The year 2000 brought to the late, lamented Dreamcast one of the most majestic and simple RPGs to grace the current era of console gaming. The remains of Team Andromeda (of Panzer Dragoon saga fame) and some of the original Phantasy Star developers worked together under Overworks to design a game initially called Project Ares. In Japan, it became known as Eternal Arcadia, and finally it debuted in the West under the name of Skies of Arcadia.
The game follows the adventures and explorations of the blue rogue Vyse, an air pirate out to make his way in the world. The term air pirate is apt, as the game features several air ships (more than enough to make Cid in any one of his incarnations jealous) of varying power and design that are the main mode of transportation on the overworld (and in some select dungeons). The names and the atmosphere of the game seem to emulate the days of the Spanish Main, when the whole world was still wide open and uncharted and when pirates such as the likes of Sir Francis Drake (and even Captain Jack Sparrow) were romanticized. A lot was borrowed from Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock saga – the game title is an allusion to the anime Arcadia of My Youth, and Vyse’s design is even an homage to Harlock’s uniform.
A blue rogue, part of a band of air pirates that follows a code of honor and spends most of its time targeting ships of the Valuan Empire. Optimistic and with a sense of wanderlust, he is the game’s primary protagonist. He also appears in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, and a there’s a more realistically drawn version of him named Vyse Inglebard in Valkyria Chronicles.
This lady is fiery redhead wielding a mean boomerang. A childhood friend of Vyse and a constant companion to him (and source of comic relief). She specializes in wide ranging attack spells and abilities that damage multiple enemies. Like Vyse, she appears in Valkyria Chronicles, as Aika Thompson.
One of the last members of the Silver race, she is sent to Arcadia to collect the six moon crystals, capable of controlling the legendary Gigas. After the Valuan Empire undertakes similar goals, Vyse and company decide to help her. Accompanied by Cupil, her nanotech pet and weapon, she is a dedicated healer. She is also in Valkyria Chronicles, as one of triplet sisters.
The game’s captain Ahab, chasing after the great Archwhale Rakham that took his son. Gruff and wielding a mean mechanical claw, he’s something of a softie on the inside.
The only son of Valua’s Empress, he is an assertive and enlightened individual, eventually partaking in a rebellion against his own country to halt their imperialistic expansion. He has some of the strongest special attacks and defensive abilities in the game.
This gunslinging captain and womanizer leads his own band of blue rogue pirates, hooking up with Vyse at a couple points through out the game. He’s the most easy-going of Vyse’s companions and a personal favorite.
The leader of the Valuan Armada and the chief antagonist of the game. The power behind the throne, willing to use anyone, including other admirals and the Empress to further his plans of conquering the whole world.
Along with Fina, another scion of the Silver people, their original warrior sent to find the crystals, he defected and became a devoted follower of Galcian, loyal to him above all others.
The story rarely ventures beyond the typical “band of rebels fight an evil empire” standard, but the setting fresh enough to keep players interested, offering a few surprise twists and turns. It’s not so much the content that makes Skies of Arcadia unique, but rather, the execution. While Vyse and company are not as developed as some similar RPG heroes, they carry an innocent charm that fans of Chrono Trigger would recognize in a heartbeat. Vyse’s brash wanderlust, Aika’s temper, Fina’s innocence, and the like make them very compelling heroes. On the other side of the coin, the cast of villains stands out pretty well. Besides showing on occasion he can hand your ass to you, Galcian is a very strong character, displaying honor and ruthless ambition in equal measure. The same can be said of the other admirals of the Valuan armada, from the comically mad De Loco, to the calculating Belleza, the testosterone-soaked Vigaro, and the stuck up Alfonso. Finally, a word has to be said for the treasure hunter Zivilyn Bane, who will dog you through the game, perusing valuable objects hidden in various dungeons (though this character would be consigned to a slightly different role in the GameCube version). While nothing more than a glorified monster-trapped chest encounter, it adds to the flavor of the game, fleshing out the world.
While the characters help mold the tone of the game, it’s ultimately the world design – and the overarching theme of discovery – that makes it so unique. At the beginning of the game, you can bring up a map of the game world, and other than your present location, it’s all empty. Naturally, it’s up to you to fill in those blanks. The game pays a heavy premium on exploration, making it easily one of the most exciting parts of the game. In addition to mapping out the world of Arcadia with new towns and islands, there are discoveries to be found (indicated by the overworld compass spinning about), which in turn can be sold to the Sailor’s Guild. Some of these are essential for completing the game and recruiting characters into your party. Also scattered about are legendary boss monsters that trigger special airship battles. Eventually you’ll gain a means to avoid random encounters in the overworld, and open up new airs for exploration above and below the sky.
