"I should have hated Skies of Arcadia. "
I should have hated Skies of Arcadia.
The battle system was fairly standard turn-based stuff; it didnít have any special concepts or revolutionary new techniques. The ship battles were nice, but they were far from being complex matters. Simple by concept, simple by play. There was little voice acting, and when there is it was crappy. And the story, the element I value first and foremost in any RPG, was cliche, retread stuff Iíve seen done a dozen times over. On paper, there was absolutely no reason why I should have liked that game.
But I did like it. I liked it so much that I stayed up every night after I got it, playing it for hours that went into the double digits and turning myself into a permanent night owl. I liked it so much that I went through the story three times over, no games played in between. I liked it so much that, even though five years have passed and Iíve played games that are far superior to it in graphics and sound and story, I still took the Gamecube port off the shelf without a second thought given.
Thereís magic to this game, and that magic lies in the simple things, the little touches, the things that no amount of hardware can make up for. Skies of Arcadia: Legends proves that you donít need hour-long cutscenes or A-list voice actors or even thought-bending plotlines to make a good story, and you donít need amazing graphics or a revolutionary battle system to make a good game. It doesnít matter what you have, all that matters is how you use it. Execution equals quality.
At first glance, you wouldnít think much of Skiesí graphics. A second glance wouldnít change your mind. Not even a third glance, Iíd bet. Really, it doesnít matter how many times you glance at the graphics; in a day of graphical juggernauts, Skies of Arcadia is scrapping at the bottom of the barrel, still on the par of a dead system, shadows of the Dreamcast. The Gamecube has the power and the push; Skies of Arcadia could have gotten a makeover easy; just a flex of the purple boxís power could have done wonders. But the developers chose to turn it down, chose to hold on to that same style, kept it clean, pure, and simple. Why?
Laziness might be an answer, granted. But Iíll go for a higher road, Iíll say that the developers made them the way they made them for a reason and they kept them the way they kept them for a reason. Even back in the days of the Dreamcast, Skiesí graphics were behind the times, but they served a purpose, added to an archaic feel that suits the game. By staying simple, the graphics hearken back to a time of 32-bits and overhead views, the times of Link and Crono, of an eraís twilight. No matter the city, no matter the dungeon, no matter the scene, it maintains the feel of two dimensions in a world made of three. Itís complexly simple and simply complex, a rare case of second-rate graphics making a first-rate game.
The character models are a prime example of this. Made in the anime style, they lack the polish of moderns NPCs; even the playable characters have a blocky look to them, signs of the polygons at work. Limited movements, nothing fancy, nothing out of the orthodox. But, in spite of this, the characters of Skies have life and personality in their steps; theyíve got an emotion, a passion, a feeling to them that other RPGs donít even kindle to. How? Itís all in the faces.
When they're angry, they frown, when theyíre happy, they smile. Eyebrows raise, eyebrows furrow. Characters use the full spectrum of facial emotion, all the subtleties and quirks. Through the face comes character, and as simple as these gestures may sound, they make each character resonate, give meaning to even the most meaningless of NPCs. Each tweak defines and develops the characters. No dialogue is spoken, but then again, no dialogue needs to be spoken; the faces do all the work of pitch and tone. To understand how a character feels, all you have to do is look at him, and Skies always makes sure you can look; the game goes into a first person view every time you speak to an NPC, bring you face-to-face so you can see them as your character sees them, how NPCs were meant to be seen: Not as faceless stand-ins doomed to walk in endless circles, but as vital parts of the world, just as much a part of the gameís environment as the ground youíre walking on.
To drive that point in even further, Skies has a surprising lack of clone characters; with little exception, all the characters in all the cities look different from each other, all of them talk as if they have history, as if they have a life, aspirations, dreams. Itís a small nuance, but a powerful one, and it does wonders for this gameís personality. You see some kids playing tag in the middle of an island. You see a girl dancing for onlookers in a tavern. You go up to them, you talk to them, you learn who they and what theyíre about, and because theyíre all different and distinct, in some small, innocent part of your mind, you donít see them as a simple collection of pixels and polygons, you see them as living beings.
Arcadia is essentially a world of two worlds. You have the world that you walk around in, where you meet the people and delve into the gameís personality, where you buy items and prepare for battle. This is the world most RPGs have, and Skies of Arcadia has one of the best. But thereís another world, the Overworld, the in-between point that lets you venture from city to city. Skies of Arcadia could have taken the simple road, could have just limited it to point and click selection, could have just let you control some blip of ship on an overhead map. Few would have complained if it did either, theyíd just write it off to one of the genreís conventions and let it be.
