Skies of Arcadia
Sega (finally!) gives RPG fans a compelling reason to own a Dreamcast - Review By BenT
Let's face it: the Dreamcast has a distinct lack of RPGs, and that's not even taking quality into account. Since launch, we've been "treated" to three games. First came Sting's seminal (take that in the less-used sense of the world) Evolution. Then Sega flushed Time Stalkers onto the market, defiling bargain bins everywhere. Finally, out popped the prosaic Evolution 2, barely six months after the original. This trio made for three downright mediocre experiences, to say the least. Since then, would-be Dreamcast RPGers have been starving in a desert of Driving and Fighting games, desperately seeking the next shriveled oasis that will prolong their miserable adventuring careers just a few days more. (Or, more likely, playing the vast selection of RPGs available on the PlayStation...) But, this state of affairs is nothing new to console vets. In fact, it's expected. It generally takes at least a year, and sometimes longer, for a new console to gain its first worthwhile RPG experience. With that in mind, the Dreamcast seems to be right on schedule. That doesn't make the wait any less painful, though.
Skies of Arcadia is the first game in Sega's holiday RPG barrage (being followed by Game Arts' Grandia 2 and Sega's own Phantasy Star Online). Skies is an interesting game for a couple of reasons. First, it's an RPG by Sega, which alone is enough to pique one's interest. Sega, believe it or not, is responsible for some of the best console RPGs ever. When the NES was toiling along with Dragon Warrior, Sega had the infinitely superior Phantasy Star. Later, the Genesis's Phantasy Star II proved to be one of the best RPG sequels ever made. Then there was Shining Force, and Phantasy Star IV, a bevy of Shining series sequels and side stories, and of course, Team Andromeda's visionary Saturn game Panzer Dragoon Saga. All in all, Sega is an accomplished creator of RPGs, a company that makes up in quality what they lack in quantity. Sure, there were a few missteps way back when (Sword of Vermilion, Fatal Labyrinth), but even Square has duds. (A lot, actually.)
The second reason is that Skies is the product of Sega's OverWorks team, which has been responsible for the Streets of Rage series, the Clockwork Knights, and even the blockbuster Sakura Taisen games. What's more, the game's producer is none other than Rieko Kodama, the veteran developer behind the three good Phantasy Star titles. With such a powerhouse team behind the game, it's hard not to get excited.
The plot starts out pretty simply. Skies of Arcadia follows the adventures of Vyse, a young air pirate whose father is the leader of the local group of Blue Rogues. The Rogues are a sort of Robin Hood of the skies, as they only attack and raid armed vessels. Vyse dreams to one day command his own crew on his own ship, and discover all that the world has to offer. The age of exploration is just beginning to dawn, and he sees unlimited possibilities ahead. By his side is his childhood friend, Aika. Resembling a sort of anime version of Pippi Longstocking, Aika's boundless energy and fierce determination encourage Vyse's adventurous side. However, their lives will be changed forever after they encounter Fina, a strange girl held prisoner on a Valuan warship. To say any more would compromise the story, but you can rest assured of one thing: high adventure ensues!
But right now, a review will ensue.
Playing an RPG is meaningless if there are not a solid plot, setting, and characters to keep you interested, and it is these areas where Skies of Arcadia absolutely soars (I kill me!). The story picks up quickly from the start, and what a story it is! Plot twists abound: cities are destroyed, characters die, and the entire world is imperiled. Sure, there are the usual RPG cliches of warring nations and all-powerful crystals, but the amazing setting and characters elevate Skies above the rest of the pack. You see, the gameworld consists entirely of islands and continents which float among the clouds; what lies below is a mystery. Sailing metaphors are applied freely: the aircraft look like sailing vessels, nautical references abound, and you can even make a little extra money by catching fish that are floating about the stratosphere. You've never seen anything like this before, and the overall atmosphere is fantastic. It's hard to believe that it's still possible to have an original scenario in an RPG, but that's just what we have here. During the course of the game you'll visit a number of places you've never seen before, some exotic, some beautiful, all fascinating.
It's wonderful to actually be able to see expressions and feelings reflected in the characters' faces and postures.
This wonderful world is populated with equally delightful characters. Vyse is pretty much a straight arrow, but he notably lacks all of the negative traits that RPG leading men have been acquiring in recent years. Hell, he even smiles sometimes. Aika is even better, a cute but tough bundle of optimism whose faith in Vyse is unwavering, and who also has a bunch of well-written comic moments. Fina starts off rather unremarkable, but her character grows throughout the game. Drachma is a grizzled old fisherman with an agenda and an awesome name. Gilder is a care-free air pirate who's looking for the good life (and who looks quite cool while doing it), and... well, the last party member is a bit of a secret, sorry. The main enemy characters are equally intriguing, with an excellent mix of freaks, badasses, and egomaniacal dictators. These great characters really help draw you into the story. Further, the three main heroes have a distinct innocence, which often reminded me of classic RPGs such as Lunar.
The environments and characters are depicted via some of the best graphics yet seen on the Dreamcast. The framerate is almost always a solid 30, dropping only for the most intense spell effects (and certain areas of the overworld map). Since the game is locked at 30, the designers had a lot of polys to work with, and it shows. This is by far the most detailed world yet featured in a 3D RPG, with great architecture and extremely varied and detailed textures. OverWorks has done an excellent job of exploiting the Dreamcast's muscle and have taken RPG visuals to the next level. After playing Skies, you may have a hard time going back to the low-res, pre-rendered graphics of many 32-bit RPGs. And it's not just eye candy, either: the graphics actually enhance the story. The characters have a wide variety of facial expressions and bodily animations, and these are often used to convey their moods and feelings in ways that plain text could not. Sure, we've had twirling sprites and 2-frame animations since the days of Dragon Warrior, but Skies takes character animation to the next level. This attention to detail makes the characters seem that much more human -- I'd definitely like to see more of this in future RPGs.
What's more, the game's 3D nature is put to good use in the set designs. Check out the second movie at the end of this review; it gives you a tour of Horteka, a wonderfully-realized native village set in a thriving rainforest. What is remarkable is the effortless way in which the town occupies its 3D space. The dimension of height is used extensively, something you just couldn't do well in a 2D, overhead game. Many of the game's towns and dungeons take similar advantage of this extra dimension, leading to some truly interesting interior layouts -- and by extension, Dungeons I Do Not Dread (DIDND). That, my friend, is the trait of a quality RPG.
Yeah, the first dungeon looks great, but it only gets better from here.
Whereas the scenario and theme are surprisingly original, Skies' gameplay is very much set in the traditional RPG mold. Battles are turn-based, with each character and enemy attacking in turn. The only real innovation is the concept of spirit points (and even this is somewhat derivative). The party's pool of SP is shared by each member, and casting a spell or using a special movie requires a certain amount of SP (all spells take a single magic point to cast, but varying SP). A portion of SP is automatically regained each round, although this can be accelerated by having a character use the "Focus" command for their turn. The main use for SP is special moves, of which each character has 3 to 5, learned throughout the game. These have a variety of effects, ranging from enemy-slaying firestorms to resurrecting your dead. Later in the game, these will prove to be your ace in the hole -- many turns will be spent focusing just so that Vyse and crew can unleash their more powerful techniques. Surprisingly, magic takes a backseat to these moves -- the most powerful offensive spells are nowhere near as strong as the best techniques. All in all, pretty standard stuff -- but I actually quite enjoyed Skies' back-to-basics approach to combat. It eschews the complexity of materia and junctioning and summoning and all that nonsense, and just delivers pure, turn-based combat. It's basic. It's refreshing. What was once old is new, yadda yadda. In short, it works.
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