Skies of Arcadia
With the slim choice of RPGs on the Dreamcast, you think it’d be easy to create a decent RPG. But then again, I wish I told the developers of Time Stalkers and the Evolution series that before their lackluster (at best) games were released. Skies of Arcadia initially seemed to be a game for the ages made the mighty Sega themselves. The back of the box boasts a “highly imaginative storyline, beautifully detailed graphics and immersive gameplay.” While the first two features come off as slight exaggerations, the last is a bold-faced lie.
Although “imaginative” isn’t the best word to describe the plot of Skies of Arcadia, I’d go as far as to call it entertaining. The game takes place in a world where instead of oceans; there are seemingly endless stretches of air and sky. All of the continents simply float around, and air ships replace boats. Vyse and Aika are two members of the Blue Rouges. This noble band of pirates is on a routine raid against an evil Valuan warship. During the looting and plundering they rescue a mysterious silver-haired girl by the name of Fina. Eventually it’s up to our heroes to embark on an adventure to find the 4 moon crystals, which the Valuan Empire wants so they can destroy the world!
While the plot is undeniably clichÈd, the characters are unusually interesting and keep the game exciting. Our main man Vyse has an energetic “can do” attitude which is a refreshing pace from all the sulky or mute main characters present in many of today’s RPGs. The best thing about the characters is the chemistry they have with each other. This creates lots of great scenes filled with humor that doesn’t feel goofy or forced.
One thing I didn’t like was that the events in the game feel like a PG rated film. Normally I’d have no problem with that, but in Skies of Arcadia this presents many embarrassing gaps in logic. For example, in numerous scenes I fight a big evil boss, and after beating him, the guy says something like, “I’ll get you next time” before passing out. Instead of Vyse delivering the final blow, he and his party just run away only to fight the boss again in a later part of the game.
The one part where Skies of Arcadia manages to be original is in how heavily exploration is emphasized. For those of the obsessive people who actually explore every corner of the map, or house in a town, they’ll be rewarded with many new items and places to explore. Instead of having an ocean to explore in the game, we explore the skies. It may be an RPG first to get the airship within the first 30 minutes of play, but there are plenty of inconvenient obstacles to prevent you from going too far ahead in the game.
Borrowing a bit from the amazing Suikoden series, towards the end of the game up to 22 crew members can be recruited to work on your ship or just hang around the base. As in that series these people have little jobs to do on the ship, such as cooking and cleaning, and providing you with various rewards. It seems like more of an afterthought than something truly important, but at least it doesn’t put a damper on the fun like the annoying battles though.
Even though you’re in the relative safety of an airship, it doesn’t stop random encounters from occurring while you traverse the world map. First I’ll start off with the better aspects of it before I rant about how awful it actually is. The turn-based combat will be familiar to anyone who has played RPGs before, but there are a few twists present. During battles the color of your weapon can be changed, with each color representing a certain element (water, ice etc). After the battle is won, points are gained and depending on the color of the weapon used, you will get closer to learning a move of that element. While this is an interesting idea, most characters will end up learning the same moves, so each character isn’t really unique. Fortunately, by finding moon berries scattered around the land each character can learn their own unique super moves. These moves are necessary in order to win some of the tougher battles. While this is all somewhat original, it’s far from exciting.
Even with these slight innovations, the turn-based battles fail miserably. Never before have I played a game where battles took so long, and I have played far too many RPGs. The camera slowly zooms in onto whichever person is attacking, and then slowly moves onto the next person. Enemies constantly beckon other creatures to fight against you, and this can sometimes make the battle drag on five minutes longer than it should take. The random encounter rate also seems unfairly high when flying your airship, but at least it’s toned down when exploring dungeons. It eventually got to a point where I dreaded flying my airship from one destination to the other. To add insult to injury, it isn’t until the end of the game when you’re able to avoid random encounters in your airship. The whole affair ends up being far too frustrating.
In addition to the standard hand-to-hand combat, occasionally you get into turn-based ship to ship battles. There’s a 3×3 square that says what the enemy is going to do next, and it’s your job to decide what to do. There’s a satisfying sense of strategy in this mode, but the same problem that plagues the other type of combat runs rampant here: The battles just take way too long. All of the attacks are executed in a slow and overly dramatic manner. It’s a shame this had to happen when the heart of this mode succeeds so well.
The “immersive gameplay” advertised was an absurd lie, but at least the “beautifully detailed graphics” lived up to the hype. The anime-style characters have loads of personality thanks to effective animations, and many of the bosses look incredible due to their detail and sheer size. Best of all, one of the merchants has a fro and is decked out with a phat gold chain. How cool is that? The epic ships actually manage to be more impressive than the characters. It’s easy to tell someone spent a lot of time designing these ships, because each one has a distinctive style to it. Valuan warships look sterile and mass produced, while the trading ships have more of a homemade look. The sizes of some of the ships are huge. Just wait till you pilot a small fishing ship against a warship. The scope of it all left me in awe.
Less impressive is the sound department, but compared to the awful battles it mostly delivers. The music is memorable, and almost all of the tunes are used effectively. The best example of this is in the boss battles. When the battle begins, there is some frantic hard rock music, but as you slowly begin to win the fight, the music changes to a more upbeat “I’m kicking your ass” pace. The only real problem with the sound is that the characters occasionally speak, but this turns out to be very rare in Skies of Arcadia. It feels like the developers got lazy and figured that very small portions of voice acting is better than no voice acting, but it ends up being quite distracting.
Even with the excellent graphics, entertaining storyline, and decent music, Skies of Arcadia is an average game at best. If the annoyingly slow combat was sped up, the game would have undoubtedly been good. Since the RPG pickings on the Dreamcast are a bit slim, I’d still suggest checking this game out. Many people might be able to overlook the poor combat system, but I wasn’t one of them. You may even like the game, but just don’t expect the adventure of your life.