The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

Yeah, I said I’d do it again, didn’t it? Screw those “official” Game Awards. I’ve got something better: a collection of my own awards based on total nonsense categories and accompanied by no physical trophies and no prestige whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want that instead?

As before, I’ll be considering games I played this year, not games that were released this year, because that would be a very small pool of games. And I don’t keep up with the times anyway, so it wouldn’t be right for me to even try something like that. Enough talk now; let’s start the show.

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Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

I’m pretty cheap usually, unless I’m out eating with friends and don’t want to look like a stingy asshole. What with COVID, that hasn’t happened since last March, though, so I’ve been holding onto my money — but it’s still nice to find a good game that doesn’t cost anything to play. Helltaker is just that: a pretty simple block-moving puzzle game that wouldn’t be all that remarkable but for its cast of cute demon girls plus one angel who somehow managed to wander into Hell. All these ladies join up with the protagonist, who’s breaking into the underworld specifically for the purpose of building a harem of supernaturally powerful women all of whom can easily kill him if they really want to. That’s an interesting choice, and I have to respect it.

Sure it’s depicted as a set of cute triplets in Helltaker, but remember, Cerberus is still the guard of the gate of Hades. Not one to be trifled with.

Helltaker itself is fairly short and simple, but I think there’s a lot of potential in these kinds of characters with something like a visual novel if creator Łukasz Piskorz were inclined to make one. I also love the game’s unique art style. Here’s hoping we see more!

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Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

A while back, I decided to settle down in my personal habits and my life in general, quitting all that boozing and street fighting I was doing. You know how it is — fast living catches up with you. But I still feel nostalgic for those days sometimes, so I’m happy that I have a chance to relive them by playing Yakuza 0. This is a game I’ve barely scratched the surface of as of this writing, but I did start it in 2020, so I say it counts. Especially for the purposes of this category, since no other game in my list comes close to recreating anything like Tokyo’s Kamurocho or Osaka’s Sotenbori, commercial and red light districts that are based on real-life neighborhoods in those cities. This is my first Yakuza game, and also the first that allows me to get in a fight instigated by hooligans who don’t know any better, beat money out of them, and spend that money on a meal to replenish any health I lost.

Pretty sure this guy is advertising okonomiyaki. I could go for that right now.

Honorable mention goes to Persona 5 Royal, which I also haven’t finished somehow, but that has already provided a pretty nice experience of life in Tokyo, recreating several of the city’s districts. However, the nightlife just isn’t the same. You play as a high school student in that game instead of an adult, so there’s a limit to what the game lets you do. No drunken street-fighting in that one. But it still provides a nice tour of a few prominent wards of Tokyo.

For the purposes of any other possible awards I dream up, though, I’ll reserve final judgment of Persona 5 Royal for next year’s ceremony. I’m not even to the game’s third semester yet. Lazy, I know.

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Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

One of the big draws of the Atelier series is the level of detail the games get into about the various items your alchemist protagonist can craft. This isn’t just any old crafting system, either: it’s a central gameplay mechanic, and one that I always find fun to master.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is no different from the other games in the series in that regard. Also like the other Atelier games, and particularly in the Arland sub-series, Meruru has a ton of beautifully illustrated food items to craft. These do have practical uses in restoring health and mana to your characters in battle, but the characters also talk a lot about both crafting and eating food in the game’s many dialogue breaks and cutscenes. Just as in real life, being good at cooking and baking are great ways to make friends, and the same goes for making food magically through alchemy. Serious credit goes to artist Mel Kishida, who I believe was responsible for this artwork along with the game’s character designs and backgrounds.

Mont Blanc is the best dessert right alongside cannoli. The Italians and French know their sweets. If I lived in either of those countries I’d definitely be in lousy shape right now.

