Skies of Arcadia (Dreamcast) review
"A game doesn't necessarily have to do anything different to be a good one. While many tout games such as Donkey Konga or Rez for their "innovations", they forget that a simply yet expertly crafted game almost always ends up offering more beef than these so-called breaths of fresh air. Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Metroid, Doom; many of the games considered to be revolutionary classics never really revolutionized anything at all, polishing their wheels to a perfect shine as opposed to reinventing t..."
A game doesn't necessarily have to do anything different to be a good one. While many tout games such as Donkey Konga or Rez for their "innovations", they forget that a simply yet expertly crafted game almost always ends up offering more beef than these so-called breaths of fresh air. Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Metroid, Doom; many of the games considered to be revolutionary classics never really revolutionized anything at all, polishing their wheels to a perfect shine as opposed to reinventing them. Skies of Arcadia is such a game.
Take the battle system. Sure, the special attacks may be impressive. I love the rugged elder Drachma's Tackle, wherein he holds his massive prosthetic drilling arm in front of him and blasts toward his enemy at the highest speed his somewhat rotund body will allow. The selection of magic spells, such as the comet-raining Pyrem or the impalement-inducing Eterni, are also pretty astounding. Do they add anything to the combat that wasn't done back in the 16-bit era? Absolutely not. In Skies' case, though, such simplicity ends up being rewarding, as the lean battle system allows the player to maximize everything that they have and consistently plan around the same things rather than spend time with a variety of superfluous options that do nothing to serve the experience.
Its story is nothing we haven't seen before, either. It's your average tale of an arbitrary group of miscreant youths being swept into an epic crusade against the stereotypically evil Valuan empire. Death and defection occur rather frequently, and it even calls into play such genre cliches as colored crystals, societies or ruins with a certain elemental theme to them such as fire or water, and wise ancient races that brought about their doom via large scale warfare. A genuinely entertaining story lies beneath the predictability, however, as (akin to the excellently streamlined battle system) the simplicity in the story allows the game to forgo an epic setup or intricate detail in favor of creating a genuinely likable cast of characters.
Right from the opening, which has a number of deviant rogues dubbed the Air Pirates attempting to plunder a Valuan cargo ship for nothing other than loot, it's hard not to find the cast likable. From Vyse, an upbeat and energetic young lad who scoffs in the face of such dangers as a battallion of medieval-looking Valuan troops or a mechanized war bull, to Aika, an upbeat and energetic girl whose constant bumbling belies a surprising level of intelligence, to Alfonso, a downtrodden yet upbeat and energetic villain so worried about his status that he sacrifices a legion of underlings to protect his name, the characters of Skies of Arcadia appear cliche on the surface yet have a universal sense of energy will quickly suck you in. It's hard not to be charmed by a world where even the lowliest of vagrants conveys a smattering of hope.
Not that the land of Arcadia really needs such energy to define it, thanks to it not actually being a land at all; in a twist that seems kind of silly until you actually try the game, the entire world consists of islands that hover mysteriously in the air, traversable only by... flying boats. Really. It's actually pretty cool, as the skies of Arcadia are littered with locales both large and small, from the houses of tiny hermits who just so happen to make kickass weapons to intricate forest civilizations that conceal cavernous dungeons filled with traps and mazes. Plus, the whole airship thing makes for some sweet ship to ship battles that force you to plan whole turns ahead in an attempt to land such weapons as torpedoes, cannons, and the dreaded Harpoon Cannon, which will literally tear your foes apart from inside.
Sadly, the more mundane aerial travelling is far less of a joy thanks to the insane amount of random battles. It's impossible to go for more than a few meters in your dinghy without some demonic deviants managing to land on your deck, starting up a battle that truly damages the flow of the game. Battling should have been kept to a minimum outside of the dungeons, but with the way Skies' overworld is set up, you'll actually do more of your brawling in the great outdoors, which makes travelling anywhere a pain in the ass. Plus, some of the creatures in these random battles can be pretty annoying in and of themselves; thinking back to the massive expanse of darkened winds filled with opposition capable of pulling off one-hit kills still gives me heebie-jeebies.
At least most of the other enemies are cool. You want hula-hoop demons? You got hula-hoop demons. Have a thing for fire-breathing tiki heads? They're in here. Feel like dueling a miniscule griffon? Sure, why not. Want $50? Too bad. Fortunately, as a consolation prize, there are also some pretty excellent bosses. From an imposing lava dragon whose ability to turn your party members to stone forces caution and planning to avoid your whole party being immobilized to an island sized emerald giant who must be lured next to a ditch and then knocked into it via your Harpoon Cannon, Skies' boss fights never fail to impress. Neither does the audiovisual component; the bold, vibrant colors fit the game's cheery mood perfectly, and I love how the catchy music shifts its tone in the middle of a battle depending on how well the fight is going for you.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another derivative RPG loved only due to the dearth of Dreamcast games of that genre; its simplistic battle system, its tried-and-true story, its N64-style bold colors, and even its central gimmick of airships have all been done by other games. Skies of Arcadia, however, doesn't try to be different, instead molding and enhancing everybody else's ideas into one mean final product that still manages to stand out thanks to its uniquely upbeat atmosphere. And while the random battles on them pissed me off to no end, I still can't get over how awesome it is that the whole world is built around flying boats. Flying boats kick ass.
Community review by Cornwell (February 26, 2009)
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