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To be completely and utterly fair in this installment of Looking Back on Classics, I never played the original Skies of Arcadia on Dreamcast. However, I did play the version of the game that was ported to the GameCube which was called Skies of Arcadia: Legends. The ported version boasted slightly better graphics and load times, as well as some extra bonus content that will be brought up later. The two games are almost entirely the same other than the few slight differences.
Released in 2000 for Dreamcast and 2003 for GameCube, Skies of Arcadia is one of those RPGs that really stuck with those who played it. When I was growing up I didn’t see a lot of RPGs in my house (I somehow missed most of the great SNES RPGs, the N64 pretty much only had Paper Mario, and I didn’t own a Playstation or a Dreamcast), so when I came across Skies of Arcadia: Legends I was surprised at how much I liked it. To date, I think I spent more hours inside of Skies of Arcadia than any other traditional RPG. I have one save file that has over 100 hours on it and that is not the only time I went through the game. It was because of Skies of Arcadia that the RPG became my favorite video game genre, displacing the platforming genre that had previously held that coveted space in my heart.
The story centers around a young skypirate named Vyse whose pirate gang rescues a mysterious girl named Fina during a pirate raid on a warship of the Vaulan Empire. Wait… what’s that? You don’t know what a sky pirate is? I’ll enlighten you. The world of Skies of Arcadia takes place on islands floating in the sky and the only way to travel between islands is on flying ships. Sky pirates are basically normal pirates… except that they fly through the air in awesome ships. To make the opening story short, Fina is more than she appears to be and gets herself captured, an idyllic village is destroyed (surprise), a giant skywhale leaves the heroes shipwrecked, and six magic crystals are discovered that can each be used to summon giant monsters called Gigas (side note: the crystals could also possibly be used to conquer/destroy the world). Basically, it is a game about flying pirates being awesome, adventurous, and heroic. I won’t ruin the ending for those of you awesome enough to look this title up and give it a whirl, but there is a reason this game is a classic and fondly remembered.
Though Skies of Arcadia seems to fall victim to a lot of RPG clichés in its storyline, the fact is that it does not come across that way. There are enough twists and turns in the plot to make it feel original, fresh, and not like a fetch quest. You actually begin to care about the characters and remember them. One of the best is the skyfisherman named Drachma who is motivated by a lust 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 goes to such lengths as buying a giant prow harpoon for his ship, with which he hopes to kill the beast. It is pretty obvious that he is based off of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, and it is refreshing to have such a character around in Skies of Arcadia (especially since I study English, durr).
To traverse the skies of Arcadia, you need to fly your airship through the overworld. Throughout the game Vyse serves on and captains a variety of different vessels, each with their own abilities that can be upgraded. When first start out on your adventuring, there are certain areas that your ship lacks 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 really pays off in Skies of Arcadia. You can discover rare sites or treasures granting a sizable reward. Thoroughly exploring areas can even lead to optional boss battles, as well as new crew recruits. One of the biggest differences between the original Dreamcast version and the revamped GameCube version of Skies of Arcadia is the addition of new discoveries and optional bosses. In the GameCube version there is a wanted list of pirates that are some of the hardest bosses in the game and there are large rewards for defeating them (as well as entertainment value from some of their ridiculousness).
Random encounters occur more frequently than in most RPGs, which can be a bit of an annoyance. Later on, you gain the ability to avoid battles entirely, which eases the frustration. Combat is a typical turn-based affair. You can do special attacks, magic, normal attacks, use items, and defend. Later in the game you can unlock different super attacks depending on who is in your party, each with its own cool cinematic or simply unleash the crew of your ship that can have a variety of effects depending on your crew makeup.
Perhaps the best feature of the game is the ability to engage in ship to ship battles. In these cinematic battles, you can order attacks and evasions at opportune times to optimize damage output and escape enemy fire. 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 battles are few and far between, typically only occurring against large monsters of other ships. You can outfit your ship with different decks, armor, cannons, torpedoes, etc. Each change will greatly affect how your 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 your vessel also affects your 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 and it is arguably the best feature of the game.
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. At the end of the day, what it looks like is not all that important. Despite the dated graphics the mechanics are solid, serviceable, and fun.
Skies of Arcadia is not a perfect game. However, it is a very interesting relic from a bygone age of video game history. 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 and the story is the stuff of solid adventure. I would encourage you all to take a look at it.
Here is hoping for an HD remake!