Saturday, August 8, 2009

NonEssential #41: Skies of Arcadia Legends

It was the year 2006, when a co-worker of mine, having just purchased a Nintendo GameCube, began asking around the office for software recommendations.

"So what about role-playing games?" he asked. "Are there any good ones on the GameCube?" More specifically, he was looking for Japanese RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy.

To that, one man answered with Namco's Tales of Symphonia. The suggestion met with my wholehearted approval, and sadly I could think of no other options for players looking for a good traditional JRPG on the GameCube. Baten Kaitos slipped my mind, but, not having played it, I could not have recommended it anyway. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was probably the only other game that came close to what Man #1 wanted, but again I was not sufficiently familiar with it. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was brought up as one to avoid, and, while I noted my fondness for it, I agreed that he was likely to be disappointed, especially since he would have no access to the multiplayer.

Man #1 may have been better-informed about the GameCube library than he'd originally let on, as he then led with "I heard there's a Skies of Arcadia for GameCube?"

He was referring to Sega's Skies of Arcadia Legends, a very slightly enhanced 2003 port of developer Overworks's critically lauded 2000 RPG, Skies of Arcadia (AKA Eternal Arcadia in Japan). It was my most hated RPG of all time.

"Oh, yeah!" Man #2 confirmed. "That's a good one."

A third man chimed in with his agreement: "Yeah, that one's really good."

I had listened as these people spoke affectionately of mediocre 3-D Sonic titles, or recommended the lame Sonic Team-developed Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, but--and I swear it's nothing personal against Sega--Skies of Arcadia was where I drew the line. We were spread out about a room of only five people, one of whom spoke only limited English and would not contribute to nor even acknowledge the conversation. Outnumbered three-to-one though I was, I could not stand by quietly and suffer praise of Skies of Arcadia.

"You liked Skies of Arcadia?" I asked Man #3.

It was a struggle to contain my bitterness, but I tried to speak in a calm and controlled voice. Ironically, although I meant not to discredit myself by betraying too much emotion, the incongruous seriousness and labored slowness of my speech managed to chill the atmosphere. However hard I tried to mute it, there was a confrontational inflection to my delivery that was not lost on the addressee.

"Oh, uh, I never played it. I don't have a GameCube or Dreamcast," Man #3 sheepishly confessed, after having already recommended several titles for Man #1 to purchase. "But everybody who plays that game loves it."

A short pause ensued. The other two guys were fresh fish at the workplace, but Man #2, a veteran peer, perhaps intrigued by this rare glimmer of intensity from me, decided to pursue the topic further.

"You didn't like it, Henry?"

"No," I responded without hesitation. I suppose I did want this after all. "I thought the battle system was tedious, characters were shallow, the story was weak."

Another pause.

"Did you like it?" I asked Man #2 in return.

"Actually I never played it," he admitted. Nor, as it turned out, had any of these people played Tales of Symphonia, Crystal Chronicles, or indeed even half the titles they'd handed out as suggestions.

Another silence.

"I liked it on the Dreamcast," Man #1 finally declared. And this time I could hear him seething beneath his words.

"What did you like about it?" I demanded to know.

"I liked the story. And I liked the gameplay."

Fair enough, and perhaps that should have been the end of it. But no, for some reason, I could not let it lie.

Another silent interlude, and then I said, "It was the worst role-playing game I ever played."

At this, Man #1 was clearly offended. I had already guessed that Skies of Arcadia must have been his favorite video game of all time or something.

"Well, have you played a lot of role-playing games?" he asked skeptically.

This was the crucial juncture that I had perhaps been building to. The guy clearly had no idea to whom he was speaking. I had played and completed over fifty JRPGs in approximately a six-year span. Among those who knew me well, the number was almost an inside joke. Perhaps it was not the most absolutely monstrous list that the truly exhaustively hardcore importers might put up, but I had gathered enough from previous conversations to surmise that it was several times the number that this guy, who had naturally started with Legend of Dragoon, had even heard of.

In my imagined scenario, in which I proceeded to tear this guy apart for his impudence, I would have begun with "I dunno. What would you consider a lot?"

Then this novice, having no clue the hand I held, would have confidently answered with a terse "Ten." Because, of course, to him that would have been a large number. Right.

