Part 2 of our Further Exploration feature includes high-flying adventures, dreams of a complete space epic, and more!
Like with page 1, several plot elements of these writeups fall into spoiler territory, so keep that in mind as you read through!
Intro by Mike Salbato
Jump to a game:
Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator
Writeup by Neal Chandran
Septerra Core is a Japanese-console-style RPG for the PC developed by Valkyrie Studios, published by Monolith/Top Ware Interactive, and released in 1999. Modeled after the prominent JRPGs of the era, it features 2D sprites over pre-rendered environments and cool CG cutscenes. It takes place in a cleverly designed, multi-tiered world on the verge of a great prophecy. While a zealous elite from the topmost world shell seeks out the prophecy for himself, the game centers around a determined young lady named Maya. She lives on the second world shell and makes her living salvaging the junk deposited from the first world shell. Like any good RPG narrative, Fate’s hand pulls Maya out of her menial existence and into a grand journey across myriad world shells beyond imagination.
What I like best about Septerra Core is the world itself. The creative design of a world consisting of multiple layers (like an onion) rotating around a core is neat, and every world shell is unique. From the lush natural shells to the seedy urban locations, every place is an absolute treat to discover and explore. Equally unique is the diverse cast of characters, some of whom do not get along at all. They attack each other during battles unless the player does special sidequests to make them see eye-to-eye. The East-meets-West visual design for world and characters is colorful without being too gaudy and over-the-top. Seeing a believable female protagonist wearing full body armor is a refreshing change; Maya is one of the better female protagonists I’ve seen in an RPG and a personal favorite. The writing and voice acting are very good as well. The game has its flaws, such as a slow ATB-style battle engine, minimal music, an unbalanced magic system, some overly lengthy dungeons, too many palette swapped enemies, and no gamepad support. But despite those flaws, I was still drawn to the world and its inhabitants.
So why does Septerra Core deserve a sequel? Well, for starters, the game left off with an ending that sets up a sequel or two, so if that is not the best reason for another installment, I don’t know what is. Sure, Maya and company’s story wraps up nicely, but there are new worlds out there waiting to be explored and a mythos wide open for expansion. I can see future installments where a hero or heroine reveres the legendary hero Maya, almost like how Alis Landale is revered in Phantasy Star IV. Speaking of Phantasy Star, I would love to see Septerra Core become an interplanetary epic akin to the pre-Online Phantasy Star games. After seeing the world of Septerra, I’m curious as to what other kinds of worlds the developers can imagine. With all the complaints nowadays of RPG worlds being one-note or overworlds being non-existent, the vibrancy of Septerra Core‘s world would appeal to players now.
A sequel could also tweak some of the rookie flaws from the first game. First and foremost, a game like this screams for gamepad support. Yes, the interface is very user-friendly in its current form, but gamers who would typically play this sort of game would undeniably want gamepad support without the need for external software like XPadder. Secondly, the game also screams for more and better music. The atmospheric overworld themes are fine, but the battle themes need more punch and the towns and dungeons, despite having stellar sound effects, could use some music. To improve the diversity of the environments, the sequel would need a more extensive variety of enemy types. To make progression less sluggish, increasing running speed and making running the default speed could help dungeons feel more manageable. Some gamers may even wish to see dungeons shortened a hair. Speeding up ATB bars for characters, or just switching to a straight turn-based battle system, would make battles play out more quickly. And finally, rebalancing the magic system could turn it into the useful and strategic element the creators intended it to be.
Despite the game’s flaws, I still respect the aspects it gets right and maintain a soft spot for the game due to its potential. And as the old saying goes, where there’s potential, there’s possibilities. I’m not looking for a Septerra Core sequel to reinvent the wheel. What I really want is an expansion of the universe and mythos set up by the first game with some of the aforementioned gameplay tweaks to make overall progression feel less lethargic. I think there is room in the industry for traditional Japanese-style RPGs like this, especially since we in the RPGFan community still enjoy the genre. Even better is when we have games like Septerra Core and Anachronox that add a unique perspective to the JRPG narrative owing to their developers’ non-Japanese roots.
