Skies of Arcadia: Legends
Produced by Overworks and distributed by Sega, Skies of Arcadia: Legends (SoAL) is one of the first true “throwback CRPGs” to come out for the Nintendo GameCube platform. It’s too bad for SoAL that other, more up-to-date games like Summoner and Eternal Darkness beat it to market, or it might have been hailed for being the first CRPG for the GameCube.
I hadn’t even heard of the original Skies of Arcadia game on the Dreamcast, so this game is entirely new to me.
Skies of Arcadia: Legends takes place in a world of airships, islands floating in the ether, magic, and lost civilizations. There’s a heavy “age of piracy” influence on the fashions and styles of the various cultures, but there is also some steampunk-style technology. Airships are propelled and held aloft by fan-style turbine steam engines, even though some have sails and even oars for decorative purposes.
You play Vyse, an Air Pirate – specifically a “Blue Rogue”. Blue Rogues are pirates who are dedicated to only robbing from people who deserve it and who help people in need. There are also Black Pirates, who are the more traditional kind and the sworn enemies of the goody-goody Blue Rogues. Vyse’s mostly-permanent companion is Aika, an anime-style girl with pigtails, an attitude, and a heart of gold. The Valuan Empire has decided to conquer all the other lands of the skies, and it’s up to you to stop them. Along the way, Vyse and Aika meet up with various people who join and leave your party (mostly something you have no control over), from sailors and fellow pirates to belly dancers and refugees from ancient civilizations.
What do I mean by “throwback CRPG”? When I first put in SoAL and got into playing it, I had an immediate impulse to fish out my old Playstation and fire up Final Fantasy 7. The two games are very similar in play style – cut scenes of plot exposition intersperse with random “wandering monster” fights and scenes of interaction with other characters where mostly what you do is push the A button to keep the messages scrolling. Occasionally, you get to make a decision as to what to say or do – some of these are a bit fatuous; there are several points where your decision is either to do the heroic thing (sail on, rescue someone, escape) or give up and go home.
There are major points in the game where the world is opened up to you – like in Final Fantasy 7, when you finally leave the city – and you can start adventuring on your own. You can find Discoveries – natural features and man-made objects of legend – and claim a reward for your discovery; you can hunt down other pirates and “sink” them; you can search for crew members to add to your ship; you can wander around having random encounters for cash and experience; or you can head straight on to the next obvious segment of the plot. You can’t alter the plot much – the next thing to do is always the next thing to do, and it’s almost always obvious, and you won’t be able to handle or even in some cases complete something if you skip ahead.
The game play itself is diverse enough that you’re never doing just one thing for very long. Sometimes you’ll be walking around in third-person, interacting with people, climbing things, entering buildings, picking up objects, etc. Sometimes you’ll be flying your ship around the busy skyways. Sometimes you’ll be in close combat, sometimes in ship combat.
Graphics and Sound
The game does not support either progressive scan or 16x9, which is kind of a knock in this time when almost every new game does, though the graphics are simplistic enough that it wouldn’t really help any. Speaking of simplistic graphics, I can definitely see this game’s Dreamcast roots: while the textures are well done and the backgrounds are colorful, eye-catching, and detailed, many of the 3D objects are choppy and blocky and sometimes have problems with polygons overlapping, edges being too visible, etc. It’s a little distracting and could have been done better. It shows that the game’s engine is probably a direct port and recompile of the original Dreamcast one, which Sega is doing a lot lately (Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, for instance) and getting some mileage out of it.
The sound effects are basic – nothing too positive or negative about them. There are voiceovers in the game, but only to punctuate the onscreen text. For example, Vyse has a couple of key voiceover sound bites that are inserted at various times to match the onscreen conversation – things like “Uh huh”, “Yeah!”, “Oh!”. Each character also has a handful of voiceover sound bites for use at the end of a battle – “Thank the moons”, “That wasn’t so bad”, “All right!”, etc. It’s nice that they tried to include some actual voices, but the fact that it’s so obviously punctuated is kind of distracting and just ends up in them being humorous rather than dramatic.
Combat is very much like this game’s conceptual predecessors, Ultima and Final Fantasy. Each of your characters and each of the enemies onscreen has a certain reaction speed, and everyone goes in that order with a random element added or subtracted, so that some people can react faster or slower than normal.
At the beginning of every round, you plot your characters’ actions. Each of your characters can attack, use an item, defend themselves, cast a magic spell, use a super-move (like Final Fantasy’s “limit” attacks), or focus themselves for next round. Vyse can also choose to have the party try to run away from an encounter. One handy feature this game has over other games like it is that, until you’ve committed the last act of the last party member, you can undo any or all of the way back to the beginning of the round with the B button.
