What's the perfect way to follow up on a medieval hack-and-slash and a combat-centric adventure based on classical Japanese folklore? If you're Vanillaware, the artsy Japanese studio that made its mark last gen with Dragon's Crown and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, the answer to this question turns out to be, "With a schoolgirl apocalypse and giant robot battles called 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim."
Visually, 13 Sentinels looks every bit as gorgeous as Vanillaware's usual fare, but the actual gameplay takes a very different approach than their usual action-RPG style. 13 Sentinels' Tokyo Game Show demo—to my knowledge, the game's first playable public appearance since its announcement four years ago—offered entirely too much content to be played in a single sitting, despite the generous 20-minute time limit Atlus allowed for play sessions. In fact, the demo contained no less than five different scenarios, each of which could seemingly fill an entire session. Of these, only one focused on the giant robot battles that Vanillaware and publisher Atlus have been teasing for so long. The rest downplayed the melee combat that has defined Vanillaware's action titles to this point in favor of slower, more character-driven drama.
I sampled the demo's first scenario, in which a young schoolgirl named Natsu becomes involved in the game's futuristic adventure. Seemingly an avid sci-fi fan herself, Natsu is thrilled to get her hands on a VHS tape concerning UFO conspiracies only to be caught up in an equally outlandish adventure. After encountering a cute toaster-sized robot calling itself BJ one afternoon after school, Natsu is flung forward in time into what appears to be the smoldering ruins of Tokyo.
Despite this grim apocalyptic twist, Natsu's scenario didn't involve any conflict to speak of. Instead, it was entirely dialogue- and story-driven. The "action" advanced through conversations and minor keyword-based decisions. While previous glimpses of 13 Sentinels have suggested a work in the vein of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Pacific Rim, with massive robots and aliens slugging it out, Natsu's scenario feels more of a piece with visual novels, or maybe with old-school graphical adventures. There's a lot of dialogue and internal monologue to work through here, with conversations and simple search-and-click environmental interaction propelling events.
Natsu talks to friends, collected items, and interacted with a handful of elements in the world. Occasionally, conversations end with a keyword being highlighted. Pressing Triangle on the PlayStation 4 controller brings up a keyword "cloud" of sorts, and selecting a keyword from the cloud and pressing Triangle again causes Natsu to mull the term and allows it to be inserted into conversations. It makes for a fairly simplistic take on the adventure game genre, arguably bordering on a text-based adventure—but not in a bad way. Keywords relevant to a current conversation are prominently highlighted through the player interface, and interactive characters and objects are called to attention when the player stands anywhere near them. It makes the path forward glaringly obvious, but that certainly beats tedious pixel-hunting and the need to blunder through half a dozen dead-end conversational gambits in the hopes of stumbling upon a relevant conversation.
It also doesn't hurt that Natsu's tale is rendered with the lush hand-drawn visuals that is Vanillaware's stock in trade. Both characters and backgrounds appear to have been painted in exquisite detail, and they move by way of a sophisticated version of Flash-based "puppet" animation. While the game definitely has a hint of the lascivious tendencies Vanillaware is known for, with the animation slowing to a crawl as Natsu begins to undress from her T-shirt and bloomers in the locker room, it was fairly mild. The world and its characters are a lot more down-to-earth than the hyper-sexualized characters of Dragon's Crown, taking the form of normal school kids in their standard uniforms. They look great and move with fantastic attention to detail, as you'd expect from Vanillaware.
The limited-time allotted for TGS demos made it impossible to sample the entire game, but that's to be expected. Vanillaware really seems to be exploring new territory with 13 Sentinels, applying their trademark visual excellence to a game that feels far more in keeping with classic Japan-based anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion than with more traditional lore. Consider us intrigued. Atlus has indicated their intention to publish the game outside Japan in 2020, and while it will probably be a harder sell than their more action-oriented titles (the robot combat here appears to be more tactical than visceral in nature), it should appeal to fans of gorgeous graphics and trend-defying game design.