Released in 2000 for Dreamcast and 2003 for GameCube, Skies of Arcadia has proven itself to be one of those RPGs that really stuck with me over the years. When I was growing up, I didn’t see many RPGs in my house. Through sheer bad luck I somehow missed most of the great SNES RPGs, Super Mario RPG notwithstanding. For as much as I appreciate my N64, there was definitely a dearth of RPGs in its library compared to its 16-bit predecessors. The PlayStation and Dreamcast were unheard of in my home at the time, barely existing on the periphery of my young consciousness.
Imagine my surprise when I picked up Skies of Arcadia: Legends for the GameCube over a decade ago and found myself wrapped up in a fantastical adventure full of heroes, villains, monsters, and sky pirates. To date, I think I spent more hours inside of Skies of Arcadia than any other traditional RPG with the exceptions of Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect series. Skies of Arcadia built an appreciation for RPGs in my heart, supplanting platformers as the genre that held the most sway over my gaming tastes.
The dreamlike quality of its setting helps to set Skies of Arcadia apart from anything else out there. Arcadia's world consists of large islands and continents statically suspended in the sky. There are six major empires, both thriving and long gone, one for each moon that orbits their planet. The only way travel, commerce, and warfare between the different land masses can be achieved is through the use of air ships. Throw pirates, weapons of mass destruction, evil empires, and long lost magic into this setting and you have the makings of a great game. What I am trying to say is that Skies of Arcadia is a game about flying pirates being awesome and for that reason alone you should consider unearthing a copy.
I haven’t made any secret that I heartily recommend Skies of Arcadia, but I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t have any imperfections. It falls victim to a number of RPG clichés in its storyline: amnesia, collect several magic maguffins, an escalating hierarchy of evil henchmen, etc. However, it is a testament to the quality of Skies of Arcadia that despite those clichés much of it feels fresh and exciting.
I will be the first to admit that I could certainly be looking at this game through rose-colored glasses, but I think it is one of those rare titles that makes proper use of clichéd story elements. The clichés don’t feel out of place or misused. The narrative flows naturally from one point to another, and part of that flow includes a few well-worn video game tropes. There are enough twists and turns in the plot to make it feel fresh. Though many of the characters end up fitting into archetypical molds, they’re written well enough that players actually begin to develop empathy for their predicaments.
One of my favorite examples of this is the captain of a small fishing vessel named Drachma. Captain Drachma is encountered early in the adventure and he initially serves as a gruff father figure. Over the course of the game Drachma is revealed to be motivated by a desire to avenge the death of his son (and the loss of his arm and eye) at the hands of a great skywhale named Rhaknam. He is so committed to this that he eventually buys a giant prow harpoon for his ship, with which he hopes to kill the beast. It is a pretty blatant reference to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, but it isn’t used as a joke. Instead, the backstory does what a backstory should do; it gives the player a new perspective on the previous words and actions of that character.
Graphically, Skies of Arcadia has not aged well. It sometimes looks like a polygonal mess. What polygons it does have are very colorful and inviting which still do it credit and keep the game feeling light hearted and fun despite some of the darker content that crops up throughout the adventure. Despite the dated graphics the mechanics are solid and serviceable, while the narrative remains as compelling as ever.
One of the biggest problems that plagued the original Dreamcast release was the absurdly high rate of random encounters. While that was fixed somewhat in the Legends port, battles are still a frequent occurrence. The general gist of the combat is that characters can attack, cast spells, use items, or guard. As these things are done, more SP points build up that can be used for special moves. Later in the game players unlock different super attacks that change depending on the party composition, each with its own cool cinematic. There is also the option to simply unleash the entire crew of your ship which has a variety of effects depending on who players have recruited. It is a simple system overall, but one that is definitely enjoyable.
To traverse Arcadia, you need to fly your air ship through the overworld. Throughout the game, players will pilot a variety of different vessels, each with their own abilities and equipment that can be upgraded. Exploration is limited by the type of vessel that is being flown. Early on, there are certain areas that the ships available lack the ability to travel through, like wind currents and high pressure areas. This is not to say that searching out nooks and crannies is discouraged. Exploration can really pay off for persistent and observant players. You can discover rare locations or treasures granting a sizable reward. Thoroughly exploring areas can lead to optional boss battles or even new crew members to recruit.
Perhaps the best feature of Skies of Arcadia is the ability to engage in ship-to-ship battles. In these cinematic battles, attacks and evasions can be ordered at opportune times to optimize damage output and escape enemy fire. The system allows players to plan out an entire round of maneuvers weighed against the likelihood of the enemy taking offensive or defensive actions. If the fight continues for a long enough period, a meter will fill and you gain the opportunity to unleash a brutal super attack that deals enormous amounts of damage. These skirmishes are few and far between, typically only occurring against large monsters or other ships. Players can outfit their ship with different decks, armor, cannons, torpedoes, etc. Each change will greatly affect how the ship performs in combat. More powerful cannons can typically only fire once, while smaller, less powerful cannons can fire multiple times in one turn, and torpedoes fire once with a delayed damage burst. Who is crewing the vessel also affects the ships performance, granting different bonuses to the ship’s offensive, defensive, or healing abilities. I’ve honestly never seen a combat system like it before or since, which is a shame because I’d be happy to see it as a central system for an entire game.
Skies of Arcadia is not a perfect game, but there are a lot of aspects that deserve more recognition. Often when player mention RPGs from around the turn of the century, I hear names like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Paper Mario, but almost never Skies of Arcadia. It holds a special place in my heart for being a fantastic introduction to the world of RPGs. Not only that, but there are no other games with ship combat like Skies of Arcadia. If you are in the market for an older RPG you couldn’t go terribly wrong seeking out Skies of Arcadia: Legends. The story is the stuff of solid adventure.