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Septerra Core

Publisher: Monolith/Top Ware Interactive Developer: Valkyrie Studios
Reviewer: SenseiPhoenix Released: 1999
Gameplay: 95% Control: 85%
Graphics: 95% Sound/Music: 78%
Story: 90% Overall: 95%


With the division between PC and Console RPGs blurring, thanks to original games such as Diablo and Baldur's Gate, and to Square's ports of some of its Final Fantasy titles, it's no surprise that Septerra Core took the form that it did. Valkyrie Studios used its creative muscle to bring this delightful title to PC gamers, a title that might interest die hard console gamers in the much maligned PC platform.

Septerra Core tells the story of the world of Septerra, a planet, fashioned by the being only known as the Creator, as a clockwork. Septerra has 7 layers, world shells as they're called by the inhabitants, which rotate on the planet's axis, a giant organic spine that collects the energy of the rotation. This energy is stored in the core of the planet and is know, imaginatively, as Core Energy. The inhabitants of Septerra use this energy to power weapons, ships, even magic. Every 100 years the rotation of the world shells allows a beam of light from the sun to hit the core. It is at that time that the keys can be used to obtain the Gift of the Creator.

Long ago in Septerra's past, a demon angel named Gemma stole the two keys, fashioned by the Creator, that would unlock the power of the Core of Septerra and lead to the Kingdom of Heaven. Recognizing this threat, the Creator sent his son, Marduk, to stop Gemma and save the world. With the help of the angel Kyra, the trickster deity Dogo, and the Army of the Seven Winds, composed of soldiers made up from each world shell, Marduk was able to find Gemma and defeat him in a battle that lasted for 100 days. In the aftermath, Marduk created a city called Babylon and ruled the world there with Kyra as his bride. He also hid the Core Keys he retrieved from Gemma and issued a prophecy: One day, when the world of Septerra was in danger, the keys would be found and used to save it, allowing the people to receive the Gift of the Creator and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Into this world you are thrust, as Maya, a Junker from the Shell 2 town of Oasis. After your parents and your town were destroyed by the Shell 1 inhabitants, known as the Chosen, you came under the charge of a man named Uncle. From then on you have scavenged scrap, dropped by the Chosen, for profit, and so that your friend, Grubb could create the various mechanical devices he does.

Of course no plot would be truly complete without conflict, and that arises in the form of a Chosen general, Doskias, who fancies himself the savior of the world, and who plans to bring the world shell conjunction early so that he may receive the Gift of the Creator.

The plot thickens as the game progresses, with Maya meeting allies, and enemies, all while trying to unravel the secrets of the Core. The story does draw you in, though, and the characters, while a bit cliché and underdeveloped, still produce an enjoyable performance. It's also nice to see a female main character who is neither an exceedingly busty airhead or a distraught love interest (however, some of the supporting characters play those roles nicely). The only parallel that comes to mind are the Phantasy Star heroines of Alis Landale (PS1) and Alys Brangwin (PS4).

Septerra Core's story strikes a good balance between linear and non-linear (provided you get the patch for the game). In the beginning you're led from place to place with little chance to deviate from your assigned path, but during the mid and end game you have the chance to go exploring and make some decisions about which mission you'd like to do first. While there are points in the game in which I was totally lost about what to do next, the problem was usually because I completed an action out of sequence, a result of not having the patch to the game, found at Monolith's website (www.lith.com).

Moving on to gameplay, Septerra plays, surprisingly, like Chrono Trigger. You wander around the overworld map going from location to location in order to complete your current quest. When you reach a location you can enter, the screen shifts to the map of that location, be it a town or 'dungeon'. In towns you can talk to the people to get clues to your quest as well as items. Most of the time you have a choice, when in conversation, of having one of your party members talk, or of asking a specific question, represented by an icon next to your characters' portraits. The best part about conversation is that all the dialogue is spoken in the game, with decent voice acting.

There are also shops in the towns where you can purchase weapons, armor, items, etc. Each character uses certain weapons and armor, from swords and boots to core engines and grenade launchers. You also have the ability, using certain party members, to steal from shops, but getting caught raises the prices. All in all it's nothing innovative, but it's something comfortable and familiar to most gamers.

