Almost as old as the PC vs. console debate is the argument over which of the two has the true role-playing games (RPGs). PC gamers have long held that their RPGs, which had more open-ended stories, more realistic graphics, and more appropriate subject matter, offered a truer role-playing experience than their console counterparts. Pro-console gamers, on the other hand, favored their RPGs more linear nature that focused on story progression and emphasized character interaction. This argument has recently reheated now that the PC owners market has overlapped that of console owners; which means that more and more RPGs that were previously specific to one platform (i.e. Diablo and Final Fantasy VII) are now finding themselves on other platforms and forcing these other gamers to deal with them as well. Spearheaded by the success of the Final Fantasy VII port and the coinciding warm reception to it by the mainstream, a slew of console-type RPGs were to be released on the PC in 1999. One of these games was Septerra Core. Here is a PC game that not only doesnt hide its console roots, but rather unabashedly embraces it and, in my opinion, succeeds because of it.
I think Valkyrie Studios was successful in pulling in newcomers and jaded PC gamers alike by offering some of the most refreshing stories and settings that Ive come across in a long time. Admittedly, the game revolves around a typical "godlike being having created a world" scenario (this world is called Septerra and its creator is called The Creator) and begins with a usual "gift-of-heaven bestowed upon lucky souls" getup, but it quickly evolves into a deeper and more entertaining story. Septerra is a world that resembles an incomplete puzzle that The Creator forgot to finish, but in actuality, it is a patchwork of seven different planetary layers linked by a biomechanical spine. As it turns out, this spine is actually a part of a super-computer whose core controls the rotation of the planets layers. In the prophesy, The Creator programmed the core to rotate the layers in such a way that every hundred years, they would line up and, with the help of a hidden key, a gift called the Heavens Gate would be revealed to them. Naturally, there are those who feel they have a natural right to it and these beings call themselves the Chosen, who live on the outermost shell of Septerra (World Shell Seven). There is hope for the world, however, when a young woman, Maya, and her friends, who are from World Shell Two, are accidentally thrown in the middle of the whole affair and, hence, the adventure begins.
Such a science-fictional premise will remind PlayStation owners (and some younger PC gamers) of the famed Final Fantasy series. Their similarities really mount with just one look at the opening CGI sequences and character designs. Valkyrie Studios made sure that Septerra Core maintained a Japanese animation (anime) look, which is in stark contrast to the milieu of PC RPGs out there. Everything from the characters and objects to the machinery in Septerra Core are drawn with a very stylistic look; the women and men in the game have the bizarre hair colors and unique clothing that one would expect from an anime series. The welcomest adaptation, however, is also what separates Septerra Core from perhaps 99% of all other games made today. The trend these days seems to be buxom heroines in ridiculous outfits parading about the screen, but thankfully, Septerra Core's lead character Maya is quite the opposite. Shes a tough lead character who, in keeping with anime influences, can handle herself in any situation and does very little jiggling in the process.
The battle system is pretty standard as far as RPGs go. Battles are not the random occurrences that they are in other games; instead, the enemy is always in plain sight and on the screen so I could pick and choose my fights. When I did instigate a fight, however, Septerra Core's battle system proves itself pretty solid. Each turn is handled in real-time, but the power meter is broken up into increments of three, which means that up to three levels of attacks could be performed with each turn. With some of the characters, there were additional modes that allowed for casting spells or repairing robot companions (they couldn't be healed like human characters), which had to be figured in during battles. Septerra Core also delivers respectably in the magic department. At the start, the spells were pretty standard fare; each character comes to obtain special Fate Cards that allowed each person to use elemental magic. As the enemies got more and more powerful, however, it was great to see that there was the option to combine some of these spells to create even more powerful ones. It was here that my comparisons to Final Fantasy had reached a peak, because Septerra Core's magic spells could rival thos of Final Fantasy VIII's. Yet, this comes at a price because special moves (and some of the regular attacks) use up the games valuable Core Energy. Core Energy exists in everything from my weapons to my character's own body; if I use certain weapons or cast certain spells, I would use up my Core Energy, which must then be replenished before I were to continue. It's an interesting take on the whole Magic Points system that most other games use.
Where Septerra Core really falters, however, is in the key areas that usually make or break RPGs. Battles are a key part of RPGs because they not only help build skills like new fighting techniques or magical spells, but more importantly, battles serve as the tension builders in between cutscenes, which ultimately advances the story. With that said, it was rare that, in Septerra Core, my characters life ever felt like it was in any real danger. Coupled with the fact that all the enemies are onscreen for me to see and avoid, if I was ever low on energy, I stood a good chance of easily getting around them and off to a town to heal up. Another major downfall is the linear gameplay. On a console, it wouldnt be that noticeable, but given the PC platform, I couldnt help but be taken aback by the way I was lead around the world of Septerra. As soon as the story starts, I was sent off from point A to point B and even though I know it's just a tool used to move the excellent story along, this knowledge didnt lessen my shock.
Also, while I praise the games graphics, I just cant be as complimentary of the character animations. Having to watch my guys hop across the screen and go through the same scripted attack animations over and over became annoying rather quickly. In hindsight, I am sure I got used to it when I saw it on consoles years ago, but from a game released so recently, I just had to expect more. Septerra Core suffers in the audio department as well. The music is excellent in some areas, but it is just below average in others and unfortunately, it was usually the latter that I was forced to listen to while traveling the various world maps. Furthermore, the dubbings in this game are some of the best work I've come across, but there are times that it feels stilted and characters, annoyingly, do not move their lips in tune with the dialog. It's nothing major but it was certainly noticeable. And finally, I have to say that, given its console leanings, I was surprised that Valkyrie Studios didnt go for some sort of a gamepad support. Using a mouse was a dream when it came to the games menus, but when it came time to navigate the characters themselves, the mouse was not very cooperative.
With market trends show that more and more PC users own consoles and vice versa, the availability of both types of RPGs will only increase but, I'm afraid, this RPG argument still shows little signs of slowing. However, one need only look at more traditional games like Ultima Ascension alongside a game like Septerra Core to see that there is room for both in a gamer's library. While PC RPGs like Ultima Ascension offers an unreal amount of choice available to players, console RPGs along the lines of Septerra Core tend to cut things down and excel in the storytelling department. I would hope that this pulls PC gamers toward Septerra Core, because storytelling is definitely one of the areas that it excels in. The game does have a few flaws, but when it comes down to the overall presentation, you wont go wrong with Septerra Core.
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