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SummaryPassionate and flawed tribute to the Orient
The GoodSepterra Core is a role-playing game in Japanese style made by American developers - a rare and odd phenomenon, considering the almost diametrically opposed RPG design philosophies of East and West. Shortly after Fallout and Baldur's Gate invigorated the Western RPG genre and Final Fantasy VII turned Eastern RPGs into blockbusters with cutting-edge technology, Septerra Core attempted to imitate the Japanese style while borrowing a few ideas from its Western brothers.
Conceived entirely as an homage, without any groundbreaking ideas or technology to back it, Septerra Core really depended on how much feeling and effort the designers were willing to put in it. Fortunately, their passion truly ignited the game, turning a modest effort bordering on fan fiction into a lovingly crafted title that falls short of greatness largely for mechanical reasons.
Despite its anime-like aesthetics and strict adherence to the Japanese formula, Septerra Core still has something that betrays its American origins. These are mostly small features, but adding them together gives the game a significant boost. My number one feature is probably NPC interaction. I don't recall another Japanese-style RPG where you could actually select conversation topics. Rudimentary compared to contemporary Western RPGs, they are still heaps and bounds above the dialogue systems of the East. Not only that, but selecting different player-controlled characters to talk to NPCs may lead to unexpected results such as unique dialogue lines. Many of these are completely optional and hence give the game a light flavor of freedom so lacking in Japanese RPGs. One of the most enjoyable activities for me was scouting a new city for NPCs and just chatting with them, disregarding the main story. I've always had a soft spot for conversation-rich RPGs, and this is certainly one of them. Also, every single line of dialogue in the game is voiced.
Another interesting feature are inventory-based puzzles. There aren't many of them and they are very simple, but I really liked that nod to Western adventure games of yore. You'll actually have to think and figure out what you need to advance, which often involves carefully listening to what NPCs tell you and hunting for clues. It's details like this that differentiate Septerra Core from its countless comrades in a genre where making a generic world map with towns and dungeons and slapping some turn-based combat on them was in many cases a sufficient reason for publishing an RPG. You always feel that every element of the game was crafted with care and dedication.
Instead of being set in one world, Septerra Core has seven of them. Make no mistake - those are really worlds, even though they are connected to each other and are part of one system. The striking difference between the worlds is what makes this setting so cool. You'll start on a post-apocalyptic Shell 2, in a deserted world with heaps of junk and people living among them. You'll complete one quest in this world, leave it, and the setting will change drastically. You are on Shell 3, which is a medieval-like society complete with old-fashioned towns, green grass fields, and knights fighting with swords. You leave Shell 3 and arrive in a modern society where two countries wage war, using weapons of massive destruction. And before you notice it, you are on the weird Shell 7, where nobody lives but the mysterious tribe of the Underlost, but where strange plants and mushrooms grow to form a gigantic mold forest just near the lava mountains.
This setting keeps you interested even at times when the story fails to do the same. The variety of locations is astonishing. Septerra Core is heavy on dungeon exploration, but you'll never feel the dungeons are repeating themselves. From the snow mountains near Armstrong to the futuristic Ankaran research lab, from the spooky graveyard to the colorful mold forest, from the subway tunnels to the claustrophobic Chosen palace - you'll be constantly switching environments that form a maximal contrast to each other. You are not tied to the same standard setting, but at the same time, each individual setting is convincing and engrossing in its own way. You'll be immersed by the plains around Wind City just the same way as by the sleazy World Bazaar with its Slums and Red Light District.
The setting comes to life thanks to beautiful graphics. Septerra Core looks a lot like Planescape: Torment or any other isometric RPG that comes to mind: small pre-rendered character models over pre-rendered backgrounds. While the characters could have used more work, the backgrounds are full of detail and sometimes can be atmospheric and immersive in a nearly magical way. In general, the visuals are almost impeccable and in fact better than in many real Japanese RPGs of the time.
The combat system in Septerra Core has its bright sides. The addition of the quasi-real-time element makes it more spicy than usually, and teaming up to discover new magic spells can get quite rewarding. Some of the enemies are pretty cool, and a special praise goes to boss battles. The bosses are for the most part tricky guys whom you cannot defeat simply by unleashing your most powerful attacks. There is often some sort of a puzzle surrounding a boss. This is much more interesting than simply hacking away without thinking. I enjoyed very much such encounters as for example the battles against the colored Magi in the Chosen palace. And of course, any game that eschews random battles automatically receives extra points for doing that.
