I knew that I'd like Skies Of Arcadia right from the start. It showed signs early on that it would be a wonderfully light-hearted adventure story. In a genre loaded with dark, melodramatic RPGs, having a game with such a fun spirit is refreshing. I must admit that the flying ship premise took a while to really grab me. I kept looking at these flying ships and wondering how a civilization could even exist hovering in the air—for crying out loud, fish fly through the air!—but as the game went on I suppressed my doubt and enjoyed the game for what it is.
Who needs fancy-shmancy computer-generated full-motion video when you can use real-time characters and environments and get the same pay off? Overworks gets extra kudos from me for ignoring the trend towards CG cutscenes and prerendered graphics and relying on its game engine to do the job. The facial textures in particular are a treat, and though relatively simple compared to its CG infested peers, they are more than competent when it comes to portraying emotions and humor. Now don't get me wrong, the in-game graphics are quite impressive, but I don't think I would agree with Brad's reference to being in the "presence of greatness" while studying the environs. The textures are crisp and clear (the screenshots we have available don't do the game justice), but they could benefit from a higher polygon count and more variety.
Skies Of Arcadia comes with a couple of interesting new features incorporated into the game with mixed results. The first is the Spirit System, which limits the amount of moves the party can perform before needing to recharge. These so-called Spirit Points are consumed whenever you attack with magic or Super Moves—the stronger the magic or Super Move, the more Spirit Points are used up. There are ways to build up Spirit Points during battle—allowing for the unleashing of more powerful moves consistently—but the trade-off would be that fewer party members can go on the offensive. It is an interesting system that imposes a lot of strategy in the early going.
Magic and weapon management are on the receiving end of some retooling. Weapons are made from Moon Stones and spells cast with those weapons are affected by the color of the Moon Stone weapon used. Yellow weapons will be great for lightning spells while Red would be best for fire. During a battle you can change the color attribute of your weapon on the fly to facilitate the dispatching of a particular enemy. Having this kind of control over my weapons was fascinating at first, but it soon reminded of the GF management in Final Fantasy VIII, in which the game can degrade into an endless struggle to level up a character so he or she can pull off a certain spell. Thankfully, the quantity of Moon Stone colors allows you to focus certain characters on certain color attributes while ignoring others.
What may have done the most damage to Skies Of Arcadia's final score is the prevalence of a videogame mainstay that I can only pray will die once and for all when the next generation consoles arrive. I refer of course to the random battles. I tolerated them with a recent RPG I was playing for review, Dragon Warrior I & II for the Game Boy Color. The reason I could for that game was that it was a port of an old RPG. An RPG made in a day when technical limitations prevented developers from displaying both the main character and surrounding enemies on the screen at the same time. When playing a console with the graphical capabilities of the Dreamcast, I can't help but chastise the developer for sticking to such an outdated way of initiating battles. It is especially bothersome since there is such an emphasis on searching and discovery in Skies Of Arcadia. The random battles are a constant interruption, and since they are so frequent, they disrupt the flow of the game.
There are a few extra things that Brad neglected to mention. For one, there is a Swashbuckler Rating that you have to keep track of. It is dependent on your answers to specific queries at certain points in the game. To my knowledge nothing bad will happen to someone who answers incorrectly, aside from other characters in the game reacting differently to you over time. On the plus side, it is really difficult to screw up and give the wrong answer unless you are determined to do so. On an entirely different note, I commend Overworks for ditching the industry limit of three members to a party. This has always been a gripe with me since Final Fantasy VII made this practice popular, and I got a little giddy when I saw it would not be repeated in Skies Of Arcadia.
Not to spoil the surprise for potential Skies Of Arcadia owners, but there are two VMU games that I felt needed covering. Somewhere along the way, you will run into a little tyke named Pinta. He's a wanna-be adventurer who hopes to go off and see the world. Though we never know how he does it, Pinta can be sent to certain areas to explore where Vyse can not. Through a menu selection, we can send him off on a "Pinta Quest" and recall him to see what he has found. It's a nice little distraction that saves you from the distraction of searching for "Discoveries." The other VMU game involves Fina's little pet-guardian-friend, Cupil. Using the VMU similar to how The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time used the Nintendo 64 rumble pak, Cupil will alert you when you are near Moon Shards. Its vocalizations are little more than loud incessant beeps that vary depending on how close you are to the Moon Shards. But these shards are what Cupil eats, and if you collect enough of them and feed them to it, Cupil will grow stronger and be of better use during battle. My only gripe with this is that since I didn't have a Jump Pak while playing, I had to sit and listen to that ceaseless chirping everytime I came near a shard. There is the option to turn off the VMU sound, but that would mean youd have to keep an eye on the VMU screen in case he were to ever react.
As role-playing games go, Skies Of Arcadia is not exactly groundbreaking, but it does just enough right while incorporating some interesting new gameplay mechanics. The mix of humor, adventure and plot twists all come together to make for an infinitely enjoyable story replete with an eclectic cast of characters. Granted it may be a tad on the linear side, but that doesn't detract from the game at all. In all likelihood, many an RPG fan will never play Skies Of Arcadia given its low key release and the fact that it has been released on a dying console. That is their loss because Skies Of Arcadia has quite a bit to offer.