Review: Umm... Wow. Yes, just wow
I've got this programming buddy that usually sticks to PC games. Much like my disgust for computer software, he shares the same repugnance of the console market. Claiming that PC games are just better overall, he usually doesn't go near many of today's console efforts, save a few outstanding titles. But, for the most part, it usually takes something vastly superior to interest him back to the olden days of playing in front of a television with a good 'ol controller nestled safely in his grubby little paws. So when I discovered that he had plunked down the necessary cash for Skies of Arcadia, I was rather shocked. In a good way.
For starters, I knew the game would be good. I mean come on, it's made from some of the original founding members of the Phantasy Star series. If that doesn't just grab your attention like being kicked in the nuts on a cold winter day, then something is wrong my friend. Second, I didn't find out that he was such an RPG nut until about last week when he began ranting about Final Fantasy II and how great it was. This confirmed my assumption that he typically went for the higher-class, noble RPG's, as opposed to the likes of Evolution.
So let's put two and two together: He's a nit-picky gamer that only plays the good stuff, and he bought himself Skies of Arcadia. Seeing any correlation there?
Let me just spell it out for you: calling this game amazing is a catastrophic understatement. Almost every single aspect is sheer digital brilliance rolled up into one fine-tuned package. Although when you think about it, are you really that surprised? Probably not. Sega plus RPG almost always equals near-perfection, and sometimes can even claim true flawlessness. But what makes Skies of Arcadia so damned good? What makes it boldly stand atop the RPG mountain with its head up high, scoffing at the rest?
Simple - the story. While other games, mainly Final Fantasy VIII, largely focus on graphics rather than the most important aspect, which, in my opinion, is the way the quest is told, Skies of Arcadia courageously highlights a magnificent story, and can still claim to have beautiful visuals. And oh what a fabulous tale it is; how about I explain? Don't worry, I won't give anything away. I promise.
Right from the beginning, the game catapults you into the action as you find Vyse, the protagonist, and his buddy, Aika, the female support, as they loot a passing ship in hopes to find an enormous amount of treasure on board. Don't worry, they're not cruel, they're just Air Pirates, and beneficial ones at that, meaning they rob from the rich and take the booty for those who need it. As they proceed to board the ship and attempt to take everything in sight, your first battle commences (more on the battle system later).
Ah... isn't it nice to actually jump into the action right from the start as opposed to sitting through tedious hours of back-stories and explanations? Thought so, and apparently Sega understands this concept too. Way to go!
Anyways, back to the story. Turns out the vessel is none other than a royal craft of the Valuans, the evil metropolis hell bent on conquering the world and expanding their power throughout. As you travel through the aircraft, your party comes across Fina, a young, mysterious teen whose identity remains a complete ambiguity. It seems the Valuans had kidnapped her for some reason, far be it for you to understand. Like the righteous pirate you are, it's time to save her and find out what the hell is going on.
And that's all I'm going to tell you; I wouldn't want to spoil anything now would I? Certainly not. But believe me when I say it, this is easily one of the best digital narratives to be found in a long while. It may not sound too remarkable of what I told you, but again, I don't want to spoil anything.
In addition to the excellent account of events, the overall sense of exploration is second to none. It seems that the developers intended to give the game a sense of the unknown with vast and expansive worlds to explore, much like the 1500's when setting sail and heading off to a foreign land was at its pinnacle. It's this feeling of always finding something new out there that really gives Skies of Arcadia that extra zing.
Apparently Overworks knew this and capitalized on the searching aspect of the world map. Since the game takes place entirely in the air with floating island abroad, there are many nooks and crannies to be investigated for rare objects and landmarks. And if you happen to come across something extraordinary, a discovery will be made in your name. Once something has been discovered, simply fly to the nearest port and find a guildmaster to sell your information for some extra gold. Brilliant, simply brilliant.
