It’s no secret that the Dreamcast struggled in the RPG department early in its lifespan. While games like Elemental Gimmick Gear and Evolution were there, they weren’t enough of a motivating factor to buy a Dreamcast. Sega’s internal development teams came to the rescue, however, and produced Skies of Arcadia. Sega fans were hopeful that they would finally have an RPG on the Dreamcast they could be proud of and could use as a reason to purchase the system.
Fortunately for Dreamcast owners, Skies of Arcadia is a superb RPG that uses the capabilities of the Dreamcast to create a game that surpasses the previous generation of consoles in more than just the graphical department.
You can fly, you can fly, you can fly
The game starts off with a rather impressive cut scene. Alfonso, one of the admirals of the Valuan Armada, is chasing a tiny vessel with a young girl inside. The air is filled with concussion bursts, and the girl is taken captive by the Valuans. To save the day, however, comes a ship of Air Pirates – the Blue Rogues – led by Captain Dyne. The Rogues are Robin Hood-style pirates, stealing from the rich and corrupt to help the poor (and themselves, of course). Dyne’s son, Vyse, and his friend Aika, lead the boarding party onto the Valuan flagship, and eventually rescue the young girl, Fina.
From there, Vyse and Aika decide to help the mysterious Fina with a mission – to prevent the 6 Moon Crystals from falling into the hands of the evil Valuan empire. It’s obviously a bit more complex than that, and there’s a fair number of plot complications along the way, but it’s still rather straightforward. This isn’t a flaw of the game, however – Skies’s plot is quite amusing because it doesn’t try to fool you all the time or to change its direction repeatedly – there are a few plot twists, but nothing truly unexpected.
There’s a fairly wide cast of characters, with Vyse, Aika, and Fina being the main three. There’s adequate depth to each of the party members, though none of them are anything particularly new or unique – Vyse is the young, optimistic, never-say-die adventurer, Aika is the plucky heroine/sidekick, and Fina is the naive but caring girl. Even so, they work, because their dialogue and actions fit them well – you can generally imagine how each character is going to act. Non-party members are a bit more stereotyped and shallow, but there’s a lot of variety in the supporting cast that helps to make up for that.
The world is an interesting one, though – rather than large continents, the world of Arcadia is full of floating islands of varying sizes, as well as reefs, sky rifts, and other natural phenomena. It’s a refreshing change to be in a world where airships are common (and necessary), and the game uses the environment very well.
Moreover, the game forgoes the general cliché of making parts of the world lifeless and pointless until the plot demands it – while the world of Arcadia is sectioned off, it does make sense in the context of the game, and when a new ship upgrade allows you to explore a new section of world, there are many places you can go, new things to discover, and so forth – it’s not a world where there are only a few interesting things that you’re forced to find, but full of interesting places. It feels alive, which is different than quite a few other RPGs on the market.
Rounded faces? Wow, that’s a new one.
The graphics are overall quite stunning. Arcadia is an immensely colorful world, and the graphics capabilities of the Dreamcast are used to great effect. Towns look alive, with running water, growing plants, dirty streets, and so on. There are a wide variety of character models, so townspeople throughout the world look different from one another. Dungeons also look impressive – ranging from Egyptian-styled pyramids to tropical ruins and submerged volcanoes, there’s a lot to look at in the various areas. The areas are viewed from behind Vyse (so you’ll become familiar with his backside as you progress), but there’s also a first person viewpoint you can take to look around your environment more closely.
The overworld also looks great. The islands you’ll pass all look good, with vegetation and other features on the tops, while roots and dirt clumps stick to the underside of the lands. Sky rifts resemble giant translucent waterfalls, while a thin layer of clouds covers the top of the sky. Different lands also have different natural features – fly through Valua and you’ll suddenly be in the middle of a dark, stormy landscape. You truly get the feeling that it’s a huge, diverse world you’re exploring.
