Review by Macolio
"The best RPG I've played in years...so much better than Grandia II"
The weekend after beating Grandia II, I was out renting movies and saw SoA. Both games were very praised by the critics, but after my experience with Grandia II, I had sworn never to buy a game again before renting it no matter what the critics said. So I did just that, I rented SoA. I played it and played it and played it...and kept it for a week while the videostore kept calling me everyday to return the game. I only returned it after finding it at an electronics store and buying it.
This game is great. It kept reminding me of FF6 throughout the game, but not because of the gameplay similarities between the two games (there aren't any, beside the fact that you fly Airships in both), but because in terms of gameplay, or, to simply put it, the fun, SoA is just as good as FF6, if not better.
This is pure goodness. You explore the world in your airship, finding Discoveries, exploring dungeons, and, once you have your own Airship, you build and manage your own base and form a crew.
You also try to increase your Swashbuckler rating (popularity), which happens by not running away from enemies, or making the right decisions when asked. The only advantage to this is that your crew will have a Weaponshop when you have a high rating. I believe it also changes a few of the local's dialogue when talking to you. The ''fighting alot of enemies'' bit is NOT a good thing, however. Sometimes, you get sick of fighting those annoying weak enemies while on the world map, so you do the right thing, and FLEE out of battles...this changes your rating when done often. While looking for a lost city, which took me 30 minutes to do even though I kept fleeing, my rating dropped to the lowest there is, and since sometimes fighting regular enemies is simply boring, I am fairly sure your rating at the end will be as low as mine.
The dungeons are very well-designed, and all of them have some puzzle to solve it. It rarely goes out of the ''push block, flip switch to drain water/lava level, go through recently opened door'' norm, but its hard enough to make you use your brains (not hard enough for you to smash the controller against the TV though :P). Compared to the completely linear dungeons in Grandia II (who might as well have had 2D dungeons a la Castlevania), the ones in SoA are remarkable.
One annoying thing is that the game uses ''random encounters''...if you're stuck looking for a certain place on the world map, you'll keep fighting enemies all the time. I really wish that after fighting 10 enemies or so, you'd stop encountering them until you find the place you're looking for, or at least the encounter rate would drastically drop...you only gain the ability to stop encountering them very far in the game, and most of the discovering is done early.
Battle System: 9/10
There are two modes of fighting: when you fight other ships with your airship, and when you fight with your characters.
1) The character battle system is your standard ''attack, magic, special, defend'' battle system, except it has a few innovative things that makes it stand out.
The most important of them is the Party Spirit: all your special attacks or magic attacks require Spirit Points, which regenerate when you use the Focus command with a character, or when the round ends. Spirit Points do not transfer from one battle to another, so you won't spend your time filling up your Spirit Points ''just in case''. During a boss fight, handling the Spirit Points is the key element to winning...not enough for a strong special attack? why not Defend, use Items, or normal Attacks (although I dont recommend it) and wait the next round when you'll have enough? Or maybe use Focus, which regenerates Spirit Points faster but leaves you defenseless? The Spirit Points system really makes the battles more strategic.
Then there's the elemental powers you can give your weapons. As you gain new Moon Crystals (go see Story for info on this), you gain their abilities. At no cost of spirits or MP, you can switch your weapon elemental attribute at any time. Using Red (fire) elemental weapons against Ice-based enemies will do more damage, but dont worry, the damage difference isn't as significant as it is in, say, Final Fantasy, so you dont have to change the weapon types if you dont want to (also, in an Ice area, all the enemies will be weak to Fire at the exception of one or two, so you only have to switch at the start of an area).
One annoying thing is that normal enemies are harder than other games, which calls for you to pay special attention when you're fighting them. Ordering all characters to Attack so you can ''finish it quickly'' a la Final Fantasy wont work: you'll have to save up enough Spirit Points to do an Area Attack. Some early enemies have access to instant-death spells (and it gets worse as you go on), and they have a great AI, which can really make the fights hard some times. I'd be trying to take them one by one, but one of them would cast a spell powering-up all his allies, while another would heal his wounded friend...sure, any area-attack Special Move can easily dispatch most of them, but you dont get those until around 10 hours into the game. It really gets hard when they're attacking by groups of 7.
A good thing is that the bosses are also hard...after playing the ridiculously easy Grandia II, it was refreshing to kill a boss with my characters barely alive, or, in some cases, actually dying and trying again; on that note, when you die in a battle, you dont go back to the last save point: they ask you if you wanna try that battle again, and all your items/hp/mp are restored.
I found the spells you get very deceiving, because there's about only 10 spells, and the others are upgraded versions of them. On the good side, the spell animations average to 5 seconds in animation length, so battles, even later in the game, won't get boring (In Grandia II, I would cast the weaker Burn spell instead of BurnStrike simply because Burnstrike had a 30 seconds animation...this is just WRONG in a videogame).
The Special Moves are the bones of the battle system. They are the strongest attacks, or the best defenses. Vyse's S-moves, since he's the hero, are naturally attack moves, with one for defense. Aika's are completely worthless, while Fina's (the ''healer'') are way too good. The final battles were rather easy because one of her S-moves would heal all allies (or revive them to maximum hp) and remove all adverse status effects at the low cost of 18 spirit points (about 2/5th of your max spirit points by the time you're at the end). I really believe that move should've cost more Spirit Points.