The real similarity to Chrono Trigger comes into play in the battle system. Enemies are visible on the map, ala Chrono Trigger, and when the enemies spot you, they, and your characters, leap into battle, literally. The battles take place on the map, in pre-positioned locations. So if you are spotted by enemy X, you leap into your assigned formations in the place specifically designed for battling enemy X. It can get repetitive, but it also allows you to develop a rock-solid strategy for fighting that particular enemy group.

In battle, your characters all have a three-segmented timer bar under their portraits that fill up at a rate dependent upon their own speed ratings. When the first segment is filled you can use your level 1 skills, when two segments are filled, you can use level 2 skills, etc. Each character comes with a basic attack for every level, but, depending on the criteria for your character, you can either learn (through the standard experience/level up system we all know and love) or buy new attacks/skills to add to your repertoire. Some of the skills offer area attacks, some can attack enemies in a straight line, etc. so that you can, and should, employ strategy in your attacks.

Non-basic skills and all spells draw from your team's common core bar. The core bar is akin to magic points, however the bar's total is the combined core energy of all three characters in the party, like a core pool. As long as there is core in the core pool, any member of the party can draw on it to use skills and magic. I really liked this system since it avoided the problem of one person not having enough core to do a great attack, while another person had tons of core and really useless attacks.

I also like the way magic was handled in the game. Magic is cast using Fate Cards that you acquire from enemies and treasure chests. Each card carries with it a power, such as a fire card or summon card, which can be used to cast a spell. Out of battle, magic can be used as long as you have the core energy to cast it. In battle, as long as your character has one segment of his or her timer bar filled, you can cast magic. In addition, some cards can be combined to fashion bigger and better spells, though they require two or three people to cast. And yes, when you find the cards, you keep them permanently.

The only problem I had with magic is that, until the later part of the game, magic isn't very useful, since the really good fate cards don't come until later on, and because you don't have that much core power with which to use the spells. Add to that a low psyche rating (the stat that determines the power of the spell) of your characters, and the spells are better left alone in favor of your skills and attacks.

There is also a slightly point-and-click adventure feel at times. Throughout the game you'll find key items that you have to use on the scenery or on people, or even on other key items. They present puzzles to the player, never exceedingly difficult to solve, but challenging enough to make you think. It's too bad more console RPGs don't implement this feature, I found it fun.

Now, I have to mention a downside to the gameplay, namely 'dungeons' in the game: they are too long! Perhaps it was because I was getting into the plot, or maybe because the game ran a bit slow because of my system specs, but I could only take so much dungeon crawling before it got tiresome. Most 'battle-areas' as I'll call them, have scores of puzzles that necessitate going back and forth to get this key, then put it in this door to get that key and put it in that door to get to the item you need to enter another battle-area!

The redeeming factor to all this dungeon crawling has to be the enemies. First, all the dungeon crawling and fighting makes sure that you're on the right level for the enemies you'll be facing. Second, since enemies are clearly visible on the area map, wandering around, doing what enemies do in their spare time, you can avoid them at least half of the time (though for the sake of experience, you shouldn't). The enemy AI is mediocre, but nothing terrible, so that they're predictable enough to take out with strategy, but don't just become boring repetitions of that same strategy.

On a final, and upbeat note, there are secrets in this game! Areas marked as ??? on the world map or ones not even marked at all contain useful weapons, armor, and items. Usually there is a puzzle of some sort to be solved before you can get the item (of note is the Bird Puzzle for the tower on Shell 3), but it's always worth it. Just remember to get the patch or else some might not be accessible to you.

The control in Septerra Core isn't bad at all, especially for a computer game. While I would have liked it more if I had been able to use a control pad, the menus were laid out well and most actions had hotkeys that performed the function of the mouse. You can either run or walk depending on how you hold the mouse buttons, and while I did get stuck sometimes while trying to get into certain tight spots, switching to the keyboard arrows solved that problem. Best of all is the tab button which gives you a map of the area you're in, pointing out entrances, exits, and stairs, along with your party's position. It was a godsend that I didn't realize was there until late in the game.

Using items is a breeze as well. Click it to select, then drag it around and if it takes on a yellow outline you can use it on whatever you're holding it over. Most helpful for key items, but also useful when you need to use a healing item on an undead enemy.

