I’m so, so glad I finally got this game.
When Skies of Arcadia first came out on the Dreamcast, it made waves. Unfortunately, I got a Dreamcast long after the fact, and never got to see what the hubbub was about. Even when it got re-released for Gamecube, it took me a long time to finally nab the game. Developed by Overworks, an old Sega dev team that made the old Phantasy Star games, Skies of Arcadia was of course going to be an old-school experience… Thankfully, like most of the old Phatnasy Star games, it was right on target. I offer this: That Skies of Arcadia, even with its problems, is the ultimate traditional turn-based RPG.
First, though, let me explain that Skies of Arcadia Legends for Gamecube is not quite the same as the original SoA for Dreamcast. One sidequest was removed from the DC version, but a few were added, as well as adding additional content to the already existing sidequests. A few of the added sidequests also expand the story, particularly the backstory of one of the main antagonists.
Graphically, the character models allegedly look better. The the audio quality of the Gamecube version is much worse than the Dreamcast version. This is especially appearent when you listen to the soundtrack on its own; the recordings on SoALegends are quieter, mixed a lot worse, and have terrible problems with the volumes of the individual instruments, probably because the high end is so quiet. This might seem like a gripe to you, but music is a very subtle way to lose yourself in a game or find yourself uninspired by a game’s presentation. The Dreamcast audio is the superior of the two.
The last big difference is that the Dreamcast version has even more frequent random battles than the Gamecube version, which I find absurd. The Gamecube version dropped the random encounter rate and raised the amount of experience gained from enemies.
Now that that’s out of the way…
Skies of Arcadia is aesthetically an excellent game. It mixes a lot of the old with a lot of original stuff in every department. The character designs are awesome, even if a few of them are pretty stereotypical. The music, written by Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda, mixes ‘typical’ game music with some excellent contemporary orchestral pieces. There are a lot of excellent tracks.
Let’s talk about the gameplay before the story, shall we? After all, you can pretty much predict what SoA’s combat is like, right? Traditional turn-based RPG. There’s attacks, items, and magic. Whopee. There are, however, a few things that separate SoA from the pack without being too radical. The most important thing is Spirit Points (SP). SP is a type of point used for characters’ specific special moves and for the casting of magic spells (Spells always cost 1 MP and some SP). SP is pooled between all party members, but regenerates each turn. The amount that you recover each turn, as well as the max amount you can accumulate, goes up as your characters level up.
The second thing is magic experience. There are six magic elements in SoA. By changing the element of your weapon (which you can do any time during battle), you change what element gets magic experience. When you level up an element, you learn a spell. Some characters learn spells of a corresponding element faster than others, so some people will be more inclined to learn healing magic than attack magic, etc.
The last big thing that separates SoA from the rest are Ship Battles. In SoA, you can fly around in a ship and engage other enemy ships. There actually isn’t much difference between Ship Battles and normal battles. You get an action for each party member, but instead of four characters, you have one Ship with particular stats and HP. The cool thing about ship battles is that they feel really exciting and epic. Between turns, you even get to make tactical choices, like if you want to close in on the enemy, where you want to concentrate your fire, and other things like that.
But, of course, you can’t expect me not to be critical, right? The biggest downfall of SoA’s combat is that it’s just freakin’ slow. There are short pauses between just about everything; there’s a pause between individual attacks, when you inflict or remove status effects, dying, being brought back to life, and even killing an enemy. On top of that, you can’t skip spell animations or Enemy special move animations (Strangely enough, you can skip your own Special move animations). It gets really bad at the end of the game, when boss’s special attack animations take like 20+ seconds. This is a really annoying thing to have to harp on, because the solution is obvious: Get rid of the pauses and let us skip animations we don’t want to see! This makes a little more sense in Ship Battles, because the game tries to graphically emulate the action of a real ship fight. Still, such glaring flaws with even more glaringly obvious solutions just kills me!
The other gripe I have with SoA is the encounter rate. I know I said the Gamecube version had a lower encounter rate…but, damn. You still get into SO many random battles! I swear I’ve even initiated a random battle by fiddling with the camera, though I’ve never been able to make it happen when I tried. Games with random battle systems should really have a system where you get into random battles based on the frequency of your movement, instead of a random amount of distance traveled. As it stands, RPGs are the only genre of game where you simply can’t avoid combat no matter how hard you try, and sometimes, in EVERY game, you’re trying to avoid combat, if even for just a minute or two. Why haven’t RPGs caught up with the rest of the world in this regard?