But instead, Skies strives for the unconventional, breathing new life into an old concept. You see, the world of Arcadia is a paradox; itís a giant sea of air. Airships are crucial, used to get from island to island, weapons of trade, pleasure, and warfare. But Skies doesnít merely tell you about this convention, as some games would do. It doesnít even show it to you through cutscenes, as most games would do. It lets you experience it, firsthand and hands-on.
No matter your place in the game, youíll always have an airship to control. Youíll maneuver it; up and down, left and right. Youíll fight for it and fight with it; defend it from monsters of all sizes and pirates of all kinds. Youíll walk inside of it, explore it, interact with it. And when the time comes, youíll even customize it, handpicking your crew, screening their strengths and putting their talents to use in and out of combat. Itís this sort of control, this degree of action that lets you immerse yourself in the gameís world to the highest extent. Before the game is over, youíll have sailed to every corner of Arcadia, circumvented the globe like an airborne Magellan, visited every civilization and encountered every aspect. The world of Skies is vast and beautiful, but when the game begins, youíre limited; you can only go so far, and do so much. But thatís just part of the beauty; just like the main character, Vyse, always wonders what lies beyond the sunset, so will you. Youíll always ask yourself: What will the next city bring, what adventures will await in the next land, what will I have to do, who I will have to fight? Thereís always a sense of exploration, a sense that you can go just a little farther, that thereís something left to be seen, something left to do, and thereís always a sense of elation when you find out your feelings were true. You will go as far as you can go, you will see what lies beyond the sunset, and before the end credits roll, you will know what it means to live in Arcadia, without doubt or question.
You wonít be able to run wild when the game starts out, though; youíve got to build yourself up to that kind of leverage. You play the game as Vyse, son of the legendary air pirate Captain Dyne, and a bit of a young buck, eager to make a name but not a damn clue on how to do it. Vyse is eager and headstrong, brave and romantic, with a strong sense of justice that couples with an even stronger sense of adventure, and when the Valuan Empire starts to mess in his life, he jumps to action without hesitation, eagerly going off to stop them from world domination with a pair of lovely ladies at his side. Throughout the tale, youíll encounter a Captain Ahab wannabe, a gun-slinging Casanova, and many other cliches between.
Normally, a plot like that would make me want to puke, do to my mind what bad pork does to my stomach. But, just like most of the gameís other aspects, the strength is in the execution. Skies of Arcadia doesnít imitate the games of old, it pays homage to them.
The characters, as cliche as they can be at times, are all portrayed masterfully; they laugh, they talk, they cry with sorrow and they cry with happiness. Conversations are held and bonds are formed, and not one of them is unrealistic, never did I find a motivation unrealistic or a reaction undeserved. Believable characters are often the most sympathetic, and I found myself sympathizing with them on many occasions, feeling what they felt and wanting what they wanted. Thatís the strength of Skiesí story, the one thing that lets it defy cliches and maintain a powerful story: It makes you care. Iíve played RPGs that Iíve wanted to beat before, where completion is a mark of pride. But Skies of Arcadia is the first and only RPG that Iíve needed to beat, where ultimate victory almost feels like something I had to achieve to complete my life as an individual. That is a powerful effect.
Itís good that Skies is so capable of portraying character so well through pure dialogue and faces, because if it had to rely on voices, it would surely fail. The main characters speak on relatively rare occasions, either to add a word or two in the dialogue or to announce their attacks in battle, but really, thatís more than enough. The voice acting is terrible, annoying little giggles and quips that grate the ear and make you glad that it happens as rare as it does. Having to listen to it in dialogue with full sentences and lines spoken would probably just be an exercise in insanity. Exclusion is a blessing in this case.
Faulted the voices may be, but that doesnít mean Skies of Arcadia lacks in the sound department; itís music is a masterpiece in motion. I say Ďin motioní because the music is always changing, always fitting the situation and moving with the environment. When youíre winning in battle, the music is upbeat and melodious, cheering you on to the final victory. But if the tide turns in the enemies favor, it automatically switches pace, going to a dark, frenzied tune that makes sure your ears know youíre in trouble just as well as your eyes do. Likewise, the music in the Overworld is in constant change; the overall theme stays the same, but it modifies with each new land you go to, changing style and rhythm. When you travel to the lands of the east, youíll hear the fast paced ticks of a steel drum, the music of the Orient. When you head west, youíll hear the thumps of tribal music play under the score. Every region has a sound all its own, letting the music go beyond its purpose. It doesnít just compliment the gameplay, it heightens it, takes on a personality all its own.
Though the battle music may be creative, the battle system is not. At least, not on the surface, not at first. Youíre given a standard set ways to attack; regular moves, magic, and the all-important Special Moves. You select the attacks for each character and the turns begin, fastest character goes first and the others follow from there. You have a Spirit Meter above it all that your characters take points out of for their magic and S-Moves, and it replenishes regularly. Cut and dry, standard stuff, right?
