Once upon a time, I viewed Skies of Arcadia as the greatest game ever made. And I still consider it pretty highly in terms of its importance to me, obviously, resting right at the start of my top 10. A big reason why I value it so highly is that it has a substantial heft to its characters and to its narrative that many other games in its genre (and even outside of the JRPG realm) lack, and that’s the infectious optimism Vyse, Aika and Fina all convey. Their pluck to do the right thing and to take down oppression in all its forms is a goddamn masterwork on how tone can greatly raise up an experience. But there is more to my love for Skies than just the personalities and the story.
Truth be told, Skies captures the essence of discovery better than most any other game could even dream of. The ones that exceed it…well, I’ve ranked them mostly above Skies! But the power of the cast makes that exploration element even more amazing. Because you feel a bond to the world of Arcadia thanks to the careful attention to the lore and the sense of place it establishes. The strong graphical hook of the Dreamcast era is perhaps at its finest sheen here, with a graphical style that makes Itsuki Hoshi’s incredible designs leap from sketchbook to screen; Yutaka Minobe and Takayuki Maeda deliver a nearly impeccable score that digs deep into cultural instrumentation and utilizes subtle beat changes to emphasize the flow of battle; the two battle engines — on-foot and on your airship — that throw enough wrinkles and engagement into each that it’s generally a pleasure to combat enemies; the crew recruitment and base building elements that give the player a sense of growth and camaraderie unrivaled by most other JRPGs. Skies soars above most of its competition thanks to these elements.
That all being said, it’s not a perfect game (like any single one is), and there are reasons why it doesn’t sit as high on my favorites nowadays. A high random encounter rate can sap the crucial thrill of sailing and wandering about to crippling degrees (especially in the Dreamcast original, where it was a touch higher). Climbing ladders is a common chore that demands for a cutscene where one will never come. The game’s Looper enemies are worse than Dragon Quest’s Metal Slimes in terms of fleeing, and offer a far less impressive reward for actually slaying one…and they are super common. Sometimes the game arbitrarily decides to force a character to shuffle over to an enemy over using the character’s distance attack (which makes no logical sense!). In short, there’s a fair amount of gameplay design choices that stifle the game’s flow, which can make it more prolonged and hampered than it has any right to be. And with a few snips and tweaks here and there (plus a quick save option), the game would be much improved. Regardless of the issues with mechanical pacing, however, Skies of Arcadia is a marvelous journey of a game that has an astounding cast, fun gameplay systems and a sense of positivism, awe and wonder that makes it truly legendary in my mind.
I recommend the Gamecube port Skies of Arcadia Legends, by the by. It adds in a bunch of content with the only real downsides being a slight downgrade to the music quality (which I don’t personally notice) and the loss of the VMU minigames (which weren’t anything to write home about).
To revisit my earlier picks, check out this tag.