Game Description: You’d better not be afraid of heights if you plan on playing Skies of Arcadia. In this epic RPG, you play an air pirate who must defend the lands of Arcadia, a floating world that is under attack by an evil group of warlords. Along with your crew, the Blue Rogues, you must sail between the lands of Arcadia and fight the good fight. As your character develops new fighting skills, learns new magic, and acquires more powerful weapons, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with as you explore and defend the lands of Arcadia.
When discussing the advancement and progression of video games, it's not very often that an original idea comes along and jumpstarts the industry while being well-rounded enough to be praised on multiple levels. When a game is going to focus on improving or innovating the mechanics of how it's played, it often leaves behind the polish and fully-fleshed feel most gamers crave. Understandable, since such games are usually exploring uncharted territory. While this is a vital and necessary process in order to bring fresh ideas to the table, the products of such an approach are sometimes not very satisfying ones. Conversely, if a game focuses on providing intellectual or emotional content which is solid and stimulating while using an existing and established framework, the results can potentially be as powerful and exciting to gamers, but run the risk of falling into the "me too" trap of look-alikes we see cluttering aisles everywhere. Games that can successfully straddle both styles of innovation are rare things, indeed.
For those who have briefly glanced at Skies Of Arcadia in a game shop's Dreamcast section somewhere, it merely appears to be an underhyped, unknown RPG saddled with poor cover art. However, we all know the old saying about judging a book by its dust jacket, or something like that. Skies was produced by Sega's OverWorks in-house team, which is comprised of members from both the former Team Andromeda (responsible for the masterful Panzer Dragoon series) as well as members from Team Phantasy Star who were responsible for, well, I'm sure you can guess. I find it very odd that with such a stellar pedigree of talented people behind it that Sega chose to let this game arrive with such little fanfare, but then again Sega has not always been known for its business wisdom.
In any case, Skies is a console role-playing game based in the fantasy world of Arcadia, where people live on floating islands and the oceans are vast expanses of sky instead of water. The player takes on the role of a young air pirate named Vyse, and leads a small band of crewmates throughout the stratosphere aboard winged galleons in search of treasure and adventure. Combat featuring the characters in dungeons happens as it does in most RPGs and uses the same character models featured in the story scenes, but there is an original element of strategic ship-to-ship battles using cannons and torpedoes in the overworld.
While Skies Of Arcadia may fool most gamers into thinking it's an average RPG with the requisite twists, the sheer greatness of the title is soon revealed with a push of the power button.
In all RPGs, it's always been my opinion that more than anything else, the characters define the experience. No matter how interesting the battle engine or how many items there are to micromanage, the game just won't be that fun or enjoyable to me unless the characters are well-written and memorable. While Vyse and company don't necessarily explore new or revolutionary roles, the designs are certainly appealing. The cast is also small enough to be able to have very solid characterization and have a definite feeling of "personality" to which any gamer can relate. With the good guys good and the bad guys bad, it's clear from the start that you are the hero, and your task is epic.
In addition, the story has a very clear sense of being divided into black and white. While other RPGs may try to explore grey areas of morality or ethics with varying degrees of success, there is something to be said for an adventure which is distilled to its purest form. In Skies, the goal of the plot is to tell a story of swashbuckling and adventure, not to question right and wrong or divine the purpose and existence of the human soul. While some weaned on the pathos-ridden Square titles of recent years might be dismayed at the seeming simplicity of the roles portrayed here, there is a fantastic build-up of drama and a sheer abundance of good old-fashioned cliffhanger storytelling. I literally found myself cheering for the heroes at certain points, and it's been a long time since I felt so emotionally involved with the events happening on the screen.
One extremely notable feature which helps Skies to stand out in this respect is the use of distinct facial expressions for each character. While the story scenes feature the same in-game models used in combat and exploration, the developers added a wide range of emotive looks for each character ranging from broad grins of joy to a peevish, cat-eyed looks of disgust. This single feature alone adds so much to the character development and mood of the scenes presented, it's a sure bet that this element will soon become a staple of the genre.
While Skies not only succeeds in bringing a rare amount of intensity to the characterization, the level of graphical presentation is amazing and indescribably beautiful. The attention to detail really hit home when I entered the first dungeon and took a moment to look at the texture of the walls. Once I noticed that water was actually dripping down the slimy, moss-covered stones I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
OverWorks has created a surreal, yet amazingly believable world in Arcadia. The theme of flying ships journeying through vast stretches of sky is an approach which certainly hasn't been overdone, and I can't remember the last time pirates of any sort played a major role in a console game. There's just something magical—something "right" about what they've created here. It's hard to describe, but this is one game where the setting instantly "clicks," and you are utterly captivated from the start.
While sailing between the floating islands of Arcadia, you'll be treated to some of the most jaw-dropping 3-D visuals ever presented in an RPG. Climb to the top of the lookout's perch on Pirate Isle and look around. You will be amazed by clearly seeing every nook, every person walking around in the village below you. Cast your gaze upwards and without any break in the continuity see neighboring islands and ships passing by on the distant horizon. There's no way for me to do any sort of justice to how cohesive and awe-inspiring the visual magnitude of Arcadia can be at times. It simply needs to be witnessed.