Wrong. I said it once, I said it twice, and Iím saying it again: Itís all about execution.
The characters are always moving in battle; instead of staying in a solid line and launching their attacks from there, they move, run up to the enemy and slice from there, positioning themselves all over the battlefield. Not only that, but the characters keep moving even when itís not their turn to, taking little stabs at the enemy and dodging attacks. Small as it may seem, it makes the battles look like actual battles in progress, not just some weird, orderly affair where the enemies and the characters all stand in a row and fight from there. It cuts down on the repetition and gives each fight its own unique feel; no two battles truly play out the same way, even when itís against the same enemies. That, combined with an encounter rate drastically dropped from the original, would be enough to keep the battles from getting too tiring, saves the RPG from a tedium that so many others fall prey to. But it doesnít end there.
Even when you get some serious levels under your belt, you still wonít be able to just tap some random buttons and call the battle a win; Skies of Arcadia makes you strategize a bit. Each weapon can be switched through six different elements on the fly, and doing so essential to victory; certain monsters take certain elements worse than other. Youíll barely even damage a fire-based monster if your sword is on fire, too, but switch over to the water element, and that same enemy will go down in one shot, doesnít even have to be a critical. Not only does knowing the opponents weakness give you an edge in combat, it also helps out in the long run; manipulating the elements is the only way to learn spells. Every time you win a battle with a certain element equipped, your character gets a special set of experience points that go towards getting spells for that element, so the more you use an element, the quicker you can get to the big spells, the kind of spells that fill the screen and take the enemy out in a blaze of punishing pyrotechnics.
When regular attacks fail, when spells just canít get the job done, you turn to the S-Moves, the powerhouse moves that often prove to be the deciding factor in boss battles. While Skies could have gone the normal route and just given each character their own SP for the moves, they chose to increase the strategic element of the battle, forcing all the characters to share the Spirit Points they need for S-Moves and magic attacks, as well. This forces constant thought every turn: Do you conserve the Spirit Points, save them up and launch a four-character assault at the right time? Do you try and whittle away at the enemy, hit him with magic attacks and bore into his elemental weakness? Do I conserve, use them to heal and power up? This kind of thinking for tense battles, and often times youíll find yourself going see-saw with the enemy, bringing your entire party back from the edge of defeat, switching tactics to pinpoint weaknesses, going from anticipation to domination.
But, as kinetic and intense as the battles can get, the tedium will set in after a while. And then, just when you find yourself wishing for a change of pace, just when things start to get routine and the monotony sets in, youíll be confronted with this RPGs most unique and entertaining aspect, the crowning point of all its gameplay: Ship battles.
Four characters perform commands on a four by four grid, controlling the ship as if it were a giant character; cannon fire, magic, even special moves are at your disposal. You judge when each character does what, judge the enemyís patterns and abilities, and then enter, watching as the two ships brutally engage in mortal combat, firing and defending and healing the way you planned, working on your whims and following your strategy. The enemy hits you with a spell, you hit him with Silence. The enemy knocks your health in the red, you heal it back up. The enemy hits you hard, you hit him harder. Itís a nautical knockdown that never gets old, forcing you to use the same strategy of the regular battles in a new situation and demanding forethought with every turn.
While just being the same Skies of Arcadia that debuted on the Dreamcast would be more than enough for a solid sale, theyíve included a few things to spice it up, give long-term fans more reason to take back to the sky. Namely, the Wanted List, a lineup of tough new bosses. They level up with you, so it doesnít matter how strong you get, theyíll always be stronger, far stronger, forcing you to use tact and skill to wear them out. And then, thereís Piastol, a new foe with her own plot line and a serious axe to grind with Vyse. Sheís strong, she relentless, and she hates your guts, all the elements of a decent enemy. She has horrible taste in clothing and hair like a roosterís sitting on her head, but sheís dangerous, make no mistake; every battle against her is a struggle, and she only gets tougher and tougher, leveling up just like the guys on the Wanted List. To first time players, the Wanted List adds to an already complete game, turns 100% into 110%. To a long time fan, the Wanted List is a welcome addition, a chance to have new experiences with old characters. While itís no substitute for the sequel that fans have been clamoring for, itíll do.
There are games that suck and there are games that rock, but thereís only a select few that can do both at the same time. Skies of Arcadia is flawed, true, but it turns weakness into strength. It doesnít succeed in spite of its flaws; it succeeds because of them, if that makes any sense (it should, I just spent five pages explaining it) Skies of Arcadia isnít for renting, itís to be bought, played once, twice, and maybe even a third time. This is the kind of game you bring out during those RPG dry seasons, when nothingís coming out and the dust starts to settle on your controller.
Community review by lasthero (June 17, 2005)
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