Thursday, May 31, 2012

Skies of Arcadia

I sometimes imagine what would have happened to the world of JRPGs if "Final Fantasy VII" was never made.  FFVII is easily one of the most influential RPGs ever made, in fact, I'd argue that it marks a major turning point of the entire genre towards what we today consider to a "Japanese RPG".  Before RPGs were generally cartoony affairs whose main influence was old games of tabletop RPGs, especially Dungeons and Dragons.  Final Fantasy especially often erred more towards wacky and silly than dramatic, but all that changed when FFVII came around.  Misato Kato brought in a whole host of new ideas, creating a much more complicated and darker story than had ever been attempted before, with a new immense quality of cinematic storytelling.  On some level, the new anime-esque drama went to Square Enix's head, and now unfortunately they've been attempting to create a new cultural cornerstone with every new title, instead of just making games.  Those results have been mixed.  That's what mainstreams JRPGs were before FFVII, just games.  And FFVII, how every you want to judge it, actually made JRPGs something much more.  Some series, like "Dragon Quest" skirted right on by totally unchanged, but others, like the "Chrono Trigger" series, underwent immense changes in tone and scale to fit the new paradigm.  FFVII changed the world.

"Skies of Arcadia" is like a game that's wandered out of an alternate universe where "Final Fantasy VII" never happened.  If I were to directly translate the often-silly sensibilities of a SNES JRPG directly into the third dimension, "Skies of Arcadia" is what would probably come out.  Released in 2001, "Skies of Arcadia" was born right in the age directly following FFVII, when RPG plotlines had pretty much reached the utter limit of complexity and weirdness.  Instead of the usual variations on "Evangelion"-esque psychedelic SciFi that dominated games like "Xenogears" and the last disc of "Final Fantasy IX", "Skies of Arcadia" went straight back to the storyline conventions that had made JRPGs such an important genre in video game history.  This plotline is completely by-the-numbers to the point of nearly being cliche:  you have a group of adventurers fighting an evil Empire out to conquer the world by collecting various multicolored orbs of power.  Also there's an amnesiac mysterious girl who almost certainly holds the fate of the world in her innocent head, and a white-haired pretty boy from her same mysterious nation that is definitely going to be the Final Boss.  Everything is tried, everything has been done before, but also, its totally classic and beautiful.

This leads me to my real point, "Skies of Arcadia" is an awesome unpretentious game.  It knows exactly what is it:  a game, out to entertain.  We aren't mired down in love story plotlines, the hero is not filled with any self-doubt, and instead of moody frowns, pretty much everybody is smiling and laughing.  There's a reason "Final Fantasy XII" was inspired just as much by this game as it was by previous Ivalice titles.  Its because "Skies of Arcadia" is a true underrated gem.  A great game.

"Skies of Arcadia" takes place in a fantasy world of Skypunk, where every landmass is floating in an endless sea of clouds.  Often JRPGs will feature an Airship or two, this is a game features a world basically built out of Airships.  You cannot even travel onto the World Map without your flying boat, and this forced the developers, Sega, to think up some very interest ways to keep you from exploring the entire world from the start.  There are huge walls of air, there are entire asteroid belts, and huge mountain ranges.  It makes for a game with a very unique visual flair, its probably the most creative JRPG world I've ever played.  Imagine if "Last Exile" were turned into a game, this is probably how it would come out.

We follow our hero, Vyse, a Sky Air Pirate working with the great feared Pirate group, the Blue Rogues.  They're the Good Pirates, who are fighting the Evil Valuan Empire.  Valua is basically Imperial Hapsburg Spain mixed with the Empire from "Star Wars", they're out to conquer the entire sky with their mighty Armada.  They're naturally also trying to summon an ultimate evil best left buried from a lost civilization, and this naturally involves collecting six magical shiny things.  Our heroes have to come together to save the world, you know the drill.

So let's do the character breakdown.  There are six playable character in this game, and your party can only reach a nicely traditional number of four fighters at a time.  So I'll break down the main six:

Vyse is the main hero, in case you forgot from several sentences ago.  You can tell Vyse has his stuff figured out because he wears a killer blue jacket and a see-through eye patch.  Depending on certain dialog choices, Vyse can either be a fearless leader boldly leading his party right into the maw of the Empire, or an indecisive fool led around by Aika.  Usually the correct choice is the top one, that's a hint.  Either way, Vyse is considerably more of a solid bold character than his eventual rip-off, Vaan*.  That really means there isn't much character growth for Vyse to undergo, since he's already at a status of Zidane-like awesomeness at the beginning of the game.  I prefer heroes who have their shit together in video games, not whiney fools who have to cry about their problems every other scene.  As a playable character, Vyse is your typical physical attacker, because every RPG has a physical attacker for a lead for some reason.

