I hadn’t played any Dreamcast RPGs yet. I owned Resident Evil Code: Veronica and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and that’s all. I was wary about any Dreamcast RPGs, none of them seemed to be appealing. Then, I heard that the team who developed the Phantasy Star series was going to be producing an RPG for Dreamcast, entitled Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia in Japan) and it piqued my interest, to say the least. Ever since the Square disappointment of ’99, I hadn’t trusted any game on developer-name alone, but as a Phantasy Star fan, I had to at least check it out. I am so glad I did.
Skies of Arcadia focuses on the exploits of the Air Pirate, Vyse, son of the great captain Dyne. Along with his friend, Aika, Vyse leads a carefree life as a member of his father’s Blue Rogue pirate band. Blue Rogues are along the lines of Robin Hood, robbing from rich merchant ships and Valuan Armada ships. During one raid, Vyse and Aika rescue a strange girl, Fina, from the clutches of a Valuan armada ship, and wind up traversing the globe to help Fina in her quest to recover the 6 Moon Crystals.
SoA’s plot is really constructed well and stays on track, even with the occasional side quest you’re sent on. You never feel as if Fina’s quest has been forgotten or is suddenly unimportant. The world of Skies of Arcadia is quite unique to console RPGs as well: a series of islands floating in the sky. You ply the atmospheric heights and depths in airships powered by moonstones, meteors that fell from the 6 Moons of Arcadia. The concept is great and the designs of the towns and ships all fit in with the theme of a world girded by a sea of air.
As far as plot twists go, most are pretty predictable, though there is one that actually surprised me. The story was entertaining, though, and there was a reason to go everywhere you were sent. It kept me entertained throughout its 60 or so hours of play. It’s a long game, but you never get bored with the story.
Character development is good, though, again, predictable. If you want to know how the characters act, and have played Grandia, just picture Vyse as Justin, Aika as Sue, and Fina as Leen. There’s not much more to it, you’ve got the standard Japanese comedia del arte. Though I must say that I like the bad guys. Galcian is evil, but honorable in a way, and Ramirez has heart, even if it is a dark one. Too bad you don’t interact much with them. There is a definite trend in RPGs away from the moody, angst-ridden, introspective loner made popular in Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and Xenogears. Vyse and crew are generally jolly souls with a hearty love of adventure and a rather casual attitude towards saving the world from destruction. It’s refreshing.
Gameplay is, for the most part, a lot of fun. The battle system, for instance, is well laid out and simple. It’s strictly turn based with your party of up to four people duking it out against enemies and monsters. You’ve got your standard options of attack, defend, item, magic, and run, along with the Focus and S. Attack options. Much like in Chrono Cross, your party has a “pool” of Spirit Points that they accumulate every turn and by using the Focus command. Spirit Points are used by the party to cast magic and execute Special Attacks. Special Attacks are a group of unique actions that hurt the enemy or aid your party. You learn Special Attacks by using items called Moonberries.
Spirit Points are also used to cast magic spells. Each spell only costs one magic point, but a different number of Spirit Points. There are six categories of magic. After battles, you win magic experience. You gain new spells by gaining magic experience while fighting with a certain color of weapon. Each weapon can change colors according to the 6 Moonstones, and also work like Chrono Cross’ element system in which certain colors are more damaging to certain other colors. The only difference is, you can change your weapon’s color anytime you wish. It’s an interesting way to introduce strategy into otherwise straightforward battles.
All told, the party battles are laid out simply, and the commands are very easy to use. Though the encounter rate wasn’t extremely high, I did get annoyed at having to fight weak enemies while flying back through areas I had fought in before. There should have been an improvement of enemy strength worldwide as you progressed, but other than that no complaints about party battles.
Aside from the character battles just described, there are also ship-to-ship/giant monster battles that work a bit differently. At times you will have control of an airship, and will eventually run into an enemy that is too big to take on with your party. It is then that ship battles begin. Each ship battle consists of rounds, which are divided into a maximum of four action turns (one for each party member you have). In an action turn, you and your enemy take an action from the following list: run, focus, use item, defend, attack, magic (once you get the proper equipment), special cannon, and use crew. Most of the actions are similar to those in party battles, but attack, special cannon, and crew are a bit different.