Then I would have shot back with "Try fifty, jackass!" At which point the room would have erupted in hooting and hollering. The fifth man would have sprung to life with an "Oh, snap!" Other teams within the building would have come flooding down the hall to contribute their ruckus. And even the boss man would have exploded out of his office door to high-five me.

But no, I didn't need any of that. In my heart, I knew that this guy did not have the tools to stand up to me on this point, and, as long as I knew, for me that was enough. I didn't need to embarrass him.

What I actually said was "I've played my share."

So I let this guy live, and nobody took it any further, until, still feeling bad about having ended the discussion on a bitter note, I conceded, "It had some good boss battles." And that was the last time anybody brought up Skies of Arcadia at work.

* * * * *

It's been three years since that incident. I've been able to play only a few more JRPGs since, so Skies of Arcadia Legends remains securely at the bottom of my list. Above, I already briefly described what I disliked about the game, but now that we're here, I'll go a little more in depth.

The gameplay was horrendous. The random encounter rate, already reduced from the Dreamcast original, was still outrageously high. Not only that, but these were undoubtedly the least exciting battles in any JRPG I'd come across.

The turn-based battle system, very similar to Xenogears or Chrono Cross, operated with a special meter shared among all four party members. Characters were defined by their repertoires of attacks and abilities that consumed varying amounts of points from this meter. The party started each battle with a few points, and players could either spend them immediately, or bide their time, filling the meter gradually over the course of the fight to open up stronger abilities.

The problem was that, after maybe the first two dungeons, nearly every random encounter could be won just by starting off fast with the strongest target-all-enemies attack ability available at the time. If one attack wasn't powerful enough to wipe them out, I still began every battle with enough points to pull off a second before they could respond. The frequency of the battling, combined with the mindlessness of the combat, made for one miserable experience. Like I said, as with most turn-based JRPGs, whether good or bad, the combat only became more than a grind in boss battles, where meter management actually mattered and Skies of Arcadia became halfway decent.

The same could never be said of the ship battles, which were strictly terrible. These were less frequent, but they took forever and were full of endless nothing. Battles consisted of long, repeating animations of two airships just circling one another, presumably jockeying for position, although they would never appear in the same frame together. After about a dozen interminable passes, vessels would finally act out the commands given them. The ensuing action possessed a Pokémon Stadium-level cohesion; first would be the shot of one ship firing its cannons, then the camera would cut to an opposing shot of the target taking damage. Then it would be back to the "epic" shots of these ships trying to outmaneuver one another. This was some sub-Advance Wars editing. I never played a turn-based game that so badly needed an option to turn off battle animations.

As for the crap story, I didn't hate it all the way through. I never go into a JRPG expecting it to be lame, or else I wouldn't even bother with the massive investment. Even if a story starts out slow or generic, I remain hopeful that it can turn things around before its 40-50 hours are up. So it was with Skies of Arcadia, and I remember being still fairly interested when an early twist left my protagonist stranded on a deserted island to fend for himself, evoking memories of Celes gathering fish in Final Fantasy VI.

I can't remember exactly at what point after that my optimism faded, but somewhere along the way, with about thirty hours still to go, it dawned on me that these characters were never going to grow or develop. Having already started as clichés, they had not changed at all after close to ten hours, and it had become evident that, just by their natures, they lacked the capacity for growth. Vyse was the free-living, eternal optimist who NEVER gave up. His best friend, Aika, was the warm yet comically abusive treasure hound. Fina, the shy but sweet maiden from another world, did go through a little more than the others, but she also started with less. These three were actually not without charm, and obviously a good story doesn't need to be full of angst and trauma, but, over the course of a JRPG-length journey, I would like to believe that the characters will have actually gone somewhere as individuals. 40-50 hours is too much to reasonably expect players to spend with static characters in a cliché-ridden story of noble pirate youths fighting for free skies against a power-hungry empire.

The only two subplots that I kind of enjoyed were both inexplicably intertwined with the most heinous side quest I'd ever experienced in a JRPG. Every dungeon included some hidden creature called a "Moonfish." They were out of the way and invisible, but if one was nearby, a beeping noise would let you know to begin scanning in first person, using special goggles to locate and capture them. As far as I knew initially, the only point to the Moonfish was that I could trade them to a particular NPC for rare items, but I wasn't overly concerned with that.

