RPGamer Preview: Skies of Arcadia

Dreamcast owners get a new RPG (good news).
It comes from the Phantasy Star team (better news).
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
Developer: Overworks
Publisher: Sega
Will ship on two GD-ROMs.
This game has not yet been rated.

At this point, almost any new RPG for the Dreamcast is good news. To date, Dreamcast owners hungry for a classic RPG experience have had to whet their appetites with the two Evolution games, Time Stalkers, and Elemental Gimmick Gear, all of which have been widely panned by most critics. Now, though, the Dreamcast is set to receive a number of world-class RPGs in a short period of time. By the end of this Christmas season, three fantastic new RPGs will be available for the system -- Shenmue, Grandia II, and Sega's own Skies of Arcadia.

As far as names are concerned, Skies of Arcadia has a bit of an identity crisis. When the game was first announced a little over a year ago, it was known as "Project Ares". Some screenshots were revealed, and the game certainly looked good then, but what was most exciting about it was the announcement that the team behind it was none other than Overworks, who created the first Phantasy Star game. Since then, the game has been looking better and better, and was recently released in Japan as Eternal Arcadia. Later on this month it will be released in North America as Skies of Arcadia.

Skies of Arcadia is set in the world of Arcadia -- a vast landscape where continents float in an ocean of air, and battle-equipped airships dominate the skies. Above all reigns the navy of Valua -- a grand ruling force despised by all, but that no one dares oppose... that is, except for the Blue Rogues, a brave band of bandits who, in classic pirate fashion, board and plunder Valuan ships. Opposing the Blue Rogues are the Black Pirates, a scurvy gang of scavengers set upon shivering the proverbial timbers of lesser opponents.

Among all the Blue Rogues, fewer ships are more respected (or feared) than the Albatross-- a powerful ship with a captain to match. Following in the captain's footsteps is his son Vyse, the main character in Skies of Arcadia, who-- while a respectable adventurer in his own right-- must constantly walk in his father's shadow, when he has dreams of his own... dreams of piloting his own ship, of accomplishing great deeds and bringing glory to his name.

Accompanying Vyse at most times is Aika, a feisty female fighter who's been his friend since childhood. Early along in the game, Aika tags along with Vyse as they raid a Valuan ship to rescue Fina, a quiet mage with a shadowed past. Who could this girl be? Where did she come from? As the storyline progresses, Skies of Arcadia will provide answers to these and other questions... but Vyse's quest has only begun.

The most noticeable thing about Skies of Arcadia at first is the graphics. Few Dreamcast games to date have looked this good; simple screenshots-- and even movie files-- can't do the game justice. Skies of Arcadia features smooth, anime-styled character models; detailed 3D backgrounds; and breathtaking landscapes with enormous visual scope-- all displayed in real-time using Skies of Arcadia's full 3D engine. There are no pre-rendered backgrounds here; you'll travel through the world of Arcadia in a third-person perspective, viewed with a camera that can be rotated or changed to another perspective. And considering all that, it's amazing how much detail can be found in the world of Arcadia.

Journeying around a town, one can see some examples of this. Regardless of how many characters are in Vyse's party, only the leader is visible when walking around. Walk up to a building, enter the shop, and the wall behind you becomes transparent so that you can see everything in the shop. Walls are lined with goods; walk around the shop and try to interact with the environment, talk to the shopkeeper... or, walk outside and go into another building. Go to the central tower; climb the ladder. The level below you becomes transparent so that you can see what's going on. Skies of Arcadia features an intelligent camera that can be rotated to ensure you'll never be left out of sight. Combined with the game's bright, colorful environments, this should make exploring the world of Arcadia quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the graphics concerns the character models. In the past, games such as Lunar and Grandia have tried to express character emotions by displaying facial portraits that change depending on the situation. Skies of Arcadia's 3D engine is put to work here to create extremely effective in-game cutscenes that feature fluid character movement. If Vyse sees something surprising, he will stumble back, his eyes will shoot open, his mouth will drop, he may even drop his sword. If Aika's surrounded by enemies, she'll stand with her boomerang at the ready, eyes shifting all about, an excited smile growing on her face. What's been seen so far of the game shows that this method is very effective and makes the characters and events much more believable and involving.

Whether walking around in a dungeon or flying in your airship, you're going to be attacked, and Skies of Arcadia features two very different battle systems to deal with this. Under the standard battle system (used for most of the game), enemy encounters occur at random; you don't see the enemy beforehand.

Seen here is a shot of Vyse in the midst of a battle. Though up to four characters can engage in battles at a time, when one character's turn comes up, the camera zooms in and allows you to make your selections (as seen here). Using attacks and special attacks drains your ability points (indicated by the green bar at top). Here, Vyse has eight of his fifteen ability points, but can partially recharge them using the Focus command. (He'll also receive some points back on his next turn.)

Using magic attacks drains Vyse's MP, shown on the left-hand side of the screen in Vyse's character information window. Also displayed here are his current level and current amount of hit points. Notice that his hit points are also displayed as a meter. When attacked, Vyse's energy meter will drain in proportion to how much damage he takes. The same holds true for enemies, and other characters in Vyse's party.

The other system for battles is used for major battles between your ship and another ship, whether that of the Valuan Navy or the Black Pirates. Unlike the normal combat system, the ship battles have more emphasis on tactics. You can equip your ship with different weapons beforehand-- your main cannons, three-inch cannons, torpedos-- and before engaging in a round of combat, determine at what point you will use each weapon. If you have four characters in your party, each character can use one of the ship's weapons, but no one can attack at the same time as another person. The grid from which you choose your attacks prior to each round will show you how many attack points are in each round, and the conditions for each attack point-- i.e. should you expect the enemy to attack or dodge at this point, or will you have an advantage? If you're expecting to have an advantage then, you may want to use your torpedo at that point; otherwise you might want to Focus instead, to regain your attack points. Guiding your ship is also important, to ensure that the enemy doesn't get behind you-- if they do, you're open to heavy fire! Though this battle system will be reserved for more major battles, it looks to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.

Later on in the game, you'll be allowed to keep your own ship that you can customize to your liking-- not only in terms of weapons and equipment, but also in terms of crew. In a nod to Suikoden, you can recruit crew members for your ship, each of whom will serve an important function. It will be up to you to make sure that you get a crew that can work together to make your ship as good as it can be. Indeed, it sounds similar to Konami's Suikoden; when asked about this, Skies of Arcadia U.S. Producer Klayton Vorlick claimed that Suikoden wasn't as deep or responsive by comparison (Official Dreamcast Magazine, Nov. 2000, pg. 68). Whatever the case, it's certainly an interesting and exciting feature.

Skies of Arcadia is currently slated for release on November 21 and will ship on two GD-ROMs (over one-and-a-half times the size of a normal CD). Sega states that the average player should expect over seventy hours of gameplay from the game, but more conservative estimates place actual gameplay times at just over fifty hours.
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