The trick here is that your group has a certain amount of “Spirit Points”. There’s a track at the top of the screen to record how many you have and how many you can have at the most. Both your starting value and maximum value are determined by who is in your party and how much experience they have. At the start, each character contributes 1 SP, so the party has 4. After about level 10, a character starts to contribute 2 SP, and so on.
You get your starting value of SP at the beginning of every round. Attacking and using an item take no SP; casting magic and doing super-moves take SP, and having a character Focus lets them double the amount of SP they regain for the round. You can accumulate SP during the course of a battle, up to your maximum. (SP reset for every battle, so you can’t save them.)
There is some strategy in combat, not only in who is using which color against which opponents, but also in placement on the field of battle. Certain spells and special abilities have areas of effect, and it can pay off to have a character move over to this side to attack this enemy first and then let loose with their cone blast, so that more enemies are caught in the effect.
Every character can also have one or more special statuses – hasted, slowed, combat ability augmented, paralyzed, poisoned, etc. If a character is reduced to 0 Hit Points, they’re not technically dead – they’re of “Unconscious” status. Risan and Riselem, silver magic spells, can revive people from that state. So no one is ever truly dead. However, if all characters are brought to 0 during a battle, the game will usually ask you if you want to try the battle over (in which case you’re restored to your pre-battle condition) or give up. There are a few points in the plot where you are set up to lose.
Ship-to-ship combat is fought somewhat differently, though it still uses the same basic commands as well as Spirit Points. Each round has four phases, and each of your characters can do one action, which can take place in any of the four phases, but only one action can be performed per phase by anyone (though some actions, like firing support cannons, can happen in more than one phase). You plot your actions for the turn, and then the phases are played out one by one, with the faster ship (the one with a higher Quick attribute) going first in each phase. What you choose to do during a turn and what results you get can determine whether or not your next turn will have more openings for attacks or whether you should retreat and defend.
After any battle (unless you run away), you collect experience points, money, sometimes items, and color points (except in ship-to-ship battles, where there is no particular color).
Colors play a major role in the game – red, blue, green, purple, yellow, and silver. Almost every enemy is encoded with one of these colors (with the exception of a scant few major boss-type enemies). Magic comes in these six colors too.
You assign your weapons one of the colors (only some of which are available at first) in battle, and this has two effects: first, enemies of certain colors are vulnerable to some colors and protected from some colors (a handy chart is included in the manual); second, by using the color in battle, you gain a sort of “color experience” with that color, and you learn more magic spells of that color as you get more.
Each character has their own value in each color, tracking how many “color experience points” are needed to achieve another level of magic. Each character earns color points for the color they use as well as the colors used by other party members. But beware – if you use the wrong color in a battle or use a bad combination of colors amongst your party, your color points could actually go up!
Each character has a number of Magic Points. Every spell takes only one MP, but it takes a certain number of SP (usually 2 to 10). Healing spells are the only ones that can be cast outside of battle, and you can’t use any spells but healing spells in ship-to-ship combat unless you get a special kind of cannon that lets you “fire” your spells at the enemy ship.
Magic is broken up by the six colors – green for healing and poisoning, red for fire, etc. There are offensive and defensive spells in each color. Earning color points by using the various colors on your weapons in battle get you more powerful spells.
While it’s not stunning or soundtrack quality, the game includes fairly solid and even catchy tunes throughout the game, reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series. The game opens with some very well done baroque-influenced orchestral music, and hints of it play as incidental music throughout the cut scenes and interaction scenes. The rest of the music in the game sounds much more electronic and processed. Each area in the game has its own theme music which plays while you explore it – Nasrad (the desert land) has an Arabian theme, Ixa’taka (the jungle land) has a Cusco-like new age/world music jungle theme, etc. There are also distinctive tunes for melee battles and ship battles. It won’t win any awards, and it won’t sell many soundtrack CDs, but it’s solid. The only problem I had was that some of the cut scenes and interaction scenes run a lot longer than the musical cues do (which are only a minute or two) – so you could still be having a conversation with someone when the music runs out and just shuts off, and you’re pressing buttons in silence for the next few minutes.
That’s about all there is to this game. Your only setup options for the game are whether you want rumble on or off. It’s old-school, big-time. If you don’t like games like Final Fantasy, you won’t like this. If you’re a GameCube owner who’s missing out on the CRPGs that other consoles have or just like the idea of sky pirates, pick it up and give it a try.
There are some points during the game where you make decisions, and the game keeps track of the moral nature of your decision and bases the reactions of future people on your cumulative morality (what we’d know better as “alignment”). When you make what the game considers the “right” decision, a rising tone will be played; a “wrong” decision gets a falling tone. Most of the time, you won’t hear a tone, so you don’t know for sure how what you’ve chosen will affect the rest of the game. Does that add enough to give this game’s replayability? I can’t say for sure yet. It’s certainly set itself up to be a long game with many hours of play.
But I’m still playing it and still having fun going where the game leads me.