I think Septerra Core is one of the very few games in its genre that handle the difficulty level just right. If you found its contemporary Final Fantasies too easy you can count on challenge in this one. However, this challenge is also far remote from "fight 5864 more enemies and gain 7 more levels to be able to survive the next boss battle" of earlier Japanese RPGs. Equipment preparation, party management and tactics are more important than your levels here. The party is well-balanced and the system manages to find the middle ground between old-school classes and the new fashion of characters with identical stats that can do anything at any time.
The characters are unfortunately not that interesting, but at least the game's Western creators didn't feel obliged to include a pink teddy bear or something like that to occupy the customary "kawaii" spot.
The BadThere are all sorts of negative little things that impede the enjoyment almost the same way as the positive little things I mentioned above enhance it. These may include stiff voice acting, occasional bad writing that makes following the story less interesting at times than just chatting with NPCs, palette-swapping enemies, excessively repetitive NPC portraits, wooden animation, a few interface-related weirdnesses, and so on. But nothing comes as close to ruining the game as the combat.
You see, there is nothing wrong with the battles of Septerra Core, but there is also nothing exciting in them. While Final Fantasy VII had spectacular shows with all sorts of explosions and other eye candy, and Western RPGs had depth and dynamics that compensated for the lack of effects, Septerra Core has neither. It has vanilla Japanese RPG combat where tiny people exchange pitifully-looking attacks until some of them drop dead. Worse, however, is the fact that battles take way too much time. There is a ridiculous leaping animation in the beginning of every single battle, and then you'll have to wait for the bars to fill. Enemies are often speedier than you and the game rarely allows you to get rid of them quickly. A fan patch adds a queuing command that at least reduces micro-management somewhat, but you'll still have to spend precious minutes staring at painfully uninteresting screens. Near the end of the game abusing powerful magic helps things a bit, but the first half is spent with a way too limited arsenal that never gives you the satisfaction of simply shredding your foes to pieces at once if you want to.
Dungeon design doesn't help to alleviate those annoyances at all. Even though there are no random enemies you can hardly ever avoid combat, and enemies blocking narrow passages will quickly become a recurrent sight. Most of the dungeons are designed in such a way that you have to flip switches or hunt for keys all the time. It is okay one time, but it becomes quite tedious when you have to do it in every single damn dungeon you enter. There is generally way too much backtracking in the game, you often have to exit huge areas by yourself and spend too much time running around where you have been before, fighting the same pre-set battles over and over again. This tedium is there for pretty much the entire game. The dichotomy between the graphical beauty of the dungeons and their uninspired structure creates strange hesitation, making you want to press forward to see how the next location looks like and at the same time quit the whole thing and catch some fresh air.
The story is very typical, featuring stuff like ancient prophecies, cosmic battles, a mysterious artifact, evil imperial general, and so on. Nothing wrong with that, but we've seen this stuff before and the writing does little to distinguish it from the many parallel examples within the genre. There is little extravagance in the plot and it's very predictable from the beginning to the end, so those hungry for improbable twists and Freudian traumas will be disappointed.
There is generally something stiff and almost awkward in the way the story of Septerra Core is presented. It is as if the writers tried to make it Japanese but were afraid or incapable of going all the way with that. Thus, the story emulates plot devices and outward characteristics of Japanese anime and video games, but is unable to truly reflect its spirit. This may constitute the game's biggest flaw for those who play Japanese RPGs mostly for the emotions. This is not to say that the story of Septerra Core lacks emotional moments, but they are badly delivered. Even though there are plenty of dramatic situations in the game, their impact is lessened because the characters fail to react adequately. Have you seen Layla after her father was killed? If Septerra Core were made by the Japanese, Layla would fall on the ground and weep bitterly, accompanied by touching Celtic tunes. In this game she just mumbles a few dry and unconvincing lines, ruining the moment and severing any emotional connection you might have begun to have with her.
It's even hard to care for your companions under such conditions: whenever you start feeling something warm they repel you with their indifference. We are hence forced to switch to an old-school mode where playing games with little characterization required us to create their personalities ourselves and invent our own fictional scenarios where they would be more prominently featured. The game also lacks dramatic presentation, with only a few cinematic cutscenes and no effects whatsoever during non-interactive events made with in-game engine. This would be absolutely fine in a Western RPG, but playing a Japanese-style RPG with little emotionality and drama is like eating a pizza without cheese.