Lastly, one thing I absolutely had to mention was the fact that OverWorks has solved the dilemma plaguing every RPG since Final Fantasy VII. It's been the gripe of most gamers that Square's trademarked "summon" spell animations were either too long, used too often, or both. In Skies, the same type of magic is employed with similar flashy grandstanding, but the key difference here is that by pressing the start button at the beginning of the cinematic you can completely skip the fireworks and continue with the battle. It's the perfect solution. Those who simply want to get on with the game after the third time watching the same spell can do so, and those gamers who get a continuous thrill from the visual pyrotechnics have the option to enjoy them as often as they like. Square, I hope you're taking notice—the problem is now solved.
While Skies Of Arcadia completely and wonderfully succeeds in a score of areas, the only major chink to be seen in its resplendent armor is a place where it clings too closely to the tired staples of the RPG genre. While not ruining the game, the random encounters are something which definitely need to be addressed in the sequel. Some RPGs have tried various approaches to solving the eternal struggle to balance a smoothly flowing story with keeping a game a respectable length. Unfortunately, Skies' bold strokes stumble in this area.
In sections where the crew is on foot, the amount of random battles feels right, and is quite tolerable. However, for some odd reason the game defeats its own goal of "exploration" by having a crushing overabundance of random encounters while shipboard. It utterly kills the desire of seeing every corner of the world players initially feel when presented with the incredible horizons and cloud-filled stratospheric seas of Arcadia. Instead of taking my time and finding every discovery, seeking out hidden villages and locating lost islands, I had simply given up and resigned myself to going from major location to major location after about the 10th hour of the game. In no uncertain terms, it was simply too tedious and aggravating to fight random battles literally seconds apart while trying to explore in the huge, vast areas which tempt a player's wanderlust.
To further compound the problem, once you get past the beginning area of the game, the Discoveries you are encouraged to find are invisible to the eye. With no visual clues to point you in the right direction, the only way you're able to find Discoveries is to cruise the skies following thin clues while clicking the A button. The thing which makes this painful is the fact that you hit unwanted encounters every three to five seconds. Finding these Discoveries isn't an essential part of the game, but it's a shame that I felt compelled to leave these sidequests unfinished in order to protect my sanity. Such a poor choice regarding random battles shouldn't have been made considering the genius displayed in other areas.
One last thing to note is that Skies uses an extremely odd and jumpy camera during random battles. Instead of smooth and dramatic pans, the camera uses obnoxious and disorienting MTV-style ragged jump cuts, which is especially noticeable while assigning orders to characters during a fight. First you're looking at the battlefield with the enemies at the top aligned left to right, and with the push of a button you're suddenly looking at the enemies on the bottom, or either side and their order reversed. It's was quite disorienting to me and took a long time to get used to. As a direct result, I often put the attack cursor on the wrong monsters and botched my plan of attack because the perspective was different than it had been a moment before. It's annoying, and something which could have easily been solved.
While I definitely admit the random battles and the few other rough edges are offputting at times, the overall game is truly the first next generation experience in RPGs since Final Fantasy VII. A leap in the overall quality and presentation this significant hasn't been made since Square left 2-D, sprite-based graphics behind and made the jump to the third dimension. To me, RPGs are all about taking the player and immersing them in another world, and making that world as real as possible—playing the role, as it were. While that lofty goal shared by Sega's more publicized title Shenmue, I'd say that Skies Of Arcadia eclipses its level of immersion easily and truly transports the player to a place that looks and feels like no other before it. This game is one that qualifies as an "experience" and should be played by anyone who calls themselves a fan of console role-playing games. As a final note to players and game developers everywhere—consider the bar raised.
I knew that I'd like Skies Of Arcadia right from the start. It showed signs early on that it would be a wonderfully light-hearted adventure story. In a genre loaded with dark, melodramatic RPGs, having a game with such a fun spirit is refreshing. I must admit that the flying ship premise took a while to really grab me. I kept looking at these flying ships and wondering how a civilization could even exist hovering in the air—for crying out loud, fish fly through the air!—but as the game went on I suppressed my doubt and enjoyed the game for what it is.
Who needs fancy-shmancy computer-generated full-motion video when you can use real-time characters and environments and get the same pay off? Overworks gets extra kudos from me for ignoring the trend towards CG cutscenes and prerendered graphics and relying on its game engine to do the job. The facial textures in particular are a treat, and though relatively simple compared to its CG infested peers, they are more than competent when it comes to portraying emotions and humor. Now don't get me wrong, the in-game graphics are quite impressive, but I don't think I would agree with Brad's reference to being in the "presence of greatness" while studying the environs. The textures are crisp and clear (the screenshots we have available don't do the game justice), but they could benefit from a higher polygon count and more variety.
