It’s been over a year since Sega of America launched the Dreamcast in stores nationwide, offering gamers one of the most powerful gaming systems on the market for a relatively low price. However, there was one fault with it. While Sega had just about everything right with the launch, two genres were neglected, those being strategy, and RPGs. Though this mishap was corrected with the release of titles such as Evolution, Elemental Gimmick Gear, and so forth, you could hardly consider these titles epic, when they surpassed past games in graphics only. With the release of Skies of Arcadia, the past now seems non-existent, with the dawning of new high-quality titles on the system.
If it wasn’t apparent enough from the screenshots that we have been fed since the game’s first initial screens were made public, graphically, Skies of Arcadia is breathtaking. The opening animation, done in real-time, shows The Albatross, an airship, soaring through blue skies and clouds, then zooming in to show a young woman sitting on the edge of the ship, holding what appears to be a treasure map, rustling in her hands from the wind blowing on it. The treasure map isn’t a textured mess either… you can actually see land masses drawn on it.
The aforementioned young woman, Aika, is one of main characters in the game. Continuing with that opening animation, the wind ends up blowing the map out of her hands and into the sky, and as she turns to see where the map has blown, you notice something about her face…. it changed from a smile that she had while she was reading the map, to a look of shock as she glances above, where the map is fluttering, wondering how she’s going to get it back. This is but one of the many different expressions she has to offer, and but one of the various characters presented in the story, all of whom are presented in smooth motion, no choppiness.
As it continues through the opening animation, you are shown various landscapes, featuring terrain ranging from lush foliage and jungles to dry, desert sands. Sure, such terrain has all been done before. However, in the world of Arcadia, all terrain is within islands scattered throughout the skies, and rather than water being your boundary, the sky’s the limit. While there are conveniently placed obstacles such as sky rifts, which resemble waterfalls in a way, only they’re made of what appears to be a cloudy mist moving rapidly downward, you are still given plenty of area to explore. And, as you progress, you gain the means to overcome these obstacles.
Now, for what reason would you possibly want to explore everything? It’s not like you’re truly making discoveries never seen before… or are you? In reality, this is one of the most charming elements in the game, as you are rewarded for taking the time to explore the lands. Throughout Arcadia, there are hidden places, creatures, and other oddities that you can discover, and upon finding these, you are rewarded with money from the exploration guild, if you go to any of their offices in the various towns. Interestingly enough, you aren’t the only one who ends up attempting to find all the discoveries in the world, as eventually, you end up competing to find them.
In each of the various sections of the world, as in any RPG, you run into various towns, dungeons, and other locations to fully explore and battle in to discover treasures, defeat foes, and so forth. The environments presented before you are simply amazing and huge. From climbing the ladder to get a view from up on Lookout Island on Pirate Isle, to scaling the long flights of stairs up and down in Rixis, you get a true sense of exploring and seeing not just a few places, but an actual world. Standing on Lookout Island and looking directly below to see the entire town on Pirate Isle from way up high in the clouds was definitely a visual treat.
Within these locations, you will run into enemy encounters, both within dungeons, and onboard your ship in the skies, with the occasional fight actually using your ship. As you travel about, the changes in your environment result in changes in the battle environment. For instance, when flying above desert sands on your ship in the overworld, when during battle, you will see just that around your ship as you fight. While this is not that important, graphical touches are always nice to see.
Spells are short and simple, not overdone. They are graphically impressive, from the explosions used in various Pyri-type spells, and the sparkles and effects in the Sacri-type healing spells. Special attacks range from short, graphically impressive effects to very long, extensive, and very graphically impressive effects. Unfortunately, some of them are too long, and are one of those “first time is great” deals. Thankfully, Sega of America put in a special option of skipping special attack animations in the domestic release by hitting the start button as they begin.
Moving on from eye candy, the battle systems are something I have a lot to praise about. While the basic battle system used with monsters vs. player characters is truly nothing 100% original, as the best aspects from various games are taken, and at its core, it’s your standard turn-based engine, the end result is arguably one of the best engines around. The ship vs. ship (or otherwise) battles involving your actual aircraft is a variation of the previous battle engine, except with a few important differences, which I will mention shortly. The encounter rate for the battles in the overworld are a bit high, particularly in certain areas, and the encounter rate for battles in dungeons is between low and moderate. It probably would have been best to have it all moderate.
