Judging games by their covers is not necessarily an evil thing and when a release drops with bad cover art and almost no word at all, you can almost be guaranteed to be wasting money on crap. Skies of Arcadia is one exception to the rule and proves itself to be one of the best games yet with some of the worst cover art, two awards in one! Have a look behind the scenes though and you’ll see some of the Phantasy Star team are behind it, so could it possibly disappoint?
Skies of Arcadia is a different RPG than most in the way that it uses a third person perspective (1st person available, albeit standing still) in a full 3D game world with traditional role play elements (phew!). Whilst it is certainly not the most original game around with regard to the in game transportation methods, it still manages to still be one of the most entertaining, amusing and downright compulsive RPG’s there is. A blend of adventure, exploration and mild humour is mixed with a well-presented and very original turn based battle engine. Random battles also make a reappearance in this game, but at last a developer has taken time to not turn the word ‘random’ into ‘constant’ so even the most ardent random battle hater will find this pleasing, but they do get more frequent whilst flying and could be a put off to some.
The story begins with a well depicted scene of a huge battleship chasing and gunning down a small, undefended craft being flown by a young girl. As the young girl’s ship is caught and taken aboard the vessel a rather rickety old wooden ship appears by it’s side and commences attack. That’s when you meet Vyse and Aika, members of the Blue Rogues and are briefly introduced to the battle engine. Taking control of the ship and battling a huge rhino-like monster, you rescue the girl from Alfonzo, a general of the Valuan Armada and a bad guy who has the highest instant hatred score ever. It will take you about 5 seconds to realise this: He has to die, and die harshly at some point in the game.
Having taken the loot from the Valuan’s Imperial Armada ship the Blue Rogues head home and you find out that they are the Robin Hood of Piracy and their principles are all about taking from the Rich and giving to the poor, unlike their Black Pirate counterparts who have no principles. Only when we reach the Blue Rogues home, Pirates Island are we further introduced to Vyse, Aika and Fina, the girl rescued from the Valuan Armada vessel. During their bonding session they witness a moonstone shower (moonstones are a prime source of energy that is used to power the ships), so Vyse and Aika decide to head out to the island where a rather large stone crash landed the next day. When they return home, they find that all is not well…
Arriving back at Pirates Island after the introduction to the game you are treated to the most glorious environment ever that is presented in full 3D, and given the opportunity to view the scenery in first person you will be salivating in delight. It just looks so wonderful and the detail level in the scenery is without equal. I really have not seen anything of this quality before and suggest that you beg, borrow or steal a babies bib before you put the first of the two disks into your DC. Look to the skies from the Pirate Island’s lookout and you’ll see all manner of ships flying past heading for unknown destinations, their styles influenced by real life ones, look down toward solid ground and the children playing on the island are still visible too! This is probably the best 3D representation of a world since Link wondered the land of Hyrule on the N64’s version of Zelda. This game just oozes graphical quality and surpasses everything I have yet to see on a console RPG that isn’t FMV. Cut scenes are all handled using the in game engine too and are short and sweet enough to carry the game’s story rapidly.
During boot up we are given the Epilepsy warning and when executing a special attack during a battle, you can see why. Flashing lights spray forth, anger is shown and we are treated to some excellent effects that really give Grandia 2 a run for its money, and they are all short and very sweet too.
Battles and use of magic are different than anything else I have played so far. Whereas Grandia 2 offered a real time system, Skies of Arcadia uses a turn based system but with a few twists thrown in here and there. Overworks have all but dropped the magic point system for the special and magical attacks. Relying on a ‘Spirit Meter’ that can be increased in battle by attacking the enemy or ‘Focusing’ we can perform different physical and magical attacks, some which consume more points than others. Magic points still exist though, but performing magic at any one time only uses one magic point, the emphasis here is on strategically focussing with support members of your team so that the specials and magic become available to the more battle adept.
