30 Days of Dreamcast – Day 17: Skies of Arcadia

Skies of Arcadia
Developer: Overworks
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 11/13/2000

I’ve already talked about Grandia II earlier in the month. I have past experience with Grandia, and it’s hard to believe that it didn’t come out more than nine years ago with as wistfully as I talked about it. “Wow, I remember playing Grandia II, way back when it came out in… uh, the year 2000, when I was at the precocious age of… um, 20″. Predictably, I was just as positive about the game today, as I close in on my 30’s, as I was when I was playing it while stationed in the Navy.

With that said, the other big JRPG or the Dreamcast era – Skies of Arcadia – is one that I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with before this special started. I never owned the Dreamcast version, and while I own the Gamecube version, I have barely touched it. Therefore, with myself being tasked with the two big JRPGs of this era, I’m going into this one without the rose-coloured glasses that I took into my Grandia II review.

With a new perspective, and ten more years of experience, would I view Skies as highly as I do Grandia II? Simply put, it’s not without it’s faults, but the reputation it’s earned over the past decade is earned: it’s one of the best RPGs of it’s era.

Skies puts you, as the player, in the role of Vyse. Vyse is the son of Dyne, the leader of a group of pirates called the Blue Rogues, who can best be described as a group of Robin Hoods flying around in a large airship, stealing from the evil Valuan Empire and giving to the poor. Blue Rogues differ from Black Pirates, who are your typically evil, no-ethics pirates. While robbing the 1st Admiral of the Valuan Empire, Vyse and childhood friend Aika find a strange-dressed girl named Fina, who the admiral had been after, and rescue her. This is the catalyst of events that lead into a grander story of world conquest by the Valuans and the efforts of a few to stop them. Like most modern RPGs, the true enemy isn’t what you believe it to be for a long time – and I do mean a LONG time, this is a two-disc game – but I did enjoy the story more in this game than I did in Grandia II. It’s a bit more believable, and the characters are, in my opinion, more likeable. There is some dead weight – I’m looking at you, Drachma – but for the most part, everyone plays their position very well. After playing both games this year, I think the story in Skies of Arcadia, while not world-changing like Xenogears, is still better than that of Grandia II, as are the characters.

What isn’t better, however, is the combat. Part of this is just due to the system. At it’s heart, it’s old-fashioned turn based combat, you select an action, the characters act out that action, and for most battles (all of which are random). There are a lot of things that Skies did to change things from the standard ringmarol, and most of it worked. At the top of the battle screen, there is a bar with a number, called a spirit gauge. This is your ability to cast both magic and regular skills; each one will take off some of that bar, with the bar being replenished between turns dependent on the spirit of the characters in your party; doing the “Focus” option repelnishes some spirit, at the cost of a turn for the character in question. In addition to the spirit gauge, there’s also magic points for magic spells that can be cast. The difference between Skies and most other standard RPGs is that you get very few MPs, but all spells cost 1MP. This means that there’s no reason, if you have a choice between using a mid-level spell or a high-level spell, to use the lower spell unless you really need the spirit points, but MP doesn’t regenerate automatically. This is an interesting change that makes the player do something they’re likely not used to: focus on consumable items for healing, since you’re only going to be able to cast healing spells a few times.

The other major change is the weapon colour mechanic, which determines both your weapon’s allignment and the spells you learn. You start out being able to choose between two weapon colours, but you gain more quickly, up to six. Most monsters are strong or weak to specific colours, and it’s your job as the player to determine which monster is strong/weak to which. You’re able to choose both in combat and in the main menu, so thankfully, you’re not stuck too often as long as you pay attention. The main element to this is that, depending on what colour your weapon is, you gain magic experience for that colour, and the colour the rest of your party has. For example, if you have three characters and they’re using red, blue and yellow respectively, the first character will gain two points for red, and one each for blue and yellow (assuming the reward is one magic point); second character gets two for blue and one for red and yellow, etc. This is cumulative, so if you have four people and want to get everyone’s blue spells up, you can have everyone equipped blue and gain five points for that. The spells will eventually even out to the point where virtually everyone has the same basic spells, but I’m all for options, and having the option to cater things to how you want them is a major plus.