This year’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes in a close second in this category and therefore gets an honorable mention for also containing a lot of talk about food and nicely illustrated food items that made me hungry while playing. However, 13 Sentinels didn’t feature any Mont Blancs. Crêpes are good too, but Meruru wins for having the better dessert.

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Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

I didn’t play a Senran Kagura game this year, so this 2016 h-game gets the coveted Best Physics award instead. I don’t know how much Wolf Girl With You really counts as a game, though. It’s more a series of 3D animations strung together with some short sets of dialogue. But really, that’s close enough in my opinion. It’s just a game about having some private time with your cute werewolf girlfriend, so I don’t think it needed more than that anyway.

Hey, this one also has food in it. And so does Yakuza 0. If I end up gaining weight again anytime soon I’ll have to blame it on all these games.

In any case, creator Seismic deserves all the credit for the physics displayed by his 3D model of Liru from the anime Magical Pokaan. I was already a fan of this wolf girl, but the bounce added a lot to the experience. Though Magical Pokaan itself featured some of that too from what I remember. That outfit Liru’s wearing is her regular one from the show, after all, so you can’t blame the creator of this game for that bikini/shorts look if you don’t like it. (No complaints here, however.)

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Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

Seriously Vector Hat, change your fucking color scheme. The colors above do change, but they still clash and glare in my eyes in horrible ways. I still like this one, though. Radical Solitaire is an interesting game I found in a huge itch.io bundle last summer that combines Klondike Solitaire (also known as Patience, I think in the UK?) with Breakout. Check it out if you can bear all the neon and the weirdly contrasting dark layout in the main game sections.

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Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

Every year, I’ll probably give out an award that only one game I played even comes close to qualifying for, and this time it’s best educational game. Arguably the only educational game I played this year was The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that centers on a yuri romance plot but also teaches the player the basics of Esperanto. If that sounds like a strange mix, then yeah, it is, but I found it worked pretty well, with the game managing to weave its lesson sections in naturally with the plot as you learn the Esperanto-inspired in-game language Juliamo along with the protagonist Rin. The girl-girl romance stuff is also nice if you’re into yuri — I’m not a dedicated fan of it, but I also have no problem with it and find it a nice break from the usual thing sometimes. (Back in the day we called it “shoujo-ai” over here. Is that different from yuri? I don’t even know. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you do.)

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Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I wanted to continue the tradition of not giving a game of the year award that I started last year. However, I found a loophole that still lets me sort of give one without actually giving one: the Jury Prize. The Cannes Film Festival gives these to movies that “embody the spirit of inquiry” according to Wikipedia. I’m not totally sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

So I decided steal the idea of this award from the Cannes people. I convened a jury consisting of myself, held a closed door session by myself in my walk-in closet, and came out with the winner: 13 Sentinels. If any game I played this year embodies the spirit of inquiry or whatever, it’s this one. I posted a review gushing over it a few weeks ago, but here’s the short version: 13 Sentinels is an RTS tower defense/adventure game hybrid with a weird science fiction story and a lot of interesting character developments and plot twists. It was different and it worked, and that’s my favorite kind of game (or favorite kind of artistic work in general really.)

The beautiful art almost goes without saying for a Vanillaware game, but there’s a lot more to 13 Sentinels as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything else here, so I’ll just say this game deserves a lot more recognition than it’s gotten, which I’ve heard is largely the fault of Atlus not marketing the game very well here in the West. Considering their other bungles, that’s entirely believable.

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Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

Okay, so best “girl” might not be appropriate. Best woman, maybe? Though I know a lot of people will disagree, I feel like the “girl/boy” cutoff is somewhere around one’s early 20s, maybe at 25. And we first meet Esty Erhard at 26 in Atelier Rorona, while working in her role as a knight for the Kingdom of Arland. Esty is a hardworking and capable bureaucrat who helps the protagonist Rorona out in her efforts to keep her alchemy atelier open against the efforts of the government’s chief minister to close it. Even though Esty is part of the government, she and her grim-looking subordinate Sterkenburg Cranach give as much support as they can to Rorona, joining her in the field to beat the shit out of monsters while she collects vital ingredients.