Many players regard Septerra Core as the right game on the wrong platform, maybe even at the wrong time. The turn-based play mechanics and Japanese inspired style may not have sat as well with longstanding PC RPG players as they would with console RPG players. Those same console players who would have eaten up the game probably said, “Yeah, this game looks cool, but I think I’ll wait till it comes out on Dreamcast or something.” So although I believe that this game sorely deserves a sequel, it may not happen since not enough people played the first game, and we haven’t heard from Valkyrie Studios in a while. That being said, Septerra Core can be found for $5-$6 in legitimate online and brick-and-mortar establishments so it’s definitely a stellar value for the money. Check it out and maybe you’ll agree with me that this is a game whose universe definitely deserves to be revisited.
Skies of Arcadia
Writeup by Stephen Meyerink
There is a moment early on in the Dreamcast classic Skies of Arcadia when you are exploring a temple in the hopes of finding a fantastically valuable treasure that has crashed into it, and you pass through a hallway and step outside. You walk out onto a bridge and notice stones and dirt above your head: the underside of the island. You look down and see the vast, blue sky stretching on beneath, you. Another moment has you climbing a high ladder in your home island, and you look out past the land at the sea. Not the ocean, of course, but the sea of sky stretching on endlessly before you. The spirit of adventure and of discovering more beautifully realized settings like this one, is what powers the entirety of Skies of Arcadia.
Skies of Arcadia is a well-beloved classic for many of the same reasons that the SNES classic Chrono Trigger is. The plot is unpretentious yet engaging, and the characters utterly lovable–their relationships forming the heart of the story. The gameplay is simple, yet refined in a way that encouraged a degree of strategic thinking. Most importantly, though, the game’s theme of chasing adventure and the unknown permeates absolutely every aspect, much like the original Grandia.
Skies of Arcadia takes what could have been a generic RPG world and plot, and through careful refinement—not to mention the fully-realized potential of the “islands in the sky” setting—it became something far more memorable. Each country the player visits is unique in both appearance and atmosphere, and the dungeons, which started out with the beautiful Shrine Island, only ever improve on the initial promise of the sky-bound setting. In one of the most inspired touches, every major country has its own musical theme, and when you sail through a particular land on your flying ship, the background music shifts subtly to incorporate key instrumentation and audio cues from that country, so that even if land is not in sight, you know where in the world you are.
From the earliest part of the game, Skies encourages exploration and adventure. The Discovery system allows you to hunt down rare locations and objects, giving you incentive to fly out to the farthest reaches and check out each and every chunk of floating land, no matter how small or out of the way. After acquiring your own private island and ship, you can scour the world in search of the most talented crew members to man the ship, each having a unique effect during ship-to-ship combat—another well-realized facet of the game. One of your lead characters can only power up her weapon—a mercilessly cute silver thingy called Cupil—through the use of a hot-and-cold minigame that pipes little sounds through the VMU when you come within range of its favorite food. From the very outset of the game, you simply know that someday, you will dive beneath Deep Sky to see the world below.
Skies of Arcadia represents a kind of RPG experience that is what many of us frequently lament the loss of these days. It represents a kind of “un-pretention”–a belief that the simple spirit of adventure in a beautiful world and enjoyably engaging characters were reason enough to see a tale through to its conclusion. The combat is fluid, if a bit time consuming, and the party shared a common pool of Spirit Points, required for many of the more powerful actions your characters can perform. This engendered a degree of light strategy, with the player considering how to make use of their limited SP. For years I had hoped for a true turn-based successor to the stellar original Phantasy Star quadrilogy—and while we still haven’t gotten one, Skies of Arcadia was the next best thing. Also, rather than a brooding loner, the hero, Vyse, is an upbeat Air Pirate who represents everything good about the RPG heroes of old—why did he save the world? Because that’s what nice guys do!
The team responsible for Skies of Arcadia, Overworks, produced a few other titles you may have heard of, like Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star, Shinobi, Alex Kidd, and the sadly never-localized Phantasy Star Generation 1 and Generation 2 remakes. The company is still together today and clearly still has the chops to produce quality RPGs—those of you that enjoyed the Valkyria Chronicles games can attest to that. Some of Skies‘ protagonists even made an appearance in the original Valkyria Chronicles, so we know that Sega certainly hasn’t forgotten them. So what’s stopping them from delivering the oft-requested sequel? It’s certainly not because they’re busy at work on a new entry in the original series of Phantasy Star games (which, truthfully, would be a great and totally acceptable reason). If Valkyria Chronicles is any indication, this team clearly still remembers the things that made Skies of Arcadia so memorable for so many people, and the potential to take those strong foundations and build a new sequel on a modern console undoubtedly exists.