The attack command, unlike its party battle counterpart, allows you to fire on the enemy vessel using one of the four weapons you have mounted on your vessel. Purchased at stores and found around the world, the different types of weapons take different amounts of spirit points to use, so you cannot always attack during an action turn. In addition, most weapons, aside from subcannons, can only be used once per round, meaning that once a weapon has been used, you can’t fire it again until the next round, regardless of how many spirit points you have.
The special cannon command allows you to use your ship’s super-powerful weapon. It takes a lot of spirit points to use, and it can only be used during specially marked action turns, which don’t appear every round. The effects are devastating, however, and for most of the game, winning ship battles depends on getting the chance to use that weapon.
Crew allows you to use the special ability of one of the 22 crewmembers you can recruit during the game, so long as they are in your active crew roster at the time. For a certain number of spirit points, a crewmember will use his/her/its special ability to aid your ship or the party. I didn’t find this option to be too effective, since your spirit points are generally better spent on firing your guns or using magic. However, with the wide range of abilities crew members lend you, its worth trying out a few of them, especially when you’re in a bind.
The ship battle is an original concept, the only problem being that you don’t get a chance to use it that often. The “random” enemies you encounter never get stronger and so, later in the game, they pose no threat to you… and no challenge. The one really good thing about the ship battles is that, if you die, you can retry the battle as many times as you want. This means you can test out different strategies without having to worry about having to restart from your previous save. Still, the game could have used more random ship battles.
Battle system aside, there are a few interesting aspects to the standard RPG system SoA employs. First of all, there is the Discovery system, which I loved. At times, as you’re flying around in your airship, your compass will go crazy, meaning there’s a discovery nearby. If you keep pressing the B button, you’ll eventually find a Discovery, either a artifact or location, that you log in your journal. You can then sell the information to the Sailors Guild for cash and a higher Explorer Ranking. This reminded me of Koei’s Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, and it was fun trying to find all the Discoveries in the world, which adds to the replay value of the game.
Another fun facet is the Swashbuckler system. Every so often, Vyse will have the chance to answer a question in different ways. If he answers in the “correct” way, he will increase his Swashbuckler rating, which is a measure of how famous/infamous he is. I didn’t quite get how it helped you out in the game, but I do know that it certainly changed how people in the game spoke to you. Also, it’s probably useful in gaining a crewmember or two, which leads me to the next gameplay goodies, the Base and Crew systems.
At one point in the game, you get your own base, which you can build up and improve, to an extent. At the same time, you get your own, which you can start stocking with a crew. Recruited from around the world, crewmembers help out around your base and your ship. In the base, it’s a lot like the Suikoden series, in which you gather people to perform duties in your castle, except on a smaller scale (22 maximum in SoA).
Crewmembers can also help out during ship battles, as stated before. There are 11 active crew spots to fill, and 11 alternate spots. Each crewmember has a special technique he/she/it can use during ship battles if in the active roster, so playing around with the roster can be fun. I found the Base and Crew systems to be enjoyable, but after having played Suikoden and Suikoden II, SoA’s system was too small time for it to be an integral part of the gameplay experience.
Finally, there is Pinta’s Quest, a VMU game that you can download and play. During the course of the game, you’ll meet a little guy named Pinta, who will fly around and discover locations and items for you. As he discovers more things, he gains in levels, and once you put the VMU back into the controller and resume the game, the items he finds go to Vyse. Unfortunately, since my VMU won’t work independently of my controller, I couldn’t test it out, but the concept is novel.
The gameplay in Skies of Arcadia is fun, especially the ship battles, however the game never really makes you use any of the extra features, such as the Discovery system or Crew system, not to mention Pinta’s Quest. Some people may see this as a good thing, keeping the optional features optional, but I think that SoA should have made you use some of these extra features a bit more, or at least expanded upon them to make them more attractive to explore on your own.
