Sega's Dreamcast console undoubtedly contains a significantly greater amount of processing power than any of the game systems that preceded it did. However, RPG fans have grown accustomed to the adage that better hardware does not necessarily mean better software, and the Dreamcast has certainly been no exception to the rule, particularly in the RPG genre. Up until recently, the RPGs released on the powerful console had been average at best, especially when compared to those on the Sony Playstation or Sega's own Saturn. However, with the release of Game Arts' Grandia II and now, Eternal Arcadia, the Dreamcast is showing that its RPGs not only have the capability of matching up with the best on other systems, they can deliver an exhilarating experience that surpasses almost all that preceded them.
Eternal Arcadia immediately sets itself apart from the rest of the traditional RPG pack with its unique setting: a world of land islands scattered throughout an ocean of sky. As the game opens, players are treated to a chase scene between a large airship and a small air skiff. Piloting the air skiff is a mysterious young woman named Fina; the airship pursuing her is part of the Valua Empire armada, and it is commandeered by an impeccably dressed man named Alfonso, one of the top admirals in the fleet.
The air skiff is no match for the vast power of the giant Empire vessel, and it's only a matter of time before Fina is captured. Before the Valua Empire can escape with its human plunder, though, a second, similarly empowered airship suddenly latches onto it, signaling the arrival of the Blue Sky Pirates. This benevolent, Robin Hood-esque band of rogues happened to spot the skiff in distress, and Dyne, the squad's leader, elects to send a small task force including his son Vyse and Aika, a childhood friend of Vyse, to rescue the damsel in distress.
The highly skilled Vyse and Aika are able to make their way through the Valua Empire airship quite quickly, and, after a tough battle against a rhinoceros-like behemoth named Antonio, the Blue Sky Pirates are able to save Fina, plunder the Empire vessel, and return to their hidden base. However, the actions of Dyne's crew have severely angered the Empire, who, for their own mysterious reasons, view Fina as a valuable commodity. The Blue Sky Pirates are now hunted by the powerful Valua Empire, and it's up to them to discover the great power that Fina holds while surviving the pursuit of the largest military force in their world.
Eternal Arcadia holds one of the strongest storylines seen recently in an RPG. The creative setting of the game immediately draws players in, and the game does a great job of generating an atmosphere of excitement throughout most of its length. The event-based portions of the storyline keep the player engrossed in Eternal Arcadia's sky-based world, and character development, while not spectacular, is strong.
Eternal Arcadia is perhaps at its best in its gameplay. At first glance, the newest RPG from the Phantasy Star team at Sega doesn't offer much originality to the genre. The randomly encountered battles in the game are turn-based, with all commands to characters issued at the beginning of each turn. Magic, items, and skills all can be used by characters to aid each other or harm enemies.
Like several recent RPGs such as Square's Final Fantasy IX and Sony's Wild ARMS 2, Eternal Arcadia features a force meter that is built up as combat goes on. Unlike the aforementioned RPGs, however, where each character has his or her own force meter, Eternal Arcadia has one force meter for the entire party. In addition to consuming magic points, spells cost force points (called Guts points in Eternal Arcadia) when they are cast; the use of skills also costs Guts points, but it doesn't use up any magic points.
The relatively novel gameplay features in Sega's newest RPG are somewhat subtle, but together they strongly contribute to the unique gameplay experience in Eternal Arcadia. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the world map gameplay. Unlike in most traditional RPGs, where world map travel is land-based and two-dimensional, all of the world map travel in Eternal Arcadia is done in airships, and players will find that they can explore different depths of the sky in addition to all of the longitudinal directions of most RPG world maps. The extra degree of freedom in the world map play will remind many of the near-unrestricted freedom of exploration in Sega's own Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Although the air-based world map play is the most conspicuous of Eternal Arcadia's creative gameplay facets, the most exciting innovation is without a doubt the climactic airship battles that players encounter repeatedly as they progress through the RPG. Most random encounters that take place in the sky simply involve your characters fighting monsters on the deck of your airship. However, at certain points in the game, your airship has to battle against enemy airships. In these battles, your airship can perform one action per turn for each playable character that you have, and you can choose a slew of options such as attacking, using magic, using items to repair your airship, and charging up the party's Guts meter (each airship attack costs a certain number of Guts points). The airship battles are really intense; I found them to be some of the most exhilarating that RPGs have to offer.
Another interesting complication in Eternal Arcadia's gameplay involves the moonstones that you gather throughout your quest. These moonstones have a variety of elemental associations, and each can be freely attached to each playable character's weapon, thus bestowing that weapon with its elemental association. Like in most RPGs, many enemies in Eternal Arcadia have distinct elemental strengths and weaknesses, so proper moon stone management can mean the difference between victory and defeat in battles. In addition, the moonstones that are equipped among party members determine what spells are learned by each of them. One really nice feature about Eternal Arcadia is that moon stones can be freely swapped in combat at the touch of a single button.
Although Eternal Arcadia's innovations definitely set it apart from the rest of the RPG pack, the RPG's beautiful execution is what makes its gameplay so enjoyable. Nearly all of the commands in the game are carried out crisply, and load times in most places are very short. In addition, no gaping design flaws are apparent. As a matter of fact, Eternal Arcadia features perhaps the best dungeon design I've yet seen in an RPG. The dungeons are complex but never overtly convoluted; as a result, they're not too difficult to traverse, but players will be in awe at how brilliantly they are put together. Some of the dungeons change their forms as you progress through them; these are among the most impressive ever seen in an RPG.