Aika is one of two heroines who each are in love with Vyse.  At no point is this issue really addressed during the course of the game, I guess Vyse took my advise for Cloud in FFVII and instead built a three-way relationship.  Aika happens to be my favorite character in this game, and it isn't a really obvious thing, its just a small collection of little things that makes me love Aika.  I like her Pippy Longstockings character model, her giant orange ponytails jumping in two directions, and her yellow suit.  Aika, by the way, looks almost note for note like her FFXII rip-off, Penelo, to the point that its hilarious.  I like the way Aika is typically the most emotionally expressive character in the party, and how her voice actor yells "YAY!!" every other scene.  This is how you do the cheery crazy girl archetype well, I think.  Since Aika is a female, that means she's a mage, but her attacks aren't that bad against weak enemies.  She super movies, by the way, are the very best at clearing out crowds of weak enemies, so pound for pound she's probably done more damage to the enemy than anybody else.

Fina is the classic mysterious anime girl.  As you'd expect, she is ignorant of the outside world, secretive, and light-haired.  Fina comes off pretty quickly as the least interesting of the main trio, because she's simply the most reserved and quiet.  The villains keep on trying to capture her, possibly to breed her to Red XIII and rebuild the Cetra race.  Or something typical like that.  Also, Fina is the holding of the prerequisite "cute creature", a blob of flying "cuteness" named Cupil.  Cupil actually freaks me out, he's not cute at all.  Also, Cupil is easily the worst weapon in the game, since he can't do any real damage until way way way way late into the game.  So that means Fina is only a mage-type, which is helped by her massive MP.  Her Super Moves are all mostly healing as well.

Drachma is one of the second-tier characters who pop in and out of the main plot to aid the main trio.  He's an old man with a robot arm, living the life of Captain Ahad hunting a giant purple sky whale.  Also of note is Drachma's sweet beard.  As a party member, he can hit hard and... has lots of HP... and that's it.

Glider I guess is this game's Baltheir, but that's kind of a stretch.  He's more like a typical womanizing rogue cosplaying as Vash the Stampede.  And that makes him totally awesome.  He's a gunslinger with a parrot on his shoulder, a red duster, some glasses, and a super mod orange ascot.  Glider also makes a lot of passes at Aika, but that's usually ignored as harmless fun.  As a playable character, Glider is basically a second Drachma, but he uses a gun, which makes him cool.  Guns are cool.  Glider has the coolest Super Move too, "Gunslinger".

Enrique is the final playable character.  He's actually the Prince of Valua who joined up with Vyse and his team in order to stop his nation's deranged dreams of world conquest.  However, he's so androgynous that Prince Larsa himself might be confused by his gender.  As a playable character... I actually never got a chance to use him before I started writing this.  [Fill this space in here.  Or not.]

That's your six, they're a pretty cheery bunch, but really, its only the first three that really matter in terms of storyline.  Together your team must fight the six evil Admirals of the evil Empire.  As you'd expect, each of the Admirals is their own character, varying in terms of evil.  One is a hot chick that will probably turn good at some point, one is evil rapist Tristian from "Yi-Gi-Oh!", and one is your usual totally insane scientist guy.  In many games, I usually like to fill just what the villains are doing, since you so rarely get to see them in between the hero's adventures.  That's not a problem in "Skies of Arcadia", since there are dozens of scenes with these guys.  They all serve under Lord Galcian and his underboss, Ramirez.  Now, Galician seems properly evil, and he has a great goatee, its pretty obvious that Ramirez is the real Final Boss.  Why?  White hair, that's why.


The battle system is entirely classic.  Yeah, there are random encounters, but I've made my peace with that particular gaming convention.  This game is over ten years old, I can forgive something like that.  Its entirely a turn-based battle system, but the movements of your characters across the field sometimes have mild effects, like "Chrono Trigger".  If you're standing in a row, the enemy can sometimes hit you twice with area effect attacks.  Unfortunately, you can't actually control your character's position at any point, so this seems unfair to me.  I find it funny how in between real attacks, your characters will kind of mime fake fights with the enemies closest to them, even though these attacks have no effect at all.  They just sort of swing their sword in the enemy's general direction, its hilarious.  But really, if you've played any RPG, there aren't going to be many surprises here.

