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Game Profile
January 29, 2003
Skies of Arcadia

 Written by Ilan Mejer  on February 14, 2003

Full Review: "Impossible is a word that people use so they don't feel bad when they quit." ~ Vyse of the Blue Rogues.

Another month, another RPG port from SEGA's venerable Dreamcast. Wait? the GCN has ?another RPG', as in plural? Last month we reviewed Evolution Worlds, a game based on what is widely regarded as two of the DC's more forgettable RPG experiences. A solid game in its own right, Skies of Arcadia, which debuted on the Dreamcast in 2000, is widely regarded as the greatest RPG on the system. Developed and released by SEGA, SoA marked SEGA's return to the traditional console RPG genre, after years of absence.

A port of Skies of Arcadia was initially scheduled for both the Sony Playstation 2 and the Nintendo GameCube, but earlier last year the PS2 port was canceled in favor of actually upgrading the GCN version. The result is Skies of Arcadia Legends, essentially a GCN exclusive ?director's cut? of the DC original, rife with augmentations, new gameplay features, many new side quests, and hours' worth of new story arcs. The only true sacrifice made to the gameplay was the removal of the VMU mini-game known as Pinta's Quest. Fortunately, its rewards are still available within the game, through other means. Even the extra quests that were once available as free downloads from SEGANet have been integrated directly into the games.

Skies tells the tale of the Blue Rogues, an unlikely band of heroes in the world of Arcadia. The Blue Rogues make up one half of Arcadia's Air Pirates, the other half being known as the Black Pirates. Whereas the Pirates are the ultimate example of the word, robbing from anyone whom they can overpower, the Rogues bear similarities in thought and action to the classic Robin Hood and his Merry Men, taking only from those that can afford it for the betterment of needy people around Arcadia.

What makes Skies of Arcadia so different is the way it goes about implementing a staple of the traditional RPG, the airship. The entire game is centered on the concept of the airship, justifying the term ?Air Pirates.' As you will discover, Arcadia was wracked by a terrible war in which the tremendous magical/elemental energies of the six moons were harnessed and warped into profane weapons. Those weapons, when unleashed, destroyed the planet, reducing it to a vast empty atmosphere littered with scattered floating islands.

All of civilization is based off of these islands, which are largely organized into realms, divided by natural barriers, also a result of that ancient cataclysm. As a consequence of this drastic change to Arcadia's structure, people pioneered the airship, and came to refer to the open skies as their ?oceans.' Therefore, Skies of Arcadia does away with the concept of an ?over world' and instead replaces it with the ocean-ways of the skies, who's only natural form of conveyance is through a plethora of different type of airships. Naturally, where there are ships present, there will be pirates. Suspending for a moment the natural laws of physics, Arcadia is a world that is very magical and is also compelling in its ability to be believed. Thankfully, SEGA populated it with peoples, cultures, heroes, villains, and other individuals with just as much life and creativity, simply solidifying the entirety of Arcadia as one of the greatest RPG fantasy worlds ever devised.

Skies of Arcadia throws almost every fantasy RPG clich? that exists into its story. However, it does use these clich?s to its advantage. For example, knowing that some of these clich?s are tired, the writers worked them in simply to mislead you, creating a few rather delicious plot twists. This is what makes the game and the world stand out so much from other RPGs, both new and old. It is not so much the rather uninspired story that it tells, but the manner in which it tells it and the characters through which it is told, that will remain in your mind long after the details of the journey have faded.

What then, keeps this traditional gameplay fresh and rewarding? What would make you pick up this dated-looking game over something a little fresher, a little newer? Imagination. Fun. Unlike most modern RPGs, this game takes a note from the Lunar games and the first Grandia. It is an epic game (clocking in at an average 50 ? 60 hours) told in a lighthearted manner that focuses on fun and exploration more so than the cynicism and angst that permeate more recent entries. It is not so much a story of the self-discovery of half-insane, improbable teenagers, as it is the story of a collection of friends uncovering the secrets of the world, and as a consequence, saving it. It is precisely this focus along with the creativity and imagination that the world exudes, that makes the exploration of the high skies, varied towns, and dank dungeons all the more rewarding.