There are no CG or FMV scenes – everything is done within the game’s engine, to great effect. Cut scenes are done with enough style to make you want to know what’s going on. Moreover, battles feature great animation. There’s quite a bit of palette swapping with enemies, but it’s not really bothersome. Your party’s attacks look nice – each character has a long distance attack and a short distance attack that they randomly switch between.
Moreover, even when your characters aren’t performing their action for the turn, they’ll spar with the enemies, dodge attacks, and move around the battlefield. While they don’t actually take or give damage during this action, it helps shake the feeling that your characters are immobile except while acting once per turn. Special moves look incredible, and for the longer moves (or moves you’ve seen often), you can simply hit Start to skip the animation – speeding up battles tremendously. Magic is less impressive, but is rather brief, so battles tend to flow rather quickly.
Ship battles also look great. Your ship and your opponent will circle each other, fly around the battlefield, fire weaponry and spells, and so forth – the ship battles have a very cinematic feel to them. Moreover, some of the attacks look absolutely incredible – particularly the Moonstone Cannon – and you’ll definitely want to seem them repeatedly.
“C’mon. Dance for me.”
The sound effects are rather good as well. Each weapon has a distinctive and appropriate sound, from Vyse’s cutlasses to Aika’s boomerang. Enemy attacks sound fairly generic, though. Magic and special moves also sound pretty much like you’d expect them to.
There’s also some limited voice acting. It’s good, but not perfect. The problem isn’t with the voice actors, whom I tended to enjoy – it’s the very limited scope. Each character only has a few voice samples, which are repeated throughout the game. Each special move has its own voiceover, but every character, no matter the spell, will always yell the same thing – “Moons, give me strength!” This also happens with items, where the variety is limited to “Let’s try this!” and “This should work”. Finally, each character has several voice samples to be heard after a battle. They’re nice for a while, but they get repetitive, and are often out of context – if Vyse is in perfect health after a battle but everyone else is unconscious, you’ll still get “That was easy,” which seems like an odd choice of phrases for what was apparently not that easy a battle.
During plot events, there’ll also be the occasional sample, but again, these are repeated throughout, such as Aika cheering or laughing. It’s not that I disliked the acting, but it was hard to get enthusiastic about it when it ended up being rather repetitive throughout the entire game.
The soundtrack is great, though. Offhand, I can’t remember a single song I disliked. Each town has its own distinctive theme, and they’re all rather catchy (particularly the melancholy tune of Esperanza and the insidiously addictive jungle beat of Horteka). One common complaint I have with RPGs is the diversity of battle themes. Skies of Arcadia certainly goes above the norm here, with perhaps a dozen different battle themes – there’s a theme for overworld battles, dungeon battles, normal ship battles, boss ship battles, Armada ship battles, and so forth. Moreover, each of them is quite good and catchy. It’s definitely one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in quite a while, and adds a lot to the game.
Where have all the random battles gone? In here.
Skies of Arcadia’s gameplay is pretty good as well, though it distinctly leans towards the old-school approach.
Random battles are back, and extremely common in Skies of Arcadia. You’ll be fighting a lot. So much, in fact, that it can be difficult, at times, to get to where you want to go (the South Ocean is pure evil). The normal battles, themselves, are rather standard. You’ve got a four-character party (one of the best parts), and each turn, you can attack, use a special move, cast a spell, guard, use an item, or focus. Most of those are self-explanatory, but there’s one unique factor – the Spirit Bar.
Each character has a spirit rating, and each turn, your party will combine its spirit rating and put points into a spirit bar. When using a spell or special move, the spirit bar will be depleted a certain number of points. Party members who focus during their turn put extra points into the spirit bar. What it amounts to is the fact that for the majority of the game, you can’t use your most powerful moves every turn – you’ve got to build up to them. Deciding how to use your spirit is actually an important factor in battles – do you want to use a weak special move as crowd control, save up to have your most powerful characters attack with a strong blow, or cast some support spells? It’s not easy to strike a balance.
