You haven’t played the best PlayStation exclusive of 2020

We all know the quote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Most of us forget how it ends. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery … that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Oscar Wilde never wasted an opp to absolutely body his rivals.

For the first 10 hours of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Wilde’s quote, in full, felt like the inevitable critique of the latest game from Vanillaware, the Japanese studio that releases a new game roughly once a generation. The story of a band of high school teenagers fighting to save the world could barely find its rhythm before pivoting violently to crib from the films of Tarkovsky or the anime of Hideaki Anno. What first resembled Stranger Things spun into a parody of E.T., then an echo of The Terminator, and soon enough, a flat-out clone of The Matrix. I accepted disappointment as the game layered on pastiche like it was papier-mâché. The narrative became so complicated, so overwhelmingly steeped in fandom, that I wondered if there was actually a game at the center of this Matryoshka doll of iconic science fiction references. Then, like discovering I’d become fluent in a foreign language by complaining in its own tongue, everything clicked.

13 Sentinels isn’t a mediocre imitation of greatness; it’s an impassioned argument about how the things we love can make us who we are. Quite literally. For better or worse.

The title references the game’s storytelling concept. You play as 13 different teenagers who pilot unique mechs to fight off kaiju threatening to overwhelm Japan. This story is spread across three modes.

In the story mode, you may switch between any of the 13 heroes, more or less in any order you choose. Each character’s story is divided into short episodes, and the threads overlap so that the hero of one will be a villain, a comrade, or just a background character in another. The adventures aren’t slow per se, but I would call the game novelistic both in style and in the fact that you will spend over a dozen hours reading text. It took me a while to get my bearings and make the connections between these oddball kids. Frankly, though, tracking 13 characters is arguably the game’s easiest mental exercise.

My real confusion stemmed from the timeline. The story takes place in 1984. And 1945. And 2025, 2065, and 2105. Like I said, it’s complicated. Did I mention there’s time travel? Sort of?

a bunch of young people stare at a mech off in the distance in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Image: Vanillaware/Atlus

Anyway! The second mode takes place at some vague point in the future, and now you control the group in real-time strategy combat against the aforementioned kaiju. For some reason, the teens are all working together, but now there’s no time for conversation.

The third mode is an encyclopedia. No enemies. No ways to win. Just a bunch of words and some pictures. As you progress through the game, you get points that unlock entries in the encyclopedia about characters, events, objects, and locations. Think of it as a cheat sheet. Forget who a character is, or how they connect to a time period? Your answer awaits.

All of this threatens to be too much — a visual novel with 13 co-leads, an RTS, a fan wiki. And on top of that, the adventure whirls between genres and influences every half hour. That everything comes together, that it can be so easily comprehended in the end, is a magic trick. Which is to say, I can’t explain how it’s done. It just … is.

Any order in which I played through 13 Sentinels — a few rounds of mech combat followed by bouncing between various characters — felt right. It was as if the game expected me to play everything in this random path all along.

four people riding the subway in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Image: Vanillaware/Atlus

I suspect the creators pulled a sleight of hand, pointing my attention in one direction without me even noticing. I heard about a character from 1945, so I selected the protagonist dressed in a uniform from World War II to learn more. His story began with a glimpse of a space colony in the distant future, so I dug through the encyclopedia for context. Each breadcrumb led me to another breadcrumb, and by the end, I’ll be damned if I hadn’t reassembled the full loaf.

The best comparison — and there aren’t many — is Lost, the ABC drama about a group of plane crash survivors deserted on an island brimming with mysterious science experiments and sci-fi tropes. Each week, the show would follow one member of the ensemble, flashing back in time (and sometimes forward) to reveal more about their motives and about their connections to the island and the people with whom they’re marooned.

13 Sentinels has one unifying, thematically consistent overarching storyline — teenagers save Japan from giant monsters — but each character has their own arc and a genre to match. There’s the time-traveling hitman, the cuddly alien in need of a friend, the voice in the machine questioning our very existence, the artificial intelligence that wants to be human. The detective. The amnesiac. The man repeating the same day over and over and over.

And yes, at first, this abundance of references, parodies, and imitations feels like what Wilde described: mediocrity paying flattery to greatness. Each individual story doesn’t resonate on the same level as Groundhog Day or A.I. or Solaris or Neon Genesis Evangelion. But soon enough, it becomes abundantly clear that the game isn’t fawning over “better” works. Instead, it’s delivering a critique.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Image: Vanillaware

Without spoiling the game (because you really should play this game!), I can say that 13 Sentinels’ references aren’t a fun gimmick; they’re the point. Or, to put it another way: The mess is the message.

Here is a video game about our memory and the fiction we consume, and how they intertwine. How our favorite movies, books, songs, and yes, games, influence our dreams and recollection. A game about how entertainment can be a distraction from the world outside our home and our bubble of a town. But also about how those same games and movies can train us how to engage with reality, providing safe spaces in which to learn. Our entertainment can enrich our lives and make us better friends and citizens, so long as we don’t mistake the world of fiction for our own deeply flawed reality in which change is hard-fought and rarely earned.

That’s precisely the conflict at the heart of 13 Sentinels. As the game hits its final act, the sci-fi tropes are revealed to be crutches for the characters themselves, not the narrative. To survive, they will need to take the good from those stories, learn from the bad, and chart a new path.

In the end, 13 Sentinels is audaciously optimistic. Despite all the conflicting messages of the stories we tell ourselves, it makes a precious case that we eventually can get on the same page and come together. We’ll need to put away our toys and do the work.

So sure, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though I doubt we’ll ever see another game quite like this.

13 Sentinels was released Sept. 22 on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Atlus. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.