Esty is one of my favorite characters in the Atelier Arland series; she has an admirable no-nonsense attitude but also has a sense of humor. The main reason she gets this award, however, is because she’s one of those characters who’s maligned pretty unfairly. Not by fans, at least as far as I know, but more in-game. Esty is chronically unlucky in love throughout the series. When she returns with Sterk 14 years later in Atelier Meruru, she’s still unmarried despite her efforts to find a match, and she has to deal with some ribbing (mainly from her younger sister Filly) over it. She even became the butt of a rather inelegant joke by the localizers at NIS America who decided to change her last name to “Dee” (yeah really.)

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

I haven’t played the newly released fourth Arland game Atelier Lulua, so I don’t know if Esty’s been granted the happy ending she was looking for, but she deserves it. I don’t see why she shouldn’t have it. Maybe the guys in the world of the Arland games are all afraid of a woman who can beat them up. Well, I’m here to say that much like the guy in Helltaker, I have no such fear. I’m all about Esty, and that’s ultimately why she’s getting this award.

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Congratulations to all the winners! To close this ceremony out, just like last time, I was going to detail some of my plans for the coming year, but I really don’t have much to say about it after my last post aside from “expect more of the same.” Maybe that’s not so exciting, but I hope you’ve liked the posts I’ve put up since reviving the site two years ago, in which case that should be good news.

Either way, I don’t want to post a list of games or anime series I plan to write about here, because I always seem cursed never to actually finish them if I do. So I’ll maintain an air of mystery here. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably be able to guess some of what’s coming up anyway.

A review of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (PS4)

Where to start with this game? It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot to talk about here. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was announced all the way back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2015, but it came out late in 2019 in Japan and late in 2020, only a few months ago, in North America. While it wasn’t released to a lot of fanfare over here, anticipation seems to have been very high among fans of developer Vanillaware, known for their unique art style and great attention to detail with earlier titles like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown.

The big question in these cases is whether the game was worth the long wait. I can’t claim I was one of those fans waiting for five years on the edge of my seat. But after playing through it, I can say that if I had waited that long or even longer, I think 13 Sentinels would have been more than worth it to me. It’s not going to appeal to everyone (just like most of the games I write about here, that’s nothing new) but I liked its mix of gameplay styles and especially its characters and story.

Of course, I’ll be getting into all that in more depth here. Before that, there’s one more thing I have to bring up: this is going to be a no-spoilers review. I’m still putting a disclaimer up even in this case, though, because 13 Sentinels is one of those games that it’s best to go into completely blind if possible. If you trust me enough to just take my word on faith (which I don’t expect at all) then here it is: I greatly enjoyed 13 Sentinels and highly recommend it. But not everyone is going to agree with that assessment, and in any case you probably need more than just me saying “hey it’s great the end”, so I’ll get into why I liked this game so much below without dropping any major plot points or character details, because you should discover those for yourself.

I also promise I won’t make any “get in the robot Shinji” references. They don’t exactly fit here anyway.

On the surface, 13 Sentinels is a game about high school students who have to fight city-destroying mechanical kaiju-style monsters by piloting giant mechs called Sentinels. A lot of the gameplay and plot revolve around these battles and the enormous strain they put on their young pilots, both physically and mentally. As with a lot of other “teenagers in giant robots fight to save the world” stories, though, there’s more going on under that surface.

From the very beginning, 13 Sentinels is split between three different gameplay modes: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis. Remembrance is the one you’ll likely be in most of the time. It’s the one that looks like the typical Vanillaware game, only there’s no combat in this mode — it’s sort of in the style of an older adventure game, consisting almost entirely of exploration and character interaction. This is where we really get to know our characters and where almost all of the plot unfolds.

