Setting Sail Once Again
Disclaimer before I start get things started. I love Skies of Arcadia. I cannot state that enough. It was my favorite video game growing up, and still remains my favorite video game to this day. While I can say there are plenty of things they could have done more with, that does not erase the fact that they did so much else right. I’m just waiting for a sequel now, and I’m hoping Sega does not pull a Sonic ’06 on me.
With that out of the way, Hark, dear reader, and put down your smart phone, unless you are reading this on a smart phone, and go back to a time when texts came by pager, your internet screamed at you, and the TV guide channel was a book you got in the mail. This is a time when Sega still makes hardware, 3d animation creates polygon monsters, and the mark of a good game was how many discs it had. Enter Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast.
You are placed in the shoes of plucky sky pirate Vyse, a relentlessly chipper, optimistic, and much smarter then he looks young man with a penchant for daring do, rescuing the damsel, stealing as much gold as he can from the ‘man’ and generally being a pain to anyone in any position of authority that feels like abusing the peasants. He is joined on his epic quest to be a pain in the neck by his childhood friend Aika, a redhead with an imagination straight from a dime store Tarzan novel, and handlebars for hair.
You begin by shoving your nose exactly where it doesn’t belong as your merry band of noble robbers descend on a Valuan navy ship, which are the bad guy if it’s not made abundantly clear, what with the faceless goons, incredibly evil stereotypes, shooting down a girl, and in general being a bunch of mean people with chronic backstabbing problems in their leaders. This culminates in you arm wrestling the captains giant pet armored rhino before he runs with his tail between his legs, but not before he gloats. Don’t worry, he’ll get his. After you rescue the unconscious girl in weird clothing from the now stricken vessel, you take her back to your much cooler wooden flying pirate ship, where she wakes up, and Vyse promptly gets chewed out by the captain, also known as ‘Dad’. And this sets the stage for one of the Dreamcast’s best performing titles ever, as well as a cult classic Sega game that fans have been demanding a sequel or at least a re-release for as long as the game has been out. Until Sega admitted they were afraid of ruining the game, so couldn’t trust themselves to make another.
When the Moon Hits Your Eye…
After that exciting opening, you may be wondering what this game is about. Well, in a nutshell, the game is about exploration, collection, finding the true meaning of friendship, and killing god. Not necessarily in that order. Did I mention this game was made in Japan? The long and short of it is, the game is set in a roughly Age of Exploration setting with a little anachronism stew thrown in for a good mix. Most of the world is unexplored, steam power is unheard of, and everyone worships the moons. Sort of. It’s complicated. There are 6 of them in all, though a true fan may go on about a 7th, that one isn’t really important to the story. What is important however, is that each of those moons is powerfully magical, and each is imbued with a specific element or elements. They also don’t move for some reason, but its show, don’t tell day at the publisher, so that remains a mystery.
The 6 moons are color coordinated for convenience and under their influence several cultures have developed. You have the British Empire/Valua under the yellow moon of electricity, giving them a major industrial revolutionary feeling, powered armor, and World War 1 dreadnoughts as their ships of choice, the Nasr/Arabian people under the red moon, with their tents on wings they love to fly around the massive deserts they call home, and ruled by a sultan. You also have the Green Moon Ixa’taka/Aztec people, who live in massive jungles and fly around in canoes. They also worship the Silver ones as saviors of their race, so that checks out in parallel too. Lastly, of the still alive people that is, you have the Chinese under the Blue moon, using junks and high flying martial arts to rule the skies and waves. The Purple and Silver moons exist too, but there isn’t a continent under the silver moon, and the Purple? Well. They aren’t around anymore. Or dead. You can’t find any bodies at least, but it’s a massive land of ice, snow, and giant flying spiders. This game gets weird.
Most importantly for the story though, is the ancient world. About untold numbers of years ago, let’s say 600, there were 6 ancient civilizations, each of which were super advanced, awesome, and hated everyone else. They decided to weaponize their moon powers by creating giant death robots from refined moon stones, the material that the modern world now relies on to power basically anything worth having, and conveniently falls from the sky at regular non deadly intervals. Unless the Silverine have their way. Each of these giant god mechs, for lack of a better description, were incredibly powerful, dangerous, and almost impossible to control. So they used them on each other. With predictable results. And then the moons blasted the planet with enough rocks to cleanse the world in holy fire. And rocks. This was called the rains of destruction, really sucked for everyone involved, killed most people, and blasted the rest back into the stone age until everyone got over it and decided, “Hey, you know whats cool. Giant death mechs. Let’s go awaken all of them and try to take over the world.” Thanks Valua.
