Sega’s OverWorks tries their hardest to make a mediocre R.P.G, and somehow comes out with something greater.
I’ve always wanted my position at insert credit to be “hardcore mainstreamist”. Even though enigmatic chainsmoker describes me just fine –- perhaps it’s even too accurate -- it doesn’t get across the fact that I don’t share the same obscure hardcore game tastes as everyone else here. I’ve never played Radiant Silvergun. In fact, I don’t care much for shooters, brawlers, fighters, puzzle fighters, dating sims, datingsimpuzzlefighterhentaishooters or just about anything else any real console gamer would swear by. Instead I spend what little money I actually have (and plenty of money Visa does have) on console R.P.Gs. But it’s important to note for this review that they are not my first videogame love.
My first love was P.C adventure games of the Lucasarts/Sierra persuasion. Zak McKacken and the Alien Mindbenders, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, these were far beyond the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge I religiously played for lack of anything better to do, these P.C games had stories... a tangible and coherent goal to reach. From there I managed to defeat LeChuck not once, but twice (though without ever figuring out the true Secret of Monkey Island, but I did regain my love of Pirates of the Caribbean), helped Prince Alexander figure out the conundrum of the Green Isles, even learned a little bit of music with Bobbin Threadbare, and topped it all off with solving the cases of Gabriel Knight (my first experience with a game to freely use the word “fuck”, something I’ll cherish to any form of afterlife there is).
I’m sure the question I have to answer to now is “what is God’s name does this have to do with Skies of Arcadia and it’s port to the Gamecube?”. The answer would be: everything. You see, console R.P.G’s, in their popular form, have much less in common with table top R.P.Gs or even P.C R.P.Gs; they are the continuation of the P.C adventure game genre. The gameplay is subservient to the story, instead of the natural opposite.
Since it’s release for the Dreamcast, Skies of Arcadia has received almost nothing but praise from every major U.S publication. But at the same time every review pointed out the same overriding flaw; the battle system was as generic and unfun (I made up a word... hurray!) as could be without being outright terrible. So if the actual playing part of the game was so under-whelming, how could it receive such praise from the critics, and such love from the players? For the same reason the adventure genre was such a dominating force in the P.C market in the mid-90’s: it wasn’t about quantifiable gameplay, it was about the experience itself.
The main hook of the story is that the World of Arcadia is based in the skies (Hence the English title “Skies of Arcadia” - probably the first instance where the English title makes more sense than the Japanese one; “Eternal Arcadia”). All continents and locations are based on floating rocks and thus all travel on the world map is done via airships. A fairly simple idea for sure, but for some reason the feeling of discovery and adventure is made so much more potent through this simple gimmick. The main character is Vyse, a ceaselessly optimistic Air Pirate (a blue rogue air pirate, to be geekily specific... he and all blue rogues only steal from the Evil Armadaä) and along with his spunky, red-headed-Pippy-Longkstoncking-look-alike sidekick, Aika, come into contact with the mysterious and naïve Fina. Sent out on a mission whose details she will not immediately cop to which manages to lead to an epic quest which revolves around saving world from an ancient evil. Sounds generic, right? Well I suppose technically it is, but unlike other games and anime (and really, the two forms are starting to become narratively inseparable) there is such strong conviction behind the relentless optimism that it becomes infectious. After the end credits there is a quote that “As long as there are those willing to achieve their dreams… there will be heroes.” (paraphrased), instead of being just an inane theme to justify the sheer giddiness of the characters, it is something that the makers of the game believe in passionately, it in fact defines every narrative aspect of the game. The three main characters --actually all the characters-- are relatively simple archetypes. This would seem to lend itself to a story full of cliches (which is objectively the case), but the sheer conviction behind it all manages to transcend any predictable story developments. Most importantly, the game manages to be both fanciful and grave without ever feeling like it contradicts it’s own tone.
As for the actual gameplay... well, there is a lot to say. Concerning the basics, your party can hold up to four characters (it’s only towards the end of the game that you can choose who will be the fourth party member), and all character actions are determined in advance. That is to say you decide what all playable characters will do before the actual turn begins. This in itself manages to present quite a few problems.
