When discussing the advancement and progression of video games, it's not very often that an original idea comes along and jumpstarts the industry while being well-rounded enough to be praised on multiple levels. When a game is going to focus on improving or innovating the mechanics of how it's played, it often leaves behind the polish and fully-fleshed feel most gamers crave. Understandable, since such games are usually exploring uncharted territory. While this is a vital and necessary process in order to bring fresh ideas to the table, the products of such an approach are sometimes not very satisfying ones. Conversely, if a game focuses on providing intellectual or emotional content which is solid and stimulating while using an existing and established framework, the results can potentially be as powerful and exciting to gamers, but run the risk of falling into the "me too" trap of look-alikes we see cluttering aisles everywhere. Games that can successfully straddle both styles of innovation are rare things, indeed.
For those who have briefly glanced at Skies Of Arcadia in a game shop's Dreamcast section somewhere, it merely appears to be an underhyped, unknown RPG saddled with poor cover art. However, we all know the old saying about judging a book by its dust jacket, or something like that. Skies was produced by Sega's OverWorks in-house team, which is comprised of members from both the former Team Andromeda (responsible for the masterful Panzer Dragoon series) as well as members from Team Phantasy Star who were responsible for, well, I'm sure you can guess. I find it very odd that with such a stellar pedigree of talented people behind it that Sega chose to let this game arrive with such little fanfare, but then again Sega has not always been known for its business wisdom.
In any case, Skies is a console role-playing game based in the fantasy world of Arcadia, where people live on floating islands and the oceans are vast expanses of sky instead of water. The player takes on the role of a young air pirate named Vyse, and leads a small band of crewmates throughout the stratosphere aboard winged galleons in search of treasure and adventure. Combat featuring the characters in dungeons happens as it does in most RPGs and uses the same character models featured in the story scenes, but there is an original element of strategic ship-to-ship battles using cannons and torpedoes in the overworld.
While Skies Of Arcadia may fool most gamers into thinking it's an average RPG with the requisite twists, the sheer greatness of the title is soon revealed with a push of the power button.
In all RPGs, it's always been my opinion that more than anything else, the characters define the experience. No matter how interesting the battle engine or how many items there are to micromanage, the game just won't be that fun or enjoyable to me unless the characters are well-written and memorable. While Vyse and company don't necessarily explore new or revolutionary roles, the designs are certainly appealing. The cast is also small enough to be able to have very solid characterization and have a definite feeling of "personality" to which any gamer can relate. With the good guys good and the bad guys bad, it's clear from the start that you are the hero, and your task is epic.
In addition, the story has a very clear sense of being divided into black and white. While other RPGs may try to explore grey areas of morality or ethics with varying degrees of success, there is something to be said for an adventure which is distilled to its purest form. In Skies, the goal of the plot is to tell a story of swashbuckling and adventure, not to question right and wrong or divine the purpose and existence of the human soul. While some weaned on the pathos-ridden Square titles of recent years might be dismayed at the seeming simplicity of the roles portrayed here, there is a fantastic build-up of drama and a sheer abundance of good old-fashioned cliffhanger storytelling. I literally found myself cheering for the heroes at certain points, and it's been a long time since I felt so emotionally involved with the events happening on the screen.
One extremely notable feature which helps Skies to stand out in this respect is the use of distinct facial expressions for each character. While the story scenes feature the same in-game models used in combat and exploration, the developers added a wide range of emotive looks for each character ranging from broad grins of joy to a peevish, cat-eyed looks of disgust. This single feature alone adds so much to the character development and mood of the scenes presented, it's a sure bet that this element will soon become a staple of the genre.
While Skies not only succeeds in bringing a rare amount of intensity to the characterization, the level of graphical presentation is amazing and indescribably beautiful. The attention to detail really hit home when I entered the first dungeon and took a moment to look at the texture of the walls. Once I noticed that water was actually dripping down the slimy, moss-covered stones I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
OverWorks has created a surreal, yet amazingly believable world in Arcadia. The theme of flying ships journeying through vast stretches of sky is an approach which certainly hasn't been overdone, and I can't remember the last time pirates of any sort played a major role in a console game. There's just something magical—something "right" about what they've created here. It's hard to describe, but this is one game where the setting instantly "clicks," and you are utterly captivated from the start.
