Septerra Core isn't enthralling or flashy, and for the most part, its reliance on Japanese console role-playing conventions of games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy doesn't allow it to be particularly original. It's got some interesting characters, a user-friendly interface, and an intriguing magic system, but it gets bogged down by both minor and major problems.
The game itself takes place in the anime-style sci-fi/fantasy hybrid world of Septerra; a world not unlike that of Hayao Miyazaki's anime Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind or Square's Final Fantasy VII. Septerra is a seven-layered planet across which magic spells and machine guns are equally common. The main character Maya leads the relatively peaceful life of a junk scavenger on Shell 2 until she finds herself embroiled in a plot that endangers the entire world. Maya and her friends must race down through the layers, or "shells," of the world in order to stop a power-hungry warlord from seizing the ancient power of the core. Throughout her travels, she encounters space pirates, cyborgs, magi, and giant insects and allies herself with swordsmen, gearheads, bounty hunters, a mutant, and a robotic dog.
The story itself is fairly complex and involves a good deal of character interaction. Though the game takes place on an alien world filled with exotic creatures, locations, and people, none of it ever seems hopelessly arcane, since information is constantly laid out before you in the form of not-so-subtle dialogue hints. Each of Maya's eight companions is also fairly interesting, and in a few specific cases they'll actually attack each other, though you can eventually resolve their differences by completing optional side quests. As with Chrono Trigger, you can have a maximum of three characters in your party at a time; so at different points in the game, you'll have the option to customize your party with different characters depending on the situation.
Septerra Core's visuals aren't nearly as good as its story. It runs at a maximum resolution of 640x480, which is a shame because the low resolution doesn't do justice to the colorful and beautifully crafted backgrounds. Though these flat 2D backdrops don't benefit from bump-mapping, lightsourcing, or other fancy technical effects, they're varied, detailed, and generally look quite nice.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the poorly animated character and portrait graphics. The rendered character models suffer from a sheer lack of frames of animation; as a result, they walk, run, move, and fight with an unflatteringly jerky stiffness that clashes with the detailed backgrounds. The rendered speech portraits are similarly jarring; speaking characters' faces are fully animated in order to express emotion, and they're effective in some cases - but much of the time, they resemble nothing more than second-rate claymation.
Fortunately, Septerra Core sounds better than it looks. For the most part, there are two instances in which music plays: on the overland map and in combat. In either case, all of it is appropriate, even if none of it is particularly memorable. However, the spoken dialogue and sound effects are far more distinct, even if they aren't uniformly good. Septerra Core's voice acting is inconsistent; at times, it's downright horrible, though much of it is passable, and some of it is truly superb. Also, sound effects like the swinging of swords and staves and the spouting of toxic chemicals from mutant monsters are subdued, while gunfire, explosions, and laser blast effects are all suitably loud and clear. Septerra Core has a few other good points. One of these is the excellent exploration interface. Moving your characters couldn't be easier: All you need to do is click once on the desired destination to send them there, and you can even double-click to make them run. You can also hold down the mouse button to lead them manually, which comes in handy for scouting unknown areas and avoiding unwanted combat. In addition, while exploring a town, a dungeon, or the overland map, all of your healing items and keys can be called up at any time simply by scrolling the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen. And the inventory screen, which houses every important game option, like saving and loading games, examining and equipping your characters, and using items, is just one click away.
Septerra Core's magic spell system is easily its most interesting feature. Many special abilities and all magic spells expend "core power," Septerra Core's equivalent of spell points. Each party member has a different amount of core points he contributes to the party's pool; the larger the pool, the more special abilities and magical spells available to all. Spells themselves are cast with magical "fate" cards, which can be found in treasure chests or after defeating key enemies. Each of these 22 cards can be used individually or with other cards to produce powerful effects. Most notable of these is the summon card, which when used with other cards conjures up gigantic creatures and deities to attack your enemies in an obvious homage to Final Fantasy VII's spectacularly absurd summon spells. Unfortunately, the stilted animation and low resolution of Septerra Core's summon combinations still can't hold a candle to the blocky, bloated demons and dragons of Final Fantasy VII's already-aged graphics engine.
But for all its apparent strengths, Septerra Core's almost completely linear structure makes for a terrible weakness. Casting spells, talking to the locals, and admiring the scenery may seem fun, but this enjoyment is nearly always short-lived, as you'll eventually find yourself at an impasse. At this point, you'll be forced to wander about in search of the red key, the desert hermit, the switch that will open the graveyard gate, or some other key item or encounter that will let you progress. Even if you decide not to explore your surroundings, the structure of the story forces you to backtrack to locations you've already visited - and this invariably means fighting monsters along the way.
And fighting monsters is without a doubt the worst thing about Septerra Core. It's true that none of the scripted encounters is especially tough to beat, and each is well paced with respect to the level of your enemies and your party members. And most other encounters aren't that tough, either; your party will rarely if ever be completely outclassed by standard monsters, and if it is, you can usually hole up in the nearest town, rest in the inn, and try to gain a few levels against easier foes before trying again. In the case of these regular encounters, it's actually sometimes possible to avoid combat altogether by guiding your party around enemies, since most enemies are clearly visible on the map.
Unfortunately, all encounters - scripted or not - use the same thoroughly tedious interface. The actual combat uses a modified version of the Final Fantasy "timed turns" system: Each character has three time segments in his turn, which fill up slowly in real time. Characters can perform different actions depending on how many segments they decide to let fill. For the most part, only weak attacks and minor abilities may be used if a single time segment is used, though a character can use his most powerful attack if you wait long enough. The problem is that you have absolutely no control over the flow of time in combat. Combat requires absolutely nothing in the way of reflexes or hand-eye coordination and very little in the way of strategic anticipation. In addition, you can't speed it up, nor do you have the option to switch to a completely turn-based system.
Instead, you sit and wait... and wait... and wait until your character gets his next turn. What's worse is that every single attack takes an inordinate amount of time to execute. After sitting and waiting for your character, you must then sit and wait while he makes a slow, poorly animated leap toward his opponent, then performs his slow, poorly animated attack, then makes another slow, poorly animated leap back to his place in the ranks. With the exception of projectile attacks such as rifle shots or lasers, each of your characters and nearly all monsters in the game go through this agonizingly wearisome process every single round of every single combat - and there isn't a thing you can do to change it. Even retreating from battle is slow, as each character must individually turn to flee (and must therefore wait at least one time segment in order to act). And even then, each of your enemies will be able to launch a slow, poorly animated attack as you try to run. Don't be deceived by the ease of most of Septerra Core's fights or by the fact that you can sometimes avoid your enemies on the map. You'll be doing plenty of fighting even if you aren't out for experience points and money, since Septerra Core's linear structure inevitably forces you to return to the monster-infested maps you thought you left behind.
Septerra Core has a number of things going for it: Some of it looks good, some of it sounds good, and some of it plays well. Unfortunately, no matter how appealing any of it may seem at any point in play, Septerra Core's rigidly linear structure and reprehensible combat system unequivocally rear their ugly heads and weaken what could have been a better game.