Rotten To The Core
Categorising a role playing game used to be simple... If the adventure was heavily loaded with statistics and featured armour-clad knights stomping around saying "verily" a lot, you could be certain it was a western developed RPG running on the PC.
If, however, you where faced with large milky-eyed characters with blue spikey hair, an emotional tear jerking plot, and days of leveling your character up, then you would know you were deeply involved with a Japanese RPG, and you would probably be playing it on a console.
Unsurprisingly, since the massive success of Final Fantasy VII on the PC we are starting to see these two styles cross-fertilizing, with western developed but Japanese styled creations like Silver and now Septerra Core throwing traditional RPG categories out of the window. Unfortunately the flawed Silver showed that, while the visuals and style of the Japanese masters can be replicated, the soul of the characters and the intricate storytelling of our eastern cousins is a tougher nut to crack.
Septerra Core's bizarre setting is a promising start, the world of Septerra being made up of seven separate continents stacked up above one another, and all orbiting the central living computer core which gives the game its title. These independent zones offer some fantastic varieties to the locations, with each layer distinctively different from the last as you travel on your way to this mysterious core at the center of the world.
An ancient prophecy that the core will one day be unlocked, bestowing great powers on the one who finds the key. A rich and greedy faction known as the Chosen who reside on the continent farthest from the core believe it is their destiny to unlock the core, and so begin their journey to the center of the world.
Our hero is a young scavenger girl named Maya who lives off the cast aside refuse that falls from the Chosen's shell on to her own land orbiting below. Maya witnesses the Chosen fleets travelling towards the core, and from that moment is drawn unwittingly into the prophecy...
Magic And Science
While all this talk of prophecy and keys draws on fantasy ethics, Septerra leans more towards science fiction and cyberpunk, with traditional magic and spells sitting alongside spaceships and big guns. Most of these extended abilities and weapons draw on an essence known as "Core Power", and it is the distribution of this resource that is the most unique part of this game.
As you travel through the lands you will come across characters willing to join up and assist you in your quest. These new members will bring in more of the Core Power, and crucially these extra points can be utilised by the whole party, opening up stronger attacks for everyone.
Many of these special attacks are in the form of magic spells, learned from the fate cards that are scattered along your quest. There are over twenty of these cards to discover, including a summon spell similar to Final Fantasy VII's awesome range of summoning materia.
This special attack system works very well indeed, but unfortunately the rest of combat fails to keep up the pace. Unlike many games of this style, in Septerra Core your enemies are visible on screen before you encounter them. It's often possible to avoid them, and this becomes a god send after enduring only the first few battles.
Once engaged your party and the creature(s) will move into a set combat stance and start pasting each other in timed attack rounds. You are given the choice to make frequent but weak attacks, or to wait exposed for several turns to make a more powerful strike at the enemy.
While it may sound more engaging than battles in other role playing games, it makes the flow of combat sadly jilted, and fights are predictable and excruciatingly slow. Even worse are the limited and repetitive animations that your members perform throughout combat - it is utterly painful to watch, and there is no way of speeding the action up.
You will soon find yourself desperately trying to avoid combat just to spare yourself the nail-pulling torture of the badly animated encounter.
Everything else about the game follows traditional console RPG rules.
You must ask questions from everyone you meet that isn't hostile. You also make friends who will join the quest, though some of these don't get on with each other, and the infighting can be a welcome relief. Time must also be spent repeatedly attacking weaker foes in order to "level up" to be able to tackle a stronger enemy you must fight to progress the plot.
Communication with the denizens of Septerra is voiced rather than presented in text, and while this might appeal to lazier players it really does limit the number of dialog options available. You will only ever get two or three options when talking to a new character, you will most likely ask each in turn, and that's your lot.
There is none of the deep and complex inquiries found in recent roleplayers like Planescape Torment, and that really limits the credibility and depth of character of the personalities you meet on your travels.
These limitations aren't just annoyances unfortunately - a strong plot is fundamental to this kind of adventure, and while the background world and accompanying visuals are vivid, well constructed and imaginative, they aren't supported by believable characters and an interesting plot.
The spoken dialog is at times so badly acted, and the story so complex, that in the end you simply stop caring about the uninteresting characters under your control.
It seems that western developers can almost match the visual style and splendour of the Japanese old hands, but they simply can't follow it all through and provide a gripping story and intuitive play system.
If Final Fantasy VII and VIII are happy memories for you, do yourself a favour and give Septerra Core a miss.