The strongest S-moves have a 15-20 seconds or so animation, which annoyed me, but since you have to charge up alot of SP's to use them, you dont see them too often.
2) The airship battle system is rather simple. If you've ever played that ''naval battle'' papergame, you'll have a pretty good idea of what you're gonna see here. There are 4 rounds in each turn. Each of your characters can perform 1 action during a turn, which can be to Attack, Magic, Items, Focus, S-cannon, and Crew. So basically only 1 character can act during a turn. There is a grid which shows the actions you've taken during a turn, but this grid also shows you how the outcome looks. If the square is green, its safe to heal or repair, because the enemy's cannonfire during that round won't do much damage (of course, the enemy isn't stupid, so he won't fire at all during that round). If the square is red, that means its dangerous: during a ''red'' round, enemy damage will be doubled, so you better Defend during those. A yellow square is a mix of Green and Red. The squares with a ''c'' in them means you have a tactical advantage in that round, and that you should concentrate your fire power on it (you can time previously-fired torpedoes or Secondary Cannons to hit during that round, so you aren't confined to only one attack during this round). Finally, the S square (it looks more like a picture of a piece of pie) allows you to use your ultimate attack (which depends on your airship) at a very high cost. Oh, and did I mention that all actions other than Items, defend, and Focus, use Spirit Points?
Those battles are very easy, because although the S square doesnt come up often, you can simply charge and wait for it, and then simply blast your enemy. It would've been pretty balanced without it...or if the S-cannon cost more SP (I said it cost ''very high cost'' earlier, but that's only compared to the normal attacks). But still its an interesting battle mode.
Let me just say this: WOW. The world map is gorgeous, the characters/enemies are gorgeous, the dungeons are gorgeous, the towns are gorgeous...everything really stands out. The Ice dungeon has to be the most beautiful dungeon in a videogame so far, because with its lighting, you notice the great amount of detail more than in any other. These are the best graphics in an RPG so far. I wish I knew enough about ''textures, sprites, rendered'' (or whatever the hell it is that other people talk about in their reviews) to properly describe what is good about them, but I simply can't, as I simply know how to say this: the amount of detail is great, the colors are great, everything looks great.
However, there is one problem that is TOO annoying to allow myself to give them a 10: the S-moves animations. In the S-moves animations, Sega/Overworks abuse what Photoshop users call ''the lensflare effect''. They look so flashy, it hurts the eyes, and its just UGLY. I would look away during some of their animations because how ugly the flashing colors look. -1.
The music is just beautiful. The tracks vary from each town, to each moment. Again, my ignorance in music making (and in the english language) prevents me from properly expressing whats good about them. I'll just say that the battle theme and Ramirez/Galcian's theme are the most enjoyable, while surprisingly, the regular boss theme is boring (not the airship battle one).
You are the son of a Blue Rogue, a type of Robin Hood pirates, and you dream of sailing around the world with your friend Aika. During the intro, your father's ship attacks a Valuan ship (the most powerful country in the world) to steal its cargo, and finds a mysterious young girl in it. The Valuans seem to want her really badly, so naturally, the Air Pirates take her with them. After a tutorial dungeon, the girl now known as Fina tells you that she has been sent on a mission to gather all the Moon Crystals to stop Valua from getting them. Each of those crystals controls a guardian, or Gigas, and Valua is trying to get them to use them as a weapon to conquer the world. You set out on a quest to gather the Moon Crystals yourself.
Yes, I know, it seems familiar, but where the game shines is its characters. Each of the Valuan admirals has a different personality, some hilarious, some honorable, some evil. In Grandia II, you were fighting something you had never seen: you were only TOLD how evil it was. Here, you know who they are from the beginning, and you know why each of them is fighting you. Belleza, Gregorio, DeLoco, Vigoro, Alfonso, Ramirez...and the leader of the Valuan Armada, Lord Galcian.
For the first time in years, the characters in an RPG aren't annoying. I actually liked Vyse and the whole crew, and laughed at their jokes (they dont give you the impression that the game developers are trying to FORCE you to like them). They dont get into badly-written philosophical conversations where they tell remind you how human beings should respect one another everytime you beat a baddie, they just discuss the current events somewhere and decide on where to go next. They dont take any stupid decisions, only decisions YOU would have taken if you were in their place (Aika's reaction at the end in Daccat's Island was exactly how I felt). I'd say the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and give me well-made one-dimensional character any day over the lastest trash Square whips out. Your main characters dont suddenly decide to become ''better people''...one is driven by the desire of sailing around the world, the other because she wants treasures, and lots of them.
You dont see your characters constantly preaching ''cant we all just get along? there is no need for fighting!''...its more like ''BRING IT ON!''.
I'd say the game gets pretty humoristic (I couldn't stop laughing after seeing Vigoro's airship, or everytime I heard one of crazy DeLoco's monologues), but not to the point of being called childish.
Replay Value: 8/10
There's an extremely hard special boss (that I missed, because I found out about it after getting inside the final dungeon, from which you cannot get out), discoveries, new items, finding all the Chams to evolve Fina's weapon into its ultimate form, finding all the crew members, becoming a Legend (highest popularity rating)...and lets not forget that the game can be very enjoyable when you play it again (which I am doing right now) because the game is driven by gameplay, and you wont find a 10 minutes cutscene.
Rent or Buy: It gets better as you play along, so I suggest you buy it...or rent it for a week, like me.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/15/01, Updated 08/10/02
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