This piece represents my sincere hope that we have not seen the last of the land of Arcadia, and that someday we’ll see how beautiful its skies could look in HD.
Writeup by Abraham Ashton Liu
Some of the most memorable games have made their mark not only by virtue of excellent gameplay or aesthetics, but also by having created a vivid and imaginative setting whose story was told over several years, spread throughout a series of games. This method of storytelling has worked for almost as long as gaming has existed, from the Fallout‘s apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to the idyllic Fantasy land of Lufia. Instead of creating worlds that were tossed aside and discarded at the end of each game, these titles focused on creating the universe bit by bit and letting players explore unique areas or periods of time within these settings. Even non-RPGs have benefited from this method of storytelling and world building; the Halo series has more depth and detail to its lore than your average Tales or Final Fantasy game.
One of the series that utilized this form of storytelling to its fullest potential was Suikoden. Each game focused on a specific region and time period of the Suikoden world, and gave insight and subtle hints not only to the background of the setting, but also to the individual cultures and ideologies of the people that populated the world. These ideologies and cultures, much like the real world, would often lead to conflicts over sovereignty and independence. From the deep-seated mistrust between the Grassland clans and the merchant nation of Zexen that led to a tense and uneasy alliance against a common enemy, to the unforgettable struggles of the City States of Jowston to maintain their independence from a madman-led Highland Kingdom, there has been no shortage of conflict and war throughout the series.
War has always been a pivotal aspect of the Suikoden games. Each entry in the series focuses on the most important battles in the country where it is set, and while other games have been content to have lead characters only at the periphery of major conflicts in the storyline, the Suikoden series dared to be different and cast its players in the roles of unlikely generals fighting for their survival. As a result, each game is a humanized look on war and the terrors it unleashes not only on the civilians, but also on those who have been placed on the frontlines. The lead characters were constantly forced to endure hardships and sacrifice before ending the conflict for good, and in successive games we were given a glimpse of how successful (or unsuccessful) their struggles ended up being. This created a living, breathing world that aged and evolved with each successive game, where characters from previous games would make appearances to show us the extent of their growth and adaptation (or, in some cases, lack thereof) to the ever-changing political climate.
The games were not lacking in the gameplay department, either; each main entry featured three different methods of play that were dependent on the scale of the battle: one-on-one fights, group battles, or army conflicts. One-on-one fights were akin to rock-paper-scissors, with players making educated guesses about what the opponent was about to do based on their attitude during combat. Group battles, which made up most of the game, were small scale skirmishes that took place as turn-based battles. Army conflicts proceeded as strategy-type minigames focused on leading your armies in large-scale fights. This varied style of gameplay set Suikoden apart in an era chock-full of “me too!” RPGs riding on the coattails of the Final Fantasy craze.
The Suikoden timeline reached its furthest in the third mainline entry, Suikoden III, during which Yoshitaka Murayama, the creator and brains behind the series, left Konami because of creative differences. As a result, in successive entries, Konami has opted to explore the rich history of the Suikoden world (IV, V, and Tactics) and alternate realities (Tierkreis). While each of these games have had excellent stories and contributed much to the series canon, the future of the Suikoden series — both literal and figurative — remains in doubt.
With so many questions unanswered and so few games that offered satisfying conclusions to the mysteries presented to players, continuation seemed to be a no-brainer. With such a rich history and fascinating elements to the story, Suikoden still has many questions that need answering. Suikoden VI should continue where Suikoden III left off, and answer the questions that fans have been asking since the inception of the series. What are the actual goals of Hikusaak and the Holy Kingdom of Harmonia? Who are Jeane and Viki, and why don’t they ever seem to age? Did Pesmerga ever catch Yuber, and what was the result? What are Leaknaat’s plans? How do the True Runes figure into everything? With every entry into the series, there have been few answers and only more questions. If Konami is to offer a satisfying conclusion but doesn’t want to commit to the series, they should just end it; make Suikoden VI the final entry in the series, and offer conclusions and answers to as many mysteries of the series as possible — if they were able to manage the trainwreck that was Metal Gear Solid‘s story, solving the riddles that have been plaguing Suikoden from its early days should be easy by comparison.