Moonstones effect the attribute of your weapon and are either found or given to you. These are important during battle and when played you’ll see why as each differing colour beats another, some equal each other etc. This affects the amount of damage you can inflict upon the enemy, so through trial and error (and maybe a few lost battles too, this RPG actually offers a challenge!) and a little thought on occasion you can either clear a battle quickly or spend ages finding the right colour attribute to use on your weapon. Or as I have recently found out you can read the instruction book, one of the things that I am not too wonderful at performing.
A novel little feature that I noticed during the first few battles is that while the characters are not actually fighting, they are performing a ‘make believe’ battle, moving back into defensive positions, attacking or defending. This proves to be quite nice as there still seems to something else going on whilst either friend or foe makes their attack and is a very welcome addition. The age old turn based battles that end up looking like a game of tennis as characters move back and forth attacking only on command are finally gone!
The only slight down fall here is that when an attacking character is moving around a fellow teammate or enemy the movement especially when turning can be slightly jerky.
When the game is played for a few hours you come across a whole new battle system involving the flying ships within the game. Having had your suspicions raised by the availability of boat cannons and repair kits (Vyse carrying a cannon? I think not!), a little later you are given the helm of the Little Jack, a boat owned by a character you meet and make a deal with during one of the cut scenes within the story.
The boat battles are quite a bit different than the random encounters found in the mazes and dungeons on the ground and offer some really great touches involving evasive action, times when you have an advantage over the enemy and the ability to see a mere tug boat take out a substantially larger and heavily armed ship of the Valuan Armada. I’m not going to dwell on these battles nor the system used, but they are a nice feature and add to some needed action to major plot points in the game.
The soundtrack to the game is also very good and instead of opting for some awful battle music that happens to flare up all to often in RPG’s, the musicians here have worked up some great tracks and I have yet to hear one that grates on the ears. Sound effects are good especially during those ‘magic moments’, but as this is an imported title that my non-RGB scart lead doesn’t support, I have been left to hear them in glorious mono. Not nice at all I’m afraid!
Voiceovers have been kept minimal and to the odd giggle, thank you or whoop of joy during conversation. You can praise the lord as the voice acting in Skies of Arcadia, as much as I can hear, is awful to say the least and having read my review of Grandia 2, you should by now be on the understanding that I hate them and would so much prefer silent protagonists.
Along the path of the game you are bound to meet up with a little round ugly guy called Pinto, who, just like yourself is an adventurer who sails the Skies looking for rare items and Black Pirates to take out. So in what way does Pinto help you out then? Via a VMU game, yes, you heard correct, A VMU GAME! At last a developer has actually thought about using this smart little mini-gaming machine, and to great effect too! The quiet times at work can now be relieved by getting items for the main game and with the VMU being so small and handy, it can easily be disguised or pocketed before your boss sees it: pure genius!
The VMU game is actually of good use because there are times when you run out of items having used them all and you cannot go back to a shop, so you turn the main game off for a half hour and play a little bit of Pinto’s Quest to find some. You may be quite surprised at how much fun and addictive it is too.
All in all Skies of Arcadia is a truly excellent game that really gives RPG’s a wake up call. It really does do things differently than previous RPG’s released on any platform and you can even play it at work if you are quick handed and skilled enough. Hiding the VMU from your boss is a game in itself.
There are just so many great touches within this that it really does overshadow Grandia 2 in many ways and I swear that I cannot mention them all, you need to see for yourself. The characters are all likeable and already I have been suckered into the charms of the females, from Aika’s bitchy jealousy over Vyse to the innocence of Fina. The range of visible facial expressions in game and in battle are astounding, the first characters in any RPG that I have come across with such a large range, if any at all. This adds more to the personality than any voiceover will and with the amount of exploration on offer with literally hundreds of small islands to discover and explore, scenery to gawp at and story to follow you’ll love every minute.
The next console RPG has Skies of Arcadia to beat and that is not going to be an easy task. The ball is now in Squares court.