Learning magic is simple. There are six spell categories (to represent the six moons), and each category has six spells as well. You can change your weapon’s elemental property on the fly, and when the battle’s finished, you gain experience in the element(s) that your party members have equipped, and each spell requires a certain number of magical experience to learn. Spellcasters tend to learn magic spells much more quickly than the fighters, but the spells are the same for everyone. In all, I found magic to be rather disappointing and useless, other than the healing spells and basic attack/speed boosting spells.
Ship battles are also an important element of the game. Your ship has several types of cannons and torpedoes, with different properties. Each turn, your party members decide how to act (fire a cannon, cast a spell, take evasive action, etc), and battles progress in a strategic, turn-by-turn manner. The game tells you the general level of enemy attacks in any given turn, and also when the enemy is open for fire, so you can adjust your strategy accordingly. In most battles, you can also make a strategic decision – such as deciding whether to close the distance between your opponent and yourself, or not – and your decisions change the opportunities you have in battle.
Your ships also have a super cannon, which can only be fired in particular circumstances, but to great effect. Making sure you can use your super cannon is an important part of battle. Perhaps the only flaw with the ship battles is the fact that they can take a very long time – a typical turn can take as much as three minutes, and battles can last for many turns. They’re fun to watch, though, so it is excusable.
An important theme in the game is that of discovery, and there’s ample room in the game to discover things – it’s a huge world, and there’s a lot to find. As you fly, your compass occasionally spins wildly, signifying a discovery there. They range from ruins to interesting wildlife, and some discoveries are important to find to progress the game. However, most are there for your amusement. You can also buy and sell information about discoveries to the Sailors’ Guild – if you’re the first to find a discovery, and quickly, you can earn a sizeable sum of money. However, there are also rival treasure-hunters out looking for the same discoveries, so there’s an element of speed necessary to discover as much as you want. While some discoveries can be insanely difficult to find, it’s usually easy enough to find the discoveries you need to progress with the game, so it’s a fun addition to flesh out the world.
There’s a VMU minigame, Pinta’s Quest. Pinta can search areas of the world that you’ve discovered, and find items and gold for you. As he searches, he’ll level up, becoming more powerful and finding better items to return to you. It’s entirely optional, but strangely addictive, and I found some very useful items to help me progress through the main game. A nice option to play around with.
Last, but not least, since you’re flying an airship, you’ll eventually need to build a base and recruit a crew. Both of these elements are fun, and give the game a Suikoden-like feel. There are 22 crewmembers, and you can have 11 selected at once. Different crew members offer different benefits in battle, and it can often be difficult to choose between the crew members – do you want to have Osman increase your chances of finding expensive items after battle, or Kalifa help increase your chances of finding special, powerful items? It’s fun to find the different crew members to help increase your ship’s power, and also the number and types of items you can buy.
You can also build your base – it’s generally passive, and just involves spending varying sums of money to buy and upgrade various buildings and other aspects of your base, but it’s fun anyway – I liked making my base very Eastern in architecture and wildlife. Definitely a fun bonus to play around with.
Fun for everyone
The only truly major flaw in the game is the random battle rate. It may sound like I didn’t like the battles, but that’s not the case – I liked fighting enemies, learning new special moves, and so forth. I also really liked the way that the ship battles blended with normal combat, particularly later in the game – it could have been like Xenogears where your characters didn’t matter at all, simply your Gears – but it’s very well balanced – you need to upgrade your equipment and your ship to survive.
It’s just that I would spend as much as an hour trying to get from one location to another, and be forced to repeatedly fight enemies along the way. After a while, I chose to stop playing, as much as I wanted to see what happened next in the game, because I was tired of fighting the same enemies for little gain. Similarly, I stopped trying to find most of the Discoveries along the way, because it involved too much random flying and fighting – even with clues as to where to look.
Despite that, Skies of Arcadia’s a great game. The sense of discovery you get as you fly around the world, discovering treasures and new lands is wonderful. The plot’s just right – it’s not too serious, but quite interesting. I really liked the characters, and just exploring the world around me.
Overall, it’s definitely a must-buy for Dreamcast owners, and one of the first great RPGs on the system. Highly recommended.