Enter Vyse, Aika, and guest star Fina, newly awakened, rescued, and raring to save the world, by stealing all the crystals, and because everyone loves a good boss fight, promptly losing them so you have to fight the giant death mech in a turn based ship-to-ship fight. If it’s not abundantly clear, what with the relentless optimism, underage characters, the use of belts as clothing, and the whole save the world motif, this is a JRPG. But a very interesting one, to say the least.
Swords n’ Ships
Battles come in two flavors, foot slogging, and ship bashing. On foot, you have access to the usual run around of attack, special, and magic. But wait, what is this giant bar above my head, you may ask. That’s the spirit bar, and is central to both strategy and tactics in this combat system. Specials and magic take spirit, the same bar, the same resource, except in magics instance it also takes 1 mp. That’s right. 1. For any spell. The only difference is how much SP that costs. And you get a fixed amount of SP per turn, based on your characters. Leveling up can increase this amount, but the fastest way in battle is to focus. And the most important lesson you will learn in this game is thus. Magic sucks.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s really cool and fun, but it’s not worth it. It takes SP and MP, and you could be much better off with spamming specials instead of magic. Elements in your magic don’t even really help because every weapon in the game you get can be switched on the fly between all the elements to make sure you’re hitting the right one. This is compounded by the fact that every magic spell in the game eventually is found as an item. Why waste MP and SP when you can just throw a couple crystals at a problem and buy more at the next shop. Even so, at the beginning, Magic will do a lot more damage then your physical attacks, you won’t have much money, nor skills. You want to rush green magic, just a heads up.
Which brings up the Leveling system. You have EXP, which is a no- brainer, it is an RPG after all, and something called Magic EXP. Which is different. You see, when in a fight, you have a giant glowy stick you smack enemies around with until they die. It’s your weapon. Said weapon can glow up to 6 colors, once you get every moon stone type. The color of your glowy attack stick at the end of battle determines the magic EXP you get. Say Vyse has a red sword, and Aika a blue boomerang. Well then Vyse is going to get Red EXP, and Aika is going to get Blue EXP. Don’t worry, they share with each other, though at a much lower rate. Get enough colored EXP to unlock the next tier of magic to store in your book that you will never touch again.
Ships are even a different beast. I hope you enjoy planning team actions on an action grid, where everything costs spirit, your ship is your spirit animal, and somehow Vyse’s strength makes your main cannons hit like a truck. Unless Aika is shooting them. Then they just kind of bounce. Equip your fancy murder boat with all kinds of fun things that just really don’t make sense. Like a chandelier. Interior heating, a new kitchen, Torpedos, and much more. None of which will matter in the slightest as soon as you get the Delphinus, and you just laser boat everything to death.
And because it’s a Sega game, it’s not complete without a collectathon. You thought the exploring was just a fun side effect of being in an RPG. No my friend, exploration is the whole point, with discoveries to discover and take credit for, crew to shanghai into your ever growing fun club, Moonfish to capture and feed a giant baby chicken, and chams to scrape off the floor and shove into Cupils round face, there’s plenty of things to do. The linearity of the game is more due to your ship being unable to get past something then being told you can’t go there, and you will always find away around it eventually.
The Sky’s The Limit (Mostly)
Unfortunately for everyone, however, this game was on the Dreamcast. Which was doomed to failure, but it got a re-release for the Gamecube. Which didn’t sell too well, coming out 2 years later, and stacked up against the likes of Final Fantasy 10. Its graphics are sub-par at best for the more powerful system, and the music took a nosedive in quality to cram it all into one disc. They filled in some other things though, including absolutely brutal skippable bosses, a whole new recurring villain, and all the DLC for the Dreamcast game as standard.
This is not a perfect game, but it’s the closest I have managed to find without attempting to bankrupt myself on Kickstarter, and even today, I still love to go back, start up a new file, and hammer my way through to the end, just so I can relive that feeling of going back and exploring it all over. That little bit of magic that may have made it the new thing is gone, but going back with a lovable cast of old friends, that you grew to care about and love, flaws and all? That’s definitely worth the price of admission.