That Other Dreamcast RPG 15th Anniversary

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While Grandia II just got a PC re-release for the 15th anniversary of its 2000 release, we need to remember the competition between the two major Dreamcast RPGs that came out that fall, the other being Skies of Arcadia which came out 15 years ago in Japan today. It is one of my top Japanese RPGs and actually one of my top games ever.

Way back on 1up I did a “Favorite Games Of All Time” post for Skies, but instead of just editing and re-posting that one I think I’m just going to revisit and rephrase what makes that game great in its own time and today. I already devoted a whole post a bit more recently to why this game should be on PC just like Grandia II.

Note that this is all coming from someone who grew bored with standard JRPGs a long time ago. There are maybe four games significantly following the well-known JRPG tropes that I even like revisiting anymore, and Skies is one of them (though I haven’t yet because of its massive time investment). Skies doesn’t even really do anything all that different from other JRPGs. The characters and plot are totally anime, you fly around in an airship, the combat is turn-based and so-on. It’s just one of those games that hits the well-known pillars of its genre to an exceptional degree.

On 1up I once postulated that people enjoy RPGs (or at least I enjoy RPGs) for four main reasons: Strategic combat, enthralling exploration, an interesting storyline, and likable characters. To this day I have yet to see an RPG that excels in all four areas, but Skies does very well in three of them.

If there is anything in Skies you might call “unique,” it’s how far it runs with the idea of airships. Airships are a staple of JRPGs and of the Final Fantasy series in particular, but I think few games position them as centrally as Skies does. Setting the game in a world of floating continents makes air travel the central component. Skies adds to that clear inspiration from Early Modern Europe’s Age of Exploration, which itself is a clear contrast from how most RPGs are stuck with the prior Medieval Period. The “exploration” element of RPGs is what Skies nails the most.

I think the biggest aspect of this is how its world of floating islands is fully rendered and explored 3D. Indeed, making floating continents occupy different altitudes that you traverse with an airship is a perfect way to make classic JRPG exploration feel more three-dimensional. A big complaint about JRPGs is how little some of them seem to have changed since the early 90’s, but the exploration in Skies feels like something that could truly only be accomplished with 3D graphics and gameplay.

Another thing that made exploration in Skies robust is how gated it is. Most JRPGs where you travel a world map have some kind of system of progressively mobile vehicles — usually starting you out on foot, then on a boat, then in some kind of airborne thing. Skies starts you out in the air, but with some kind of hand-me-down airship that can only reach certain places. Then you start upgrading it, then you get the coolest airship in the world, then you start upgrading that and even traveling inside it. The ship almost becomes a character in itself, sort of like the Normandy from Mass Effect but better. Before Mass Effect came out I actually hoped it would do a lot of the stuff Skies did but in space. All that customization eventually let’s you access harder-to-reach skies until you’re just darting all over the globe. There is another thing you get to customize and personalize a lot later on in Skies but I’ve decided not to spoil it for anyone reading this who still hasn’t played it.

As I said earlier the storyline in Skies is pretty much your typical JRPG business. You remember this list of JRPG cliches that’s been around at least since the late 90’s? I believe Skies is one of the games it constantly references. Even this game’s characters don’t stray extremely far from the typical tropes, but their interactions and dialogue still manage to be entertaining enough to be a main draw of Skies. The protagonist’s sense of undying optimism alone is enough to produce multiple memorable quotes, not to mention the equally entertaining quotes from other characters. Similar to Grandia IISkies also takes a lot of time building up its characters with small talk and other things that aren’t deadly serious all the time.

Actually I’d say one of the best qualities of this game is how little it takes itself seriously much of the time. There are points in the story where the stakes get raised, but Skies is never as self-serous as any Final Fantasy game or even Grandia II for that matter. In a way it takes the basic JRPG story tropes and just has a lot of fun with them.

The turn-based combat system in Skies is a part that also doesn’t disappoint, or rather, how the game utilizes that combat system. It’s not that different from your typical party-oriented, turn-based setup other than how your entire party shares a single meter for special moves, but the challenges you deal with in Skies require a lot of tactical thinking. The boss fights in particular can get really difficult and you probably can’t brute-force your way through most of them. That goes double for the optional bosses in the Gamecube version (which fixed the Dreamcast version’s unusually high random encounter rate).

So there you go. If you have a Dreamcast I don’t see how you couldn’t already own this game or at least be aware of it. Maybe you’re a Gamecube (or Wii) owner who never caught onto it though. In that case I’d say it’s one of the old games you should definitely track down. After typing this paragraph I went and looked up the going prices for Skies however and found out this game has entered in to outrageous vintage price territory. At this point I understand if you track down an ISO and run it on Dolphin, but SEGA really needs to release it on Steam or something.

BULLETS:

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