Graphics, on the other hand, are superb throughout. After the grand performance that Final Fantasy IX’s CG movies put on, I wondered how I would be able to enjoy an RPG that didn’t have any ever again. The answer was to make the in-game graphics so crisp and impressive that the whole game seems like a movie. While I’m obviously exaggerating a bit, Skies of Arcadia’s graphics are leaps and bounds above anything I’ve seen before, thanks, of course, to the Dreamcast’s hardware. Polygons are finally smooth enough that chins are rounded (never underestimate the authenticity that no sharp edges on a character can give to the graphics in a game).
The texturing on the airships and buildings is quite detailed, and the characters’ expressions are just that: expressive. Vyse, Fina, and even Aika, with her funny faces (I love her cats eyes look) all express their emotions convincingly through their facial movements. Even the fact that the characters are drawn in a super-deformed style doesn’t hinder the realism too much, and each one is designed to look the part of its personality.
Spell effects, while graphically advanced from those of PlayStation RPGs, lack much imagination. While a few special attacks, such as Aika’s Omega Cyclone and Ramirez’s Silver Eclipse, are really interesting, the rest are just boring to watch, and I often found myself doing a quick cancel of the animation by pressing the Start button.
Then there is the camera, which I had some problems with. While you are able to get a 360 degree view most of the time, when you’re near a wall or in a similar location, the camera has trouble moving behind you, and that can get frustrating when trying to find certain treasures or secrets. The problem wasn’t big, though, and it can be overlooked. Overall, though the graphics were fantastic, and I didn’t really miss the CG movies.
The music was another big plus in SoA. From the beautifully orchestrated title screen music to the exciting, fast paced battle music, Skies of Arcadia brings an aural treat to a beautiful game. I’ll admit that most of the compositions didn’t strike me as instant classics, but there was definitely spirit in the music, especially while flying and during touching scenes. There were a few tracks, such as one during moments of reflection, that were short and simple but that really affected me. They conveyed emotion using a synthesizer in the style of Drakkhen and other Kemco games that I found to be both calming and tear jerking at the same time. I take my hat off to the composer.
Sound was very good as well. While most of the sound effects were fun (I love when DeLoco goes nuts after he loses), the real strength was in the snippets of voice acting, used to punctuate some characters’ dialogue. Vyse, Fina, Aika, Drachma, etc. sounded very authentic most of the time. I enjoyed most of the characters’ battle cries when they performed their special moves, though you do get tired of them eventually (another good reason to skip the animations).
The only characters whose voices I didn’t like were Viguro (didn’t sound muscle-headed), Enrique (his special attacks sounded too plain), and Ramirez (though his Special Attack cries were eerie, he just didn’t sound like his character design). Other than those, everyone else fit in perfectly. The only other complain I have is that the voice clips were only used to punctuate certain lines of dialogue, and there were only a handful of them used over and over. The concept really felt half-done, and part of me wishes that they had chosen between all voices or no voices. Fortunately, the other part of me liked the voices that were there so much that I enjoyed it.
The icing on the cake, however, is the game’s control: it’s almost flawless. I’m still a newcomer to using an analog stick, and I must say that this is a great introduction to it. I had no problem controlling Vyse with either the analog stick or directional pad. Furthermore, the selection of targets wasn’t too difficult. It may sound like a measly aspect, but coming from a few RPGs that had me desperately trying to target the right enemy, it’s a great relief.
Where control sticks, however, is while flying the airship. You can only move with the analog stick, and that was a bit annoying at times. Your immediate reaction is to move with the directional pad, however that just changes the camera angle. Fortunately, altitude adjustment wasn’t difficult, ascension and descent being controlled by the left and right trigger buttons. Other than a little problem with ship handling, though, control was tight and simple.
In the final analysis, Skies of Arcadia comes up quite nicely. The mixture of great graphics and music, combined with an interesting world and characters makes this game most enjoyable. With two CDs worth of gameplay, extra features such as Pinta’s Quest, and two solid battle systems, SoA is one of the most fun games around. While it won’t give you as much replay value as, say, Final Fantasy IX or Chrono Trigger, the first time around is great, and there are still a few extras to bring you back for another go-around. A stunning performance by a group of designers whose talent I’m glad to see still being put to use.