I finished playing 13 Sentinels last night. I enjoyed it a great deal.
I think the lush 2D story segments will charm and delight almost anyone with their cheerful potboiler spirit, while the frantic real-time-tactics might suit a somewhat narrower range of tastes. The battles’ visual abstraction baffled me at first, but some great sound design lends a bit more reality, and the graphics let the game shove ridiculous numbers of enemies on-screen. In any case, the eye-popping 2D story makes up the game’s bulk.
This post isn’t a review, however: I wanted to jot down a couple of things in 13 Sentinels which seem to me to be not just likely influences but precise allusions.
After this paragraph I will, therefore, drop some big, chunky spoilers for the game. In general I avoid being finicky about spoilers, but 13 Sentinels in particular has the type of mystery-box build which suffers especially when spoiled, so if you plan on playing it in future, I suggest you eject from this post now. For those currently playing it: I’m going to spoil the first two thirds or so of Shu’s story, and a scene from the first half of Iori’s.
The game draws on a wide range of influences. (Despite what’s presumably a gentle translator’s quip in this post’s head image, it draws less on Evangelion than an Anglophone would think if you told them the premise.) I expect that many elements flew over my head.
Here, though, I’ll pick out two scenes which seem to me a matter not just of general influence, but of particular allusion. In these moments, the game doesn’t just passively transmit themes and ideas from its sources, but rather actively points back at them by mirroring precise scenes.
The first of these is the more obvious. The first two-thirds or so of Shu Amiguchi’s storyline nod lovingly to Megazone 23. In 1985 a rising pop idol contacts Shu through his television and gradually shreds his confidence in reality. The specific scene I have in mind, though, occurs when he rides his motorbike through city limits, he breaks out into a strange space of featureless metalwork running on for miles, as far as the eye can see: the 1985 setting in which much of the story happens is, it turns out, just a pocket of faked reality 30 kilometres in diameter.
I had great fun watching this unfold. I’d gradually gotten the shape of what was happening once the idol started talking to Shu from his TV, so as soon as she mentioned the ‘outer limits’ I was grinning at the screen.
The second I’d like to note comes from a different sort of source, Saki Hiwatari’s 1986–94 shoujo manga Please Save My Earth. Near the start of 13 Sentinels, three characters figure out that they’re having shared dreams of what seems to be another reality. The article linked above notes Please Save My Earth, so this broad echo isn’t unexpected.
More specifically, however, early in Iori’s route comes a scene in which she inadvertently spies on a conversation between Shu and Juro, and misconstrues their conversation as a romantic one. This neatly matches an incident in the first chapter of Please Save My Earth, down to Iori hiding in some undergrowth. What doesn’t quite match is the misconstrual itself: in Please Save My Earth, it might be safer to say that Alice’s grasp of the conversation is prematurely romantic, while in 13 Sentinels Kurabe and Shu genuinely don’t feel attraction for each other. Still, the circumstances fit well enough that I’m prepared to suggest this as another firm allusion.
I really enjoyed running into these allusions: they’re specific, scene-to-scene ties which invoke predecessors without feeling forced or loud, they invite comparison but also contrast, and they display a capacity to replay topoi in a way that’s not arid, but fruitful. 13 Sentinels loves its core time period, and it doesn’t just love the sleek metal Megazones of that world, as the shoujo-manga stylings of many of its stories show.