The bargain bins of gaming history are filled with any number of stat-crunching, loot-grinding, turn-basing JRPGs. Many of them are a part of some long-running series, from Final Fantasy to Shin Megami Tensei/Persona to the long-running Tales series. But every now and then, a bold new title will emerge, fully formed, not tied down to any existing IP, presenting a fresh, original view of what a video game adventure can be. In 2000, one such miracle of game design, Skies of Arcadia, emerged from the clouds, and landed on the Dreamcast, before embarking on a journey to the GameCube under the name Skies of Arcadia: Legends in 2002.
In the magical world of Arcadia, six elemental moons govern the floating islands that make up the planet, and by using the magic inherent in pieces of said moons, people have been able to create airships and build societies. A plucky air pirate, Vyse of the Blue Rogues, and his teammate Aika, meet a mysterious girl named Fina and embark on a planet-wide quest to save the world from the evil Valuan Empire. While this may sound like a fairly standard fantasy adventure, the genius of Skies of Arcadia comes in its execution. Big evil empires staffed by a cadre of gimmicky villains (strong guy, mad scientist, old guy, woman) aren’t new, but the baddies in Arcadia’s Valuan Armada are each extremely clever versions of these tropes, providing depth and nuance to what seems, on its surface, too familiar.
Every main character is likewise an incredibly well-developed and fleshed out character, while the core trio of Vyse, Aika, and Fina are some of the most endearing and relatable party members ever to grace a CRT TV. The story of Skies of Arcadia is vast and winding, but it always grounds events into the emotional journeys and maturity of these three intrepid buccaneers.
Skies of Arcadia’s combat is similarly deceptive in how it refines the usual JRPG structure. Battles are turn based, and dungeons are full of random encounters, which does mean you’ll have the occasional bad luck where you can’t take two steps without getting mobbed by enemies. And I do mean mobbed.
Skies of Arcadia battles can really pile on the baddies, with upwards of six or seven enemies at times. Battles involve juggling regular attacks, special moves, and magic spells, adding a layer of strategy as you try to maximize all of these systems and make them work together. There’s also the occasional ship battle, which involves plotting out your moves four turns in advance and then praying to the Gaming God that you planned out your attack right. Again, the appeal of Skies of Arcadia isn’t so much in what it does differently as what it does similar to other JRPGs, but with a depth, polish, and style that stands above the pack.
Despite being a lengthy, sizable JRPG, one of the most thrilling elements of Skies of Arcadia is how much respect it has for players’ time. No dungeon is torturously long, and there’s a constant progression of new abilities, new characters, and new settings to keep you enthralled and invested in the quest. At no point does a particular chapter or setting overstay its welcome, so you constantly feel like you’re making significant and tangible progress. When you finally reach the final chapter – a suitably epic escalation that is, again, right on track with the usual escalation of JRPGs yet much more grounded and emotionally resonant – the last encounter truly feels like an epic showdown of the highest order.
Now, after all of this praise, you may be excitedly logging onto Steam or the Switch eShop to purchase a remastered version of the game, or maybe ebay to scour the used game market. You’ll quickly find that the most difficult battle in the 50+ hour JRPG of Skies of Arcadia is the battle of acquiring a physical copy. By far, the most economically viable means of joining Vyse and co. is to engage in a little (Sky) piracy of your own, with extant physical copies starting at $200, and only getting worse from there.
It’s a tragedy that Skies of Arcadia hasn’t been rescued from the halls of history, as its core mechanics absolutely still hold up (as long as you can stomach some light grinding and persistent random encounters), and its world and characters remain in a league of their own. The journey you undertake may be a fraught one, but no matter how choppy the skies may be getting there, the treasure at the end is very much worth it.
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