To add to the credibility of the pirate aspect of the game, SEGA incorporated the concept of bounties. You, as a Blue Rogue, will be able to accept bounties, hunt down Black Pirates, face them in either ship battles or standard fights, and receive gold rewards for your successful efforts. To compliment this, SEGA also created a discovery system that will have you hunting every nook and cranny of every island and rock formation in the world for artifacts, ancient ruins, and other secrets. The earlier you uncover these discoveries, the more money and fame you will gain for it. Of course, you are not the only pirate in the sea seeking these hidden relics out. Additionally, your successes and failures in these discoveries and bounty hunts, as well as the decisions you make during conversations, will all affect your overall rank as a pirate. As your rank increases (or decreases) the reactions of NPCs and even those involved in important encounters will change accordingly!

Combat is heavily elemental-based. Every enemy belongs to one of six elements (based off the six moons) and, as a consequence, is strong against one other element type, and suffers penalties from two others. To spice things up, your party will acquire six different moon gems (not to be confused with the Moon Crystals) throughout the early hours of their quest, one corresponding to each element. Every weapon in the game can (and must) be equipped with a moon gem, altering that weapon's polarity to that gem's specific element. With a quick flick of the Y button when your turn comes up, each party member can cycle through the different moonstones, changing their weapons' strengths and weaknesses on the fly as is required by the current circumstances they face. Additionally, defeated enemies will earn you magical experience that causes those moon gems to gain in rank, which in turn allows your characters to learn new spells of the same element!

Independent of this moon gem weapon/magic system, every playable character in the game has his/her own set of skills, which though must be learned in a linear fashion, allows you to choose which characters will advance first. Now, magic spells all require only one magic point to cast, but also use up a varying amount of SP or skill points, which regenerate somewhat each combat round. Skills only require skill points, but comparatively in much higher amounts. What makes things interesting is the fact that though each character has his or her own limited magic points level, your party only has one skill bar, which is shared between them. The more characters you have active in combat, the higher the bar is, the more SP you start combat with, and the more SP you naturally regenerate each combat round. Fatigued or unconscious characters definitely cripple your ability to utilize skills and magic.

This addition to the standard turn based system infuses it with an element of strategy rarely seen in this example of the genre. You must pick and choose which skills to utilize, which spells to cast, and are essentially required you to think ahead, theoretically. Unfortunately, since standard combat is so unforgivably easy, the strategy really does not kick in until you start experiencing the much more difficult boss encounters. Fortunately, SoA Legends has been augmented with a slew of new boss battles, many of them optional, which are much more difficult than the norm, thereby providing a welcome level of challenge both for newcomers and DC veterans.

Now, where would a pirate-themed airship RPG be without ship battles? Sunk. Vyse and company engage in a slew of mostly scripted and increasingly difficult ship battles which are nothing if not strategic, challenging, and incredibly satisfying. Given the ability to outfit your ship with weapons, armor, and accessories of your choosing, not unlike your own party members, there is quite a bit of room for varying strategies in ship-to-ship combat. From your standard cannons, to torpedoes, sub-cannons, magic cannons, and even super cannons, the options are many, particularly since some of these weapons cause indirect damage and thereby allows you to ?combo' certain attacks for increased impact!

For the most part, ship combat is one part strategy and one part cinematics. In fact, these battles play much like a mini-game would, only with many more options and no real repetition. All combat decisions are made before the round actually begins, and then you sit back and watch the outcome of your strategies and those of your opponents. The decision-making portion is depicted as a 4x4 grid (for the most part) where each one of your characters may take one action on only one part of the grid. Combat decisions are similar to standard combat, in that you have the option to attack, guard, use magic (healing at any time, attacking only when you acquire a Magic Cannon), focusing, and using the Super Cannon (if you have it). What makes things unique, however, is that you must plot out your four actions (or one for each party member in your group) for each combat round all in advance, and that with only slight hints about what the enemy might be planning! Once the decisions are made and the commands are accepted, you watch that round progress in the form of informative real-time cinematics until the next turn wraps around, or one of the ships is downed. These encounters are highly satisfying, particularly the scripted ones, which include a decent amount of story progression throughout the cinematics.

