Skies of Arcadia made waves when it first came out on the Sega Dreamcast. 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, the Sega development team that made the old Phantasy Star games, Skies of Arcadia Legends was of course going to be an old-school experience.
Thankfully, like most of the old Phantasy Star games, it was right on target. I offer this: That Skies of Arcadia, even with its problems, is the best traditional turn-based RPG to date.
To differ itself from the original Dreamcast version, a few sidequests 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. The last big difference is that the Dreamcast version has even more frequent random battles than the Gamecube version, which is crazy. The Gamecube version dropped the random encounter rate and raised the amount of experience gained from enemies.
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 mixes ‘typical’ game music with some excellent contemporary orchestral pieces. There are a lot of excellent tracks.
Skies of Arcadia is an old-school experience. So, you can probably guess that the combat is that of a 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.
Unfortunately, the decidedly old-school style brings its share of problems. The biggest downfall of SoA’s combat is that it’s just freakin’ slow. There are short pauses between just about everything that happens during battles; 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 SoAL is the encounter rate. This is crazy, because the Gamecube version has a lower frequency of combat than the original version! Games with random battle systems should really have a mechanic 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. 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 ocean of 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 (big mistake). While Vyse and his cute childhood friend Aika plunder the ship, they rescue a girl, Fina, who was captured by the Valuans.
In the world, there are six ‘Moon Crystals’, each capable of summoning a large, powerful monster made for waging 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.
One of the best things about Skies of Arcadia Legends is the near complete absence of pointless quests tacked onto most 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’; in other words, the hero right all the wrongs everywhere he goes, even though they have nothing to do with his quest!
Thankfully, Skies of Arcadia does a nearly flawless job of cutting to the chase. Once you set out to get the crystals, you GET the crystals. The rare ‘fetch quests’ you have to do are all directly related to the task at hand, which makes them feel not-so-obnoxious. What pointless excursions exist in the game (barring one horrific exception) are usually short, 15-20 minute-long spiels.
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 pulls an unrealistic 180. SoAL’s characters are dynamic, but it happens slowly over time and deals more with the characters maturing, rather than simply battling their inner demons or skeletons in their closet. 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, feel very real. The banter between the three main characters is always the amazing, particularly when Aika tried to imagine how the new lands they traveled to would be like (accompanied with a hilarious picture) The game takes the most vanilla of RPG stories and does it almost perfectly.
The only major criticism I can levy against Skies of Arcadia Legends’s story is that it’s outrageously cliche. If you’ve been playing RPGs for any significant amount of time, you can accurately predict everything that’s going to happen in SoAL. The main theme of the game is the severely overplayed “power of humanity to overcome all adversity” that you see in every cheesy anime-esque RPG ever made. This might not be a problem for some (it certainly wasn’t for me), but if you’re looking for something fresh and original in the story department, SoAL is going to leave you high and dry. What makes the story interesting is not its originality, but its excellent execution – keep that in mind.
While I think the Dreamcast 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 me 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.