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SummaryYe bilge rats respect traditions too much! Arrr!..
The GoodSkies of Arcadia completely ignores the "psychological" trend that was dominating the genre scene at that time. Freudian complexes and religious symbolism have no place here. Instead, Skies of Arcadia returns to the days when Japanese RPGs were about embarking on an exciting, uncomplicated adventure with a bunch of lovable heroes. You have the standard "epic" story that involves crystal-gathering, ancient powers, mysterious continents, young innocent heroes, and so on. The game brings cozy and predictable questing back to the genre, and I assume its most dedicated fans would not be offended by that.
The Jules Verne-inspired setting, with its optimistic depiction of "steampunk" and joys of discovery is coupled with the enchanting premise of "good" pirates who travel all over the world, searching for treasure and fighting injustice. The usage of "air sailing" makes the setting even more attractive. Of course, airships are nothing revolutionary when talking about Japanese RPGs, but Skies of Arcadia turns the whole airship issue into something more than just a gimmick - it is now an inseparable part of the setting. The world of Skies of Arcadia is populated by vicious admirals, pirates, and sailors. There is no going on foot any more - in order to move from location to location (or better to say, from island to island), you'll have to go by ship. Naval terminology abounds in the game, but instead of water you'll be sailing through oceans of air.
The possibility to physically steer the airship through the fully 3D world is one of the game's most promising gameplay features. The feeling of wonder that fills you when you realize you can explore the "world map" by sailing is incomparable. It's a real pity this lasts only as long as it takes you to realize you can't actually sail wherever you want to.
Skies of Arcadia has great graphics: it is one of the few Japanese RPGs in history that could graphically compete with visually more demanding genres. Indeed, the game looks as good as any contemporary first-person shooter on the PC. The graphics are very detailed; rooms are full of objects, and animations are quite good. The entire game, including the impressive cinematic cutscenes, is done with real-time 3D graphics. Optional first-person perspective even allows full rotation of the camera, often leading to some spectacular views.
The locations of Skies of Arcadia are very colorful and detailed, though mainly thanks to the fact they have been ripped off verbatim from real-world locations. The dungeons, however, don't follow any particular pattern. The ice dungeon or the bizarre cave of Dakkar are good examples of design creativity. The usage of the third dimension allows more complex structuring, and the designers utilized it to the full.
The combat of Skies of Arcadia is very traditional, but at least the battles look dynamic, with characters running around instead of just leaping and returning back to a fixed position; frequent counter-attacking makes them less tedious. Hunting for moonberries to learn devastating special skills is quite satisfying. And of course, it's always better to have four characters in the party instead of just three.
The BadSkies of Arcadia is a by-the-book Japanese RPG that feverishly clings to the conventions of this extremely retrograde genre. Its structure is formulaic to the extreme. I know that saying "it's a formulaic Japanese RPG" is like saying "it's a porn movie with repetitive sex", but this game goes all the way with that (formulaic structure, not repetitive sex). Basically, every cliche that has been done to death in countless Japanese RPGs before is right here.
If I asked you to compose the most typical Japanese RPG story as quickly as possible, you'd probably come up with the main plot of this game. Let's see: the protagonist is... "a young cheerful hyperactive boy who needs a haircut"? Check. He meets... "an innocent girl with mysterious powers"? Bingo. The girl is... "pursued by bad guys because she holds the key to their destruction"? Right. The bad guys want to... "conquer the world"? Well, that was a no-brainer. But how about this one: the most enigmatic bad guy... "has a mysterious connection to one of the heroes"? Ooookay... The bad guy eventually gets the power of... "an ancient supernatural creature"? Not just that, he... "oh, becomes one with the ancient supernatural creature because being possessed by an abstract non-human evil is such a good excuse?". Well... yeah. But eventually... "the heroes defeat the bad guy, peace is restored"? Correct. Japanese RPG narrative template is complete. All this is presented with the same cheerfulness that characterized Lunar games, but more blandly and decidedly less emotionally.
The structure of the quests is very predictable. The basic formula is: get to the new location - go to a dungeon - fight the end boss - get the crystal - fight the Gigas - fight an admiral who tries to stop you. The few twists that occur in-between don't really alleviate the tedium of those generic procedures.
All this would have been easily forgivable if the game managed to shine in gameplay. Unfortunately, high production values and a few harmless gimmicks helped to obfuscate the fact there is hardly anything new or interesting in the system. Free ship exploration, for example, is a hoax. The world is barred on all sides by contrived plot devices, meaning that you can only go where you are supposed to go, with new locations being unlocked only when the game says so. The world maps of Final Fantasy games are, in fact, more open and usually contain by far more optional areas and secrets. Also, random enemies pop out during airship exploration, which is extremely annoying.
The battle system is merely functional. The biggest problem is the fact combat relies too much on special moves. If you saved your moonberries for Vyse, the fights will be a breeze for you after he learns Pirate Wrath. It is simply too powerful, and there is no other attack that comes even close to it. If you didn't, the fights will be very tedious, but still easily winnable. Magic proved to be useless, especially during later stages of the game. There is no magic you can't perform simply by using a correspondent item, which is much more convenient, since magic requires MP and SP. In the end, your other characters beside Vyse will lose any importance in battle and become mere "SP-suppliers" for Vyse's Pirate Wrath.
During the second part of the game, you'll be able to buy extremely powerful items for very low prices, which greatly reduces the importance of such items and the challenge in battles. The famed ship battles, in particular, gradually become easier and easier, until the balance-breaking "complete kit" item is available in shops. After you buy enough complete kits, you simply can't lose a ship battle.