Review – Skies of Arcadia

Platforms: SEGA Dreamcast (reviewed), Nintendo Gamecube

Developer: Overworks

Publisher: SEGA

Genre: Role-playing game

ESRB rating: T – Teen

 

During its final years as a platform holder, SEGA’s internal studios worked on a number of Dreamcast games that became cult classics.  One such game is Skies of Arcadia, a Japanese Role-playing game that was first released on the Dreamcast in 2000, and was later ported to the Nintendo Gamecube (with some added content and a few graphical/musical tweaks).  This game was one of my favorites as a kid; it opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling and world building in games, and I have completed the 40+ hour story about a half dozen times.  But how does it hold up today?  As I’ve recently been replaying the game once again, I feel that now is as good a time as any to take a close look at what makes this game excellent…and what hasn’t aged quite so well.

Story

In Skies of Arcadia, the player steps into the shoes of Vyse, a young Air Pirate eager to make his mark in a world filled with flying sailboats and floating continents.  The empire of Valua seeks world domination, and it is up to Vyse and his friends to put a stop to them and keep the skies free.  But during a typical raid on a Valuan ship, Vyse and company rescue a mysterious girl on a secret mission.  The adventure that ensues takes Vyse and his merry band to the far corners of the world, discovering new lands as they seek to keep Valua from obtaining ancient, powerful crystals and taking over the world.

The overall tone of the game is very upbeat, filled with quirky characters and a strong sense of humor.  That said, there are enough moments of serious drama and character development to keep you interested in how the story progresses.  The final third of the game in particular throws in a few narrative twists and raises the stakes for the heroes as the story draws to a close.

Gameplay

The core of Skies’ gameplay is its two turn-based battle systems, one for hand-to-hand combat (which is random and can take place in dungeons and on the deck of a ship while flying through the overworld) and one for ship-to-ship combat (which only triggers when you fly into an enemy ship).  Hand-to-hand combat is fairly straight-forward; every turn the player decides the action that each character in the party will take, the actions of both friend and foe are played out on-screen, and the next turn begins.  Characters can perform a variety of moves, including physical attacks, special attacks (which have a wide variety of effects and are unique to each character), magic attacks (which can inflict damage or status effects) and “Focus” (which replenishes Spirit Points, a resource shared by the party that is required for magic and special moves).  Each character’s weapon can be aligned with one of the six moons that orbit the world (red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and silver), and selecting the right color to use against a certain enemy increases physical damage.  Overall, the hand-to-hand combat system is satisfying, and has no glaring weaknesses.

There is a catch, however, and it is my only real problem with the game as a whole: there are simply too many random battles.  While the encounters can be fun, their frequency also makes them very repetitive, and those without the patience to push through this may have a hard time seeing the game through to its conclusion.  This problem is highlighted at a point about midway through the game, when you are essentially forced to grind for cash in order to proceed with the story.

Ship battles are a bit different.  The player is presented with a grid (3×3 or 4×4, depending on the size of your party at the time), with party members on the left side representing each row, and color-coded squares above each column showing when it is best to attack or defend.  You then select which party member will perform what action (such as firing one of the ship’s cannons) and in what order (the action on the leftmost column will be performed first during that turn).  In this mode, all offensive moves consume Spirit Points, and careful Point management is important during some of the game’s boss battles.  This type of combat serves as a nice change of pace from the hand-to-hand combat that is more prevalent throughout the game.

Outside of combat, there are plenty of places to explore and secrets to uncover.  The player travels between towns and dungeons by flying through the open skies on Vyse’s ship.  Exploring the numerous towns in the game is a real treat; most of the NPCs will spout a few lines of dialogue when you interacts with them, and additionally Vyse or someone else in the party will have something to say about many of the objects strewn about the environment.  This exposition really helps flesh out the world, and gives you extra insight into how the characters think and how they respond to the world around them.  Treasure chests hidden throughout the hub worlds provide even more incentive to check every nook and cranny of the beautifully detailed environments.  The overworld also has its fair share of secrets, called “Discoveries,” which are scattered around the world and can be sold in town for a nice chunk of change.

Presentation

For a game released all the way back in 2000, the presentation holds up remarkably well.  The vibrant, colorful art style is still captivating; the lush greens in the forest land of Ixa’Taka, the deep reds and oranges in the desert kingdom of Nasrad, and the expansive blue skies that cover the whole planet make this old game feel beautiful to this day.  Perhaps even more impressive is the amount of detail that has been poured into the environments, especially considering the low texture resolution.  The streets of poverty-stricken Lower Valua look filthy, and everything from the stoves in peoples’ homes to the barrels sitting on the side of the road look like they have seen better days.

The character models are more of a mixed bag.  Both the main characters and the lesser NPCs are much blockier than what we are used to seeing today, and certain animations are reused more frequently.  The fully drawn faces, however, are very expressive, and allow the characters to express a whole range of emotions; this goes a long way in making the characters relatable and the cutscenes entertaining.

Skies of Arcadia is blessed with a fantastic soundtrack that really makes you feel that you are on a grand adventure.  The whole score is very uplifting; the sweeping songs that accompany the player’s journey through the overworld are a particular highlight.  The game’s sound effects, however, can get a bit repetitive at times, particularly in battle; hearing your crew members yell out “Moons, give me strength!” and “Let’s try this!” a hundred times does get old.  I never had too much trouble tuning it out, but others’ mileage will certainly vary.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Skies of Arcadia is a wonderful game that holds up well over the years.  While the character models are dated and the random battles are too frequent, the charming characters, imaginative environments, and solid combat more than make up the game’s shortcomings.  If you’ve got the patience to put up with some old-school JRPG grinding, the experience will be well worth your investment.

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