I'm a big fan of JRPGs. I also discovered Western-type RPGs in the past 2 years, but my heart belongs to the Japanese ones. It is all the more surprising to me that I've never heard of Skies of Arcadia before.

I've heard the name a few times in recent past, mostly due to the talks of a rumored HD re-release and a the inclusion of a Skies of Arcadia-themed track and character in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. So I picked up the Gamecube version to see what this Sega cult classic is all about and how it is holding up these days.

Note: This is a personal review of mine, hence the name Azure(guy) Review. Unlike in my Better Late Than Never series where I play a well-known game for the very first time and do a partly-experience report, partly analysis, this is just a plain, simple review where I share my love/hare and experience with a random game I recently played.

When I put the game disk into my Wii and start the game, I'm greeted with an opening cinematic that is good for a change. “Good” as in that it doesn't spoil the entire plot of the game. Some games have an opening that features most of the areas, the villain and sometimes the final boss, as well as all of the heroes. This can ruin the entire gaming experience. Imagine, for instance, that there is a character who starts out as a mysterious bystander or villain, only to be shown in the opening to be part of the hero group. The biggest offender of this bad habit, by far, is the opening of Baten Kaitos – it spoils EVERYTHING!
Skies of Arcadia does show all of the characters as well as at least one exotic area that is in the second half of the game, but overall it doesn't reveal any plot details. So it gets the job done of peeking the interest of the gamer, but not revealing the game's plot.

I then started a new game and am greeted with a short but sweet cutscene: an airship is flying away from a big battlecruiser from the Armada of the country of Valua. Just before they can capture the small airship, a pirate ship appears and hijacks the battlecruiser. Said pirate ship has sails and a real pirate flag, despite the fact that all ships use an engine to fly through the air and don't need sails at all – now that's what I call style, or bold, whatever.
The game's protagonist, Vyse, and his partner Aika, are introduced who promptly start a battle against the soldiers. About 10 minutes later you already have your first boss fight – the game surely doesn't waste any time. The game is rather fast-paced in general and none of the dungeons will waste your time with labyrinth-like layouts or any puzzles (wit the exception of the water temple... can't this trope just die already?)

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Not only does things happen fast and smoothly thorough the game, it also delivers you constant awesome moments, or “wham episodes” as tvtropes.org would call it. After these intro scenes, you return to your home island (the game is set in a world of flying islands and flying ships). Said home is gonna be raided and destroyed about two hours later. A few hours after that, you rescue your friends captured from said raid and bust out of the enemy territory with big fanfare – something that is even topped at the midway-point of the game. And the ending does not disappoint to give you the most awesome moment of them all.
This goes on and on, the game constantly entertains you with its turn of events. But aside from that, the game also offers a fair share of funny moments. My favorite one is when I fighta against a giant flying squid with my airship. You're given the option to either attack it from behind or from the front. In case of enemy airships, choosing to attack their back always results in an advantage for you. But in case of the squid... well, see the resulting dialogue for yourself:

“As far as I know, squids can spit ink from behind. So attacking from behind puts us on a disadvantage, right?”
“Whoops...”
“Seriously Vyse, use your brain before you make such decisions!”

Isn't it fascinating how we might be able to avoid such stupid decisions in real-life situations, but in video games our logic is seemingly completely disabled?
Let's be honest: Whom of you have chosen the “augmentation answer” in a dialogue in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, despite the fact that you sort-of know that the person you're talking to is immune to it because they have the same augmentation? It happened to me every single time, and the people where more than happy to remind me how pointless it is to try to “seduce” them with my argumentation.
“I never asked for this” indeed.

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The great story wouldn't be possible without a strong enemy, and the game has an entire army as an enemy: The Valuan Empire.
I'm personally a huge fan of an entire organization or army being the enemy. Remember the Red Ribbon army from Dragon Ball, or the Garlyle army from Grandia 1? Both of these armies not only have a great set of characters, both threatening and entertaining, but also have a great deal of soldiers – all of them you defeat with just a small group of heroes. There's no better way of of conveying a “you're the greatest” feeling than that!
The Valuan Empire is no different: It has an 8 special personalities (one king, one army leader and six admirals). Each of them has a different personality, sometime obviously-cliched and ridiculous, sometimes rather complex and surprising. Each of them has their one moment of fame too – sometimes it turns into a moment of shame, sometimes it turns into a moment of awesomeness. Either way, the villains in this game are characters you will not forget after their first appearance.

Bottom line, the enemy is awesome, and being a pirate means you do everything in your might to crush them – including stealing everything they got after defeating them in combat.

Well, so much for the story, let's talk about the gameplay a bit. The game has a round-based combat system which offers a great deal of strategy. There is an element system here as well, and it is handled very well: You can assign an element to your weapon to deal extra damage. And here's the thing: You can change that element on the fly during combat. If it were any other way, I'd probably not bother with changing my elemental attack attribute, but this way I take advantage of it.
The gameplay is very-well balanced in general: There are no useless abilities or characters, the boss fights will challenge you strategically and you can finish the game without the need of leveling whatsoever. And in case you want a bigger challenge, there are a couple of optional boss fights who are really, really hard.

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The game has a second type of combat in form of airship combat. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. The combat is round-based as well and is just as demanding as the normal combat system. You have to plan your attacks carefully and it's a nice change of pace from the normal battles. You don't fight with your ship all the time, but when you do, it's always a meaningful and good fight.
It also gives the game a whole different level in terms of story and gameplay overlapping: Rarely do you fight against something other than infantry in an RPG, but here you can crush the enemy artillery/vehicles as well. The airship boss battle music further increase the awesomeness that is an airship battle.
On top of all that, you can recruit some NPCs into your crew as well which will give you more combat options and increase your ship's stats as well. Outside from Sid Meyer's Pirates, this game probably comes the closest to giving you the feel of being a real pirate and fight with your ship and crew.

Aside from the main storyline and all the combat, the game also offers a good deal of optional stuff you can do. You can search for both Chams and Moonfish in both towns and dungeons. The former gives one of your characters' weapons a stat increase (you can't change that weapon, so it's the only way to improve it). The latter is part of a sidequest that nets you some items and will result in a rather big reveal of a character's background story. It takes until the end of the game for the Moonfish quest to play off, but it's worth it.
There also are the optional boss battles I mentioned earlier. They are people on a wanted list and defeating them nets you a gold reward, so they're more than just a combat challenge. Last but not least, there are discoveries – objects on the world map you can find and get money for reporting your findings. It encourages you to explore the world map even more, and since the game world is manageable in size, you can probably find these things without a guide too.

On a final note, the music is just fantastic.

Overall, this game is what people would call a hidden gem. Not only does it offer a setting and plot that is different from the medieval fantasy world cliché, it is very-well balanced for a JRPG and playing it won't feel tedious or boring, even by today's standards.
Considering the game was made by the same developers who're responsible for Sega's other RPG/strategy hybrid games such as Sakura Wars, Panzer Dragoon and Valkyrie Chronicles, I really shouldn’t be surprised the game is as solid as it is. These guys know how to make good games, and Skies of Arcadia is no exception.