Graphics in the game were definitely above average, for the most part. You won't find any polygons here, just sprites that animate very nicely (provided you have a fast enough system). The colors in the game aren't exactly bright and vibrant, but neither are they dull and drab. They fit somewhere in between. There is so much detail in the huge labyrinths and towns, that no one area looks like a repeat of another. Backgrounds are pre-fab with what probably is a touch of CG in them, while the foreground, though rather static (i.e. trees don't sway in the breeze), is always pleasant to look at. Interspersed within the game are cutscenes rendered totally in CG. They were top notch, and they actually conveyed a sense of realism from the characters, even at the times when the voice acting didn't.

The spell effects were great, and unlike the later Final Fantasy Games, didn't take 8 minutes to play out (well, okay, on my computer they did, but only because it's slow). The summon spells are a real treat, my favorite one being the Gemma summon. They were neither too huge nor too diminutive.

The one qualm I had with the graphics were the enemies. Not the boss enemies, mind you, they were beautiful and, most times, big! I refer, rather, to the regular enemies that abound in the battle-areas. Pallet swapping at its worst here. There were few different enemies, and I can name them all in this review: wolf, bee, bee's nest, zombie, skull, necromancer, 2 soldier types, cyborg, 3 types of Helgak, lens beetle, regular beetle, crab, slug, worm, robot, mech and 4 types of pirate/bounty hunter-types. Now that might sound like a lot, written down, but trust me, 23 enemy types gets boring and repetitive really quickly. The only thing that differentiates most enemies are their color schemes, and it's very noticeable.

As far as the music goes, there was very little of it. In fact, there were fewer tracks than number of enemy types! I liked what music there was, especially the title theme. Most of the time, the music fit the situation, such as in World Shell 2. World Shell 2's music conveys the feeling of desolation and desert, and Shell 7's theme is sufficiently sub-terranian. I thought Shell 6's music was out of place. After all, a light tune like that really doesn't belong in a pirate world. The battle themes, (all 3 of them) were appropriately heroic, but there are no memorable tracks in this game, I'm afraid. It's too bad, this game needed more music.

On the other side of the equation, the sound effects were superb! Most levels relied only on a soundtrack of dripping water or blowing wind, or dense jungle noises to set the mood between battles. Fortunately the sound department did quite well on them. In-battle sound effects sounded realistic, such as with a beam attack or with the pulse rifle Maya uses. Also, the developers captured the sound of creatures with carapace well, but it was a bit overused. In some battles I felt like I was squishing bugs all the time, even if it were a zombie! Otherwise, the sound effects were great.

Now we come to the aspect of voice acting, and, if you read my Grandia review, to me, Voice Acting can make or break a game. Fortunately, this game did it right. All the characters were relatively convincing, and though not up to the standards of WD games, the voice acting added, rather than detracted from the total experience. Led's voice actress needed to be a little more distraught in a certain scene, and Lobo needed a little more of an edge to his voice. Maya could have done with some assertiveness training, but other than those flaws, which were rather minor, the voice acting is some of the best I've seen outside a Working Designs game, and that's quite a high accolade. And of course, best rewinding tape performance by an Underlost goes to Badu.

Septerra Core brings that much needed console RPG feel to a PC RPG, a feel that I rather missed in most PC RPGs. Valkyrie Studios and Monolith/TopWare brought this title out properly. It has just the right mix of everything I'd felt was missing from PC RPGs. It's very easily accessible to any console gamer who is able to read this review online, with the great graphics and sound PC gamers have come to expect from owning a computer. If you have a fast system (P233 or higher) I recommend this RPG (and the patch) to die hard PC and die hard console gamers alike. It's the best of both worlds, and might just be the firm bridge that can reconcile both sides.

And for those of you wondering if we'll ever see a sequel to Septerra Core, well, anyone who has seen the ending will shout a resounding yes! Maybe even three!

P.S. Thanks to Zephyr-Miasma's Septerra Core FAQ for getting me through the tricky parts!

Sensei
Phoenix

The battle system combines the interface of a PC RPG with an active time feature of a console RPG, making it accessible to anyone.

The CG cutscenes are of good quality, and all the dialogue is done with decent voice acting.







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