Unfortunately, it’s been five years since a mainline Suikoden game has been released and Konami shows no signs of making another. Fans are left to do nothing but speculate and grasp at any amount of information trickling out. The mysteries of Suikoden may be destined to be forgotten and never solved, but this fan still hopes that Konami hasn’t forgotten its flagship RPG series. There are still many more adventures to be had and questions to be answered in the world of Suikoden.
Writeup by Robert Steinman
I’m a gameplay guy. I tend to focus on the way the game plays first and foremost. While I enjoy a good story, it is very rare that I will continue to play something that I find “not fun” strictly for the narrative. In fact, I can only think of one title off the top of my head that grabbed me due to the narrative more than anything else: Vagrant Story.
Vagrant Story was released at a time of experimentation for Squaresoft. The Japanese company was busy experimenting with samurai simulators, side-scrolling shooters, and cinematic RPGs while they were releasing the occasional Final Fantasy title to much deserved fanfare. Yasumi Matsuno, having completed work on the amazing (and often bewildering) Final Fantasy Tactics, directed Vagrant Story, and his presence is felt throughout the entire experience. The story follows Ashley Riot, a special agent tasked with stopping the enigmatic Sydney following an attack on the local Duke’s mansion. Imagine the cinematic quality of Metal Gear Solid, an adult script focused on the nature of identity, and a fantastically realized “villain” and you begin to see why Vagrant Story is a game in desperate need of a sequel. Really, the less I say about the story the better. It is something that has to be experienced for yourself. Fans of the Final Fantasy titles taking place in Ivalice should also note that Vagrant Story is set in the neighboring kingdom of Valendia.
It’s amazing to me how well the title has aged over the past decade. The cinematic direction is still second to none, with clever camera tricks used to punctuate key scenes. Intriguing twists and turns in the narrative may seem almost clichéd nowadays, but you have to remember that many of these plot developments were used here before they had become blasé. The game even ends on a wonderful cliffhanger that opens things up for a sequel. This world is just begging to be revisited.
Vagrant Story‘s gameplay is by no means bad, but it certainly didn’t drive me to complete the quest. Matsuno lifted the basic design from Parasite Eve and then added a great number of options and permutations to the formula. Imagine the original Model-T compared to a modern Corvette and you have the basic idea. You select an enemy to attack and then proceed to attack in a rhythm-based system. You get specific attacks to combo together that can do everything from steal HP and MP to inflict poison and other status effects. But you have to maintain your Risk Gauge, which rises with every successful attack, and leads to an increase in critical hits you give and receive. Every enemy in the game fits into a specific group of categories, and every weapon has a rating against each type. I could go on and on about the crafting system, the way weapons develop based on repeated use, the magic system, and dummies you can pummel to develop the perfect weapon, but I would honestly need to devote a college class to the subject. Vagrant Story is epically deep, which is both a blessing and a curse. The game can keep a diligent player busy for hours, or force a lesser man/woman into a fetal position. Truth be told, I never clung to the gameplay of Vagrant Story because I found it simply too daunting to think about the amount of time I would need to invest to truly master the system (and the less said about those blasted block puzzles the better).
No, Vagrant Story kept me interested because of the world and characters. I would love to see the story of Ashley Riot continue, but I shudder to think what the result would be. Very few games threat the audience with this level of respect. Many cite Final Fantasy XII, also (partly, at least) directed by Matsuno to feature a storyline rife with mystery and intrigue, but comparing it to Vagrant Story is like sending a small child out into the ocean to fistfight a shark. Given Square Enix’s latest efforts (as well as their continued focus on style rather than substance), I can’t help but feel that Ashley would appear on the scene riding a motorcycle and sporting a level of ennui usually associated with fashion models. Vagrant Story is about subtlety and letting the audience determine for themselves what exactly happens. I doubt we’ll ever return to the world of Valendia, but I can always hope.
Writeup by Liz Maas
You remember Xenogears, right? Well who doesn’t? The game opens with a large spaceship crash-landing on a planet, leaving behind a beautiful woman with long, lavender hair, but for most of the game, you have no idea what this opening movie has to do with what you are playing. You take control of Fei Fong Wong, whose peaceful, serene village is destroyed almost right off the bat. At the same time, he is forced to take control of a giant, sought-after mech. Leaving his corner of the continent, he meets Elly and journeys across the world, after which the plot thickens… and thickens… and thickens. In fact, the plot ended up with a bigger scope than Square may have been capable of pulling off in a single game: waxing philosophical, trying to tie in religious references, and bringing in a lot of technological advancements at the same time.
