Septentrion is so unashamedly eager to ape ’70s disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure it doesn’t just broadly copy the setting and flow of its memorable inspiration, the game even makes the effort to lead with a movie-like opening sequence and later end with a fake cast roll, complete with legally-distinct actors (such as “Jean Hickman“) for every part.
But unlike many games that choose to base themselves on something else, this SNES exclusive is far more than a hollow Hollywood imitator: This is a truly pioneering survival game, and one that still stands out as a unique, high quality, experience in every sense almost three decades later.
There are four characters to try and guide through this watery tale: an old doctor from Norwich, a church minister from Hereford, a young member of the ship’s crew, an architect. Their inherent averageness and lack of any traditional game-like “power” is one of the game’s many core strengths; a resounding reminder there are no heroes here by design, only ordinary people trying to survive an extraordinary situation. Each has their own starting point aboard the ship, their own ways of speaking to the other passengers (some more successfully than others), and even unique NPCs to optionally save along the way, which in turn influences the ending you receive – if you can guide them out of the rapidly sinking ship alive, that is.
The closest the game gets to having a character with a special skill is crewman Luke’s in-game access to a map of the guest areas of the ship, complete with a little marker to show his current location (cleverly, this map is manually rotatable, so you can match the paper to the ship’s current angle). Is this a distinct advantage that makes playing as anyone else a chore? Well, no. The truth is everyone gets a map, because the Japanese version of the game shipped as standard with a full colour fold-out cutaway drawing of the doomed Lady Crithania, annotated with various room names and other points of interest. Neither map shows every staircase and door but they do generally give enough information to enable you to work out where you are in relation to where you want to be, and it’s a testament to the quiet strength of the game’s map design that heading in roughly the right direction will usually see you end up at or near where you wanted to be, even if you’re not familiar with the ship’s layout.
But where do you go when a luxury cruise ship’s sinking fast and all the usual exits are already completely submerged anyway? The fold-out sheet comes to the rescue: One corner of it’s written as if it was a newspaper report from the time, giving blow-by-blow coverage of key events in the ship’s demise alongside a few dramatic illustrations – including one on the Ladt Crithania’s final moments, it’s rear end by the boiler room the last place to go down…
So although nobody ever says “You need to head to the boiler room to escape,” – and they shouldn’t do, because there’s no reason for any character to know that – by absorbing the information provided there’s no reason why anyone playing wouldn’t be able to work out where they were supposed to head on their own.
This disaster plays out within the space of one real-world hour, although much like Prince of Persia before it any deaths knock five minutes off the clock (and unlike Prince of Persia, helpfully restart you in the same room). All major events are tied to this inescapable timer: lighting systems will fail, areas lower down (relative to the ship’s newly-overturned status) will begin to flood, and the randomised tilting becomes more extreme – to the point where floors may become unclimbable vertical walls for a short period of time, and crawling around becomes commonplace.
And when the hour does run out? You don’t die – oh no, Septentrion is not that kind – but the ship does completely flood, leaving you forced to helplessly swim through the water until your character’s lungs give out in what has to be the most harrowing playable drowning sequence since Sonic The Hedgehog. The worst part of all is that it is possible to survive this if you’re really close to the end when it happens, and this hope, however faint, is what makes this harrowing sequence a desperate last stand rather than a protracted punishment: the game has genuinely given you one last chance to make it out alive, the rest is on you.
The tilting really is the game’s standout feature, everything able to seamlessly rotate at any time. All able-bodied characters automatically shift their weight (and alter their walking animation) in a believable manner to match the ship’s new angle, and will also convincingly crawl and cling onto their ever-changing environment. The “best” part of it though – and I realise this is an odd thing to say about a game – is that it’s not quite fair. The randomised tilts can make any room a temporarily impassable trap, throw you off the ladder you’d almost finished climbing, and see you miss a jump you could’ve made ten seconds earlier. And knowing that could happen at any moment makes Septentrion a tense experience – that high ledge you really want to reach something you must climb up to now, because you truly don’t know when you’ll get another chance.