Skies Of Arcadia comes with a couple of interesting new features incorporated into the game with mixed results. The first is the Spirit System, which limits the amount of moves the party can perform before needing to recharge. These so-called Spirit Points are consumed whenever you attack with magic or Super Moves—the stronger the magic or Super Move, the more Spirit Points are used up. There are ways to build up Spirit Points during battle—allowing for the unleashing of more powerful moves consistently—but the trade-off would be that fewer party members can go on the offensive. It is an interesting system that imposes a lot of strategy in the early going.
Magic and weapon management are on the receiving end of some retooling. Weapons are made from Moon Stones and spells cast with those weapons are affected by the color of the Moon Stone weapon used. Yellow weapons will be great for lightning spells while Red would be best for fire. During a battle you can change the color attribute of your weapon on the fly to facilitate the dispatching of a particular enemy. Having this kind of control over my weapons was fascinating at first, but it soon reminded of the GF management in Final Fantasy VIII, in which the game can degrade into an endless struggle to level up a character so he or she can pull off a certain spell. Thankfully, the quantity of Moon Stone colors allows you to focus certain characters on certain color attributes while ignoring others.
What may have done the most damage to Skies Of Arcadia's final score is the prevalence of a videogame mainstay that I can only pray will die once and for all when the next generation consoles arrive. I refer of course to the random battles. I tolerated them with a recent RPG I was playing for review, Dragon Warrior I & II for the Game Boy Color. The reason I could for that game was that it was a port of an old RPG. An RPG made in a day when technical limitations prevented developers from displaying both the main character and surrounding enemies on the screen at the same time. When playing a console with the graphical capabilities of the Dreamcast, I can't help but chastise the developer for sticking to such an outdated way of initiating battles. It is especially bothersome since there is such an emphasis on searching and discovery in Skies Of Arcadia. The random battles are a constant interruption, and since they are so frequent, they disrupt the flow of the game.
There are a few extra things that Brad neglected to mention. For one, there is a Swashbuckler Rating that you have to keep track of. It is dependent on your answers to specific queries at certain points in the game. To my knowledge nothing bad will happen to someone who answers incorrectly, aside from other characters in the game reacting differently to you over time. On the plus side, it is really difficult to screw up and give the wrong answer unless you are determined to do so. On an entirely different note, I commend Overworks for ditching the industry limit of three members to a party. This has always been a gripe with me since Final Fantasy VII made this practice popular, and I got a little giddy when I saw it would not be repeated in Skies Of Arcadia.
Not to spoil the surprise for potential Skies Of Arcadia owners, but there are two VMU games that I felt needed covering. Somewhere along the way, you will run into a little tyke named Pinta. He's a wanna-be adventurer who hopes to go off and see the world. Though we never know how he does it, Pinta can be sent to certain areas to explore where Vyse can not. Through a menu selection, we can send him off on a "Pinta Quest" and recall him to see what he has found. It's a nice little distraction that saves you from the distraction of searching for "Discoveries." The other VMU game involves Fina's little pet-guardian-friend, Cupil. Using the VMU similar to how The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time used the Nintendo 64 rumble pak, Cupil will alert you when you are near Moon Shards. Its vocalizations are little more than loud incessant beeps that vary depending on how close you are to the Moon Shards. But these shards are what Cupil eats, and if you collect enough of them and feed them to it, Cupil will grow stronger and be of better use during battle. My only gripe with this is that since I didn't have a Jump Pak while playing, I had to sit and listen to that ceaseless chirping everytime I came near a shard. There is the option to turn off the VMU sound, but that would mean youd have to keep an eye on the VMU screen in case he were to ever react.
As role-playing games go, Skies Of Arcadia is not exactly groundbreaking, but it does just enough right while incorporating some interesting new gameplay mechanics. The mix of humor, adventure and plot twists all come together to make for an infinitely enjoyable story replete with an eclectic cast of characters. Granted it may be a tad on the linear side, but that doesn't detract from the game at all. In all likelihood, many an RPG fan will never play Skies Of Arcadia given its low key release and the fact that it has been released on a dying console. That is their loss because Skies Of Arcadia has quite a bit to offer.
According to the ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence, Suggestive Themes
Parents with older children in their teen years will be rewarded with love and affection upon bringing this title home. However, please be aware that failure to complete homework may soon become an issue. In all seriousness, this game is mostly clean-cut adventure of the purest sort, but there are a small number of scenes which may warrant some guidance due to the emotional intensity. Among these are an implied rape scene—which turns out to be a close call instead of the actual deed, and a scene involving a hostage situation that could be mildly disturbing to younger gamers. Overall, most gamers old enough to be able to figure out how to play the game successfully should be able to handle it, but mild caution goes out to younger gamers and involved parents.
The enjoyment of gamers in general will depend on whether or not they are fans of RPGs. If so, you couldn't ask for a better one than Skies Of Arcadia. With an extremely strong cast of characters, a huge quest spanning fantastic locales and absolutely jaw-dropping graphics, this game is as close as they come to being the end-all, be-all.
For gamers who aren't much into RPGs, they still might want to give it a try, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that this will convert people who would rather play Madden or Quake.
RPG fans: See above. 'Nuff said.