The problems come into play when it comes to area effect magic/skills. As the battle progresses, both your characters and that of the enemy basically pair off and move around the map, taking each other on. This is fine in itself, but the game gives you no choice as to who can go where, and what’s worse, it doesn’t let you move them to compensate. This means that spells that affect an area, or a line of enemies, are hit-or-miss. You can pick what you’re doing at the beginning of the round, then have your plan made completely irrelevant. On the other hand, I had a boss fight where all my characters ended up in a line, and the boss took advantage by just tackling the back person endlessly to the point where I had to redo the battle. I couldn’t move my people to mitigate the effects of this, and the boss AI, while not Persona 4-level perceptive, tends to stick to something that’s working exceptionally well if it stumbles upon it, so I was stuck, in a situation where just having the ability to use a turn to move my people out of the way – like how Lunar has it – would have made this whole issue moot. Considering this game came out after Lunar, it should have been noted. However, issues with this are pretty rare, and don’t really get in the way of the overall enjoyment of this title.

To go with regular battles, there are also ship battles. In these, you’re given a grid of your characters, as well as an action, whether to fire with one of your guns, defend, focus with a character or do a special move if circumstances permit. Ship battles flow differently than regular battles, and since every attack costs spirit, managing attacks and healing is critical. Ship battles are harder than regular battles, but they break some of the monotony well. This also means that managing your ship is as critical as managing your human characters, and adds another dimension to gameplay.

Even the overworld is different in Skies. Since the landscape is nothing but floating islands in the sky, you use your ship to traverse everywhere. The ship is made to go forward by pressing up, with the R and L buttons determining elevation. It’s not astoundingly different from what we’re used to, but it does add to the immersive feeling playing this game gives the player. However, since most of what you’re looking at is either air, fog, or a combination therein, it’s easy to get lost, especially if you’re going somewhere you haven’t been to before.

The main quest of the game is pretty linear; however, once you take into account grinding (it’s more important to level/magic grind later in the game) and side quests, the game can take easily sixty hours of gameplay; it took me thirty just to get off of the first disc. For people that want to put the time into it, there’s a lot to do, such as Pinta’s Quest, a VMU minigame that I wasn’t able to try out because it takes up a fair bit of UMD space, and the search for chams, which are important to make Fina’s weapon more powerful. These can be found by using the VMU as a metal detector of sorts: it makes more noise the closer you get to them. In addition, there’s discoveries to be made – and traded – on the main overworld, which add an explorative feel to the game. There’s also an option, from the main screen, to go to the homepage for the game, which must have been amazing in 2000 but isn’t useful today, seeing as how I’d need a broadband adapter ($200 on the open market, no thanks) and I’m not even sure the page still works.

The good news is that the game, by Dreamcast standards, is very attractive. There are some jaggy polygons to be found and the game isn’t the visual masterpiece that later RPGs would be, but the game looks and moves well, and character expressions – something sorely lacking in Grandia II – add another dimension of intractability to the characters. The game’s audio is competent, but not as memorable as that of Grandia II. There’s no voice acting to speak of – just a few expressions for each character – so thankfully, the voice acting can’t get somewhat offensive like it did in Grandia II

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

If made to answer with a gun held to my head, I would say that in terms of quantifiable measurables, Skies of Arcadia is a better overall game than Grandia II. It has a better story, better characters, and the flaws in the battle system are made up for by the fact that there’s more to do overall. However, I would also say that there’s no reason to pick and choose; they’re both outstanding RPGs, and they’ll both run you about the same amount from third party sellers. I’d also ask you to put the gun down, wanker.

RPG fans can’t really go wrong here. Skies of Arcadia is a great game. Even if you don’t have a Dreamcast anymore, the Gamecube port is competent in it’s own right, unlike the awful ports of Grandia II.

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