Sega’s spectacular Skies of Arcadia, originally released on the publisher’s own Dreamcast console, impressed most who played it and, to this day, ranks along with Game Arts’ Grandia II as one of this reviewer’s two favorite traditional RPGs ever released. However, with the small installed user base of the financially unsuccessful Dreamcast, many RPG fans never had a chance to experience this masterpiece. With a well-deserved and slightly improved port to Nintendo’s GameCube, hopefully the game can now reach the wider audience that it truly deserves.
Skies of Arcadia Legends 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 Rogues. This benevolent, Robin Hood-esque band of air pirates 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 and rob the armed Empire vessel.
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 Rogues are able to save Fina, seize 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 Rogues are now hunted by the powerful Valua Empire, and it’s up to them to discover the great power that Fina holds while opposing the largest military force in their world.
Skies of Arcadia Legends doesn’t have the deepest storyline, but what’s there is very entertaining and moves quickly, allowing a high level of enjoyment for nearly all RPG fans. The creative setting of the game immediately draws players in, and the RPG 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 Skies of Arcadia Legends’ sky-based world, and character development, while not strong, is reasonably solid.
The translation for Skies of Arcadia Legends is commendable as well. Spelling and grammatical errors are nimbly avoided, and the dialogue, while often a bit lacking in depth, flows well throughout the game’s entire length.
Although Skies of Arcadia Legends is billed as a Director’s Cut version of the original Dreamcast release of the game, it’s really more of a port with minor enhancements than a truly extended version of the game. The GameCube port does contain some additional story details, but there aren’t any major plot differences between the two versions of the game.
Skies of Arcadia Legends is at its best in its gameplay. At first glance, the only epic RPG to date for Nintendo’s newest console 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 can all be used by characters to aid each other or harm enemies.
Like several recent RPGs such as Square’s Final Fantasy X and Sony’s Wild ARMs 3, Skies of Arcadia Legends 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, Skies of Arcadia Legends has one force meter for the entire party. In addition to consuming magic points, spells cost force points (called SP in Skies of Arcadia Legends) when they are cast; the use of skills also costs SP, but it doesn’t use up any magic points.
The relatively novel gameplay features in Skies of Arcadia Legends are somewhat subtle, but together they strongly contribute to the unique gameplay experience that the RPG offers. 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 Skies of Arcadia Legends 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 classic Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Although the air-based world map play is the most conspicuous of Skies of Arcadia Legends’ 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 SP meter (each airship attack costs a certain number of SP). The airship battles are really intense, due in part to the fact that the majority of them are tied into climactic moments in the plot of the game. I found them to be some of the most exhilarating that RPGs have to offer.
Another interesting complication in Skies of Arcadia Legends’ 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 Skies of Arcadia Legends 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 Skies of Arcadia Legends is that moon stones can be freely swapped in combat at the touch of a single button.
Although Skies of Arcadia Legends’ 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, even shorter than in the original Dreamcast version of the game. In addition, no gaping design flaws are apparent. As a matter of fact, Skies of Arcadia Legends 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.
Skies of Arcadia Legends still does sport a few gameplay flaws. First of all, the encounter rate on the world map is relatively high, even after being lowered from the original Dreamcast release of the game; fortunately, it’s reduced to an ideal level in the dungeons. The amount of time that it takes to enter battles, which was a problem in the original, has also been reduced to an acceptable level in the GameCube port.
The battles themselves are also still overtly time-consuming, even though they run quicker than those in the original Dreamcast version of the game. Attacks are one of the few commands that aren’t carried out quickly; instead, they are 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.
Other gameplay enhancements to Skies of Arcadia Legends from the original include new side quests, new minigames, and new characters, though none of the new characters are playable. Perhaps the most noteworthy new gameplay option in the GameCube port is bounty hunting. You can track down outlaws, defeat them in combat, and then haul them in for a reward. Although they’re not groundbreaking, the enhancements are enjoyable and welcome.
Skies of Arcadia Legends 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 GameCube pad. Like most present-day 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 with either the trigger buttons or the C-stick (in most locations, I preferred the C-stick). 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 games. 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, and they load up even faster than the ones on the Dreamcast did.
The only gripe that I have with this particular facet of Skies of Arcadia Legends 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, Skies of Arcadia Legends 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, and the GameCube version also allows you to use the C-stick to control the airship’s flying height (the C-stick works better), it’s still not as smooth as the route taken in most RPGs.
Visually, Skies of Arcadia Legends is slightly improved over the original version of the game, and although it does look good, it’s still not quite up to the level of the best-looking RPGs of today. Like most recent RPGs, the game’s graphics rely exclusively on polygons. The level of detail isn’t in the echelon of, say, Final Fantasy X, but it is strong, particularly in the backgrounds. The color palette is diverse, and the colors chosen are appealing. Spell effects are nothing short of spectacular, ranking with the last four Final Fantasy games and Grandia II as some of the best ever seen in an RPG.
The animation of characters is very fluid, both in and out of battle, and it is part of what sets Skies of Arcadia Legends apart visually from most 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 most other RPGs seem dull and stationary.
Skies of Arcadia Legends utilizes no CG or anime movies; all of its cut scenes are generated with its in-game polygonal engine. However, they were conceived and constructed on the Dreamcast, which doesn’t have the visual muscle of today’s consoles. As a result, the cut scenes in Skies of Arcadia Legends look good, but they’re still not quite as nice as well done CG or anime movies, and they occasionally suffer from pop-up.
Perhaps the only other weakness in Skies of Arcadia Legends’ graphical presentation is the polygonal characters. They do a great job of avoiding blockiness, but up close, they’re somewhat lacking in detail, even with the additional textures added in for the GameCube port. 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.
Skies of Arcadia Legends’ solid 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. Voice acting in Skies of Arcadia Legends is limited strictly to battle cries in combat and, somewhat strangely, a few expressions, such as laughs, sighs, and some short key words or phrases, during the dialogue in some of the game’s cut scenes. It’s not done as well as that in recent RPGs such as Square’s Kingdom Hearts and the aforementioned Grandia II and Final Fantasy X, but it’s certainly not an embarrassment to the game, either.
Where the game is most remarkable in its sound, though, is its brilliantly composed soundtrack. Skies of Arcadia Legends 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 many intensely rocking battle themes and “Bombardment”, the climactic symphonic piece that accompanies the airship battles. The sound programming for the music has been subtly remixed from the Dreamcast version of the game, and unfortunately, it’s the one aspect of the game that has been changed for the worse. The music in the GameCube port sounds a bit tinnier and a bit more synthesized than that of the original, but fortunately, it’s not a large drop-off in sound quality.
All in all, Skies of Arcadia has held up quite well in the two years since its initial release, and it, along with its enhanced port, still ranks among the finest traditional RPGs ever released. With its familiar yet fresh gameplay, nice visuals, and a truly impressive soundtrack, the GameCube’s first epic RPG is one that should please nearly all RPG fans. This one gets my highest recommendation.