Without a compass in the vast sea of JRPGs, it’s easy to get lost and play whatever comes your way. Of course, what comes your way is often nothing short of excellent: Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Persona, to name a few. Nearly every new entry in the aforementioned series brings with it a tidal wave of excitement. But Skies of Arcadia resonates with me even in comparison to such genre heavyweights as Dragon Quest VIII, Final Fantasy X and Persona 4.
Skies of Arcadia released as Eternal Arcadia in Japan on October 5th 2000. It launched on the timeless Dreamcast 20 years ago and was later ported to GameCube as Skies of Arcadia Legends with included additional content. Even upon release, critics praised the game and it has since been featured in “Top Games of All Time” by IGN and EGM. Not to mention that it’s also on countless other lists celebrating video games. So what makes Skies of Arcadia so special?
Take a Look at some of the original artwork. It prominently features three characters in vibrant colour; it screams adventure and camaraderie. All JRPGs emphasize eventful voyages, but Skies of Arcadia really puts “venture” into adventure. It creates a breathtaking fantasy world steeped in history and complex lore. There’s an extensive cast of characters so meaningful, that almost every single one has an important role to play. Indeed, this brilliant JRPG deserves all the praise it received and commemorating its anniversary I would like to share my thoughts on why.
Fly Me to the Moon
Skies of Arcadia is a game about pirates that takes place in the wondrous world of Arcadia. What sets it apart from other pirate games is that Arcadia is set in the sky with multiple continents and a number of floating islands. Ships don’t float on water, they glide through air, and the pirates aren’t necessarily mischievous pillagers.
Arcadia is illuminated by six different moons and each moon bestows the region below with unique resources. The Green Moon, associated with healing and growth, shines over the lush jungle continent of Ixa’taka. The Red Moon, synonymous with fire and power, hangs over the desert continent of Nasr. Some of these celestial bodies are more powerful than others, such as the Silver Moon which holds sway over life and death.
The Valuan Empire in the north basks in the light of the Yellow Moon which provides it with electricity. Being the only nation with said resource, Valua holds the upper hand in military and industrial development. Aided by a formidable armada at her command, Teodora, the power-hungry Empress of Valua, intends to conquer the world.
As one might expect, there’s the usual struggle between the good and the evil, the poor and the powerful. But Skies of Arcadia masterfully avoids predictable plot tropes thanks to its distinct world and characters.
The Blue Rogues of Arcadia
A faction known as Blue Rogues opposes the oppressive rule of the Valuan Empire. They’re air pirates, the good kind; they attack the strong and shelter the feeble. Spearheaded by inseparable pals Vyse and Aika, the Blue Rogues fight ardently against the empire. They raid their ships and live by the code of honour of the Blue Rogues.
Vyse is a curious and spirited young man, the son of the strict captain Dyne. He grows exponentially over the course of the story, eventually commandeering his own ship and base of operations. Aika is a garrulous partner who shares his passion. Together, they travel the vast expanses of Arcadia in search of treasure and adventure. However, one day, a mysterious girl named Fina joins their cause. She wears unusual clothing and wields the powerful silver magic.
Who is she? Where is she from? And why does she have access to such sorcery? Evidently, Fina plays a pivotal role in the game’s plot. Arcadia’s cast is as varied as its moons and that includes villains. Under Teodora’s tyrannical reign, there’s a whole imperial armada. The armada consists of multiple admirals, each in control of their own fleet, their own ship. And every single one of them has their own agenda and character traits.
Belleza, the admiral of the Fourth Fleet, relies on cunning, wit and her own beauty to outperform opposition. She’s the only female admiral in the armada and Vyse experiences her charm firsthand. On the contrary, De Loco, the mad admiral of the Fifth Fleet, employs advanced experimental technology to come out victorious. Meanwhile, the admiral of the First Fleet, Alfonso, arrogant and pretentious, believes that glory and victory are already in his blood.
Above them all is the confident and ruthless Lord Galcian, the impenetrable commander of the armada. Assisted by the second-in-command, the terse Ramirez, he instils fear in people across Arcadia. Without a doubt, Galcian is the most formidable opponent. And yet, each admiral feels important in their own unique way.
