything mentioned here is subject to change. Frozenheim’s first campaign mission has you control a group of axemen that want to reach their settlement. You’re given a brief rundown of right click to walk and attack, and how to use the forest as cover to abuse enemy visual threat range, and then stumble across the settlement. Once there, you’re able to build woodcutter’s huts to collect wood, fisherman’s huts to collect fish, and more. The city building elements are simple enough- if you need a resource, you lay down the appropriate resource-gathering building, and then man it with peasants, whom you collect from houses. From what can be seen in Early Access, there’s a lot of potential to what is in Frozenheim, though it might be just a tad too easy to generate hundreds of extra food before setting off for another combat encounter.

The combat is similarly simple to play- you select your units, and then right click on the enemy squad. You select a group of your units, which in the Early Access demo can consist of axemen, archers, and scouts, and can explore the environments surrounding your settlement. There’s a constant fog of war around your units that you reveal by walking around, and you can bump into wagons that you can investigate for additional resources, watchtowers that will reveal the surrounding area, and more. If you come across enemies, you can elect to sneak around them in the trees, or just right click them to have your units fight. It’s pretty simple, but it does its job well.

Currently, the singeplayer Campaign mode for Frozenheim is a paltry two missions that function as the tutoriaal, though more will hopefully be coming in the future. You can also play singleplayer skirmishes, or multiplayer with friends. At some point one could hope an endless sandbox mode where you can just play until you’ve had your fill, like in Anno 2070 and the like, but that feature isn’t available in Frozenheim at current.

Graphically, Frozenheim has excellent foliage and ground texturing that you will no doubt see while trying to pan the camera around mountains (sometimes the viewing camera gets “stuck” and it’ll zoom in as far as it will go. You can go from bird’s eye view to so close to the plants you can count the leaves within seconds). There is some simple music that plays in the background that’s unobtrusive- you won’t close the game and hum the theme that plays, but it’s not grating that you will want to turn the background music or sound effects off.

Frozenheim has some issues with its pathfinding and with its camera, though. Sometimes while moving units through forested areas, you may wind up having 1 group of units just break away from the others and be half a country mile behind your others for seemingly no reason. So you could have four groups of units selected, click one spot, and three will go in a straight line to the destination, while the others will walk in circles three times before heading to the destination, them now straggling behind the rest. On another occasion, one of the houses I built was struck by lightning, and it just stayed on fire. Forever. You can typically build a well to extinguish house fires, but this fire was everlasting. The people inside apparently just sat there like the dog in the, “This is fine” meme.

Being in early access, a lot of Frozenheim’s issues will likely be fixed at some point in the future, but it’s a promising mixture of city building with some basic RTS style combat. It’s a little too easier to collect resources, and combat is pretty simplistic, but it’s also very hard to judge what’s there based only on two campaign missions. Frozenheim could definitely be a game worth keeping an eye on, as its narrative update is supposedly releasing in July, which should hopefully expand the number of campaign missions to a reasonable degree. In any event, this will bring this week’s Save State to a close, so join us next time when I put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up.

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