To give a basic example, assume you’re coming up against an enemy you haven’t encountered yet. Let’s say this enemy has the ability to poison individual members of your group. You decide to have all members of your party attack, since it seems like a weak enemy, and yet during the first turn your entire party is poisoned. You don’t get the chance to cure anybody until all members of the party, and every enemy, has had their turn. This makes a lot of the enemy encounters (of which there are plenty) based purely on caution as opposed to strategy; you just assume that enemies might have an instant death spell and focus your attacks around that. To further complicate (or perhaps simplify) matters is the group spirit meter. All special attacks and magic spells are dependent on the amount of spirit points available, which in conjunction with the fact that all decisions have to be made for the group in advance (as opposed to the logical and user-friendly form of reacting to battle progression immediately, makes for a very unstrategic and repetitive battle system). Even if you make your characters with the fastest response focus (which increases the parties’ spirit), those spirit points are not available until the next group turn. The fact that even magic spells require the spirit points of the entire group, in addition to MP cost, seriously limits battle options. More often than not you’ll spend the first round building up spirit points then spending them on one character’s special move to wipe out the enemies. Considering the frequency of random battles, you may find yourself developing carpal tunnel syndromes from choosing the same attacks over, and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over... again.
And then again.
Straightforward character centered R.P.G battles are not all there is in the game though. This is a story based around Pirates after all, so there are a number of Ship Battles. These are actually set up in a similar fashion to the normal character battles. Each character has a turn slot that is applied to ship functions (firing the ships cannons, using it’s special weapons etc.) and all character turns are determined in advance, but at least in this mode you have some idea of how to react. Icons are present over a turn’s slot that alerts you to the potential for damage or strategic advantage. But this doesn’t make the ship battles any less problematic. Whereas the character battles are repetitive; the ship battles are merely dull. Once you determine all your characters actions, the game shows you each ships’ moves in almost agonizing detail. It could be over two minutes before the next turn starts up. Fortunately the ship battles are mostly story-centered, so that in context they do constitute a change of pace from the endless character-based random battles. But there is something that links the two battle modes together in terms of removing anything resembling strategy or critical thinking: the Super Moves.
There comes a certain point in the game where you’ll earn the ability to perform a “super” move called Prophecy. The only requirements to perform it are that the party’s spirit meter is completely filled (which under certain conditions can be somewhat difficult). The problem is, it’s the type of thing that in most R.P.G’s would require a decent amount of sidequesting to acquire. For instance, in FF VII, you had to breed a gold Chocobo (which can take over 20 hours to achieve… even more if you did it without the aid of a walkthrough) to achieve the Knights of the Round summon. Sure, once you received it there was nothing holding you back in the game in terms of difficulty… but at least you had to earn it. Here’s it’s freely given about 1/3 through the game. It just removes almost any difficulty in an already easy game. Compounding this however is the presence of special weapons in the ship battles. While these are somewhat forgivable in that they are a part of the story (whereas the super move “prophecy” has no narrative explanation, you get Enrique in your party and suddenly you can summon “the power of the ancients”... what?), they make almost every ship battle focused around saving up your spirit points and waiting for the opportunity for use of the harpoon cannon or moonstone cannon.
But wait... there is still more to complain about. Basically anything more than a regular attack or guard move in the game is accompanied by an overly-flashy animation sequence that takes up way more time than it should (thankfully when using your characters’ super moves you can skip them with the start button, except for the prophecy and blue rogue group super moves (perhaps that’s the deterrent they included to keep you from using them too often)). It really is no wonder that in the Dreamcast version they included epilepsy warning before the title screen.
So considering I have almost nothing good to say about the battle system, this should be a pain to play, and therefore a complete waste of your time, right? And here again I find myself saying something that defies quantifiable logic; the battle system is still pretty enjoyable. Sure the random encounters occur way too often (despite OverWorks promise that they would be less frequent in this port… they are still too frequent) and are too repetitive to keep most people’s interest for 40+ hours, yet somehow you want to brave it. Perhaps it’s a case of getting too involved in Vyse’s “I don’t care what happens! I’m going to push forward!” attitude. Or perhaps I’ve spent so much time playing these games that I’ve become immune to the ennui that would plague most other casual R.P.G gamers, but either way, the battle system – as flawed as it is—remains somewhat fun. Still, it presents no form of real challenge. The dreamcast version was a complete cakewalk, even to someone like myself (who sucks at games. Period) there was no challenge at all. Thankfully the Gamecube port presents optional challenges in the form of Bounties and a sidequest involving catching elusive moonfish and fighting a bounty hunter who refers to herself only as the “angel of death”. These are completely optional of course, but provide for a nice opportunity to actually think strategically as opposed to just using brute strength. Plus, as nice little bonus, you get more backstory through the moonfish sidequest answering some lingering questions concerning Ramirez’s motivation.
[Next: the port, the scores]