I never joined my fellow RPGers in their praise of the Phantasy Star series. Many of my colleagues stand on their heads and applaud Overworks for the classic RPG franchise, while I scoffed at it. So when I heard about Skies of Arcadia, another Overworks role-playing game, I shall admit I wasn't very enthusiastic about it. The prospect of a fully three-dimensional RPG, with a strategy-free battle engine and polygonal characters, much like the disastrous Final Fantasy VII, had me far from compelled. When theXeno3998 picked up Skies a few weeks back, and eventually beat it, I was left with a huge feeling of disappointment. Why disappointment? Because Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite games of 2000, right behind Ogre Battle 64 and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete. I was disappointed with Overworks for making an RPG that DESTROYS Squaresoft's surprisingly good FFIX in terms of gameplay and ambition and even characters. I was disappointed that for once I cared about a Sega-division made, non-strategy RPG. And most importantly, I was disappointed that for once, these anti-3D RPG ideals of mine, were proven silly.
One of the things that may have discouraged RPG players after Time Stalkers, was how similar Skies of Arcadia's visual style is to that revolting pile. Though a lot more detailed overall, the same fully polygonal world and 3D character designs seemed to be abundant in Skies of Arcadia, which had many feeling apathetic about the game. So much to my dismay, I start up the game and what do I see? Beautiful polygonal backgrounds and very well animated characters that rarely skip a frame or lose a polygon (you won't find any choppyness here). A smooth 30-40 FPS overall and minute details (like the swirling of Aika's hair) are animated very elegantly and showcase a high polygon rate and a vast color scheme that help to add even more to the game's beautiful graphical presentation.
Dungeons are huge and feature nicely textured halls with good use of the Dreamcast's lighting effects. When you're high in the sky, flying around in the various airships you acquire throughout your journey, there are hardly any draw-distance issues to get angry about, and enemy ships, debris from plant-life and small islands look sensational. Put simply, these are some of the best graphics you'll see in a role-playing game until the wave of sensational mediocrity known as PS2 RPGs comes about.
The tale initiates when Vyse and his Pirate Group, the Blue Rogues, hijack a Valuan airship. On this airship they find a mysterious girl dressed in white robes, and decide to take her back to HQ after they rampage through Antonio (a mechanical bull-like creature who is the first boss you encounter). After the introduction of Fina, the Silvite girl found on the Valuan airship, you are sent off to a dungeon, then Sailor's Island, after which the game truly begins. From here on, you must search for 5 relics (Fina has the sixth) before the Valuan Empire ceases them and takes command of the entire world.
Putting it the way I did, Skies of Arcadia might sound incredibly cliché and uninspired, but it gets much better from here on. Though not particularly strong in it's storyline or plot, Skies of Arcadia succeeds in developing the six or so characters you get throughout the game. Next to Vivi The Balck Mage, pretty much all of SOA's protagonists and antagonists rank among the top twenty most compelling personalities of 2000. You'll grow to hate the enemies of the game, such as Galcian and Ramirez, and will easily relate to Vyse in his quest to save Aika and Fina at different times in the game.
Overall, the storyline isn't the best thing to come out of the RPG genre, but the endearing characters and unique theme help it achieve a score of 85%
Skies of Arcadia's gameplay is a combination of land-based dungeons, ship based dungeons (only three in the entire game, though) and a battle engine reminiscent of Wild Arms 2 and/or Final Fantasy IX. Is this a good thing? Well, the airship dungeons certainly are, and provide the player with an original take on the common cave or monster factory. But because there are only 3 ship-based dungeons in the entire game, with the rest being simple character-dungeons, the taste of originality you get is more like a sample of what's to come.
Though the character-based dungeons are far from innovative, they provide a fun and moderately challenging romp filled with interesting architecture and a few interesting puzzles. Oh yeah, there are random battles, which is a good or bad thing depending on how patient you are, but to anyone the isn't a complete newbie, random encounters shouldn't sour you on the experience too much.
Character battles are very similar to Grandia, Wild ARMS 2 and FFIX. You have the basic "ATTACK", "DEFEND", "ITEM", "MAGIC", and a super move, which you achieve by building up a spirit meter. Each character has their own super moves, which can be unlocked when you find enough 'moon berries'. Equipping weapons and armor is crucial to your success in the game, as is maintaining your characters' HP over 50% just in case your party suffers a critical blow at the hands of some rhino-flower hybrid in a random battle (the random encounters are needlessly brutal in this game).
On the flip side, ship battles are far from the ordinary. Though you use the land-based battle engine when you encounter enemies in the air, the airship battle scenes are still quite frequent in the game. You have to fill an attack plan prior to every turn, where you fill in what the ship is going to do while you're battling. The occasional HEAL isn't a bad idea, and defending, using the latest equipped weaponry and shields to give your team the upper hand in battle.
After you select what the party's going to do in the next turn, you watch a painfully long cinematic where your ship battles against the enemy using the tactics you ordered. Eventually, a ship can take no more and gets blown down by either you or the opposition. If and when you win (I say when because this is a VERY, VERY easy game), you receive experience to use on your airship and a cash allotment to upgrade your equipment and whatnot.
Are there any problems with this? Well, yes there are. As I mentioned, the cinematics between when you give out orders for the crewmembers to follow, and after the turn, are quite lengthy and excruciatingly boring. Remember those heinous FFVIII Summon animations? Skies' ship battles feature better eye candy, but are also at least five times longer than the summon animations, which were typically over in a half minute. In a way, though, I cannot complain. During the time I watched the two or three minute long ship battles unfold, I got the chance to use the lavatory once or twice, read an RPGFan review of the game, or grab a chestnut from the freezer to munch on; I guess Skies of Arcadia gives its players a sense of liberty to completely ignore the fact that a game is running, and eat or sleep while they're supposed to be watching the on screen action. Though I consider it a godsend, many may excuse it as another shameless way to exploit the Dreamcast's poly-pushing prowess.
Sound/Music: Skies of Arcadia features some of the best music I have yet heard from any game on Dreamcast. Many of the game's melodies, including those played in Horteka in the Ixa Takan region, as well as the Valuan sewers and last dungeon, are memorable and force the gamer to halt all dungeon or town progress just to hear more of the incredible music. Though it isn't all that great. Shrine Island and the majority of the game's dungeons, have unappealing themes that don't really fit the mood of the dungeon or the mission. But this is simply a minor problem, and music is far from being the most important facet in an RPG.
Errr... the game sounds just right, even though the music is all that I can remember. Similar to Final Fantasy, the sound in Skies of Arcadia is probably good, but I wouldn't know because there just isn't that much emphasis on anything besides music. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, just because I love this game so damn much.
Skies of Arcadia controls very well, even though the flight of your airship(s) is very lethargic. Whereas FFIX had a blazingly fast airship speed, Skies of Arcadia's is more 'realistic', and forces you to wade through endless encounters while you move slowly towards a clearly visible object just inches away from the airship. Control is Skies of Arcadia's weakest component, and even it is far above average in comparison to other RPGs.
An overall astounding RPG that shines brightly with an attention to detail and passion for development I have not witnessed since Star Ocean on the Super Famicom. The Dreamcast library has been lacking a good RPG up until now, and with Skies of Arcadia and Grandia 2, and even Evolution 2 (which is a decent game overall), Service Games (SEGA) seems to be reclaiming what's rightfully theirs. If DC can survive another year and a half for a Skies of Arcadia sequel to be made, my faith in the gaming industry will probably return...