One of the 13 protagonists, Juro Kurabe, at school. The colored bars in the upper right indicate topics or actions that your protagonist has yet to consider or carry out in a scene, some of which are prerequisites to moving their story along.

Each of the 13 protagonists in the game has their own story to play through in the Remembrance mode. In the beginning, the game only gives you a couple of characters to start with, but as you advance their stories, the game unlocks other characters that you can switch between as you see fit. At that point, the initially hidden connections between these characters reveal themselves. These connections are not at all obvious at first in some cases, especially considering the fact that our protagonists are scattered throughout time, with a few from the past of wartime Japan and a few from the far future.

For some reason, everyone ends up meeting in the Japan of 1985, where both the battles against the kaiju and the bulk of the story occur. Figuring out how and why they’ve all converged on this point in time and this place is part of the mystery the game presents. Remembrance involves a lot of tracking down and talking to or otherwise interacting with other characters in the course of this story, but we also get directly into the heads of our player characters. The Thought Cloud is an integral part of this exploration section of 13 Sentinels — it lets the player scroll through the protagonist’s various thoughts, which are updated as they make new discoveries.

Ass-kicking delinquent girl Yuki Takamiya takes a break on the roof in the middle of her various thoughts, one of which is “maybe I should drink this juice box.” Getting your vitamins is important.

But you can’t just make progress through exploration and talking to people: you have to actually fight those big kaiju battles by directing your 13 protagonists in their mechs. This is where the Destruction mode comes in. Destruction is a real-time tower defense game, starkly different from the adventure game style of Remembrance both in its looks and style. Taking place during what the game calls the final battle against the invading kaiju, a horde of giant mechanical monsters, Destruction requires the player to direct a strike team of up to six characters in the defense of a giant terminal that itself acts as a defensive mechanism against the kaiju. Defeating all the kaiju on the map typically leads to victory, though a couple of the game’s 31 maps (not counting the first seven tutorials) require the player to destroy a specific powerful target.

The heat of battle. These screens can get a bit confusing with all the enemies, missiles, and lasers shooting off and flying around, but it’s not hard to get the rhythm of combat down.

A lot of your success in battle comes from preparation. Each of the protagonist’s Sentinels can be upgraded using “Meta-chips” you earn both from advancing the story in Remembrance mode and fighting battles in Destruction mode. Around the middle of the game you’ll be able to unlock some extremely powerful weapons to use against the kaiju, both short- and long-range, allowing you to play defensively by turtling around the terminal and using long-range attacks or offensively by taking the fight directly to the kaiju and punching them in the face. There are four types of Sentinel to choose from as well, each types with its own strengths and weaknesses, so you can mix things up depending upon your preferred play style with a combination of defensive and offensive tactics.

Natsuno’s Missile Rain is stupidly powerful, and I relied on it a lot. Thanks Natsuno, and also Tomi and Keitaro who have the same ability — you saved the team more than a few times. Also god damn, those Sentry Guns.

Finally, there’s the third mode, Analysis, which isn’t so much a gameplay mode as it is a giant cache of information that grows as you progress through the game. Analysis includes a library of previously played scenes that you can return to watch as many times as you like as well as a set of “mystery files” that are unlocked and added to as the game progresses. These files contains information on just about everything in the game, from the characters and their backgrounds, stories, and relationships down to various foods and drinks your characters consume during their adventures. It might seem weird to have entries for such trivial information, but in this game, sometimes the most seemingly trivial bits of information can be important in strange ways down the line.

I’m not kidding; there’s even an entry for strawberry crêpes. Though I have to give credit: the artist made all this food look amazing. I got hungry playing 13 Sentinels a few times for foods I can’t even obtain where I live. Thanks a lot for that, Vanillaware.

