Review by Lisanne
"A beautifully designed world and an epic storyline combine to make this the most enjoyable RPG on the Dreamcast."
Like Ivana Trump, Skies of Arcadia really does have it all. If it were appropriate to give Christmas presents to games, I'd have a mightily hard time trying to pick something out for this one. From the epic storyline to the orchestrated music, the beautiful, huge world just waiting to be explored and the myriad of side quests and bonuses that add to the playing experience, Skies of Arcadia is un underground classic for good reason. This is one of the few relatively recently released games that has impacted upon me so strongly that I feel an actual emotional attachment to it. I have recommended it to many of my friends over the two years since I first got hold of it, and now I wish to share the experience with you.
You play as Vyse - a ''Blue Rogue'' whose life undergoes some serious upheaval when an attempt by his father's band of pirates to rob from an Imperial ship ends in more success than they had anticipated. A young woman was being held captive on the ship in question, and when she is rescued, all manner of bad guys come swarming after you to attempt to take her back. Initially shrowded in mystery, as the story unravels the pieces of the puzzle start to slot together, culminating in a dramatic showdown that you will never forget.
Along the way there are a wide variety of distractions to draw your attention, in the form of an impossibly huge array of side quests of all manner of descriptions and lots and lots of customization of your ship and later in the game your own base; these are all linked to the story convincingly thus widening your experience if you take the time to complete the game fully. Consequently, you can actually choose whether to play the linear, basic story or be drawn into an epic beyond what you had imagined. The basic background of the story is that there are many pirates in the world - the ''Blue Rogues'' (who are the good pirates, of which you are a member) and the nasty Black Pirates whom you will encounter sporadically and fight against if you wish. All of the characters in the game are well-developed and individual, and this adds significantly to how well one can be drawn into the story.
It is fair to say that in Skies of Arcadia you play through the story, as in many other RPGs, but despite this surface linearity there is plenty happening elsewhere in the game, so you always have something else you can do. Frustratingly, only certain areas of the world are open to you until you move onto the second disk, in which you gain a great deal of freedom through pant-wettingly fantastic means. The best ship in the world ever is just waiting for you to captain it, and oh boy, is it satisfying when you take the helm and start recruiting your crew. Even more satisfyingly, just when you think you've opened up all there is to explore of the world... no, I won't tell you. I'll let you discover that for yourself.
Whilst Skies of Arcadia is certainly a role-playing game, the battle engine is far from standard, being as it is a series of upgrades and reworkings of what one would generally expect to find. The old faithful elemental system beloved of typical RPGs has been revamped somewhat to involve six different colors of weapons which are interchangeable during battle and which provide a different series of elemental effects. At the end of battle, you gain ability points only for those colors which you have equipped, and the whole party gains for the colors of all members.
For this reason, although at times it may be strategically preferable to have all characters fighting with the same color weapon, you have to take into account the abilities that will be learned as a consequence of battle and therefore attempt to move people onto different colors to get those abilities more quickly. The abilities I'm talking about are magic types, predominantly, which are unlocked by the above system as you progress. The different magics are broadly elemental in nature relating to the different colors but there are a few status type magics thrown in (which are, admittedly, pretty much useless in battle). Some monsters have visible elemental attributes whereas others are less visible but no less potent. Being able to change the color of your weapon during battle is, in this context, exceedingly useful.
Skies of Arcadia does utilize hit points and magic points, but the magic point system is a little different than usual. See, at the top of the screen during battle there will appear a gauge measuring spirit points, the scope of which increases as your characters level-up and which will gradually fill during battle as you take turns. Spells always cost 1 MP each to cast, but take the rest of the cost out of your spirit gauge. All actions in battle other than attacking and using items detract from this gauge so you have to plan your turns carefully to make the most of the system.
This adds a refreshing strategic dynamic to the game, because although there are certainly plenty of enemies who you can defeat easily simply by attacking them, there are also a lot of enemies which require a little more planning on your part. It is impossible to beat this game without thinking through your moves in this way, although it is certainly easy for those familiar with the RPG genre, but it is difficult only in that you must be a strategic thinker in order to progress.
Further to this system there are also special attacks which your characters can learn. These are incredibly useful though at times repetitive, as the animation sequences can be rather long. This repetition is only really evident in long battles though when it may be a good idea to perform the same moves over and over, and so does not detract from the overall playing experience at all. The types of attacks you learn vary between the different characters and are suited to their individual personalities, which adds to the attachment I personally feel to the game.
Levelling up is necessary to progress, and is done via the traditional means of random encounters. When flying around the world in your ship, random battles can be frustratingly frequent, which many people criticize about this game. However, none of these encounters last very long at all and they are vital to level up the characters. One complaint is that the variety of enemies around the world is somewhat stinted, and for this reason battles can become repetitive, but this is a good way to practice your skills and try out any new abilities which you may have learned. Levelling up increases your possible maximum HP and MP as well as your maximum spirit points. Your ship may also level up, although this happens less frequently. There is also the possibility to engage in random encounters with black pirate ships but these are avoidable as you get plenty of advance warning of their proximity by means of an irritating beeping noise.
Excitingly, Skies of Arcadia also incorporates ship battles. This is part of what really makes the game for me. Most of the main boss fights involve a ship battle at some stage and these really do involve a great degree of strategy, as you decide whether to spend your turn evading your enemy's attacks and saving up your spirit points for your own special attack in the process, or just hitting the enemy with cannons to damage them little by little. There is an indicator to help you by showing the likelihood of you being met with an attack for each turn, and likewise you cannot perform your own special move each turn either - a special indicator will show up when you have the ability to strike for major damage in the same way as the enemy can only hit you for major damage in certain turns. Ship battles can be very hard-going and last quite a long time, but if you're the strategy RPG type, then you will enjoy them as much as I do.
The appearance of the game is very reminiscent of anime but at the same time not overly sickly-sweet. Characters are well-modelled, although incidental characters can look a little blocky at times. Like many Dreamcast games, they do have a touch of Polygonitis around the joints. It is in the world environment though that the designers have really excelled. The different parts of the world are all very different in appearance and imaginatively created, and the general feel of the locations is complemented by not only the details within the towns and other scenery but also in the music you will hear while exploring these places. One region, for example, is comprised of lush, green forests, with treetop houses and ladders and ropes connecting the different parts of the main town there. The music is reminiscent of Central American music and the local population is predominantly clothed in natural attire. The region has its own spirituality, as all regions do, and the level of detail extends even to the types of items you can purchase there.
Such breathtaking attention to detail is what makes Skies of Arcadia truly so special. This is true throughout the game, with every single area being unique and beautiful in its own very different way. The imagination of the artists is superb and cannot be faulted at all. Music complements the designs perfectly throughout the entire game and never becomes repetitive or boring, adding as it does tremendous atmosphere and life to the game. As I previously mentioned, it is themed to your current environment. Music is orchestrated beautifully and to very high-quality which only serves to add to this effect.
The lifespan of the game, including all side quests and exploring the entire world, is approximately sixty hours. Even just playing the bare bones of the game, there is a good forty hours here. The replay value is also very high, simply because the world can be very absorbing, and although the challenge is easy for a veteran of strategy RPGs, you'll have such a fun time you'll barely notice.
I cannot recommend this superbly crafted game highly enough. Sequel right now please!
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/27/04
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