I have only done a few visual novel reviews in the past and it hasn’t gone all that well. In fact, I’ve specifically review Steins;Gate before. That was way too ambitious. I just haven’t gotten the hang of analyzing and communicating multilayered non-linear narratives. But I still had to talk about 13 sentinels.
Have you ever gotten a crush? You must have at some point. You know, like when you meet someone and you can’t stop thinking about them so you unconsciously talk about them all the time as well. And your friends get kind of fed up of hearing about it but you still go on because you want to!
I want to talk about 13 sentinels. I took some time off the second week of October and I had bought the game specifically to play on vacation. I devoured it. I finished it in about 5 days. Look for me that’s pretty quick. And I have been wanting to talk about it ever since but no one around me cares about these types of games.
First, let me attack that title. I love the Steins;Gate franchise. I’ve played all the available games and between all of them, I spent hundreds of hours in that universe. Heck, I spent over a hundred hours in the first game alone. Some of it is because I suck… In any case, it’s one of the first visual novels that really sucked me into its universe. It made me fall in love with these characters and think of them as friends. I would play until late at night in bed on my desktop (a fan-translated version before the official was ever made) and start right up again as soon as I got up.
I have enjoyed a lot of visual novels since. I’m so happy the genre is catching on in the West! Still, I have yet to find one that captivates me as much as Steins:Gate did. I am a time travel otaku after all. But 13 Sentinels might be the closest yet.
First of all, I should state that 13 sentinels isn’t exactly a pure visual novel. It’s an intriguing hybrid that blends many mechanics. The storyline is somewhat isolated from the action. You need to play to really understand. Basically, one part of the game is a very fast paced turn based strategy mecha game. It’s fun and interesting. You need to be at certain levels to unlock more story but otherwise, it is separate from the novel part.
The novel part explores the personal stories of 13 separate characters in a non-linear order. Although the game does occasionally nudge you to finish a particular chapter before gaining access to another, in the most case you are free to discover the story in whatever order you like choosing whichever character interests you the most at that time.
Unlike most VNs there are no real dialogue options, rather it has a light old school point and click mechanic, where you need to explore the screen and environments to discover clues that you can use later in conversation. Not entirely unlike Phoenix Wright let’s say.
There are no real branches. I mean you do have a degree of freedom but generally, the game nudges you right back on the one path. 13 Sentinels has a specific and integral story to tell and that is the story you are getting. But that also means that you are getting the best possible and most developed story available!
To tell you anything about the narrative would be doing you a disservice I think. I went in just about completely blind and did not look up anything during my playthrough. And although I’m usually the type to spoil myself on stories, I was really happy I got to discover it at the game’s pace. It actually makes a huge difference for once. And it’s strewn together in a way that kept me guessing, had me going to bed making up all sorts of theories in my head and rushing back to my ps4 to see if I was right.
I will tell you that it’s a classic sci-fi tale with romantic elements. And it keeps you guessing. It also pays respectful homage to a lot of the history and traditions of anime and JRPG fiction. Nods to magical girl tropes are scattered here and there. Classic archetypes are played with and subverted. You can perfectly enjoy the game and story with absolutely no knowledge of Japanese media. It stands on its own without any problem. But if you do have any knowledge, you might recognize elements here and there that make the experience a little more… I don’t know… personal feeling?
This story is also a mystery. To say that there are twists is sort of ridiculous because it pretty much has you wondering what exactly is going on straight from the start. I saw a few of the reveals coming and I was satisfied because they made sense and were consistent. Others caught me by surprise and I was impressed because they still made sense and were consistent. There are of course some contrivances. These types of hyper complicated stories sort of require them. Steins;Gate had a few as well. And it does get a bit sappy at the end but man I would have played another 80 hours of it.
I’m sort of concentrating on the storyline which I refuse to tell you anything about. That seems mean. But it’s cause the gameplay mechanics aren’t as interesting to talk about. Or maybe I’m not that good at discussing them. That doesn’t mean they weren’t fun. I had a session where I willingly chose to have a good old strategy session without any narrative at all because they are fun. I went back and replayed stages just for giggles. I will say, however, that at normal setting, I breezed through it without much challenge so some more experienced players may prefer to go for the herder settings.
Which brings me to my next point. 13 Sentinels is casualized in the best and smartest possible way. What do I mean by that? Well, the game is designed with a lot of features that make it highly accessible to all players. And theoretically, this is the type of stuff you could call pandering to casual players but I just call it smart and the way games should be designed.
For instance, you can change your difficulty setting at any time. This means if you were careful and chose a setting too easy to give you a satisfying challenge, you don’t have to redo the entire tutorial. And if you get stuck on a particular level, you don’t just have to quit in frustration. There is a levelling system so you can grind points if you want (although I didn’t need to at any point) and setting the game to low difficulty makes grinding way faster!.
Another great feature is that you can save at just about any time. You aren’t locked into a minimum half-hour session until the next save point. It’s all good. Like most VNs, 13 Sentinels has a lexicon and event library where you can look up info and replay scenes. So you can basically tailor the experience to fit your exact needs. You want to jump in for only 10 minutes at a time, once a month, go right ahead. The designers have made that as viable as possible. I don’t know how you have that type of patience but hey, I’m not here to judge.
I have a feeling that 13 Sentinels isn’t for everyone. At its core, it is more or less a science fiction book. The same way that Steins:Gate isn’t for everyone and I know a lot of die-hard fans of the anime who have no interest in playing the games. But if you like deep-rooted classic sci-fi stories then I don,t think you should skip out on this game. If nothing else, 8it certainly is one of the most original titles I have played in years!
Oh and one last thing. When you purchase the game, you have access to a little online survey. It’s the usual marketing stuff. Did you preorder, what type of bonus material would get you to buy a game and all the demographic info. What type of games do you play, how many do you buy. Nothing special at all. Except for one. One question asks you which of the 1 characters had the best character arc and asks you why? Not only that but they request that you DO NOT answer unless you’ve completed the game and have full knowledge of each arc.
That is useless info from a standard marketing point of view. And insisting not to answer unless you meet the conditions, plain weird. But it’s exactly the type of feedback you want if you’re a writer. One that really cares about their story and character development. I was impressed by this. But not completely surprised. 13 Sentinels clearly really cares about its story. I’m going to have to keep an eye out for vanillaware in the future.