A bona fide Sega classic and one of the all-time great RPGs, Skies of Arcadia and the revamped Skies of Arcadia Legends are brilliant examples of what it means to be a Sega game – optimism, adventure and endless blue skies.
The lead character Vyse, member of the Blue Rogue Air Pirates, is the quintessential young RPG hero, but rather than falling into the hot-headed or angsty clichés he’s endlessly optimistic, determined and adventurous; the son of a pirate, he’s wanted this kind of adventure all his life, so he throws himself headlong into action without hesitation. He’s not the only memorable character, though – über-cool gunfighter Gilder is constantly harassed by the lovesick Clara, De Loco is a Doctor Octopus-inspired madman and Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Vigoro. The interplay between these characters, particularly Vyse and his tomboy teammate Aika, is classic, with plenty of comic interludes and facial expressions to make the dialogue scenes much more enjoyable than your average RPG.
Of course, this isn’t your average RPG in any sense. Yes, it’s full of turns-based battles, experience points and random encounters (frustratingly so at certain points), but it innovates within these areas. Aside from the standard hand-to-hand fights, at times you’re attacked by other ships in the skies and have to defend yourselves with cannons; when fighting Armada Generals or the enormous Gigas creatures, these encounters are absolutely without parallel. Standard battles are entertaining too, of course, with plenty of over-the-top magic attacks to please the eye and strategy to keep the brain happy. Skies of Arcadia Legends adds extra "Wanted" battles against notoriously difficult Air Pirates that rank among the hardest enemies you’ll encounter.
Each land you explore has its own culture, architecture and customs, from the ancient Japanese Yafutoma to the secluded jungle city of Ixa’taka, and this is reflected in a varied score that never dips below the excellent. The opening theme is leaves you in no uncertainty about the adventure ahead of you, and the music that accompanies the end credits is almost unspeakably enjoyable, which is to say nothing of the huge amount of music in between: when battles begin to go badly the music changes accordingly, hugely increasing the intensity, but when you gain the upper hand the music changes to power you across the finish line. It’s a simple system but one that adds so much to the battles. The only real downfall to Skies of Arcadia Legends is its poorly compressed music, which is markedly inferior to the Dreamcast original, and despite the wealth of extras in Legends I’m still playing through on Dreamcast for the sheer joy of the soundtrack.
All in all, Skies of Arcadia is a refreshingly original RPG, not just in many of its elements (its boat travel predates Wind Waker by several years!) but in its approach to character. Throughout all the hardships that befall him and his crew, Vyse never loses optimism, and can always be replied on for a clenched fist of determination in times of need. Skies of Arcadia is pure Sega, and one of the greatest roleplaying games ever. I just wish the sequel rumours were true.