It might seem a bit strange at first to put so much information about the game’s major plot points and characters into a library like this. But it doesn’t feel at all like a lazy shortcut to make telling the story easier. On the contrary, I think this Analysis mode is necessary, because the story and its characters’ relationships get so complicated that it’s sometimes helpful to go back and check on a few already established points. Naturally I can’t give any examples without spoiling things (I even went to the trouble of redacting the above image in five seconds in Paint; a lot of work, I know.) It’s enough to say that this mode is very useful in a game like this in which each character’s story has its own flowchart practically.

That takes me back to the story itself. I think the greatest strength of 13 Sentinels by far is in its writing, in the plot and its massive tangled web of characters and relationships. The story is ambitious, but unlike some other works that try this sort of thing and get lost in technobabble and confusion and end up a mess, 13 Sentinels keeps it all together. Part of this might have to do with the organization of the information you receive in Analysis mode and in the character timelines that let you track your progress and jump around from point to point to a limited extent.

For example, should you get crêpes or ice cream after school? This really is one of those branching path decision points.

However, I think more of it has to do with the strength of the game’s characters. Each of the protagonists along with several important side characters are given enough screen time to establish their personalities and motivations. Through their story paths in Remembrance mode, we come to understand how and why they end up in these giant mechs fighting kaiju. These aren’t a bunch of cardboard cutouts either. Each character feels pretty well fleshed out and realistic, allowing the game to build believable rivalries, friendships, and romances. And there are romance subplots in 13 Sentinels, and even though I’m about as unromantic as it’s possible for a human to be, they worked for me — they’re not just shoehorned in for the hell of it but actually play their parts in the larger plot.

That’s love, man, who knows

Then there’s the other half of 13 Sentinels, speaking in terms of gameplay at least: the RTS tower defense section. This one seems a bit controversial. I’ve barely played any tower defense games before, so I really have nothing to compare the tower defense element in 13 Sentinels to, but I found it to be pretty fun for what it was. It was definitely the lesser of the two sections for me, though. Combat in this game, with the exception of maybe two or three boss battles, presented no challenge at all — once you figure out how to play defensively and get the skills to beat the shit out of kaiju without them getting anywhere near you, you’ll be all right for the most part. The second-to-last fight did give me some trouble, but I still beat it on my first try, and I’m not even very good at this sort of thing.

I’m not sure if this game will satisfy hardcore RTS/tower defense fans because I’m not one of them, but playing on hard mode is a good idea if you’re looking for more of a challenge. It’s probably also important to note that, as you can see in the battle screenshots I posted, the combat takes place in top-down view, as if the player is controlling everything from a command center. If you were hoping for the combat sections to be all drawn and animated in that Vanillaware style like they were in Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, you won’t get that in this game. But I didn’t mind too much — the real draw of 13 Sentinels for me was in the story and its interesting character relationships and conflicts.

I wish I lived in Shu’s apartment, what a view. This is my ideal living space.

There’s plenty of style in this game as well. The art is very impressive, much of it handpainted and animated in the typical Vanillaware fashion. That’s one of the reasons I used so many screenshots here, probably more than I normally would in a review like this: the beautiful art adds a lot to an already great experience. The soundtrack is also excellent, from mood-setting pieces in the Remembrance sections to tense battle themes in Destruction mode. And as an added bonus for western players, the NA release features both Japanese and English dubs, so you can choose whichever one you like. Kids these days really have it easy — I remember when we didn’t have that option.

I have more I can say about 13 Sentinels, but not without getting into spoilers, so I’ll leave it there. It’s obvious by this point that I really liked this game and that I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of other weird sci-fi material like the Zero Escape series and Steins;Gate. I’ll only add the caveat that it might not be much of a tower defense game if that’s really what you’re looking for. But again, since I’m no expert in the tower defense genre, I can’t say much about that. Again, it’s really all about the story for me in this case, and I was happy with what I got out of 13 Sentinels in that respect. Now I just have to track down some yakisoba pan to see if it’s really as good as the game claims it is, and it will get a perfect 10 out of 10.