Eternal Arcadia still does sport a few gameplay flaws. First of all, the encounter rate on the world map is annoyingly high; fortunately, it's reduced to an ideal level in the dungeons. The amount of time that it takes to enter battles is also a problem; it's pretty close to that of Square's Playstation Final Fantasy games and Chrono Cross.
The battles themselves are also overtly time-consuming. Attacks are one of the few commands that aren't carried out quickly; instead, they are overtly drawn out, especially when a character has to run halfway across the screen to engage an enemy. It also doesn't help that attack commands are carried out strictly one at a time; command execution overlap, like that seen in Grandia II, would have sped things up very nicely.
Eternal Arcadia also features sharp control, which enhances its excellent gameplay. Vyse is the onscreen character, and players can move him in eight directions with the analog stick on the Dreamcast pad. Like most Dreamcast RPGs, depressing the analog pad harder in a certain direction moves Vyse along more quickly. In the area maps, the camera tends to drift towards a 3D viewpoint, but it can be freely rotated by the player. In addition, the player can view the surroundings from Vyse's own perspective, like in Square's Vagrant Story and Konami's Metal Gear Solid. The menu design is nothing short of brilliant; all of the menus, including battle menus, are very easy to navigate as well as extremely attractive in their design.
The only gripe that I have with this particular department of Eternal Arcadia is the control scheme of the airship on the world map. Instead of using a button as an accelerator and up/down directional pad movements to control height/depth like in most RPGs with an airship, Eternal Arcadia uses up/down directional pad movements to move the airship forward and backwards, and height/depth is controlled by the trigger buttons. Although players should eventually get used to this scheme, it's not as smooth as the route taken in most RPGs.
Visually, Eternal Arcadia is one of the most impressive RPGs yet released for any system. The game's graphics rely exclusively on polygons, and the ones here look really good. The level of detail is astounding, although it's still not quite at the echelon of the most detailed 2D backgrounds out there, and it does a great job of avoiding blockiness, even up close. The color palette is diverse, and the colors chosen are appealing. Spell effects are nothing short of spectacular, ranking with the last three Final Fantasy games and Grandia II as the best ever seen in an RPG.
The animation of characters is extremely fluid, both in and out of battle, and it is part of what sets Eternal Arcadia apart visually from other RPGs. In combat, characters move to engage enemies even during another character's turn. Although no damage is dealt until the relevant character's turn comes, this added animation does make the battles more visually exciting for the player. The battles here aren't as spectacular as the frantically intense free-for-alls in Grandia II, but they do make those of just about any other RPG seem dull and stationary.
Interestingly, Eternal Arcadia utilizes no CG or anime movies; all of its cut scenes are generated with its in-game polygonal engine. Unlike the Sony Playstation, the Dreamcast actually has the visual muscle to pull these off. As a result, cut scenes in Eternal Arcadia look good, though they're still not quite as nice as well done CG or anime movies.
Perhaps the only weakness in Eternal Arcadia's graphical presentation is the polygonal characters. They do a great job of avoiding blockiness, but up close, they're somewhat lacking in detail. On the plus side, their design and artwork are commendable; Vyse and his cohorts are appealing in their appearance. The characters also show a good amount of emotion in their faces, particularly during the cut scenes.
Eternal Arcadia's stellar sound effects contribute to its overall presentation. From the clang of melee weapons to the explosions of spells and special attacks, the RPG's sound effects are robust and substantial, showing off the advanced aural capabilities of the Dreamcast. Voice acting in Eternal Arcadia is performed impressively, even though it is limited strictly to battle cries in combat and, somewhat strangely, a few expressions, such as laughs, sighs, and some short key words, during the dialogue in some of the game's cut scenes.
Where the game is most remarkable in its sound, though, is its brilliantly composed soundtrack. Eternal Arcadia features an epic, beautifully written score that ranks among the finest that RPGs have to offer. The individual tracks fit their settings excellently, and many of them contain extremely compelling melodies. Especially memorable are the intensely rocking battle themes and the climactic symphonic piece that accompanies the airship battles. The sound programming for the music is similarly outstanding; everything sounds almost as if it were played with real instruments.
All in all, Eternal Arcadia is one of the finest traditional RPGs ever released, and, along with Grandia II, it's the first game that makes the Dreamcast worth owning for players who are primarily RPG fans. With its familiar yet fresh gameplay, beautiful visuals, and a truly impressive soundtrack, Sega's newest epic RPG is one that should please all RPG fans. This one gets my highest recommendation.
Eternal Arcadia is sold both by itself and in a limited edition package. In addition to the game, the limited edition package contains an assortment of collector's items, the most impressive of which are a color art book and the oversized box that the set is packaged in. Also included in the limited edition are a leather bracelet with the Blue Sky Pirates logo on it, a blue bandanna with the aforementioned insignia, a sky-blue cell phone strap with the words "Eternal Arcadia" silkscreened on it, and keychains of three of the cuter creatures in the Eternal Arcadia world.
Eternal Arcadia is scheduled to be released in the US as Skies of Arcadia on November 14, 2000. The limited edition items are unlikely to make it to these shores.