As for things I enjoyed, the first was the GameCube-exclusive series of tricky battles against the "Angel of Death," a mysterious female bounty hunter holding a grudge that would be slightly elaborated upon with each encounter. The other mildly interesting subplot was a doctor NPC's periodic tales clearing up the backstory of a major antagonist, whose motives and fall from grace would never elsewhere be addressed. These were about the only things I had to look forward to when I turned on Skies of Arcadia, so it worried me when I noticed that it had been a long time since either story had received a new episode. I had originally assumed that advancement in these subplots was tied to my progression in the main plot, and, in an indirect way, that was true. Looking up an online FAQ, I found that they were actually tied to how many Moonfish I'd collected, and based on where I was with these stories, relative to how many dungeons I had completed, it became apparent that I must have missed a few. But there was no way of knowing which Moonfish I had failed to catch, except to go back through EVERY abominable dungeon, and there was absolutely no way I was doing that! So that was that. Those accursed Moonfish had completely screwed me out of the only things I had been enjoying in Skies of Arcadia.

Better arguments in favor of Skies of Arcadia tend to concentrate on its sense of wonder and exploration. Eager players could sail the unmapped skies searching for "discoveries," which were sights and landmarks that the crew would document, afterward selling the information for cash rewards. I suppose I can respect liking Skies of Arcadia for that reason. That sort of gameplay is certainly not my cup of tea, especially since the ship steered like a tank, ramming into discoveries was made extra bothersome by the dodgy hit detection, and the high encounter rate dampened any drive to stray from the main plot. What I liked better was filling my home base with NPCs, as I recruited obnoxious idiots to fill positions on my crew. Yes, at its very best, the game was like a bad version of Suikoden.

Looking back, I would say Skies of Arcadia is notable only because it was one of the first JRPGs of its hardware generation, and far more technically ambitious than Grandia II. Many of the PS1's best titles had cheated by using pre-rendered backgrounds and cut scenes to provide graphics that exceeded what the hardware was actually capable of generating in real time. Skies of Arcadia took advantage of the next-gen power of the Sega Dreamcast to finally deliver a JRPG-sized world that could be explored as true 3-D space. Based on the finished product, however, I would say it was still too early to be going there. When I came to the Legends edition on GameCube, I thought the character models were okay, but the environments, not only looked crude next to those of Final Fantasy X, but had already aged very poorly even compared to those of the 32-bit Final Fantasy games. The jagged lines and muddy textures hardly seemed to justify my having to grapple with the camera. Maybe one could have appreciated it on a strictly technical level, but I didn't understand how anybody could honestly believe the game looked anywhere close to beautiful.

The limitations of the graphical engine became very apparent during a cut scene in which the protagonists had to escape the enemy by navigating their airship through a slowly closing fortress gate. Watching it, I was instantly reminded of the classic "breaking through South Gate" scene from Final Fantasy IX. Except that this was crudely modeled and not very exciting. Worst of all, the bulk of the sequence was actually one of those slow and boring as hell ship battles. (Courtesy of YouTube user "goodcowgames," here's the Skies of Arcadia version: before and after the awful fight.)

I may have, in the past, been critical of such games as Robotrek, SaGa Frontier 2, or Fire Emblem, and those negative remarks have tended to overshadow my actual assessments of those games as decent-to-good. But Skies of Arcadia was one game that I truly did despise. Goddamned Dreamcast fanboys. As far as I'm concerned, this was merely another case of owners of a failed platform trying to makes themselves feel special by boosting the status of a truly unremarkable game, whose quality they expected most people would be unable to verify for themselves. Even among Dreamcast RPGs, I felt Grandia II was a better game.

Given how much I loathed the experience, and how early on I recognized that I did, you may be puzzled at why I still spent about fifty hours seeing it through. I suppose it was my compulsive need to finish what I'd started. Or perhaps I felt I needed to complete it in order to credibly deride it. Or maybe, just maybe, my enmity toward the game had itself become the story, I the joke, and my rage the punchline. For that very reason, I am filled with dread every time I hear rumors that Sega might be planning a sequel. I know that a part of me might be tempted to play that sequel, just to recapture that intensity of feeling that is so rare in gaming, even if, in this case, the feeling would be running in the wrong direction.

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