Xenogears is sort of a puzzle, where the game hands you a few pieces at a time, sometimes several in a row that belonged in your area of the puzzle. Every once in a while, though, they’d show you pieces totally unrelated to what you actually have put together – pieces that look like they don’t even belong in the same picture as the rest. But if that’s the case, why are they handing you these pieces? You keep getting more and more of them, but can’t seem to decide where they all fit, or if they fit at all. In the end, you have a huge, gorgeous puzzle which you still feel may be defective – ten years later, you’re still not sure that Square Enix ever handed over all the pieces. Still, there’s enough fulfillment that asking the manufacturer for a refund doesn’t quite cross your mind.
Many Xenogears fanatics already know about — and probably even own — Perfect Works, which is essentially the game’s bible. It outlines six episodes in the Xenogears universe’s timeline, of which the game was the fifth. Given all of the backstory in Perfect Works, it’s easy to see Xenogears as falling so late in this timeline, as there’s more than enough material to fill up the four preceding episodes. As we know, it didn’t quite work out that way. Xenogears was the lone episode-turned-game (I will get to Xenosaga in a minute), and as a result, a lot of background history was crammed into later parts of Disc 1 and pretty much all of Disc 2, often in the form of text — lots of text. I realize that wasn’t Disc 2’s only problem, as the team had to rush the last half of the game, but that certainly didn’t help matters.
You may recall that a lot of the staff behind Xenogears left Square to create Monolith Soft. Imagine that this staff had stayed at Square. Instead of forming Monolith Soft and making Xenosaga — which could only allude to Xenogears, but not directly reference it due to copyright issues — imagine that they had released true Episodes I, II, etc. of Xenogears. Not Xenosaga, not Xenoblade, not anything else — but episodes that really followed and fleshed out the Perfect Works timeline. Wouldn’t that have been something? Yes, in the real world, you can loosely connect Xenosaga to Xenogears, but you could only match it up to a degree. And let’s face it, who wants to believe that Citan Uzuki’s ancestor was as high-strung, gullible and generally annoying as Shion? It doesn’t help that the Xenosaga series, meant to span six episodes, stopped at Episode III. There was so much story left untold!
With true Xenogears episodes, we could have seen a more direct buildup to the fifth episode. Perhaps we would have gotten a clearer picture of how things led to the ship crash-landing, or even of life on that ship before the crash. What about Krelian, Sophia, and more about Abel himself? How did they go about this new world as they populated it, and adopt the philosophies that they did? To see what was explained in Xenogears actually played out as a video game, rather than thrown at players in flashbacks and hundreds of paragraphs of text, would certainly undo much of the confusion. Perhaps we would even feel a connection to characters who are supposed to be integral to the Xenogears universe. This is not necessarily the fault of the story itself, but rather the horrid pacing and the fact that they had so much ground to cover. Even for an 80-hour game, it was a tall order, and in the end, not everything was entirely clear, but that is where the sixth episode was supposed to come in.
You could argue that Xenogears and Xenosaga had similarities even in the battle system, with different buttons producing different attacks to string together combos. Unfortunately for Xenosaga, the battles were executed poorly, and were tedious more often than not, at least in the first episode. The mech designs also left much to be desired. Things did improve over the next two episodes, but the battles never seemed as quick and fun as they were in Xenogears. Certainly, they weren’t perfect in Xenogears either (the Gear battles were more enjoyable, and whenever Citan had a sword it was an assault on your ears and speakers), but those issues could have been tweaked, improved and built upon in subsequent episodes. This is also true for other areas of Xenogears — its blend of 2D and 3D graphics were certainly charming twelve years ago, but they haven’t aged well at all.
That’s not to say that Xenosaga was a bad series in real life. It had its merits, such as its story (especially Albedo) and its cleaner visuals, but much of its shelf life was spent in the rather large shadow of Xenogears, and the fact that it simply couldn’t legally be (and was never supposed to be) Xenogears was its major fault in the eyes of many fans.