The off-ship battle system is comprised of several commands, those being Run, Item, Guard, Attack, Special Move, Magic, and Focus. Run is obvious, as it makes your entire party retreat. Running is actually not 100% useless as in many other games, since if you are unsuccessful with your retreat, all characters will be automatically set to Guard for the duration of that round.
The item command allows you to use an item in your inventory, which I must mention, is a party pool of items, so you don’t have to worry about not being able to use a particular item, since everyone can use everything.
The Guard command puts your character in a defensive posture and ends up with you taking 50% or less damage than normal. The attack command is quite obvious, where a character goes out and attacks the opponent you select.
The Special Move command allows you to perform a special attack of your choice, all of which can be performed a virtually infinite amount of times. Magic casts the spell of your choice and drains 1 magic point, regardless of the spell. Focus makes your character increase the party’s spirit pool.
At the top of the screen during battle, there is a gauge that indicates the amount of spirit points the party has. Although I mentioned that magic only requires 1 MP each, and special attacks can be done almost endlessly, they all require a various amount of spirit points. Each round, your party automatically regains a certain amount of spirit points, the amount depending upon your characters’ levels. There is a maximum amount of spirit points you can have pooled in a round, and this is set depending upon your characters’ levels yet again.
A sample explanation of all of this would be your starting party of Vyse and Aika, whom both together results in a maximum spirit pool of 8, and each gain 1 spirit point per round at level 1, so at the start of every battle, you begin with 2 spirit points out of 8. If they didn’t use any spirit points during the first round, the following round they would gain 2 more for a total of 4. If Vyse used the focus command on the first round, he would add 1 spirit point for a total of 3 on the first round, and the following round would have a total of 5.
Vyse’s first special attack, Cutlass Fury, requires 7 spirit points to use. Obviously, all you need to do is not cast any magic or use any other special attack until you have 7 or more spirit points. Aika’s first healing spell, Sacri, requires 2 spirit points to use. She has 5 out of 5 magic points at the start of the game, so if she would cast Sacri, the spirit pool would drop by 2, and she would lose 1 magic point. When she gets the next level healing spell Sacres, the spirit pool would drop by 4, but she still only loses 1 magic point.
Since the battle system is turn-based, it all runs on the roll of the die, and the amount of quickness characters (or monsters) have. Unlike many games that feature turn-based battle systems, when a particular character or monster is performing its move the other characters and monsters do not stand around mindlessly. They, in fact, run around towards each other and continue their attack animations. Though no damage is done, it is nice to see something happening in the background.
Moving on to the ship-to-ship/monster battles, it’s your player-configured ship vs. the enemy. The core of it is a turn-based system like before, and most of the commands are the same. The special move command has been changed to special weapon, and the attack command allows you to use 1 of the 4 available standard weapons on the ship. Standard weapons are different grades of main cannons, sub-cannons, and torpedoes, all of which can be purchased at various shops throughout Arcadia, much like you purchase weapons and armor at any other shop, and all weapons cost spirit points to fire, just like magic.
Torpedoes do huge damage, and are fired off on a particular turn, and will strike the enemy on a later turn. Main cannons fire once, and do damage adjusted by the strength of the person using them. Sub-cannons can fire multiple turns, though each extra turn you fire takes additional spirit points, such as 1 turn taking 3 spirit points, 2 turns taking 6, and so forth. You can also upgrade your ship with an armored deck, anti-magic protection, and other assorted items.
During these battles, the speed of your ship can play an important part in victory or defeat. In other words, being faster isn’t necessarily better. Ship battles are outlined each round in a grid like fashion. There are as many turns in a round as there are characters in your party. Just above the grid is displayed the condition of the ships’ positions and possible avenues of critical hits per round.
For instance, on the first turn on the first round, if the icon is green, it means both ships will fly side by side for the most part, and the enemy could do a number of things such as focus, attack, or cast defensive magic. If it was yellow, the enemy will most likely attack and do a good bit of damage. If it’s red, the enemy has a possible opening for a hit directly to your engines, which would do major damage, and depending on your speed, could determine whether the opponent will make that shot in.