Other than that, the criticisms are of moderate importance. You can rotate the camera, but it rotates itself frequently, giving you angles that don’t let you see where you’re going. The camera also refuses to rotate in narrow corridors unless you stop moving. Lastly, magic becomes almost completely obsolete when you buy items in bulk. There is an item for just about every cure and buff spell in the game, so why waste SP on them? This felt like a huge oversight to me. Oh well.
Finally, we get to the story. In Arcadia, there is no water - only sky; thus, ships fly, rather than sail by water. You are Vyse, a Blue Rogue on your dad’s ship, the Albatross. Blue Rogues are sort of like Robin Hood pirates - they rob ships, but they only attack ships that are well-defended. Anyhow, the Albatross attacks a ship from a country called Valua, a huge military power. While Vyse and his cute Blue Rogue/Childhood friend Aika plunder the ship, they find a girl (Fina) who was captured by the Valuans, and save her. A while after that incident, the Valuan armada attacks the base of the Albatross while Vyse and Aika are coincidentally gone, and capture the Blue Rogues and Fina. Vyse and Aika now have to infiltrate Valua and rescue them. After rescuing them (One of the most exciting parts of the game, to be sure), Fina reveals why Valua is intent on capturing her: In the world, there are six ‘Moon Crystals’, each capable of summoning a monster that is essnetially large, powerful monster made for war. Fina has traveled from a distant land to collect them before Valua finds them and uses them to conquer the world. So, Vyse and Aika depart with Fina to find them.
There are several things I like about this story, and very few things I dislike, for once. One of the best things about Skies of Arcadia is the near complete absence of bullshit tacked onto most RPGs, old-school RPGs. Think about all the ones you know, and ask yourself, “how often did you ever get RIGHT to your main objective?” NEVER! These games are all too often riddled with what I like to call ‘random acts of do-goodery’. The hero has a mission to complete, but every town he stops in with ANY PROBLEM, he stops to right the wrongs; even though they have NOTHING to do with his quest! These games would be more interesting if they just cut to the chase. Thankfully, Skies of Arcadia does a NEAR flawless job of that. Once you set out to get the crystals, you GET the crystals. Any ‘fetch quests’ you have to do (VERY few) are all directly related to the task at hand, which makes them feel not-so-obnoxious. What pointless excursions exist in the game are usually short, only about 15-20 minute long deals.
There is one big exception to this, however: Some time in the middle of the game, the party separates briefly, and the hunt for the Moon Crystals is put on hold. Everything that happens from this point on until you resume your quest is mind-numbingly boring. Thank GOD it’s only a fraction of the actual game time. Here’s the kicker, though: the last thing you have to do before resuming your quest is to raise 100,000 gold. To give you some perspective on how much money that is: The most money I EVER managed to accumulate at any time in the game was about 40,000 gold. This is just stupid, and it took me 2 1/2 hours of grinding to raise the money. A lot of the stuff that happens in this intermission could have been removed; it all felt like a cheap way to extend the length of the game. Oh well, nothing’s perfect, I guess.
You might be thinking, “Big deal, the story cuts to the chase, but it sounds like I’ve been there and done that.” Well, Skies of Arcadia has another trick up its sleeve: character interaction and development. Something I really like about this game is that the character development is really subtle; I hate that most games with character development like to put characters through some drastic trial, after which their personality does a complete 180. SoA’s characters are dynamic, but it happens slowly over time. Also, the character development is more about the characters maturing, rather than simply battling their inner demons or something tragic in their past. This serves to make the characters seem more real and tangible.
It also helps that the dialogue is well-written. This makes even a character like Fina, who in many ways fits the ‘shy caring healer girl’ stereotype, a very real character. The banter between the three main characters is always the best, and every time Vyse and co. traveled to a new land, Aika’s imagination of how the new land would be (always accompanied with a picture) made me laugh out loud. The game takes the most vanilla of RPG stories and does it almost perfectly.
That only leaves one thing: The villains. While some of the villains are really cool, a few of them are just plain stupid, the dialogue between the villains is mostly boring, and one of the main antagonists is a dissapointingly trite villain archtype. The new backstory sidequests all involve this villain’s backstory, though. Maybe I should have seen those ones through.
While I think the DC version might have been too much for me to handle, I’m very glad I played Skies of Arcadia Legends. It feels like someone finally took the eldest of JRPG story ideas, executed them to near perfection, and rolled them up into one game for you to play. The combat is still pretty frequent, and kind of slow. The story is not without its bumps, either. Still, I have to admit that Skies of Arcadia really lived up to all the hype it got. Since traditional RPGs are long-gone by now, it might still feel archaic; however, when it was released at the top of the new millenium, it wold have been easy to see why this game was king. If you can stomach the archaic combat, Skies of Arcadia will pull you in for an excellent ride.