SEPTERRA CORE / Monolith / PC
Septerra Core is odd in a few different ways. It's an attempt to do a 90s-style JRPG in a WRPG engine. It's also made by western developers Valkyrie, a one-hit-wonder studio formed by refugees from Viacom's gaming division. Despite being obscure and a first effort published by a smaller publisher, it also still seemed to have a pretty decent budget, with FMV cutscenes and full voice acting even for minor NPCs. It's also scored by the guy who would go on to do the Halo games, though there's not a huge amount of music here, with a lot of areas just using ambient sound.
I'm guessing the budget came from pitching the game as "Final Fantasy 7 for PCs", and there are some superficial similarities in the character and FMV art style and the game world (which is like Midgar meets Fallout). But really, the more direct comparison to a console JRPG is Chrono Trigger; it really kinda plays like Chrono Trigger with a mouse. World segments have a large overworld map with tiny characters where you can't be attacked, and when you enter local areas you can see the enemies wandering around and can sometimes avoid them. When a battle starts, everyone jumps to preset positions, and it's an "active time" variant where you wait for character energy gauges to fill while the enemies are attacking in real-time. It doesn't have time travel, but eventually you move between the individual world "shells" by ship, which kinda feels like using Epoch to go to different eras.
It's actually a pretty neat and inventive game world, and exploring it is the primary appeal. The planet consists of a biomechanical core around which there are seven "shell" layers, each of which are inhabited by different people and creatures. The outermost shell is the home of the Chosen, the nobility class, and the rest of the shells live in varying degrees of squalor. You play as Maya, a "junker" from the shell directly beneath the Chosen, where they make their living basically scavenging and repairing the Chosen's refuse. In the course of her work Maya accidentally uncovers a plot by a deranged faction of the Chosen that could destroy the entire world, fortunately she happens to be a gun-toting badass so she sets out to warn the rest of the world.
Since it's a western developer, the writing is more coherent and a little higher quality than your usual JRPG, and tends to range from competent to sometimes really good in spots. It's also a little darker-tinged and more "adult" than your usual console JRPG, with the levels of blood, death and prostitution you'd expect from a cyberpunkish world that's mostly in dire poverty. Where the game gets problematic is in battles. These are decently executed, but the incredibly slow and repetitive attack animations really bog the pace of the game down and make it feel like a grind.
If you can deal with the standard 90s JRPG linearity (there's very few optional sidequests) and need to grind through repetitive battles at points, this is actually a surprisingly decent game. I'd guess the quick fade to obscurity was mostly due to JRPG players not wanting to cross over to PC in 1999 and WRPG players looking at the JRPG stylings and saying "nope". Shame though, as I wouldn't mind seeing what a follow-up with more polish and the benefit of experience and player feedback would have looked like.
* Gameplay Video