While sailing between the floating islands of Arcadia, you'll be treated to some of the most jaw-dropping 3-D visuals ever presented in an RPG. Climb to the top of the lookout's perch on Pirate Isle and look around. You will be amazed by clearly seeing every nook, every person walking around in the village below you. Cast your gaze upwards and without any break in the continuity see neighboring islands and ships passing by on the distant horizon. There's no way for me to do any sort of justice to how cohesive and awe-inspiring the visual magnitude of Arcadia can be at times. It simply needs to be witnessed.
Lastly, one thing I absolutely had to mention was the fact that OverWorks has solved the dilemma plaguing every RPG since Final Fantasy VII. It's been the gripe of most gamers that Square's trademarked "summon" spell animations were either too long, used too often, or both. In Skies, the same type of magic is employed with similar flashy grandstanding, but the key difference here is that by pressing the start button at the beginning of the cinematic you can completely skip the fireworks and continue with the battle. It's the perfect solution. Those who simply want to get on with the game after the third time watching the same spell can do so, and those gamers who get a continuous thrill from the visual pyrotechnics have the option to enjoy them as often as they like. Square, I hope you're taking notice—the problem is now solved.
While Skies Of Arcadia completely and wonderfully succeeds in a score of areas, the only major chink to be seen in its resplendent armor is a place where it clings too closely to the tired staples of the RPG genre. While not ruining the game, the random encounters are something which definitely need to be addressed in the sequel. Some RPGs have tried various approaches to solving the eternal struggle to balance a smoothly flowing story with keeping a game a respectable length. Unfortunately, Skies' bold strokes stumble in this area.
In sections where the crew is on foot, the amount of random battles feels right, and is quite tolerable. However, for some odd reason the game defeats its own goal of "exploration" by having a crushing overabundance of random encounters while shipboard. It utterly kills the desire of seeing every corner of the world players initially feel when presented with the incredible horizons and cloud-filled stratospheric seas of Arcadia. Instead of taking my time and finding every discovery, seeking out hidden villages and locating lost islands, I had simply given up and resigned myself to going from major location to major location after about the 10th hour of the game. In no uncertain terms, it was simply too tedious and aggravating to fight random battles literally seconds apart while trying to explore in the huge, vast areas which tempt a player's wanderlust.
To further compound the problem, once you get past the beginning area of the game, the Discoveries you are encouraged to find are invisible to the eye. With no visual clues to point you in the right direction, the only way you're able to find Discoveries is to cruise the skies following thin clues while clicking the A button. The thing which makes this painful is the fact that you hit unwanted encounters every three to five seconds. Finding these Discoveries isn't an essential part of the game, but it's a shame that I felt compelled to leave these sidequests unfinished in order to protect my sanity. Such a poor choice regarding random battles shouldn't have been made considering the genius displayed in other areas.
One last thing to note is that Skies uses an extremely odd and jumpy camera during random battles. Instead of smooth and dramatic pans, the camera uses obnoxious and disorienting MTV-style ragged jump cuts, which is especially noticeable while assigning orders to characters during a fight. First you're looking at the battlefield with the enemies at the top aligned left to right, and with the push of a button you're suddenly looking at the enemies on the bottom, or either side and their order reversed. It's was quite disorienting to me and took a long time to get used to. As a direct result, I often put the attack cursor on the wrong monsters and botched my plan of attack because the perspective was different than it had been a moment before. It's annoying, and something which could have easily been solved.
While I definitely admit the random battles and the few other rough edges are offputting at times, the overall game is truly the first next generation experience in RPGs since Final Fantasy VII. A leap in the overall quality and presentation this significant hasn't been made since Square left 2-D, sprite-based graphics behind and made the jump to the third dimension. To me, RPGs are all about taking the player and immersing them in another world, and making that world as real as possible—playing the role, as it were. While that lofty goal shared by Sega's more publicized title Shenmue, I'd say that Skies Of Arcadia eclipses its level of immersion easily and truly transports the player to a place that looks and feels like no other before it. This game is one that qualifies as an "experience" and should be played by anyone who calls themselves a fan of console role-playing games. As a final note to players and game developers everywhere—consider the bar raised.