Skies of Arcadia hands-on impressions

[10.04.00] » Can airships and adventure power Sega's latest RPG?

   Duckroll, a friend of the GIA, recently had a chance to sit down with Sega's latest RPG masterpiece: Skies of Arcadia, known in Japan as Eternal Arcadia. The Limited Edition packaging certainly is nice, but has the Phantasy Star development team struck gameplay gold once more? Here's his initial impressions of the story and gameplay:

   Eternal Arcadia's setting is a world where the age of exploration is in full swing--and the sky's the limit. The world exists as a series of floating islands scattered across the skies; airships are king and the ground is nowhere in sight. Jules Verne would be proud! The world is governed by the 6 moons, each visible for 2 months out of every year; instead of "June," for example, it's "Month 6 Blue." Each moon also represents an element; occasional meteor showers of falling moon fragments are collected as an energy source. The protagonist, Vyse, is a member of the Blue Sky Pirates, sort of the good sky pirates. Aika is his longtime childhood friend--but not his girlfriend--and also a member of the Blue Sky Pirates. The Blue Sky Pirates operate like a family and even have their own island base with homes. Eternal Arcadia begins with Fina, a mysterious young girl, being captured from her single transport vehicle by the fleet of the nefarious Alfonso. Alfonso is one of the captains of the capital ships that form the Invincible fleet Squadron "Armada" of the Valua empire. The Albatross, the Blue Sky Pirate airship, attacks and invades Alfonso's craft and Vyse and Aika rush to rescue Fina. They don't know who Fina is; they just see a chance to do good and loot a really large ship. From here, the adventure begins.

   Eternal Arcadia has absolutely zero FMV usage. Everything in the game is rendered in realtime and looks amazingly gorgeous. There is voice acting in the game, but only for expressive words like 'thank you', 'ahhhhhh', 'yes', 'understood', etc. All battle attacks are voiced, too. You would think developer Overworks made these decisions in order to fit EA nicely on a GD-ROM, but Eternal Arcadia is a full-blown 2 GD-ROM game. The graphics in the game are amazing, the characters have the facial expressions of Shen Mue/Vagrant Story and the anime style of Grandia II, only with more detailed models.

   Movement in the overhead map involves your current airship: the only mode of travel in Eternal Arcadia. The forward and back direction keys move the ship, the left and right directional keys steer the ship, and the L and R trigger buttons alter the altitude. As you move forward, your ship picks up speed and you can see the air streaming past your ship. The overworld map also occasionally shows other ships moving around to make it look more alive. The character movement on the ground is quite similar to most normal RPGs. You control Vyse on-screen (the other party members are invisible) and the analog pad determines walk/run. A is the main "interact" button and the L/R trigger buttons control camera rotation.

   The battles are similar in appearance to Grandia II, but differ in execution. The game is strictly turn based; the characters and enemies do run around the field while attacking and defending, but its more for dramatic effect than gameplay. While one character is taking his/her turn, the other characters are still "fighting" with the other enemies--while no real damage is exchanged, this makes the fight look more dramatic than the characters just standing there. Special attacks drain the party's shared power gauge. The gauge fills with every turn; a character can also choose to spend his/her turn charging the gauge to fill it faster. Spells take only 2 points off the gauge but also drain 1 KP off the character using it. KP is extremely limited; you start with a maximum of about 4 or 5 KP per character, and it can only be recharged with items or sleeping, providing a form of balance. If you die in battle, you can "continue" at the start of the same battle without penalty--a godsend for those times you enter with improper elemental afffiliations. On the whole, the game provides a good challenge without being annoying.

   You also collect colored moon crystals that modify the elemental status of your weapons. You can do this in the status menu at any time. Equipping the correct element can really give you the advantage against some enemies. The equipped element will also gain points and eventually "rank up" giving you new spells of that elemental class to use. Special skills are learned by finding Moon Nuts. More powerful skills require more nuts and they are only found in certain places, usually dungeons.

   Another interesting feature is that enemies can sometimes fail to escape from battles, making the gane seem more fair than RPGs where enemies can always succeed at things you can't always do. When exploring and entering houses and smaller structures, the roof simply turns transparent, creating, for once, a sense that the building is actually proportional.

   Overall, the game does an excellent job of creating an aerial atmosphere--you really feel like you're way up in the sky. Hopefully, Eternal Arcadia will be the game that Phantasy Star fans and airship fanboys have been waiting for.

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