Review by: Mike Laidlaw
Published: December 28, 2000
When one thinks of an “old school” RPG, the mind typically leaps to the Final Fantasy series. Those games have maintained a traditional system of tracking character levels, statistics and variable equipment without fail for nine chapters so far. At no point in the series have players been forced to cope with a radical shift in the titles’ focus, and instead there’s a constant evolution of a tried and true system. Of course, while Square’s series has been the flag carrier of this genre, other developers have delivered similar titles on almost every console. As such, the conventions of the old-school RPG are well known, except, perhaps for those who started their gaming career on the Dreamcast. For whatever reason, RPGs have been extremely rare on Sega’s console; however, this year has been something of a renaissance with the release of Shenmue and Skies of Arcadia. While Shenmue broke new ground with its innovative living world, Skies of Arcadia is solidly rooted in the old school of play.
In truth, Skies of Arcadia is a bit of a misnomer, since Arcadia is a “land” made up almost entirely of sky. The blue expanse is treated like an ocean by Arcadia’s inhabitants, with both large landmasses and archipelagos of small islands scattered across the airy expanse. On these landmasses, explorers can find abandoned shrines, lost temples, bustling ports and even massive cities that dominate the horizon. Travel takes place exclusively on airships, which use powerful engines to ply the skies and keep open the lines of trade and communication. The larger landmasses are homes of empires, which use armadas of ships to protect their holdings and keep trade routes open so that new goods and information can make their way to the capital cities. Of course, whenever you have traders sailing in slow, heavy and treasure-laden ships, you have pirates who seek to capture those goods for themselves. Living outside the law, there are two types of pirate in Arcadia’s skies: the Blue Rogues, who only steal from armed ships and rich empires, and the Black Pirates, who lack any remorse when it comes to robbing from unarmed people.
The main character in Skies of Arcadia is a Blue Rogue known as Vyse. As the captain’s son, Vyse has had ample opportunity to learn the skies, and is fairly handy with both a ship’s helm and his dual cutlasses in battle. Our story opens as the Blue Rogues capture a battleship of the ruthless and expansionary Valuan Empire. As they pursue the warship’s captain, Vyse and his childhood friend Aika manage to rescue a mysterious young woman named Fina from the empire. Returning home, the Blue Rogues are promptly attacked by the vengeful Valuans and, except for Vyse and Aika, every member of the crew is captured and sentenced to death. As one might expect, Vyse launches a daring rescue mission that will eventually lead him to discover the larger, and more sinister plots at work in the skies of his homeland.
Over time, Aika, Fina and a whale-obsessed, artificial arm-wearing captain known as Drachma join Vyse. As the characters gain experience through battles, they improve their statistics and loot gold that they can trade for better equipment or magical items that heal the party or unleash deadly spells. Each character has certain specialties, except for Vyse who is pretty much an all around good fighter. Aika is quick and moderately skilled with magic, while Drachma is a slow juggernaut in combat and Fina has the most arcane power in the party, meaning their roles are somewhat defined from the beginning of the game. Different equipment, however, can affect these roles, as characters may only be equipped with one accessory, one piece of armor and one weapon. In many cases, players will have to choose between lighter armor that is particularly effective against magic and heavier armor, which is more easily penetrated by the arts. The weapons pose less difficulty for the strategist, however, since their properties may be determined during the course of a battle. Each blade is made from a material called moonstone, which reacts to the presence of other stones. As the party acquires new colors of stone, any or all of the characters may imbue their attacks with the new colors, and even switch their weapon’s properties mid-way through battle.