All of this would be useless if the world wasn’t worth exploring, but Sega has crafted one of the most massive and enjoyable worlds of any RPG. The world of Arcadia is not unlike our own – except the entire world consists of islands floating out in the air, with the ground barely visible. The Galcian Empire could very well be any hubristic European nation with the ultimate goal of world denomination. The burning hot deserts of Nasrad feel of the Middle East, and the jungles of Ixa’taka may as well be Africa. Even the Asian land of Yafutoma, with their isolationist tendencies, isn’t too far off from the yesteryears of Japan’s history. (If you want to make parallels, our heroes are the plucky Americans, which is a little strange for a Japanese made game.) Still, there’s the standard JRPG mythology behind the world – all of the floating islands and watched over by at least six moons, each corresponding to a different magic set, civilization, and ultimately a great Gigas of incredible power.
Now, pretty much everyone should be familiar with the process of exploring towns in regular RPGs – you walk around, talk to NPCs, raid houses, and then eventually find the next event trigger to continue on your quest. There’s usually some nice, calm music playing in the background, and the lack of random encounters is comforting. Maybe if you’re playing a Working Designs games, the NPCs will say something funny, but otherwise, the whole process is a bit too familiar. While the process remains the same, Skies of Arcadia actually makes towns that are fun to explore. Each of the cultures has their own distinct style of architecture and layout – the jungle village of Hortec, built amongst the trees, consists of huge ladders, swings, and other contraptions. The village center in Yafutoma is filled with lakes, rivers and beautiful waterfalls. The Valuan Empire, when you infiltrate early in the game, brings to mind a futuristic European city under the oppression of a permanent midnight.
The dungeons are occasionally well constructed, although not as much as the towns. They offer a sense of depth and magnitude unlike most RPG, not to mention atmosphere. Whether it’s stalking through Valuan catacombs, plundering ancient temples, or sailing through the sinister Dark Rift, the game continues to keep to keep a player interested both by simply looking good and projecting a fitting mood. The effects on some dungeons can be disorienting, such as when you reach the fabled Silver Shrine and gravity becomes highly subjective, but an auto-map feature keeps you from getting lost.
All of this is held together beautifully by the music. As you fly around the world, the theme music changes subtly to match the territory. It grows ominous as you fly over the Valuan Empire, or adds a sitar when you reach the air space of the Arabian-esque Nasrad islands. The dungeon music is usually low key, but suitably creepy. Alas, once your first ship is destroyed, this light-hearted theme is replaced with a more heroic one once you get your second vessel. It’s a good song, but it’s easy to become so emotionally invested in the previous tune by this point that one begins to miss the first vessel, if only by association. The boss battle themes change depending on how well the fight is going – if you’re in trouble, it delves into a cacophony until you can rescue yourself (or until you die), but if you damage your foe enough, it transforms into a heroic, can-do tune that gets you pumped for victory. The dynamic aspect to the music is so subtly amazing that one cannot help but wonder why it’s so rare.
The rest of the soundtrack is equally fantastic. The majority of the melodies carry a light, energized touch in tune with the overall tone of the game. Most of it is orchestral, with some occasional distorted guitars tossed into a few songs. The battle music rarely gets old, and is varied for certain boss or ship battles. The music for the final boss encounters in particular is simply spectacular.
Skies of Arcadia gets so much right aesthetically that it’s somewhat disappointing that the gameplay is pretty pedestrian. The battle system is a pretty traditional, old school set up, with turn-based battles that follow random encounters. You have simple commands: Attacking, defending, running away, casting spells, using items, special attacks, and focusing for spirit points. The use of special attacks and magic require a varying number of those spirit points, which charge up a bit at every new round. While those are pooled by the group, magic use costs a single MP from the character’s own stock as well.
The game has a system of elements and magic, each corresponding to one of the moons. Colors range from offense with red, healing with green, to status effects with purple, and even life and death with silver. As you progress in the game, you gain access to the different colors in battle, which not only temper your weapons to exploit elemental weaknesses, but in turn allow you to learn the magic of a particular color. Special attacks are gained by locating moon berries, found as treasure or as a reward after a particularly nasty boss battle.
