Skies of Arcadia

   Since its hardware launch in September 1999, Sega's Dreamcast has suffered the indignant fate of almost all new consoles: a total lack of worthwhile RPGs. Dreamcast RPG fans have endured everything from the passable Evolution series to the terrible Time Stalkers, always holding out hope for a triple-A RPG that they could call their own.

    When Overworks, the team behind the Phantasy Star series, announced that they were making Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast, RPG fans got cautiously optimistic. Could this title be the game they were waiting for? The answer is yes, yes, a hundred times yes. Skies of Arcadia is not only the best RPG currently available for the Dreamcast but one of the best traditional console RPGs ever produced. Skies of Arcadia is the first RPG to truly deliver on the promise that next generation consoles offer.

 Or island, at least.
The Floating Continent

    At first glance, the story of Skies of Arcadia appears slightly cliched. An evil empire set to rule the world, elemental crystals that must be kept from falling into the wrong hands, ancient technology of unimaginable power -- okay, it's definitely cliched. The world of Skies of Arcadia consists entirely of floating continents and islands; travel between the continents is only possible by airship. Six moons, each a different color, watch over six different regions of the world. The hero, Vyse, is an Air Pirate. More specifically, he's a Blue Rogue, or good Air Pirate. Blue Rogues steal from the empire, give to the poor, and always help anyone in need. When the Valuan Empire attacks Fina, a mysterious young girl trying to escape in a small lifeboat, Vyse and Aika, his childhood friend, step in to the rescue. Fina soon reveals the evil empire's plan to reawaken ancient technology they cannot possibly hope to control and conquer the blah blah blah.

   About fifteen to twenty hours into the game, the story takes some excellent twists that are sure to surprise even the most worldly RPG fan. But don't think you'll have to wait fifteen to twenty hours to start enjoying Skies of Arcadia; the game is an absolute delight right from the start. How does it succeed so universally despite a mildly derivative story? Spot-on characterizations and unbelievable environments.

Vyse is cool.
This is Vyse.

   The characters of Skies of Arcadia are some of the best yet seen in an RPG. Vyse is optimistic without being lobotomized. Aika is cute and spunky without being irritating. Fina is naive without being an idiot. Familial relationships, something missing from most RPGs, are believable instead of feeling tacked on. Overworks has taken the traditional RPG character types and reworked them to be likeable people, not the cast of morons gamers are so often stuck with. You'll certainly recognize elements of traditional RPG archetypes in the main characters, but many of the supporting characters are suitably original. The game uses its Jules Vernian "Age of Discovery" motif at every opportunity, creating a believable, enjoyable world different from the tired medieval settings we've seen time and time again.

  This is the first dungeon, by the way.
Epic environments.

   The other aspect of Skies of Arcadia that stands head-and-shoulders above the competition is the fantastic locations. Each of the environments is jaw-droppingly beautiful and fully-realized in three dimensions. A user-manipulated camera and first-person view mode brings the detail to light as in no other game. The draw-in distance is far, the textures and lighting are immaculate, but most importantly the architecture "feels" solid. Part of the joy of role-playing is being able to lose yourself in the world the designers have created. Skies of Arcadia builds a more detailed world than RPG fans have ever seen before, then gives the player the freedom to explore.

   Travel across the world of Skies of Arcadia is solely by airship. Currents, eddies, whirlwinds, and floating debris fields bar your progress across the sky. In a nice touch, the world is packed with dozens of "Discoveries" for Vyse and company to discover. Discoveries are scattered all over the world and range from rock formations and floating waterfalls to forgotten statues and other points of interest. After "discovering" one, you can sell the information to the local adventuring guild. Towns and dungeons are navigated with Vyse from a behind-the-shoulder camera.

That's GOTTA hurt.
Harpoon Cannon. Know fear.

    Battles, while straightforward, are innovative enough to stay interesting. The biggest addition is a "Spirit Meter" for the entire party. A certain amount of spirit is refilled each round of battle; individual characters can also choose to "focus" to refill spirit more quickly. Characters' special moves require spirit from the central "pool"; magic spells require a certain amount of spirit as well as a single magic point to cast. The need for the entire party to "share" special attacks and magic give battles a necessary strategic element. Epic battles between airships (or airships and something really, really big) use a separate, more strategic battle system. Players select their "movements" four rounds in advance, then watch the results unfold. Gamers can choose strategies and direct the flow of the story during these epic battles, giving you either an advantage or disadvantage during the next four rounds of play.

    Characters learn spells from one of six elements ascribed to their weapons. Any weapon can take any elemental affiliation, and any character can learn any spell (though some are far better magic users than others). Defeating enemies nets points that go towards learning spells in the six elemental categories. Characters receive one point for every elemental color that a party member has equipped, but two points for the color they have equipped themselves. A simple press of the "Y" button during battle lets characters immediately reassign their weapon's elemental alignment, keeping fighting fresh and dynamic.

  And so big, too!
Yes it is, Fina.

    If all this sounds somewhat ordinary, it's because it's so difficult to pinpoint just why Skies of Arcadia is so good. If you only look at the pieces, you'd expect a competent, if unassuming, RPG. Due to the polish and creativity applied to these pieces, however, the final product is nothing short of a masterpiece. The Dreamcast may only have one A-list RPG for now, but when that game is as masterfully crafted and enjoyable as Skies of Arcadia, one is enough.

Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.
Skies of Arcadia
Developer Sega
Publisher Sega
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium GD-ROM (2)
Platform Dreamcast
Release Date  10.05.00
Skies of Arcadia VMU downloads available
263 screenshots
7 character designs
2 Japanese commercials