There are similar instances for you, where if you see a C!, it leaves an opening for your own possible critical hits on the opponent. There are also certain moments where you can fire off your special weapon, though it is only during that particular turn in a round, that you can fire it. You’ll know when you can, as a special icon will appear.
A better explanation of this battle system would be a sample round of combat, and we’ll pretend we have 30 spirit points at our disposal, and 3 party members. During this particular round, the first turn has a yellow icon, the second has a green icon with a C! on it, and the third turn having a red icon. For this round, I’d choose to have my weakest character do three turns of sub-cannon fire starting with the first turn, the second turn having my strongest character use the main cannon, and on the third turn, guard.
As soon as the commands are given, the round of combat begins. We’ll say for the first turn, my ship fires off the sub-cannons, and the enemy fires off a torpedo. During the second turn, the enemy focuses, and my ship fires both the sub-cannons, and the main cannon, and hits the enemy’s engines for critical damage (remember the C! from before). On the third turn, I end up firing the last volley of sub-cannon fire, as well as putting my defense up. The enemy fires his main cannons, and the torpedo comes down, doing a lot of damage, though only half since I had my defenses up. All of this may or may not sound complicated, but actually playing it and watching all of this happen is what’s really neat.
For the most part, the key to success is getting the opening to use your special weapon, but staying alive is the important thing. And you are just as capable of winning by using standard weapons in the majority of these ship battles.
Musically, Skies of Arcadia is nothing short of brilliant. From the soothing melody that plays during the title screen, to the electronic sounds in the standard battle theme, the talents of the composers is easy to appreciate. I sat in Horteka, one of the towns in Arcadia, for near half an hour, just listening to the music alone. This isn’t the only song that I just set aside time to listen to, as I did it in numerous places.
A really neat feature about the overworld theme is that it’s dynamic. Depending on your location in Arcadia, the instrumentation and polyphony changes. For instance, when you’re in the region around Horteka, bongo drums begin to beat. The music is all chip-generated as far as I can tell, and it has been done quite well. There was only one song in the game that I did not like, that being the standard boss theme, which knocked off a few points on the score.
The sound effects were all fitting in the game, and the voice acting was a mixed bag. While it was limited to battle cries and the occasional laugh or “hey!” it was more the sampling rate that got to me. Those that listen to games through a stereo system will notice the recording quality of the voices, as they sound like it’s at a frequency of 22 kHz, cassette tape quality. While not a major deal, it is a blight on what is a near flawless game. Also, some of the voice acting comes off as ridiculously corny, such as Fina’s forced “Moons! Cleanse the lands!” While she does say this in the import version of the same game, the voice sounds unconvincing, and would have sounded better if the person talked straight.
The story of Skies of Arcadia at its core, is clichéd, as one can expect from picking up almost any new release nowadays. It involves your standard power-hungry military general (or in this case, admiral) wanting to rule the world, needing some ancient power in order to achieve this. However, sometimes it is the best storyteller, and not the best story, that wins the prize. This is the case with Skies of Arcadia, as the characters and methods used to tell the story keep you wanting more, since there aren’t plot twists intentionally thrown in every other hour of gameplay.
Vyse is a rash, but bold and adventurous type of person, who never gives up and always is on the lookout for something to accomplish, wanting to make the impossible, possible. Aika is carefree, very positive, and has that playful kind of attitude, the perfect (girl)friend for Vyse. Fina is shy, kind, but serious about her mission, an excellent way to average out the cast in terms of personality.
There is an assortment of characters with various types of personalities, but note that there is not one character in the cast that is (annoyingly) negative. That’s something that is very important to point out, because if you are looking for a story that is moody/depressing and perhaps a tear-jerker, you won’t find it here. The characters are trying to make their marks in the world, explore things, and find treasure, not whine because the world isn’t perfect. About time.
It’s been a long time waiting, and I definitely think it was worth it. While not a flawless game, and even though I have given an overall lower score for this game than I had given in my review of Shining Force 3, Skies of Arcadia is no doubt, THE BEST game I have EVER played. Numerical scores aren’t a good factor to go by as always, because there is more to this RPG than what a few numbers, or even words, can depict. If you don’t play this game, you will be missing out on what will forever be one of the greatest game experiences of the end of this millenium.