Moons, Give Me Strength
Facing off against such impressive opponents requires a combat system that conveys the spectacle. Skies of Arcadia takes after many JRPGs of its time, with turn-based combat, powerful spells and super moves. Whether on land or flying the ship up in the air, the game often throws you into random combat encounters.
Much like continents, characters obtain their powers from the moons. Specifically, from moonstones. Red magic draws its power from the red moon and casts fire spells. Green magic draws its power from the green moon and casts healing spells. And the same goes for weapons. Enemies predisposed to the Purple Moon take more damage from green magic and weapons. And silver magic deals more damage to enemies of the yellow element.
While there’s a lot to enjoy in regular combat, Skies of Arcadia truly shines in ship-to-ship encounters. Especially, when taking on one of the imperial armada or a powerful Gigas. Similarly, these epic battles progress on a turn-by-turn basis and capture the feeling of being the commander of your own naval vessel.
Ships come equipped with cannons, torpedoes and special cannons, such as the destructive Harpoon Cannon. It penetrates through thick armour, making short work of even the most powerful Valuan vessel. Deciding whether to fire your cannons, send a torpedo that hits on a subsequent turn, or accumulate SP for a once-in-a-lifetime blast from the special cannon results in immensely rewarding combat experience.
And once Vyse becomes the captain of his own base, a slew of options opens up. Recruitable characters populate the world of Arcadia and often stand out from regular NPCs. Being engineers and gunmen, they don’t participate in regular battles, but assigning them to an open position on-board will bolster the ship’s attributes. Some of them increase offensive and defensive parameters, others increase the destructive power of your special cannon.
Skies of Arcadia is full of ancient structures and unexplainable phenomena known as Discoveries. Scattered across the world, they often require additional tools to reach them. Discoveries range from mysterious signs etched upon the ground or an odd inverted island floating in the middle of nowhere, to ghost ships and remnants of previous civilizations. Most are discovered by meticulously examining each and every object in the sky.
Others are discovered by performing certain actions. Going from one end of the map to another reveals that the world is round, giving the flat earth society a big middle finger. Certain Discoveries greatly contribute to the lore. For instance, the Black Moon Stone suggests at the existence of a Black Moon aeons ago, adding another layer of history.
Discoveries essentially allow you to write history as you play. And while finding these forgotten relics is a reward on its own, information on their whereabouts can be sold to the Sailor’s Guild. Moreover, you’re not the only one looking for them and taking too long to find one may lead a fellow explorer Domingo to attach his name to the discovery. This competition creates a sense seldom found in video games, a sense that the game’s world doesn’t revolve around you.
Alternatively, recruit Domingo into your crew. If you can’t beat them, make them join you. No shame in that.
Skies of Arcadia Legends
Skies of Arcadia makes it abundantly clear where the magic comes from and why many of its inhabitants have access to it. Thanks to this correlation, the game’s world feels interconnected. One element contributes to the existence of another. Moons provide the world with unique resources. Fallen moonstones power devices and ships, and enhance conventional weaponry. And ships, powered by those moonstones, allow for unparalleled travel.
Recent events are explained in great detail, while those from centuries ago are forever lost to history. Each character brings meaningful nuance to the narrative. Even the game’s many villains are more multi-faceted than initially may seem. Some of them have ulterior motives, others are not malevolent in the slightest. For instance, Teodora’s son Enrique doesn’t share his mother’s desire to rule the world at the cost of other people’s well-being.
In addition to improved visuals, more Discoveries and reduced combat frequency, the GameCube re-release added the Wanted List to the repertoire of activities. By visiting the Sailor’s Guild, you acquire information on a wanted person or a whole group hiding somewhere within the vast world. Furthermore, some of these bounties open up entire sub-plots, such as the one involving the mysterious bounty hunter Piastol.
It’s been 20 long years and Skies of Arcadia hasn’t seen an official release since 2003. Getting a copy is becoming increasingly difficult these days, but if you intend to play just one JRPG, make sure that’s Skies of Arcadia.