Septentrion’s listing ship is so impressive it actually took a few goes before I noticed the way most of the plush chairs and fancy tables stick to the ceiling once the ship’s flipped over, or that soft curtains tend to hang upwards, rigid and impervious to gravity’s whims. It’s easy to see why – it would be completely unreasonable to ask the game to keep track of soft drapery or comfortable sofas falling through open doors (and nobody wants to die to incoming furniture anyway) – and thankfully just enough decorative features are shown destroyed or scattered on the new ceiling-floor (albeit still welded in place) along the way for the overall impression to be of a place that’s been violently upturned rather than a static image rotated 180 degrees.
I also didn’t really appreciate how small the visible play area was until I went back through my screenshots either. I’m guessing – emphasis on the guess – the copious amount of special effects the game has to be able to produce at any time and any place has something to do with it. Or perhaps the thick bars are an attempt at “cinematic” presentation. Or maybe it’s a bit of both. In any case the swaying and tilting is just that good, and the dangers that arise from it are always so close – that there’s really no time to stand around and nitpick.
The disaster may be the centrepiece of the experience, but Septentrion isn’t foolish enough to rush straight into the “best” bit without a proper setup first – and that is why you are genuinely free to wander around the ship for a few minutes and chat to other people on board before it turns over, and when it does eventually tip up you will awaken exactly where you had been standing when the wave hit. This brief window of uneventful normality only heightens how bad the situation is after: it’s easy to clamber through a destroyed room and catch yourself thinking how sad it is to see the place in this state and it’s not because of the ominous emergency lights or the water gushing in from everywhere, it’s because you saw people dancing in the ballroom, people talking in the hall, a well-dressed member of the crew doing their job just a few minutes earlier.
Most of the passengers and crew don’t survive the initial boat-capsizing wave, but those that do can often be found around the ship – sad, frightened, perhaps even praying – and then (usually) persuaded to follow you to safety. Unfortunately they have all the pathfinding and self preservation skills of a ball of ice cream in a volcano, so even the most careful player can expect several NPCs to either die or get lost along the way. It’s an understandable issue considering the changeable landscape they’re up against and in all fairness it’s remarkable the game was able to include the concept of people following behind at all, even in this lemming-like state. If you were in a more generous mood you might try to claim this was an intentional bit of design, forcing you to choose between the speed and safety of solo play or putting yourself in danger for the sake of doing the right thing…
And then you catch one of them mindlessly leaping against a wall like a frog on leg day, and you know that most of the time it’s harder with them because they’re really stupid.
The silver lining to this dark cloud is that you don’t actually have to rescue anyone at all if you don’t want to. This does guarantee you the worst ending (which in Redwin’s case involves a rather disturbing non-escape, banging on the ship’s hull and fruitlessly shouting for help), but at least the game doesn’t abruptly cut short with a “Please try again!” or anything like that.
Septentrion’s deliberate brevity lends itself well to not only to the concept as a whole – the ship you are on is sinking right now and every minute lost is a minute closer to your character’s death – but also to repeat play. At first sixty minutes feels like it couldn’t possibly be enough to navigate from a small cabin or other room to the game’s fixed exit, but after just a few goes it becomes clear the goal can be reached easily in well under ten minutes (the game displays your clear time during the ending), leaving plenty of time to explore distant areas and take a real interest in the game’s numerous characters. And this is without referring to any map of any kind at all. The game’s packed with visual clues that always make it clear whether you’re in a guest or staff area, which way’s up (or “up”, in Septentrion’s case), and most importantly of all the area leading up to the final boiler room is quite linear and looks unlike anything else on the whole ship, saving you from aimlessly wandering around, wondering if you took a wrong door three corridors ago.
The game only has one idea – be like The Poseidon Adventure – but it’s a good one, and it took real courage to trust that the concept alone would be enough without falling back on the usual checklist of safe “game-y” design. There are no coloured-coded keys to find for arbitrarily locked doors, no boxes to push or switches to flip, no “bosses” to fight just because games “should” have fights. There is nothing else Septentrion needs, other than to be played by as many people as possible.