As for the battle system, I have mixed feelings. Basically, what you have here is a traditional turn based combat engine, with a few twists to give it an extra modern flair. Let me explain.
At the top of the screen, there's a "Spirit Meter", which principally allows you to pull of special moves and cast magic. Depending on how powerful the magic, or special move, different amounts of the meter will be used. For instance, it only makes sense that the most powerful magic takes up more spirit points. After your party takes all their respective turns in combat and it's time to select your next batch of attacks, the spirit bar will replenish itself by a few points. But don't worry, it doesn't completely fill up, that would make the battles far too easy. However, if more spirit is needed for the next turn, you can always select the focus command, which leaves the selected character open for attack, but in turn fills up the meter by a few points.
Okay, so the spirit meter is cool, but the one thing that bothers me is magic. For starters, it's pretty much useless in the game, save a few of the last spells like "Eternum," which can instantly kill some enemies; even some bigger ones. Other than that, most of the spells are rather bland. Not visually of course, I mean bland in a sense of being ineffectual. For instance, I found that the silence spell only worked on some of the smaller enemies, but by the time you silence them, you could have killed them with one standard attack. Every time I would cast it on a larger enemy, nothing would happen. Same thing applies for the poison spell. Never has it been useful in a long battle, because it always misses the enemy.
One more little dilemma, then I'll be done ranting. The spells themselves really have no personality. I mean, they look absolutely 100% gorgeous, but there's really nothing that stands out about them. You've got your fire spells, ice spells, air spells... Seeing a trend here? It's all been done. But the special moves more than make up for the lack of interesting magic.
Each character has a few special attacks or defenses that can be learned by acquiring moon berries (these can be found anywhere, from after battles to treasure chests). Once learned, simply fill up the special meter to a desired amount and unleash some of the most beautiful, and deadly, assaults to ever grace the RPG genre. And the best thing about them is they can be skipped! Unlike certain other RPGs that will remain nameless, you don't have to actually sit through them every time and watch the same thing over and over again.
That is unless you want to, and some of you just may, especially when considering how absolutely stunning everything looks in the game. From the special moves to the magic, and the scenery to the actual characters, Skies of Arcadia is one down right purdy game. For the most part, it all runs at a smooth 60-fps, except a few instances on the world map when there's too much activity. But in towns and dungeons, you will drool. Oh yes, you will drool.
Aside from the lovely polygon modeling, Skies of Arcadia utilizes colors and utter vibrancy extensively. Wild and lush lighting highlights are scattered everywhere, easily most apparent in the magic and special moves: And once you see some of these mighty attacks in motion, I guarantee you'll say "wow" more than a few times; just like when playing Soul Calibur for the first time. But trust me when I say that these kinds of colors definitely could not be done on the PS2. Take that!
As for the audio side of things, I would say it's definitely above par. While some of the songs are incredibly well done, others are just average, like when going around towns and whatnot. Even still, if you can hunt down an import soundtrack, by all means go for it, you won't be disappointed. Since the game is all text, there really aren't any voices, except for the standard "We did it!" and, "Ha! That was easy!" samples after each battle.
But, there really isn't a need for voices, simply because the characters have so much personality that voices would only hinder them. And this is the main reason why I just utterly love the game; it has personality, it has character, and it most certainly has heart. Just like an old-school RPG, each individual has their own charms and quirks that really define them as a person. From the grumpy Drachma, to the smart aleck Aika, everybody is unique, and you'll grow to love it.
But I'm sure most will also love the length of the game; about 50 hours altogether. It's about time us Dreamcast gamers got something that lasted a while as opposed to a quick arcade blast, and it looks like Skies of Arcadia is that game. You may now sigh with relief.
If you're looking for one adventure game, or RPG, to buy, then my friends, this is it. Skies of Arcadia is the best piece of non-arcade'ish software you can buy on your Dreamcast. Don't buy Shenmue instead, or I will hunt you down and put gum in your hair.