This is all well and good, but the battles tend to move rather slowly. It doesn’t help that the encounter rate is frustratingly high, which is completely counterproductive to the theme of exploration that the game emphasizes. Later in the game, your ship gets able to fly above or below the clouds, eliminating random encounters when taking to the skies, but it’s pretty annoying up until that point.
While the standard combat is unimpressive, the ship-to-ship combat – one of Skies of Arcadia‘s most unique features – is much more interesting. During hostile encounters with rivaling air pirates or the Valuan Armada, you plot out turns along a time grid, expending spirit points as you would in a regular battle. Strategy is the name of the game here, bringing up memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga. Certain turns offer excellent opportunities to deal serious damage to enemies, while others will have you hanging on by a handful of hit points if you fail to defend. Magic and items can play a key role here, as can special super weapons usable on certain turns that inflict mega damage: the harpoon cannon and the almighty moon stone cannon, which can decimate lesser enemies. While the ship’s stats increase with items gained after particular battles, the characters manning the guns make a difference as their strength is amplified by the cannons they are firing. Until you figure out the system, it can be a little slow going, considering you just pick options and then watch cutscenes of the ships flying by and attacking each other, but it grows more fun as you progress.
Taking a note from Suikoden, there are several auxiliary characters to recruit, each of whom has a special role on your ship. (Only 22 compared to 108, but who’s counting?) After a certain point in the game, you acquire your own base, and you can recruit people to set up shops, build housing, or provide special powers in combat. There are set slots for gunners, pilots, mascots, and navigators, with two choices for each job. Obtaining each crewmember is a sidequest in and of itself, but there’s an astonishing amount of personality placed in these characters, even if they’re given such minor roles. Plus they also show up in a few special attacks in the regular battle scenes – the more crew members, the more powerful the attack will be.
Skies of Arcadia is one of those amazing games that can combine epic exploration a la Phantasy Star, charm and grace in plot and character akin to Chrono Trigger, and the old school feel of a finely made Japanese RPG. The world of Arcadia is truly immersive, and full of its own magic and charm, making it easy to overlook the persistent random encounters. Nevertheless, if you still have a working Dreamcast or a GameCube, and about 40 hours to spare, pick it up. It’s one decision you’ll find hard to regret.
The Dreamcast version included a few features that made use of the VMU. First, there was the character Pinta, who in addition to serving in the crew, had his own VMU mini game called Pinta Quest, which could net items for use in the main game. Second, the VMU would beep whenever you were near a hidden “cham,” which would power up Cupl. Finally there were additional items and an extra discovery and locale that could be accessed only by downloading it online. Most amusing was a Dreamcast swirl that Aika used as a weapon, and a fish sword for Vyse. For some reason, the game is on two discs, even though there’s very little FMV or streamed music, and almost no voice acting, other than dorky little expressions that are yelled in combat or exclaimed in story scenes.
In 2003, a revamped version of Skies of Arcadia hit American shores for the GameCube. Called Skies of Arcadia Legends, it was a more or less direct port of the Dreamcast original, with a few extras thrown in. Through a subquest involving the gathering of hidden moonfish, you could learn more about the pasts of Ramirez and Vyse while battling the pirate hunter Piastol. Additional extra battles were thrown in with eight special bounties available at the Sailor’s Guild (though two of them are just rewards for ordinary boss battles found in the Dreamcast version). Additionally, there are about 24 extra discoveries, and as a special treat for diligent players, a new ultimate weapon, an additional ship battle, and a chance to fight against a new super tough boss. There are a couple of extra characters, including Piastol and Vize the Legend, an evil group of rogues that rips off the look of our heroes. Defeating them unlocks the downloadable items from the Dreamcast version.
While in general the GameCube version is superior, the game’s wonderful musical score took a noticeable hit in transition, coming out as if it was slightly off key. Some of the instrument samples have been changed, and some of the channels sound like they drop out or are cut short, resulting in a slightly inferior soundtrack. The graphics are slightly improved, but it’s barely noticeable aside from a handful retouched textures and marginally better lighting effects. At least the random encounters have been toned down, although you might not notice if you’ve never played the Dreamcast version. Plus you can’t hear the loud noise of the Dreamcast GD-ROM spinning before you enter a battle, which was a nice warning sign. There was also a PlayStation 2 version planned at one point, but it was canned. The American Dreamcast version was slightly censored to remove references to smoking and alcohol, cleaned up some dialogue (to make it look less like Aika was going to get assaulted when being captured by Vigaro), and slightly covered up one scantily clad character. The GameCube version was censored in all territories.
The Skies of Arcadia Heroes in Valkyria Chronicles