What is interesting, however, is the use of that bar you see above Aika's head there.  This has a list of Action Points.  Every turn your action points build, and every magical action you undertake takes points of this bar.  So if you have no points, you can't use magic.  On the positive note, this means that all spells only costs one MP, but the game compensated this by restricting your MP to only a few dozen a piece at most.  Most of the time you'll be using Super Moves, which are kind of like Limit Breaks, only you can use them endlessly.  These have all the variation in the world, they do everything.  So really, for most of the game, its the Super Moves that you'll be using instead of magic.  Still, you need magic for certain buffs and debuffs, but I almost never use offensive magic... which curiously was the exact same situation as FFXII, come to think of it.  What is important, however, is that you can boost the Action Points by spending a turn in prayer, by using the "Focus" command.  Winning battles isn't just keeping your HP up, but you have to manage this whole other supply of resources.

However, there is a whole other element above the regular battle system.  You see in a Skypunk game like this with so many airships, it would be odd if the airships never got to fight.  They actually included an entire extra battle system for the dozen or so times when the story will force you to fight enemy battleships.  As interesting as this mode is, I have to say its pretty mixed in effectiveness.  It would be fine, but unfortunately, these battles are really really really slow.  It takes a whole two minutes for a single turn to be finished, and usually those turns involve the enemy pounding you to death before you heal the next turn.  Basically strategy is turting until you either get a great chance to attack or you're allowed to use your Airship's ultimate weapon.

Graphics-wise, this game really shows its age.  But luckily its art style is extremely cartoony, so its not like the characters ever wander into the uncanny valley.  The world, the airships, the people, they're all so nicely stylized that this game manages t escape into a timeless quality where even dated Dreamcast graphics can't keep this title down.  I particularly find the limited facial animations charming.  It reminds me of old SNES RPGs, where the limited character animations forced every scene to be exaggerated and cartoony.  And there was nothing wrong with that.  Its amazing how much games like FFVI are able to do with such a simple gesture as say, a sprite looking down.  And "Skies of Arcadia" is able to do much of the same things with say, a smile or eyes half shut.  And the cutscenes, despite the lack of FMV, are just awesome.  If there's anything the developers of this game can do, its make awesome Airship designs.  And there are plenty here.

Still, you can see why the Dreamcast failed in this game.  "Skies of Arcadia" looks like some kind of missing link between "Final Fantasy IX" and "Final Fantasy X".  It must be hard to compete when your flagship RPG looks like silly polygons and FFX, which I think came out the same year or just a year later, looked like THIS.  There's no competition graphics-wise.  And FFX was fully voiced, this only has a few voice clips here and there.  Sega didn't stand a chance.  Which is a shame, since I'd argue "Skies of Arcadia" is actually a much more solid RPG than FFX could ever hope to be.

As you'd expect, this game is basically traveling between dungeons.  Its not quite the town-dungeon-town-dungeon formula of a Dragon Quest game, but its pretty close.  Not that's there's anything wrong with this.  I like dungeon crawling, I think they're the proper organization of an RPG.  Without dungeons you get... "Final Fantasy XIII".  But beyond the main story, there's plenty else to do in this game.  You can wander the world discovering landmarks, you can take down optional bosses from the Hunt Board, or you could collect various sky fishes.  "Skies of Arcadia" builds a fully alive world, which is exactly what every RPG should strive to create.

Now, is this the best game ever made?  No.  I know that for a fact.  The story, the battle system, everything is a bit too safe.  But its fun for what it is.  Its simplicity and pureness are admirable, I think.  Especially today when JRPGs have no idea what they're supposed to be any more and have no idea where they're supposed to go next, games like "Skies of Arcadia" are perfectly fine solid escapism.  Somehow, I think I might have found in "Skies of Arcadia" the lost soul of the JRPG.  Or at least what I want out of a JRPG.  Yeah, games have long since moved beyond this kind of gameplay, but maybe that's not such a great thing after all.  I definitely needed to play a game like "Skies of Arcadia".

* Vaan might actually have managed to be a decent RPG hero... in any game other than FFXII.  Especially when surrounded by such powerful personalities like Basch, Ashe, and the Professional Badass himself, BALTHIER, Vaan just flounders as an utter after thought.  Its insulting to be told this is who you're supposed to think of as the main character, when he does nothing.


  1. By the book RPG with airship battles?
    Reminds me of Nostalgia for the DS.

    I wish one day you'd play Radiant Historia and make the obvious following review singing its praises. Wonder why that hasn't happened yet.

    1. Can't find it in the Gamefaqs when I look. >_<

    2. Since I don't know what you're not finding:

    3. I meant Gamestop. >_____________________<

  2. Originally, Basch was intended to be the main character in FFXII. Vaan would be an okay character to have on the side. Vyse is,from what I can tell, in a way, a bit like Vaan, that in there isn't too much to learn about him. The game can reach its full potential if you ignore Vaan and Penelo, which is hard to do because Vaan has the best stats overall, and Penelo is the best mage.

  3. Did I hear you give a positive comment about Vaan?? Blue Highwind called Vaan okay? whats happened to this world (shakes head in disbelief)