bshirk's Skies of Arcadia (Dreamcast) review

For Those Who Love Exploration, Skies Still Sails

We now live in an era in which we're inundated with various types of RPGs.   It's not like different types of RPGs haven't always existed, but players are now more familiar with the three major categories of role playing games: Japanese RPGs, Western RPGs, and Massively Multiplayer RPGs.   Each of these sub-genres appeal to players for different reasons, but regardless of their tastes, many players play RPGs for the sense of adventure they provide.

I'm more the type of RPG fan that plays the genre for the rich stories, character development, art, and music, but I still am a sucker for titles with a grand sense of adventure.   Many JRPGs feature linear narratives, so it's rare when you feel like you have complete control of your destiny, but Skies of Arcadia is one of the rare games that provides this feeling.

Usually, I prefer linear quests, because they're typically more focused and coherent than those in non-linear games, but occasionally, I like to break out of this mold.   I've never wanted to wander around aimlessly for hours, but Skies of Arcadia lets you explore in such a way that you'll rarely get lost.

What I found special about Skies was its focus on airships and exploring new territories.  Even though its narrative is linear, Skies of Arcadia somehow manages to evoke feelings that explorers like Magellan must have felt when they circumnavigated the globe.

You begin the adventure as a sky pirate named Vyse that actually looks his part, unlike a certain FFXII hero (had to throw in my token Vaan jab).   This eye-glass sporting hero is an enthusiastic adventurer who dreams of following in his father's footsteps, by navigating the skies.   Sure, this is about as cliché as you can get (as are most other components of Skies' plot), but the heroes are all amiable, yet believable adventurers.

It takes awhile for Vyse to find his own ship, but once he does, exploring the skies is a blast.   Like many other RPGs, you navigate the skies from a world map perspective, but Skies is different in that your altitude range is enormous.   You can travel far below the skies, or you can fly high above the game's numerous islands.  

Much of the world is left unexplored, and as such, there are many new discoveries to be made.   Discovering islands with Central American-like civilizations, and wormholes with no known exits is a rush that no energy drink can provide.

Not only is flying fun, but you're also rewarded with money for various discoveries.   This gives you an incentive to seek out unknown territories, and might cause you to stumble upon side-quests.

Unfortunately, flying is hampered by a few problems.   Occasionally, you'll get lost, since the sprawling world is seemingly endless at times, and this is made worse by random battles that will assault you at every turn.   Random battles aren't as plentiful in the Gamecube version, but the Dreamcast version of Skies forces you to battle numerous baddies onboard your ship.  

Thankfully, the battle system is speedy, but there's nothing worse than being hit with a jarring random encounter while searching for your destination.   I hated random encounters aboard sea vessels as far back as the original Final Fantasy, so it's disappointing that Skies decided to unleash endless monster attacks upon our airships.

Aerial monster assaults may drive players batty, but Skies of Arcadia does include some unique air battles.   Besides featuring standard character battles, Skies allows you to fight massive bosses and air vessels.   Of course you couldn't take on these behemoths with your bare hands, so Skies allows you to use your ships' weaponry.

Skies' airships can use anything from harpoon cannons to missiles, and they'll take turns pounding away at your opponents.   The impressive animations during these aerial battles brings these fights to life, but unfortunately, some players might find the turn-based gameplay too slow.   Sometimes, these battles can take upwards of twenty minutes, so they're a significant time commitment, even for the most patient of gamers.

I didn't mind them however, and I especially enjoyed building up my crew and stocking up on ammunition to prepare for these battles.   Personally, I'd have preferred real-time airship battles, but Skies was the first video game to deliver decent airships encounters, so really, I can't complain.

Even while on land, Skies has you exploring a variety of environments.   You'll explore a city reminiscent of the Forbidden City in China, you'll travel through dense forests home to Mayan-like tribes, and you'll explore the enemy's home turf that is going through an industrial revolution.   These areas may not be entirely unique, but at least they were fully 3D, and showed what the Dreamcast was capable of.

Compared to present day games, the environmental textures look muddy, and the characters aren't very well-animated, but Skies still features colorful environments that rival those of many early Playstation 2 titles.   It also helps that its airship designs are still stunning, nearly a decade later.

Unfortunately, Skies of Arcadia does have a couple weak links: its high encounter rate and unoriginal plot.   I already mentioned Skies' frequent battles that sometimes interrupted the experience (thankfully, not as often as in Black Sigil), but the storyline is another one of its lows.   It's not that the story is bad--it's a coherent narrative after all, but it just isn't that original.

Much of the story basically follows the template set by Final Fantasy VI--an evil empire is out dominate the world and crush all who resist them.   Even though the basic story outline imitates FFVI, its characters pack plenty of personality, and there are some interesting scenarios that run parallel to the real world.  

As I mentioned earlier, much of the scenery in Skies was inspired by various locales in our world, and the dominant faction was on the ascendance due to their recent industrial revolution.   It was immediately evident that the empire was supposed to represent colonial Europe.   The empire only cared about enriching their nation, and they would rape all discovered lands of their resources.   The story doesn't go much deeper than that, but the interesting characters and beautiful environments give it some personality.

Even though Skies is filled with annoying random battles, there's a lot to like about the game.   It has an epic sense of adventure, gorgeous environments, a slew of intricately designed airships, and an upbeat soundtrack.   The storyline might not delve as deep as plots of other notable RPGs, but it has enough real world parallels to make it interesting.   It's a shame that many Dreamcast owners missed this wonderful title, but it's easily the greatest RPG to ever grace the now-deceased system.   If you're looking to complete your Dreamcast or RPG collection, give Skies a shot.   At the very least, you'll experience a grand adventure.

Pros:

·          Features an unrivaled sense of adventure

·          Includes an assortment of intricately designed airships

·          Making discoveries with your airship never gets old

·          Few games on the Dreamcast match Skies' visual splendor

·          Includes an upbeat, engaging soundtrack

·          A modern RPG without much melodrama

·          Airship battles provide for some strategic gameplay

·          The plot mirrors some real world scenarios and the story of Final Fantasy VI

Cons:

·          Random battles are too frequent

·          Airship battles may be too slow for some gamers

·          The plot could use more originality

·          The environmental textures now look fairly dated

·          Getting ambushed while flying sucks

.          It's sometimes easy to get lost in Skies' massive world 
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