By now, you most likely know enough about the game to not be surprised that the graphics are quite mediocre by GCN standards, at least technically. Little has changed by way of polygon counts and texture resolution in the enhanced port, as it remains a port, despite the many enhancements. The main characters all had their in-game models replaced with the more complex real time cinematic models used in the DC original, and with improved animation and facial expressions as well. However, the enemies and NPCs (non player characters) look pretty much identical to the DC game. Though some textures were improved, most remain the same. Those with S-Video or component cable set-ups will benefit from better color distribution and sharper images, but a lack of progressive scan makes the improvements over the DC game on a television minimal at best. In fact, even the DC original's terrible banding/blurring of distant floor textures makes an unwelcome return in the GCN game.

However, where the game truly shines is not in its poly-counts, but in its aesthetics. Overworks thoroughly succeeded in capturing the essence of a shattered, scattered-island world, and everything that accompanies it. The airships, from simple wooden sloops to monstrous metallic constructs are so amazingly designed, that their lack of high-detail is more of a non-issue than annoyance. Additionally, each of the main realms, governed by the element a specific moon, symbolizes a main culture from our own world history, inspired by the Mayans, ancient Orientals, and others. These lands and their peoples are wonderfully realized, and instead of seeming tacked on, help define just how isolated and distinct the realms and their island domains tend to be from the rest of Arcadia. The game's vision only fails with the standard enemies, which are almost universally forgettable and boring, in design and animation both. However, the game's many amazing bosses do help to offset this aspect of the game's visuals.

Another aspect of the game that bears mentioning is the camera work. While it is cleverly implemented during sporadic and short cutscenes, it falls largely short elsewhere. The camera is as stupid as it is slow, no matter whether you manipulate it with the shoulder buttons or the C stick. In fact, the entire game engine is more functional than it is competent. The game runs at a brisk and constant frame rate, which is always a plus, but, can be unwieldy to control. Thanks to the lazy camera, simple actions such as opening certain doors or simply getting your bearings can take more time than you would expect. These are all minor gripes, however, and it is nothing that will break the experience for you, just some unusual hurdles that will mark the first hour or so of your learning curve.

Luckily, the same creativity and power that fueled the world-building and art direction seems to have carried over quite nicely to the soundtrack composition as well. Though the title screen music is the only truly orchestrated theme you will hear repeatedly, the rest of the soundtrack is just as magnificent, particularly when pumped through the new Dolby Pro Logic II output. The standard battle music for the airship battles, flying battles, and dungeon battles are all unique, intense, and powerful. The boss fight theme was handled particularly well, since there are essentially three songs that play depending on your progress in the fight. There is the starting theme, the ?disadvantage' theme that it switches to if you are losing, and the triumphant fanfare that plays when you finally wrest control of the encounter. Nearly all of the cinematic, exploration, and incidental themes also suitably set the mood or capture the emotions of the ongoing events, and little more can be asked.

It bears mentioning that the music was changed slightly, perhaps in an effort to cram the entire game into one GCN disc, instead of the two Dreamcast GD-ROMs it originally spanned. So, while the music does sound a little bit more muffled than veterans might hope for, it honestly does little to mar the experience, and with a decent set up, you might even fail to notice it entirely. Most of the sound effects have also been redone, but this time to the game's advantage, as generally they carry more ?oomph' than before. The game features no real voice acting, not even for important scenes, but does feature a decent collection of grunts, greetings, and one to three line comments, which actually sound more out of place than anything else. The only notable exceptions are during combat, as each character screams out a clever little phrase when executing a special skill or celebrating a victory in combat.

Bottom Line
While the game cannot compete with other current RPGs technologically (and indeed, I had to knock off more points than I would have liked), few can actually hold up to it where it counts, in gameplay, character development, and world realization. In many ways, Skies of Arcadia is the epitome of traditional console RPG games, and as such, refreshingly lacks FMV cinematics of any sort. Skies of Arcadia veterans from the Dreamcast era may rest easy that SEGA has treated their beloved RPG with love and respect, and newcomers can rejoice at the arrival of the GameCube's first true traditional RPG, which has indeed aged well. Finally, Skies of Arcadia Legends for the Nintendo GameCube is an awesome RPG based on its own merits, and not due to the genre's scarcity on the platform.

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